By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
Considering the success the ACU cross country team has enjoyed the last ten years, with seven top-10 finishes, including second place the last three seasons, another runner-up trophy in 2003 might seem like a disappointment.
Without two-time individual national champion Alfred Rugema and multi-time all-American John Kemboi, the 2003 Wildcats depended on juniors Bernard Manirakiza and Martin O’Kello, and seniors Arthemon Sindayigaya, Jean-Marie Ndukimana and Nick Branen to fill their giant shoes.
Then Ndukimana went down with a painful Achilles injury, later developed a cyst that would require surgery. Ouch.
But at the NCAA Division II National Championships on Nov. 22, ACU’s top-five was reassembled for only the third time all season, and at the end of the 10-kilometer race, the Wildcats were again the second-best team in the nation. The ACU men scored 68 points behind three top-10 finishers, placing second behind Adams State (Colo.).
Head coach Jon Murray attributes the resilience displayed in Cary, N.C., to his top three seniors.
“I think we’ve raised the bar, and you can attribute that to the seniors we’ve had this year,” Murray said. “Those three seniors this year helped put ACU as not just wanting to get fourth or a trophy in cross country, but to win a championship and always be one of the favorites. So even going through adversity, we are still considered one of the top favorites.”
Top runner Manirakiza said the team’s performance impressed him, considering the adversity faced before and during the season.
“I was very happy,” he said. “This team had problems before; we had a lot of injuries like Jean-Marie and Arthemon, the schedule was tough, we didn’t have a lot of time to practice together-I was impressed after those conditions.”
Manirakiza placed fifth overall with a time of 30:58, followed by O’Kello in sixth (31:08) and Sindayigaya in 10th (31:23). Ndikumana persevered to place 23rd overall in 32:05, followed by Branen in 24th (32:07). ACU’s top five runners earned all-America honors for their finishes.
Adams State placed each of its top five runners in the first 15 finishers to claim the team title in dominating fashion, and Adams’ Celedino Rodriguez won the individual title in 30:25. Murray said the depth difference was the main factor in Adams’ championship, but said his team competed hard nevertheless.
“It was kind of the season that could have been, unfortunately,” Murray said. “But they still came through at the end and won some important meets-at conference, at regionals and placed well at nationals. They performed well and represented ACU with class.”
“If Jean-Marie was in good shape, I think we could have won nationals,” he said. “I know he could be in the top-10 if he was in good shape, which means we could win nationals for sure.”
Two Wildcats competed in the women’s race. Senior Justine Nahimana earned all-America honors for her 23rd-place finish, completing the six-kilometer course in 22:19. Sophomore Yuliya Stashkiv, ailed with the flu a week before the race, dropped out of the competition.
Nahimana returned to all-America status with her performance, after placing 10th and earning the honor in 2000.
Losing senior Nahimana will be a blow to the women’s team, but Stashkiv, freshman Olha Kryvyak and junior college signee Adeh Mwamba will attempt to take ACU back to the national championships for the first time since 1997.
Mwamba comes from South Plains College in Lubbock, where she has been the NJCAA Division II individual national champion the last two seasons.
The men’s team might experience the biggest loss, however, as it will be without three of its top five runners.
Murray said he hopes to bring in some more international athletes to replace Sindayigaya, Ndukimana and Branen.
“We are actively recruiting some very good athletes,” Murray said. “Hopefully, a few of them will come in January so that by next Fall, we will only have to have a few more. We’ll start building next year’s cross country in January.”