By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
Running in the shadow of Division II cross country’s Colorado behemoths for nearly a decade, the Wildcat men have inched closer and closer with each season to an elusive national championship.
In 2000, the men placed second to Western State. In 2001, second. In 2002, another runner-up finish. Last year, more of the same, this time losing to Adams State.
This year, however, ACU’s “streak of seconds” very well could come to an end.
If everyone does his part at Saturday’s NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships in Evansville, Ind., the ACU men would have their best shot ever at taking home a championship trophy.
“I think we’re in the best shape we’ve been in all year. We’re injury free and everyone is running really well,” said head coach Jon Murray. “Everyone’s optimistic about how we’re going to do.”
A major part of the national success the last three seasons has been Bernard Manirakiza, who finished fifth at the 2003 national meet but watched his team place second to Adams State. Manirakiza, now a senior, said this year is when the streak will be broken.
“This year we have a big chance to win,” said Manirakiza, a four-time all-American. “This team is looking good.”
Almost everyone agrees Saturday’s competition will be a three-team race: No. 1-ranked Western State, Adams State and ACU. Harding University and California State-Chico will be in the mix as well, but probably not in the league as the top three teams. How those three teams finish in the end is yet to be seen, but Murray said the Colorado teams bring a decided advantage because of their prestige.
“[Adams and Western] are just really good programs and always run well at the national championship,” said Murray, who added that ACU’s veteran runners will need to get over the awe of running against the two best programs in the history of Division II cross country.
“The good thing about our team is that because we’re so new, five of those guys have never run against Adams and Western,” he said. “All they know is that they have to get out and run the best they can.”
The newcomers who had an effect this season are freshmen Nicodemus Naimadu and Laurent Ngirakamaro and transfer Lucky Hadebe. Naimadu, Ngirakamaro, Manirakiza and junior Martin O’Kello have each been the team’s No. 1 runner at some point this season, which Murray points out is a positive thing.
“How they do will determine a lot of our success,” he said.
But the story of the national cross country meet has always come down to a simple lesson, all too often recognized in hindsight: No one can have a bad day. Each runner has to do his part, because team points are sacrificed with each opponent that passes that individual.
“You have to have five guys. It will come down to the fourth and fifth guy and how they match up,” Murray said. “I would hope this team has a little better depth. If that is true, it will show up at the national meet.”
Three women will don the purple and white on Saturday, having qualified individually for the national meet with top-five finishes at the South Central Region Champ-ionship. ACU’s best hope for its first women’s individual title is junior transfer Adeh Mwamba, who has been one of the top Division II runners all season. The only thing slowing her down could be a slightly injured back, but she remains a top contender.
Also running for the Wildcat women are sophomore Olha Kryv’yak and junior transfer Trina Cox. Murray said he has a straight-forward objective for the three women.
“One of my main goals is for them to be all-America, which is top-25,” he said.
The three women will have their hands full, however, with a field that includes the runaway favorite Adams State, expected to place all seven runners in the top 20 finishers for its ninth title in 12 years.
The men’s race will begin at noon Saturday, with the women’s race to follow at 1:30 p.m.