By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
Saturday, the men’s and women’s cross country teams will compete for their 13th and third consecutive Lone Star Conference titles, respectively, in Portales, N.M. The women’s 6-kilometer race will begin at 9 a.m., while the men’s 8-kilometer race will start at 9:40 a.m. at the Portales Country Club.
While the men are heavily favored to win their 19th championship of the last 23, they have been struggling a little more as a team than in past seasons, said senior runner Nick Branen.
“It’s been a difficult one, I think really,” Branen said. “It’s been hard not having a complete team come meet times, because it changes everything-how we practice and how we race.”
Senior Jean-Marie Ndikumana, who has been injured for part of the season, is still questionable for Saturday’s race. Despite the loss of their No. 4 runner, the Wildcats can still pull off a win, Branen said.
“I know we can go one-through-four,” Branen said. “It’s the fifth and sixth runners that we are unsure of how they are going to do. I know we can win, but it’s not going to be the perfect scores that we’ve always scored in the past.”
Leading the Wildcat charge again for the men will be junior Bernard Manirakiza, who has been the No. 1 ACU runner at all three meets this season. Manirakiza seems bent on a team and individual national title this season and is taking whatever he can get along the way.
He took first at the ACU Classic Sept. 12 at Sherrod Park, second at the Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Okla., Oct. 4 and third at the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival in Fayetteville, Ark., last weekend.
On the women’s side, sophomore Yuliya Stashkiv will seek her first individual conference title as she leads ACU. Like Manirakiza, the Ukrainian has been ACU’s No. 1 at every meet this season.
Senior Justine Nahimana will return to action after resting during the Chile Pepper last weekend. She will be a big part of this year’s title-hunting team, as she has been named all-conference the last three seasons.
The men’s team returns five of its seven all-LSC runners from 2002, and Branen said that despite the setback with Ndikumana’s injury, this team could win a Division II national title Nov. 22 in Raleigh, N.C.
“If we get Jean-Marie ready-if he’s been practicing at all after this injury-we could have a chance to win nationals,” Branen said. “It’s not 100 percent; it’s probably 60 percent of us winning.”