Bison Athletics

Q&A With Dennis Newell, Head Cross Country Coach, Distance Coach and Mid-Distance Coach

Newell is in his second season at NDSU. In his first season, he coached the women’s cross country team to a runner-up finish in the Summit League and the men to a third-place finish.

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Newell is in his second season at NDSU. In his first season, he coached the women’s cross country team to a runner-up finish in the Summit League and the men to a third-place finish. This season, the women improved upon that by taking the conference crown while the men improved as well by finishing second.

During Newell’s first season with the track & field squad, he helped lead the Bison men to the outdoor Summit League title, coaching Josh Samyn to a conference crown in the 1500m and Kelby Anderson to a sweep of the indoor and outdoor Championships Track MVP honors. He looks to continue building this year.


Prior to North Dakota State University, Newell spent the past 15 years at the University of Mary, serving as the head cross country coach and associate head track & field coach from 2006-17, head cross country and track & field coach from 2017-20, and director of cross country and track & field 2020-21.

Newell developed Mary into a regional and national power in cross country and track & field, specializing in the middle distance and long distance events. The Marauders won 24 NSIC team championships in cross country and track & field during his tenure, including 19 titles in women’s track & field since 2007. The Mary women earned NCAA Division II runner-up team finishes in cross country in both 2017 and 2018 and earned an NCAA Division II podium finish (4th place), in indoor track & field in 2018.

Newell has mentored 172 NCAA D-II All-Americans and 12 individual national champions, including Ida Narbuvoll in 2021, who won the NCAA Division II National titles in both the 10,000m and 5,000m, setting the Division II outdoor 5,000m record. Narbuvoll then went on to compete in the 2021 Norwegian Track & Field Championships and won the 10,000m and was runner-up in the 5,000m.

Newell boasts 20 Coach of the Year honors in his career, highlighted by being named the 2013 NCAA Division II Indoor Women’s Assistant Coach of the Year. He has garnered five NCAA Division II Central Region Head Coach of the Year accolades — three in women’s cross country and eight in women’s indoor and outdoor track & field — and 11 NSIC Coach of the Year awards.



Q: Who, from your group of athletes, are you looking to make a big impact this year and who are you looking to take a big step forward?

A: Kaleesa Houston is definitely tried and true. She is coming back as a junior and really had a strong showing last year in indoor and outdoor and really took a big step. Then, this fall, she took another one. She just continues to improve. She’s consistent. I expect her to make some big jumps. Grace Link will be another one on the women’s side that had a great freshman year. I think Grace is getting more confident in learning the system and how I coach, learning how we do things. That confidence is kind of building. Winning the Cross Country conference title in the fall was a huge step for that whole group of women. We lost indoor and outdoor last year and I think they want to prove that that was a fluke and get those titles back.

On the guy side of it, no question, Josh Samyn is going to be someone we lean on. He’s a defending champion in the 1500m outdoor and number three all-time in the mile for NDSU. He’s going to be someone that’s very versatile and he’s a senior. So, he just understands things from a maturation standpoint too. We’ve also got a collection of distance guys coming from the fall that we’re kind of excited to see who can step up. I can’t really pinpoint one guy at this point because we have this group of like five that are really close together. That’s a thing that is going to be exciting to see them continue to push each other…. Hopefully, all of them just kind of progress together as a group. I expect big things out of everyone.

Q: Is there anything different or unique that you’re trying to implement from a training perspective over this offseason to try to get the team to where you want it to be?

A: I tell my group, it’s kind of three things. Number one, I want them to stay healthy or get healthy. Safety and well-being is the number one priority here. If you can stay healthy, and the longer you can stay healthy, the better you’re going to be. Number two, we want consistency. It’s not necessarily about one small body of work, but what can you put together over three months or six months or a year, two years or three years or four years. That’s how you’re going to be great. Number three is sustainability. Can you do this with your life? Can you do this with academics, with family, with your social obligations and all of these other things you’re juggling? And so there’s not really any secret ingredients to what we do. There’s not anything magic. We just try to find like four or five things we do really well and we try to do them longer than anybody else and better than anybody else. After that, it’s about caring. Let’s be passionate. Let’s understand our heritage and tradition and what we do at NDSU.

Q: From an outside perspective, it seems like distance training could get kind of monotonous. Is there anything you do to try and keep things fun?

A: You always try your best to keep people engaged. We always talk about how we need people engaged. It’s tough. My coach used to tell me, “You’re going to live in a constant state of residual fatigue. And you better get real comfortable being uncomfortable, because that’s the life of a distance runner, you’re just always in this kind of fog.” It can be tough, it’s a grind, but I think that’s what’s unique about those athletes.

The average person can’t come in on a Sunday and hop on a treadmill for an hour and 50 minutes and crank out 18 miles. When we find those people that are committed to that, it’s neat because they are intrinsically driven. Now, we can use things, obviously, to motivate them—a lot of them being external. But a lot of them are intrinsically motivated, just like they are academically and just like they are in anything else in real life. You love what you do, thus you do it. You don’t need someone to pat you on the back. A lot of our kids may get the awards, but, ultimately, that’s not what’s bringing them in here on a Sunday by themselves. It’s something greater than that.

So, I think we continue to kind of pass that message along that this isn’t just about you. This is about everybody. It’s not just about everybody here. It’s about everybody that went here 20 years ago. It’s about everybody that’s going to go here 20 years from now. They’re going to remember what you did. We’re going to build upon what you did. Those things are things that can get you on that treadmill. Those are the things that get you to push the last two minutes of a mile race or throw those extra two meters. That’s just part of our culture. And each coach and us as a coaching staff, collectively and as a university, we have to find and create this culture that is unique to our kids. When we can do that, we find his driving force. We can bring all these kids together, and we can get them to buy into something greater than themselves for one unique goal. I’ve always joked that when you win it’s almost like, “We did all that for a little wooden trophy?” It’s not the trophy that matters but all the experiences. Everybody, no matter the event, goes through their own difficulties on this team. That’s why we need to do it for each other.

Q: What are you most specifically excited for this season?

A: I’m excited for a lot of things. Our women didn’t win indoor or outdoor last year, but we did win conference in cross country. That was very fun for me, but I don’t want it to be a one-off. Now, I want to take that group of individuals and push them further because that should be something that helps us win indoor and outdoor conference titles. Last year, the men won outdoor but didn’t win indoor. We want everything back on both sides.

I’m excited about the challenges that we’re going to have to go through again. It’s not even necessarily about winning. I’m more curious and excited about can we get through the challenges and what it’s going to take to do that. There are certain checkmarks in my head: Can we stay healthy? Can we run some of these times? Can we collectively come together? Can we have no drama? Can we have good culture? Because, as we get through the season with those things happening, the energy starts to build. You can feel when you are going to win. And then even if we don’t like two years ago, we lost cross country by one point, but we gained momentum for this year. That’s what we want. I think we were really pissed last year. We’ve already hit a checkpoint with our cross country title. We’re a better distance group now. We got a couple of recruits. We’ve got a couple of people returning. We can already see some of these checkmarks being hit. I’m already getting excited. As much as it sounds like I’m excited about winning, I’m excited about the process to get there. When you get through some of those challenges, see the people change, you see somebody go from your fifth to your third or someone that wasn’t at the conference meet to scoring.

Q&A With Dennis Newell, Head Cross Country Coach, Distance Coach and Mid-Distance Coach
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