By Murray Evans
CEDARVILLE, Ohio (Nov. 9, 2012) – This trip is all about business for Oklahoma Christian’s men’s cross country team, as they clearly indicated Friday with a crisp practice outing on the eve of the NCCAA Championship.
Less than five minutes after exiting the bus at Cedarville University’s Elvin R. King Cross Country Course, the Eagles were off on their final team training run before Saturday’s race, one in which a veteran OC team hopes to capture a second national championship in as many years.
OC moved into the ranks of small-college men’s cross country powers last season by winning the NAIA title in dominating fashion in Vancouver, Wash. With the university beginning the NCAA Division II membership process in September, the Eagles were unable to defend their NAIA crown but the NCCAA race will provide them with a chance to run against quality competition.
“Everyone is going to have to run their absolute best to win a championship,” OC coach Wade Miller said.
Fifty men’s programs are represented and more than 300 runners will compete in the race, which will begin about 9:45 a.m. Central time. The race-time forecast calls for temperatures at or near 50 degrees, clear skies and a slight breeze.
The all-grass 8,000-meter course features rolling hills and a long, ever-so-slightly uphill opening straightaway of nearly 1,000 meters.
“I like it,” OC senior Geoffrey Njonjo said. “It looks like a very fast course.”
Team-wise, the Eagles appear to be one of three squads with a realistic chance of winning the national title. Malone (Ohio) has won the NCCAA race 21 times – including six of the past seven years – and poses a formidable threat, as does Shorter (Ga.), a traditional NAIA running power that, like OC, is making the move into NCAA Division II.
Two California schools, California Baptist (third here last year) and Azusa Pacific – could also make some noise.
Host Cedarville would also have been in the group of contenders had the Yellow Jackets not already qualified for next week’s NCAA Division II Championship. Cedarville will field a team Saturday, but it won’t include its top runners.
“We’ve got a really good chance,” Miller said. “We’ve just got to go execute and make sure we stay focused. There will be some good competition here. It will be a test. We are really going to have to bring our ‘A’ game. It’s not going to be something where we show up and they hand it to us.”
The Eagles should be buoyed by the return of sophomore Roberto Diaz, who hasn’t finished a race since Sept. 15, when he led the team with a 25:13.99 effort in the Missouri Southern Stampede. Diaz said a back injury that has bothered him is no longer an issue.
OC has a deep, experienced team. Besides Diaz, three other runners with national-meet experience return – seniors Njonjo, David McWilliams and Brayden Barrientez. Njonjo is a two-time NAIA All-American while McWilliams earned that distinction last season and Barrientez narrowly missed doing the same.
With a good race, all of those four could finish in the top 10 individually, Miller said. Njonjo ran a 24:21 at last year’s NAIA Championship and has a season-best 8,000-meter time of 25:04.29 this season. Last year’s NCCAA-winning time on the Cedarville course was 25:00.42.
McWilliams and Barrientez are coming off season-best times in their most recent race, the Mid-States Classic in Winfield, Kan., on Oct. 20. McWilliams finished in 25:10.26, Barrientez in 25:21.32.
“They know what it feels like to be in the middle of the race, under pressure, and then to come through on the other side victorious,” Miller said. “That plays into our favor if we get that same mentality tomorrow.
“A lot of times in a championship race, people are looking around, waiting for somebody else to take the lead. If that’s the case, the race goes out fairly slow and times go out the window and it’s all about place. In cross country, it’s all about place. Our guys know that.”
Freshman Bryant Keirns has been a solid No. 5 man for the Eagles all season. How solid? His 25:29.39 time in the Mid-States Classic was better than the winning time at the Heartland Conference meet, run on the same day in nearby Wichita, Kan. (Conference coaches would not allow OC to compete in the Heartland race, thus shutting the Eagles out of a slew of all-conference honors.)
Another freshman, Timothy Zuercher, and sophomore Brennym Kaelin will round out the Eagles’ seven-man lineup on Saturday.
“Those guys are going to be important as well,” Miller said. “In a field this big, you never know when somebody is going to fall off the pace, either on our team or another team. They’re going to have to be ready to take advantage of anything that happens.”