By Murray Evans
CEDARVILLE, Ohio (Nov. 10, 2012) – It didn’t come nearly as easy as the first one did, but the Oklahoma Christian Eagles persevered on Saturday morning and ended up in the same place as last year – smiling and holding a national championship banner.
With four runners finishing in the top 10 – and seven in the top 30 – OC held off Malone (Ohio) to win the NCCAA Championship meet on the Elvin R. King Cross Country Course. OC posted a team score of 41, while the Pioneers finished at 54.
In doing so, the Eagles won the program’s second national title in as many years. In 2011, OC put on a dominating performance to win the NAIA Championship race in Vancouver, Wash. With the university having started the NCAA Division II membership process in September, the Eagles couldn’t defend their NAIA crown, but they left little doubt Saturday that they remain a small-college cross country power, no matter the level of competition.
“The men ran a great team race,” said OC coach Wade Miller, who was named as the NCCAA coach of the year. “I’m so proud of the heart that everyone showed. We knew that Malone was a very strong team with a great tradition and in order to challenge them for the title, all seven of our runners would have to rise to the occasion.
All seven of OC’s runners raced at or near the front of the 39-team, 281-man field on a morning with temperatures in the 50s and a stiff, cool breeze.
Senior Geoffrey Njonjo led the Eagles, finishing second on the grassy, 8,000-meter course with a time of 25:10.84. Sophomore Roberto Diaz, who hadn’t completed a race since mid-September because of a balky back, returned to competition with a fourth-place finish in 25:18.85.
Another senior, Brayden Barrientez, ran perhaps his best race as a collegian to finish fifth in 25:20.71, picking off a handful of runners during the stretch run. OC’s third senior, David McWilliams, gave the Eagles a fourth top-10 placer, finishing 10th in 25:34.16.
The Eagles’ final three runners – freshmen Bryant Keirns and Timothy Zuercher and sophomore Brennym Kaelin – finished seconds apart, not much further back. Keirns was 23rd in 26:24.18, sealing the win for OC. Kaelin was just a step behind, finishing 24th in 26:25.02, and Zuercher was 28th in 26:33.68.
“It was kind of surreal to be watching the race and yelling, and in a span of 30 seconds, all of our runners went by,” Miller said. “It got spread out a little at the end, but it was a great feeling, definitely.”
Malone, which had won the NCCAA title a whopping 21 times – including six of the past seven years – had the individual winner in Andrew Trusty, who finished in 25:00.16, but OC beat the Pioneers at every other position. Malone’s next four runners finished eighth, ninth, 15th and 25th, respectively.
“Each runner did what was needed and left everything on the course,” Miller said. “Our seniors have given so much to the program and I’m thrilled that they were rewarded with a national championship. They have been pushing the underclassmen to improve and that showed in the poise that every runner, one through seven, displayed today.”
After OC and Malone, California Baptist (84) was third in the team race, followed by Roberts Wesleyan (N.Y.) (180) and Arizona Christian (226).
OC finished way ahead of two of its Heartland Conference rivals in the race. McMurry (Texas) was ninth at 313 and Dallas Baptist (Texas) – which tied for the conference title – was 13th at 373. OC’s first six runners beat the Heartland Conference champion, Joshua Pauley of DBU, who finished 27th, one spot ahead of the Eagles’ No. 7 runner, Zuercher.
The Heartland Conference decided to not allow OC to run in the conference meet, held three weeks ago, thus costing the Eagles a slew of conference honors. But by finishing in the top 15, OC had a quartet of runners receive NCCAA All-America honors – Njonjo, Diaz, Barrientez and McWilliams. It was the third cross country All-America honor for Njonjo, who had twice been an NAIA All-America pick, and the second for McWilliams, who made the NAIA All-America team last year.
The national title was the seventh in OC’s history. Five of those (men’s tennis in 2003 and 2012, men’s golf in 2009 and 2011 and last year’s cross country title) came in the NAIA. OC’s men’s golf team won the NCCAA title last month in Panama City Beach, Fla.