By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2017 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
LOUISVILLE, KY. (18-Nov) — The Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona University and the Lady Lobos of the University of New Mexico notched convincing victories here at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park, the most competitive team running event in the United States. The Lumberjacks, led by coach Mike Smith, successfully defended their title from 2016, scoring just 74 points. The Lady Lobos, coached by Joe Franklin, won for the second time in three years with 90 points (their last victory was here in 2015).
In the race for the individual titles Justyn Knight, a Canadian who runs for Syracuse University, and Ednah Kurgat, a Kenyan who competes for New Mexico, were the overall champions, both first-time winners. Kurgat set a 6 km championships and course record of 19:19.42, capping an undefeated season of five races.
KNIGHT KICKS TO VICTORY
Returning to the site of Syracuse’s 2015 NCAA National Cross Country team title, Justyn Knight was motivated for more. Racing cross country for the final time in ‘Cuse’s signature orange kit, Knight thought about how far he’d come: from a 143rd place finish his freshman year in 2014, through the NCAA team title, to last year’s runner-up spot. There was no better time to score an individual win than now, in his swan song race in front of hundreds of Orange supporters, including his parents.
Tucking behind Northern Arizona’s powerful duo of Matt Baxter and Tyler Day, Knight was composed amidst a blur of colors in the opening mile. While Syracuse had team-title aspirations, Northern Arizona came in as defending champions and wanted to set the tone: under the guidance of coach Mike Smith, NAU’s plan was to secure two spots at the front early. Knight found himself along for the NAU ride through 3K.
“Our game plan was to go out hard. Our coach kind of joked around with us, if you don’t know what to do in the race, just one word: gas, gas, gas,” said Day, recalling the early kilometers of the 10-kilometer race. “During the race it just felt like, go, go, go. We know that it’s a flat course and Justyn has a great kick. We all know that. As a team, we felt if we had two people pushing up front, the rest of the team coming up in the back and will get in.”
One potential monkey wrench in the plan came when Alabama’s Gilbert Kigen threw in a hard surge in the fourth kilometer, gaining a five-second lead. Kigen, racing in his first NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships after dominating the National Junior College ranks for three years, let his excitement get the best of him. Though his lead was sizable through 5K (14:33), it would soon evaporate thanks to the teamwork of Day and Baxter. Knight, meanwhile, was sitting back trying to overcome a brief bout of stomach cramps.
At 8 km, the individual title was up for grabs: Baxter and Day pushed hard, with Knight a second back and Kigen just off the Canadian’s shoulder. Meanwhile, NAU’s Peter Lomong was mowing down runners and had taken over eighth place, giving the team a massive advantage over BYU and Portland in the team competition (Lomong moved up from 54th at 2K and 26th at 4K).
Over the final two kilometers, Baxter and Day tried to create daylight and make Knight hurt. He wasn’t folding.
“Man, I knew NAU, those guys were strong,” Knight admitted. “I really respect that whole team. They are very hard workers, and don’t know who’s going to be their first man on any given day. As a team they proved that they are all fantastic individuals. Going through my head [in the final mile], I was a bit worried. They looked phenomenal, they looked really strong from where I was running and I just tried to keep that gap as close as possible.”
Knight, who finished ninth at the IAAF World Championships 5000m last summer, would have the fastest close. That would come in handy down the final 250m stretch to the line, as Knight jumped Baxter and Day. He’d point to the ‘Cuse across his chest before winning in 29:00.11 to Baxter’s 29:00.78 and Day’s 29:04.55. The three were well clear of fourth placer Kigen (29:11.90).
“Those NAU guys are really strong,” Knight said, shaking his head in their direction. “They’re a fantastic team, very hard working guys. I knew they weren’t going to let me have it easy. I just tried to stay as close as I could without overexerting myself, and try to close the gap in the last straightaway.”
Knight became the first Syracuse athlete, male or female, to win an NCAA Cross Country individual title. He’s also the first Canadian champ in 12 years, the last being Simon Bairu in 2004 and 2005 for Wisconsin. Knight wasn’t celebrating alone: hundreds of Syracuse alums and fans turned out to support the Orange, starting with an early morning tailgate and culminating with a celebration that included the school’s mascot, Otto the Orange, and cheerleaders.
“It’s just amazing. This is something I’ve been working really hard to accomplish. Since I committed to Syracuse, Coach Fox has told me we were trying to get a team title as well as he was going to try and make me an NCAA champ. Just to make him proud, make my family proud, both my parents are here as well as my uncles, it just really means a lot to me.”
With Baxter and Day setting the stage for a strong NAU showing, the team title was secured when Lomong finished eighth (29:33.09). Rounding out the Lumberjacks’ scoring was Andy Trouard (35th) and Geordie Beamish (40th), both All-Americans; freshman Luis Grijalva and senior Cory Glines were their sixth and seventh men. For a meet that was predicted to be extremely close, NAU’s 74 points blew runner-up Portland (127) and third-place BYU (165) out of the equation.
