By Murray Evans
CEDARVILLE, Ohio (Nov. 16, 2013) – After winning a national title each of the past two seasons, there was a natural inclination for the Oklahoma Christian Eagles to be disappointed with their fourth-place finish on Saturday at the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship.
But OC coach Wade Miller was having none of that sort of thinking. Considering the circumstances faced by this year’s squad, Miller was happy the Eagles still came away with a high national finish. OC now has placed in the top six in a national meet for four straight years – after posting only three top-10 national finishes in program history before that.
Sophomore Bryant Keirns helped the Eagles also keep alive another remarkable streak, finishing fifth individually at the Elvin R. King Cross Country Course to make it seven straight years that at least one OC runner has earned either NAIA or NCCAA All-America honors.
“As a team, we’ve had a lot of adversity this season,” Miller said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way the guys competed today. They definitely laid it all on the line. I asked them last night to just walk away from the course with the satisfaction of knowing they left everything out there and I know they gave me 100 percent. I definitely can’t ask for any more than that.
“As far as the competition goes, they definitely competed for that championship. We came up short but there were some really good teams out there. Sometimes that happens. You can’t have everything go right all the time.”
Last year, OC staged a thrilling duel with Malone (Ohio) at the NCCAA meet and prevailed because the Eagles placed four runners in the top 10. But three of them were seniors and the fourth, current junior Roberto Diaz, was slowed (but not stopped) Saturday by an injury that limited his training after he won the Heartland Conference individual championship three weeks ago.
Malone, a 21-time NCCAA champion, opted not to field a team at this year’s meet. The Eagles weren’t able to emerge from a pack of teams seeking to fill that void – although they certainly tried.
Keirns, who finished second behind Diaz at the Heartland meet, ran a tactically strong race and led the Eagles for the first time in his career, posting a time of 26:01.54 – a bit slower than usual, but still good considering the 15-20 mph wind that runners battled on a cloudy 45-degree morning.
“Competitive-wise, that’s the best race he’s run, really, in his career, I think,” Miller said of Keirns, a Wichita, Kan., product. “He just competed really well. He was controlled and smart about the way he raced.”
Junior Brennym Kaelin, who earned all-conference honors three weeks ago, finished 37th in the 231-man field with a time of 26:48. Diaz gutted it out and finished 46th in 27:01.64 and sophomore Trent Stephens was right behind him in 48th in 27:02.94.
Another sophomore, Timothy Zuercher, was 68th in 27:27.23 and senior Nick Stoots used a strong finish to pass a couple of runners in the final stretch and finish 71st in 27:29.10. Freshman Evan Durrill was OC’s No. 7 runner, placing 89th in 27:53.19.
The Eagles posted a team score of 188.
Azusa Pacific (Calif.) – like OC a program moving from NAIA to NCAA Division II status – posted a team score of 84 to edge Roberts Wesleyan (N.Y.) by three points. Arizona Christian (132) was third, followed by OC. Dallas Baptist (Texas), which tied OC for first place at the Heartland Conference race, was fifth in the 33-team field with a team score of 197.
Senior Andrew Reidsma of Trinity Christian (Ill.) won the individual title, finishing in 25:13.36.
“I see us going up from here,” Miller said. “We’ve got a lot of people returning. … That’s definitely a good sign for next year. I think we’re going to be stronger next year. We’re definitely going to learn from this experience.”