CLINTON — Heading to Wartburg College to continue his running career was never a hard decision for Northeast graduate Eli Kaczinski. Reflecting on the past four years at the school in Waverly, he knows it was the right decision.

“I mainly chose Wartburg because of the family atmosphere. I went to the cross country camps there when I was in high school, and I made a connection right away with all of the college runners there,” Kaczinski said. “It was for the family atmosphere, and I knew they had a great line of success.”

Kaczinski went to Wartburg following his graduation from Northeast High School in 2014. Right away, he set goals for his next four years of track and cross country.

“Some of my goals right away was being on their varsity cross country team and qualifying for nationals. We hadn’t qualified for nine years,” Kaczinski said. “I learned that my first season, and it became a major goal. Ultimately I also wanted to graduate being an All-American, and in the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to be a national champion as well.”

Kaczinski didn’t see nationals his freshman year. The Knights had two individual qualifiers but missed as a team. However, Kaczinski did make their varsity roster, finishing as their No. 3 runner by the time the end of the season rolled around.

That meant he got to be part of the team that qualified for the first time in nearly a decade his sophomore year.

The success didn’t stop. His junior year the Knights took second at regionals, getting an automatic bid to the national cross country meet, where they finished 21st. Kaczinski also qualified for nationals in the 10-kilometer run during track season in the spring. He was close to All-America times in each race.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting into my first cross country meet ever. Once I started getting older and realizing all the potential, I realized it was what I wanted to do and where I want to go,” Kaczinski said. “There have been a ton of struggles to get here. Running in college is a lot different from running in high school, and you get challenged; you get knocked down a lot. It’s all totally worth it, and it’s made me who I am today.”

This season, the Wartburg cross country team is ranked 14th in the nation. They head into the regional meet this weekend and hope to take first and gain another automatic bid to nationals. Plus, Kaczinski is still looking to meet his goal of All-America status.

“It’s hard to explain. I guess God just instilled a passion for running in me when I was young,” Kaczinski said. “I love going out there and putting in the hard work and seeing the results for myself. I think it’s why I love it, but it all stems from that passion.”

The Knights got a new cross country coach, Ryan Chapman, last year — one who has brought in large numbers of recruits. That leaves Kaczinski with a young but close-knit team, which he says is like his family.

“Our coach is great, but I love the younger kids on the team. They’re passionate and they’re great to be around and great to lead,” Kaczinski said. “I’ve been looking forward to leading this team for a long time, and I love sharing it with these guys.”

Kaczinski said his time at Wartburg was more than he could have ever expected, and he’s made memories that are going to last forever. Plus, he never plans to stop running.

With a chance to make a big splash at nationals and track season approaching, he still has more memories to make. He said the sport had taught him lessons he would keep with him throughout the rest of his life.

“No matter what happens while running or in life, you’re going to get knocked down. You just have to be willing to get back up again and keep going at it no matter how many doubts you have,” he said. “I’ve been knocked down many times, and it wouldn’t have been possible without my family, coaches and teammates.”

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