By Murray Evans
CEDARVILLE, Ohio (Nov. 11, 2012) – Brayden Barrientez’s senior cross country season at OC didn’t start out as planned.
Barrientez, from Wichita, Kan., missed the Eagles’ opening meet in September, the Central Oklahoma Land Run, and turned in what he called a subpar performance the next week in the Missouri Southern Stampede. But that slow start to the season turned into a fast finish in the biggest race of the year.
Barrientez hung around the front at the NCCAA Championship on Saturday and never faded, capping his career with All-America honors after finishing fifth in a field of 281 runners. He and OC’s two other seniors – Geoffrey Njonjo and David McWilliams – joined sophomore Roberto Diaz in posting top-10 finishes, leading OC to the NCCAA title, the Eagles’ second national crown in as many years.
It might well have been that Barrientez ended his collegiate career with his best race ever. He didn’t disagree with that assessment.
“I wanted it to be that way,” he said. “There were a lot of races this year I wasn’t really happy with, the way I ran then. Here, I wanted to have a big one. (Cross country has) been a part of my life for 10 years and I just wanted to leave on a really good note.”
Barrientez narrowly missed earning All-America honors as a junior but was a solid No. 4 runner as the Eagles won the NAIA title in 2011. This year, as OC began the NCAA Division II membership process and joined the NCCAA, he bounced around in the Eagles’ lineup, running anywhere from second to fifth. But he felt that coming into the NCCAA meet, he was sitting on a big race.
For much of the race, he hung close to the runners in the lead pack, but not quite with them, choosing instead to run with McWilliams, his teammate. In the final stretch, as the runners came down a long straightaway, Barrientez seized the opportunity and started picking off opponents.
“After about two or three miles, I knew where I was,” he said. “I knew where the guys around me were, and you kind of knew the race was going our way.
“I thought if everything went perfect, I’d get fourth or fifth. I tried to stay within myself for the first part of the race, then I just kept passing people in the last 800 meters or so. Another one came, then another came, then another one came.”
Barrientez finished the 8,000 meters on the grassy Elvin R. King Cross Country Course in 25:20.71. OC coach Wade Miller said Barrientez’s knack for closing fast proved to be important for the Eagles on Saturday, as they posted a team score of 41 to hold off traditional power Malone (Ohio), which had a score of 54.
“Every race he’s finished well,” Miller said. “In a championship race, that tends to play into your favor. He has been training hard. He had a little bit of a rough start to the season, but he’s one of those guys, all of those seniors are guys you can count on. As a coach, I don’t have to worry about what they’re going to do in a race. They will lay it all down out there.”
Indeed, for more than a few minutes after the race, Barrientez sat on a bench, partially slumped over in exhaustion. But it was a good kind of tired – the kind that comes after a job well done.
Barrientez and his older brother, Britt, have been key contributors to OC’s cross country team for a half-dozen years. Brayden was part of a major breakthrough for the program last year, when the Eagles took the NAIA title, and has played a key role in helping the program maintain its strength while the university transitions into NCAA Division II and competes in the NCCAA.
“It wasn’t exactly how we thought it would play out,” he said. “Obviously, we would have liked to have defended our NAIA title, and I think the way we ran today, we would have. But this,” he said, gesturing toward the NCCAA course, “was a good way to go out.”