“It was definitely a team effort,” said Baxter. “It wasn’t individuals; all for the team. Our plan was to go out hard. I have no idea what we went through the mile, what we went through two-mile. I knew it was quick because it felt quick. But, this is something that we planned for all season… This is exactly what we knew we could do. No surprises.”
For Coach Smith, who served as an assistant last year under Eric Heins, the team execution was perfect. With all the hype of tight battles against BYU and the pressure of defending their title, NAU kept composed when it mattered most.
“We just did it. It’s just work, it’s just training, it’s real. It’s real stuff. The talk isn’t real. This is real. Just give it to those guys. They just kept their heads. They kept a lot of emotional control. That’s the name of the game,” said Smith. “That’s what did it for us; a lot of discipline of the mind… If you watch enough cycling you know that in conditions like this, it’s going to be really hard to bridge that gap. When we noticed the gap, we smelled blood. You have to apply pressure. I joked with them over the days, whenever you don’t know what to do. Answer? Gas.”
Among other notable men’s finishers, Stanford’s Grant Fisher was fifth in 29:12.06. He was taken aback by the hot pace from the gun. “I realized that we were going out pretty hard from the start. Every race you go out hard for the first 200 meters, to get position, but it just kept going. I looked up, thought I saw the match-ups that I wanted in the second pack, so I stayed back. Those guys continued to hammer and opened a big gap. I knew some guys would come back; I was hoping more would.” Stanford wound up fourth in the team race.
BYU’s Rory Linkletter, a pre-race favorite, wound up 39th. “It felt hot. I don’t know any splits for today. The 5-K in 14:40-something. I was feeling it then. I tried to just keep calming myself down, mentally, emotionally, physically, all of those things…. It wasn’t my day, but I rallied for my team. I ran for my brothers and we’re proud of the effort by everyone.”
UNDEFEATED KURGAT DOMINATES
Kurgat, a sophomore who didn’t compete in these championships last year, made her intentions known early in the race. She was the outright leader at the one-mile mark, trailed closely by Charlotte’s Caroline Sang, Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer (last year’s champion), Boise State’s Allie Ostrander, San Francisco’s Charlotte Taylor, and Oregon’s Katie Rainsberger. The pace was quick.
“The race went like crazy from the beginning, but it wasn’t my plan to do that,” Kurgat told reporters after the race. “Due to a lot of pressure behind me, I just decided to escape early enough.”
With the race clock showing 9 minutes and 57 seconds (about the halfway point), Kurgat was still on the front. Ostrander, Taylor, Rainsberger and Schweizer remained close, but that would not be the case for long. At the 4 km point (about 12:50), Kurgat had a three-second lead, which was clearly growing. Ostrander was doing the best she could to hang on.
“The race went out fast and honest,” Ostrander told Race Results Weekly. “It was just kind of a matter of who could hang and be tough through this pace. I managed to stick with Kurgat for more of the race than she has in the past, but, I mean, she just pulled away.”
In a two-minute span, Kurgat left the other women to battle for second. She said she just tried to stay focused and tried to maintain her pace to the finish.
“My worry was, are they coming? So, I kept looking forward and tried to stay consistent,” Kurgat explained. “I just turned back before the finish line to see how far they were, I realized that the victory was mine.”
After crossing the finish line, it took another seven seconds for the next woman to cross. Surprisingly, it was Washington’s Amy-Eloise Neale, who wasn’t even in the top-20 at the 2-K point. Neale, from Great Britain, had worked her way up and passed everybody but Kurgat, clocking 19:26.93.
“I was just gauging off of whoever was there,” Neale told reporters. “I definitely looked up and saw her (Charlotte Taylor) there. I just tried to catch as many people as I could. I wasn’t necessarily gauging off anybody in particular, but when you look around and see Katie Rainsberger and Dani Jones and all these amazing girls, you know that even if you don’t feel so good that you’re in a great place in the race with those girls around you.”
Taylor, the reigning NCAA 10,000m champion who is also from Great Britain, held on for third in 19:28.55. Ostrander (4th, 19:31.21) and San Francisco junior Weronica Pyzik (5th, 19:34.01) rounded out the top-5.
Nowhere to be found was Schweizer. She struggled in the last 1500m to place 11th in 19:47.97. She was clearly disappointed with what was the final cross country race of her collegiate career.
“You know, it was just a fast pace from the start,” Schweizer told reporters. “I just couldn’t quite get comfortable. It wasn’t my day. Everyone has those days. I just fought like heck, but I wanted to stop, but pushing through I’m really proud of myself for making it through the race.”
Kurgat’s New Mexico teammates also delivered behind her, rallying in the final two kilometers (they were only in fourth place at the 4-K mark, according to Coach Franklin. Freshman Weini Kelati (7th), junior Charlotte Prouse (12th), senior Alice Wright (14th), and freshman Alondra Negron (84th, but 63rd for scoring) delivered their team score of 90 points. San Francisco was second with 105 and perennial contenders Colorado were third with 139. Kurgat seemed most pleased with the team result.
“You know, I was so excited it gave me opportunity to take everything, as I don’t take anything for granted,” Kurgat said of her chance to run in this year’s championships. She added: “For me to see my team winning, I was so overjoyed and I don’t know how to express this.”