By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
The sweat and pain of a three-month season will funnel down to a half-hour Saturday, as nine ACU athletes compete in the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships in Cary, N.C. ACU’s seven-runner men’s squad will be competing for its first national title, while two women will run for individual glory.
“There’s some electricity in the air,” head coach Jon Murray said. “It’s different than track because there’s only one national champion in cross country-there’s not individual winners in each event.”
ACU will find out what the National Championships are like without multi-time all-Americans Alfred Rugema and John Kemboi, who graduated. Rugema is the only national cross country champion from ACU, taking the top honor each of the last two years.
As a team, the Wildcats were ranked No. 2 or 3 in the nation for much of the 2003 season, but dipped to No. 4 in the Nov. 10 poll, behind Adams State College (Colo.), defending team champion Western State College (Colo.) and Harding University (Ark.).
Despite the national ranking, Murray, who was named South Central region Coach of the Year, said the Wildcats have a legitimate shot at their first championship.
“On paper and in the few comparisons you can make, I think I can make the case that we’re right in there with [Adams State and Western State],” Murray said. “In my mind, it wouldn’t be a huge upset for us to win the whole meet-to beat both Adams and Western. I think we have every chance in the world to do it.”
But Adams State brings a depth to the national meet that few teams have, returning five of its top seven runners from a year ago. After a No. 3 preseason ranking, the Grizzlies moved into first place in the nation Oct. 13 as a result of beating No. 1 Western State at a meet that weekend. But when nationals roll around, the race could belong to anybody, as Adams State head coach Damon Martin knows.
“Coach Murray runs a class program,” Martin said. “Eventually, he’s going to have a team that wins this thing-maybe this year.”
If ACU wins, it will be because all of its top five runners place well in the 10-kilometer race. Junior Bernard Manirakiza, who placed seventh at nationals last season, has paced the Wildcat pack at every meet this season and seems primed to win a team and individual title.
Sophomore Martin O’Kello, and seniors Arthemon Sindayigaya, Jean-Marie Ndikumana and Nick Branen round out the top five runners, which Murray said must stay close to each other to win.
“It’s going to be important for them to all stay together for as long as they can and to do some pack running,” Murray said. “If they don’t, it’s going to hurt the team, and it’ll hurt their individual performances also.”
Manirakiza is considered one of the top runners in Saturday’s field, but he likely will be pushed by Adams State’s Celedino Rodriguez, Matthew Levassiur and Joshua Merrick, as well as Brad Lowery of South Dakota State and Harding’s Jacob Rotich.
Martin said ACU’s frontrunners should certainly be counted among the top in the nation.
“I think Abilene has as good of four or five runners as anyone,” Martin said. “They just don’t have as much depth, so they will all have to perform well Saturday for the team to do well.”
But Martin said he can never count out Western State, which has won the last four men’s titles.
“They’re gonna really bring everything,” he said.
Two women will represent ACU in the 6,000-meter championship race Saturday: sophomore Yuliya Stashkiv and senior Justine Nahimana. Stashkiv likely will be on of the top individuals in the race, after winning the South Central Region title Nov. 8. Nahimana, who placed third in the region, will try to repeat her 2000 nationals performance, when she placed earned all-America status with her 10th-place finish.
Unfortunately, however, Stashkiv was hampered last week with a severe case of the flu, but Murray thinks she is making a full recovery.
“That was bad timing for her,” Murray said. “But she’s over it now, so hopefully just continue to get better every day.”
Western State is the defending women’s team champion, while Adams State’s Amber Klein, who is no longer eligible, won the individual title in 2002.
The weather in Cary at race time Saturday is expected to be sunny, with a temperature around 60 degrees. Murray said the course at SAS Soccer Park is “probably deceivingly difficult,” containing some hills and turns, as well as a variety of running surfaces besides grass.
The women’s race will begin at 10 a.m., while the men’s race will follow at 11 a.m.
As a coach, Murray said he doesn’t feel pressure for his team to succeed, just anticipation of their potential.
“It’s just a great test for them to see how good they can be for that one moment,” he said.