By Steve Holt, Opinion Editor
The men’s cross country team is ranked No. 2 in the nation entering the 2002 season, according to the Division II Cross Country Coaches Association. The Wildcat men are behind perennial powerhouse Western State (Colo.), but head cross country coach Jon Murray said he has a special group of men to chase the Mountaineers at nationals.
“This has got to be one of the best teams I’ve had since I’ve been at ACU,” Murray said. “It’s because of the depth-we have six all-Americans who are on the team right now. Who knows what will happen.”
Leading the way for the Wildcats this season are seniors Alfred Rugema and John Kemboi, who finished first and second, respectively, at the 2000 nationals.
Rugema and Kemboi offer the Wildcats a jab and hook that has downed much bigger opponents in the past, and he said he doesn’t expect that to change this season.
“That 1-2 punch is hard,” Murray said. “When they did it two years ago, it was probably one of the first times that’s been done. But when they both decide they’re going to do it, I’d bet on them every time. They’re committed to achieving what they want to do.”
After the graduation of Western State superstar Michael Aish, Rugema is considered by many to be the nation’s top runner. Two years ago Rugema won the Chile Pepper Festival and the Razorback Invitational, defeating several of the top runners in Division I.
Murray admits Rugema is a hard one to beat, no matter the competition.
“When he’s on, there are very few who can beat him, in any division,” Murray said. “We get to race Arkansas, and they have some fine runners.”
Rugema said his responsibility goes further than his results at meets.
“I have a big responsibility for the team,” Rugema said. “Cross country is a tough sport. Sometimes, if you are not strong in mind you give up. My biggest responsibility is to keep motivating and pushing the other runners.”
The women’s team looks to be much improved, as six freshmen will suit up for ACU. The team features four seniors, bringing much-needed experience to a young team.
Murray said the seniors are invaluable as mentors to the younger women.
“They do a good job of taking care of the girls, looking after them, answering questions,” Murray said. “It makes my job easier.”
If the wo-men’s team is to make it to the national meet, one of its objectives will be to stay injury-free, Murray said.
The top women runners include seniors Justine Nahi-mana, Angie Waters and Amy Lindley, and sophomore Cas-sie Chaffin.
Nahimana finished 10th at the 2000 nationals, and Chaffin ran breakthrough times in her freshman campaign. Murray said that while Chaffin is right at the physical level she was last year, her mental maturity has increased going into this season.
“I think her maturity is more mental than anything,” Murray said. “Physically I think she’s going to do fine. I think she’s where she was when she finished last year, which was a huge improvement from high school. Mentally, she’ll be a team leader because she knows what she went through last year and how to handle the stress and pressure of the meets.”
Waters said a good indicator of how well a team will do is the time gap between runners.
“It seems that the gap is closer than it has been throughout the years, which means better scoring at the meets,” Waters said. “Each runner must step up to the challenge in practice and when it comes to the meets, just going for it.”
Rugema said he is ready to begin competition and set all pre-season expectations to rest.
“I can’t wait to start racing and see how we will do,” Rugema said.
He and the rest of the men’s and women’s teams will get their first chance at the ACU Open at Sherrod Park in Abi-lene on Friday. The women’s race will begin at 4 p.m., followed by the men’s race.