By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
ACU senior Bernard Manirakiza wants to be the Division II national champion in cross country.
So does junior Martin O’Kello.
But don’t assume any malevolent competition between the two African-born Wildcat runners. In fact, they are pushing and training each other for a shared goal: to finish 1-2 at this year’s NCAA Division II Cross Country National Championships in Evansville, Ind.
“It’s motivating,” Manirakiza said. “It makes the running more easy. You help one another.”
Both ACU runners bring loaded resumes to the 2004 season. Manirakiza, a seven-time national champion on the track, finished fifth at the 2003 cross country nationals, while O’Kello placed sixth. Manirakiza won both the Lone Star Conference and South Central Region championships in 2003, while O’Kello was third and second, respectively.
Head coach Jon Murray said the men’s squad is as good or better than last year’s team, which placed second at national championships, largely from the return of his top two runners.
“If you were going to have two return, those would be the two that you’d want,” Murray said.
The men’s team, ranked No. 5 in a national pre-season poll, and the women’s team will see its first action Friday as they play host to the ACU Classic at Sherrod Park. The women’s three-mile race will begin at 6 p.m., followed by the four-mile men’s race at 6:30 p.m. Manirakiza has won the meet the last three years.
Two recent international recruits also have the potential to lower the Wildcat points total at nationals. Kenyan Nicodemus Naimadu and Ugandan Vincent Morogah both bring experience and success at the cross country distances. Naimadu has run around 14 minutes for 5,000 meters and 30 minutes for 10,000 meters-with bare feet on a dirt track in Kenya.
“On paper, they look great,” Murray said. “We’ve done the first step-recruit good athletes.”
On the women’s side, ACU is not ranked nationally but will showcase one of the deepest teams in recent years. Leading the charge will be transfer Adeh Mwamba, who had a successful spring competing for ACU in track in field, placing second in the 1,500 meters and third in the 5,000 meters.
Sophomore Olha Kryv’yak missed most of the 2003 cross country season after sustaining a heat stroke during an August practice, but she has made a full recovery and is expected to be one of the team’s top runners.
A new pair of legs that will help the women’s team is that of Trina Cox, who transferred from Santa Rosa Junior College in California. In 2001 Cox won the California Junior College Cross Country Championship, and in 2002 she was second.
Junior Abbie Waters, sophomore Mollye Stanford and Jamaican transfers Denise Morgan and Nicola Smith will also contribute for the women’s team.
But all eyes will be on the top two runners for the men this season, Manirakiza and O’Kello, as they each stand as the other’s top competition.
While they’ll work together to put ACU on the medal stand for the fourth straight season, each wants to stand alone as the individual champion in the end.
“It’s going to be a dog fight,” O’Kello said, laughing.