By Steve Holt, Opinion Editor
Head cross country coach Jon Murray is careful to say his team’s first No. 1 goal this season is to win the Division II National Championship.
But he also said a win over Division I giant Arkansas at Sat-urday’s Chile Pepper Festival in Fayetteville, Ark., would be nice on the way.
“They’re not getting distracted a lot by racing Arkansas,” Murray said. “Stuff that we have done before, like beating Arkansas and winning conference and regionals-we are going to do those things, but the general focus of the team is at that national meet in November.”
The ACU men’s cross country team will compete against the talented Razorbacks in a 10-kilometer race on Saturday, after placing second to them at the Cowboy Jamboree on Oct. 5. Murray believes his team has a shot at them in Fayetteville Saturday because the Wildcats finished just seven points behind Arkansas.
“For us to beat them we’ll have to break up their top two; we can’t give them that one-two punch,” Murray said. “Basically, if we could slip someone in between one and two and continue doing what we’re doing in the back, that could be the difference.”
The coach said that the men are not too distracted by the season’s second meeting with the Razorbacks that they forget about their first priority-winning nationals.
“I think it’s more of a focus of at nationals it’s going to be like this,” Murray said. “This is good experience to get ready for nationals-it’s gonna be that close with us and Western State (Colo.). It’s letting them know about that and maybe putting a little pressure on them so that they can deal with the pressure when it comes to the nationals.”
Western State is currently ranked No. 1 in Division II, after claiming the national title in 2001.
Does Murray think his runners can defeat the mighty Mountaineers come November?
“Sure. If you look at the time gap, we are running about 43 seconds and they’re running about 45, 50 seconds,” Murray said. “Our top runners are really comparative, so any day we could beat them or they could beat us. I think we’re running neck and neck with them.”
Leading the charge at Saturday’s Festival will be seniors Alfred Rugema and John Kemboi, who both have had experience as Razorback slayers. The two finished first and second, respectively, at the 2000 Chile Pepper Festival.
Bernard Manirakiza, Jean-Marie Ndukimana, Arthemon Sindayigaya, Nick Branen and Martin O’Kello round out the top seven for the Wildcats. Murray, who intentionally scheduled fewer meets in the beginning of the season for training purposes, said the group has adjusted well to harder practices this fall.
“They’re handling the load,” Murray said. “We’re doing a little more than we ever have in the past, so I think that will help make the difference. They’re working really hard. I’m excited about what they’ve done-I think their hard work’s gonna pay off.”
Saturday’s race plan, he said, is to start the race well and maintain a good clip throughout. Arkansas’ course is flat and easy, Murray said, and these factors will help each runner start fast and keep that pace.
The race will begin at 9:30 a.m.