By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
If the ACU men’s cross country team competes with opposing runners like they have been competing with each other, Saturday’s Oklahoma State Cowboy Cross Country Jamboree could go very well for the Wildcats.
The top men’s runners fought it out Monday during a tough, hot practice, completing five repeat miles in or under five minutes per mile. Head coach Derek Hood said freshman standout Philip Birgen beat out his teammates every mile except on the final one, in which defending national champion Nicodemus Naimadu hammered out a 4:52 mile to beat the rest of the team. Hood said the last two weeks of training have demonstrated to him that his athletes are ready to face the best Division I competition in the nation, which they will get Saturday in Stillwater, Okla.
The field of teams will include the University of Arkansas, the top-ranked Division I team in the land. In 2000, the Wildcats defeated the eventual national champions twice during the season, and they have all the ingredients to do it Saturday.
“To be honest, I hope we have similar results [as last weekend],” Hood said. “It’s going to be another top-level competition. There’s going to be some elite schools there. Arkansas is going to be there; It really doesn’t get any better than that.”
Besides Arkansas, notable teams participating in Saturday’s race will include Tulsa, Syracuse, Rice, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Oral Roberts and Harding.
Though Birgen seemed to dominate Monday’s practice, the runner to watch at the meets is always Naimadu. Hood is looking forward to seeing how he fares against the top athletes in the nation, including defending meet champion Josephat Boit of Arkansas.
Hood said Naimadu told him at the beginning of the season he wanted to run against the best, and Saturday will be a good test for the Kenyan sophomore. After winning rather easily the last two meets, Hood said he believes Naimadu may need to change things up against the Razorback stars.
“He’s going to have to take the lead, or fall in and make it a strategic race,” Hood said. “I could see it going either way. I’m hoping he takes control and is aggressive, but with the likes of what the Razorbacks have, it’s going to be interesting for the crowd and for the other athletes in the race.”
The only question mark on the men’s side might be senior Martin O’Kello, who ran a disappointing race last Saturday at the Great American Cross Country Festival and this week has suffered with pain in his wisdom teeth. Hood said he’s not too worried about the situation, however, because O’Kello is a senior and has overcome adversity before.
Hood also will take his full women’s team on the road for the first time all season. He’s not worried about his trusty top-three athletes — Olha Kryv’yak, Trina Cox, and Adeh Mwamba — but he still hopes to see breakthrough races from his fourth-through-seventh runners.
“We had some repeat miles on Monday, and I was really impressed at how they handled those,” Hood said of his women’s team. “That gave me an indication of our fitness level right now. They should be prepared — we’ve had some good weeks of training.”
The Cowboy Jamboree will kick off with the men’s race at 8 a.m., followed by the women’s race.