By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
The ACU men’s and women’s cross country teams did not win their respective NCAA Division II South Central regional titles on Saturday, but head coach Derek Hood couldn’t be happier.
Without three-time national champion Nicodemus Naimadu, the ACU men and women both qualified for the NCAA Division II national championships with a second place finish, a feat Hood said has been his teams’ goal since the season began.
“Mission accomplished,” Hood said. “I’ll give up a regional championship any day to have a chance at winning a national championship two weeks down the road.”
Missouri Southern swept the men’s and women’s titles, and although ACU did not win either of the team titles, Junior Serge Gasore finished first in the men’s race, and freshman Winrose Karunda set a course record to win the women’s individual title.
“To go into a regional championship, not have your No. 1 runner and still come away in second place to qualify the men’s and women’s teams is very rewarding,” Hood said.
Karunda, who ran for the first time as an ACU runner on Saturday, covered the 6,000-meter course in Joplin, Mo., in 20:39.8. Following close behind was Emporia State senior Jonel
Rossbach, who finished second 20:40.3 and ACU’s Loice Cheboi who finished third with a time of 21:20.8.
“There has been a lot of good runners going through that course, so it really reflects on the type of talent [Karunda] has,” Hood said.
Karunda had not run attached to ACU yet this season, and Hood said she almost missed the regional meet on Saturday.
“We were waiting on some final transcripts and we got the green light the week of the regional meet,” Hood said.
After her performance, Hood said Karunda may be a favorite to win nationals, since the race will be at the same course she now holds the record for.
“She can react from what the leading pack is doing and if that is so, people have to watch out because she’s very mentally tough, and it would be hard to break her,” Hood said.
Gasore led the ACU pack that had four runners finish in the top 11 of the meet.
Gasore won his first regional title with a time of 30:28.3, while junior Julius Nyango finished second with a time 30:33.8, junior Philip Birgen finished fourth in 31:07.5, Amos Sang covered the 10,000 meter course in 31:37.4 for a eleventh place finish and Eric Brown finished 37th with a time of 33:02.2.
Although the men’s regional title streak ended, ACU had won seven-straight regional meets before Saturday; Hood said he is pleased they qualified for the national tournament.
Now Naimadu, who missed the Lone Star Conference and regional meets because of a knee injury, will have a chance to win his fourth individual national title in Joplin, Mo., on Nov. 17. If Naimadu wins, he will be the first NCAA athlete to win four straight individual national cross country titles.
“The way I look at it we’re the team to beat at nationals,” Hood said.
With Naimadu’s absence, Hood said he is most impressed with the leadership ability of Gasore.
Gasore won individual titles at the LSC and regional meet, and Hood said he should be a favorite in the national meet.
“I was telling him and Julius today that regardless of what happens with Nic, they should be front runners.” Hood said.