By Steve Holt, Staff Writer
Jon Murray is due for a national title in cross country.
Not runner-up like the last two seasons. First. Period.
The veteran has coached many championship track and field teams, but the ultimate prize has eluded Murray in the fall sport, which officially begins Friday at 6 p.m. with the ACU Classic at Sherrod Park. That negative trend could change this season, as he believes the 2003 team will be comparable to the 2002 runner-up Wildcats, which boasted individual champ Alfred Rugema and multi-time all-America selection John Kemboi.
“It all comes down to being healthy and being able to train well,” said Murray. “I think we’re going to be pretty similar, really.”
The Wildcat frontrunner will likely be Burundi native Bernard Manirakiza, who finished seventh at last year’s national championships with a 10-kilometer time of 31:33.0. He will look to capture the third straight individual title by an ACU runner after Rugema won the past two.
“We have a good chance of winning nationals,” Manirakiza said. “The Western [State] guys lost like six guys, so we have a chance.”
“Bernard’s looking very good; he’s in good shape,” Murray said. “He’s going to be someone to reckon with on the national level.
“I think he’s going to be improved from last year, and he was good last year,” Murray said. “Can he win nationals? Yeah. He’s going to be one of those favorites.”
The sophomore runner can easily be compared to Kemboi, with whom he shares several similarities. Manirakiza won both the 800- and 1,500-meter runs at the 2003 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships in May, a feat that former Wildcat Kemboi did a year earlier.
Manirakiza came from behind in both races to win, a talent that Kemboi perfected during his time at ACU.
“That’s a good comparison just because of the success he’s had,” Murray said. “To go in there and do that, pass some adversity and go back out and handle it well. He doesn’t lose. He just does what it takes to win, which is what Kemboi did for years.”
Western State College (Colo.) has claimed the last four Division II titles in cross country.
In 2002, Western State runners claimed four of the top eight spots at nationals, but the team is losing three key runners in 2003.
Adams State College (Colo.), which was third at nationals in 2002, also will likely be a challenger this season, as the Grizzlies are returning five of their top seven runners.
“I think we need to work hard,” Manirakiza said. “If anybody from the five is not working good, it won’t be good for the team.”
Murray said the three, four and five spots for ACU could be filled by any one of four runners at any given meet.
He said that with the absence of two of the best athletes ever to don ACU purple, lack of depth in the second-through-seventh positions could be the Wildcats’ No. 1 nemesis.
“Nobody can be hurt, because we don’t have anybody to fall back on,” Murray said. “We just have to hit ’em hard with those five.”
Friday’s ACU Classic is traditionally a low-key meet that serves as more of a time trial than actual competition, Murray said.
“This is our only race in September for the guys, so we’re just in a training phase,” Murray said. “It’s kind of a gut-check to see where we are, how the summer went, what are we missing, that kind of stuff.”
As in past years, the men’s team will try to run as a pack, Manirakiza said.
“I will be trying to push the ACU team,” he said. “They are the same schools from last year, when I won it. So my goal for this meet is to push the ACU team.”
The women’s race, which will be three miles, will begin at 6 p.m. at Sherrod Park, behind the Smith and Adams Residence Halls.
The men’s race, a four-miler, will begin at about 6:30.
Teams already registered to compete include McMurry University, Panhandle State University, West Texas A&M University, Wayland Baptist University, South Plains Junior College, Angelo State University, Ranger College and Tarleton State University.