By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
As expected, the Wildcats dominated the ACU Cross Country Classic on Friday, placing first in both the men’s and women’s races. The men were nearly perfect, scoring a meet-low 18 points and placing all five runners in the top seven finishers. The women scored 34 points on their way to a team win, placing three in the top 10 finishers in the three-mile race.
ACU’s top seven runners went out fast in the race, joined by Wayland Baptist’s Nimrod Lelei and Vincent Tanui, running as a tight pack for three of the race’s four miles. The pack of mostly purple went through the one-mile marker at five minutes flat, and wouldn’t slow much the rest of the race. Letting others lead most of the race, sophomore superstar Nicodemus Naimadu took his place in first with a little over a mile to go, followed closely by Wildcat freshman Philip Birgen and unattached runner Laurant Ngirakamaro.
Naimadu finished first in the race with a time of 20:43.75, followed by Birgen (20:43.96) and Ngirakamaro (20:45.70). Freshman Serge Gasore was fourth in 20:49.32. Lelei was fifth in 21:04.66, followed by junior Lucky Hadebe in 21:07.40 and Tanui in 21:09.19.
Head coach Derek Hood said he was most proud of his freshmen, Birgen, Gasore, and Alberic Nkurunziza, for taking the team out strong from the starting line.
“It was so great seeing that pack of ACU runners right up there at the front,” Hood said. “[Vice President] Dr. [Gary] McCaleb took a picture of that, and I think I’m going to blow it up and make a poster out of it.”
Hood said he expects Nkurunziza to improve on Friday’s performance as he adjusts to being in the United States and overcomes a couple aches and pains.
With the emphasis on running together as a group, no Wildcat runners stood out in terms of times. But defending national champion Naimadu looked strong throughout the race and told fans to expect even better results in the coming weeks.
“We were running in our first meet to get in shape,” the Kenyan said. “It was a nice race, but in two to three weeks’ time, we will be in our best shape.”
Angelo State was second in the team scoring with 53 points, followed by Wayland Baptist (55), Tarleton State (133) and Texas A&M-Kingsville (136).
Naimadu won the individual title at last year’s NCAA Division II Cross Country National Championships, before winning three titles during the track and field season. He is clear and confident about his individual goal this season.
“My personal goal this season is to retain my national title,” Naimadu said.
As a team, Naimadu said he believes ACU will have its best season in school history.
“I think this is our year,” he said. “If we cannot win nationals this year, I don’t think there will be any other time.”
In the women’s race, everyone was chasing South Plains College’s Sally Kipyega, and not even ACU sophomore Trina Cox could catch her. Kipyega completed the three-mile race in first place, followed by Cox. Sophomore Olha Kryv’yak was third in the race, while senior Adeh Mwamba placed fifth. Rounding out the top five for the Wildcats were Mollye Stanford and Abbie Waters.
“I thought Trina ran well,” Hood said. “You could tell she was giving it her all. I thought she had the best individual effort of the day.”
Kryv’yak, who ran alone most of the race staring at the backs of Kipyega and Cox, said she felt good during the race and identified a few areas of improvement as practice continues this week.
“After just two weeks of practice, I felt good out there,” Kryv’yak said. “We need to run more hills and a little bit more mileage.”
A serious question mark this season will be who will step up and fill the all-important fourth and fifth positions on the women’s team. Stanford and Waters went out conservatively Friday, but were able to finish strong. Hood said their development over this season could literally decide how far the women’s team is able to go.
“It rests on their shoulders _” there’s just no getting around it,” Hood said. “We’ve got three national-class runners, and then those four empty spots. But [Stanford and Waters] are seniors, and I have no doubt they know how to handle it. Their work ethic’s been great.”
Following ACU, Angelo State placed second with 52 points, followed by West Texas A&M (80), Tarleton State (102) and Wayland Baptist (103).
Hood will take six men and three women to the Great American Cross Country Festival in Raleigh, N.C., on September 24, where the Wildcats will get the season’s first taste of top national collegiate talent. The athletes who remain in Abilene will use that weekend to train for the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Okla., on Oct. 1.