by Scott Lipsky
DELAND, Fla. – It was a special day to be an Owl, as the Kennesaw State men’s cross country team won their first Atlantic Sun Cross Country Championship in program history on Saturday at Sperling Sports Complex in DeLand, Fla. Five Owls received all-conference recognition, and head coach Stan Sims was named the A-Sun Men’s Coach of the Year.
Nabil Hamid led the way for the Black & Gold in the 8k race, finishing in third place with a time of 25:45. He was named to the Atlantic Sun All-Freshman team for his efforts. Sophomore Jaakko Nieminen and junior Nathan Haskins also finished in the top ten for KSU, who finished in third place as a team at the championship last season.
The men finished with a total of 40 points on their way to a comfortable win over runner-up and defending champion East Tennessee State, who tallied 82 points. Six-time champion Belmont, who was expected to be one of the teams to seriously contend for the title, faltered, finishing in fifth place.
“This team may be one of the most talented that I have ever coached, but more importantly, I think, this the closest team that I’ve ever coached,” Sims said. “Every one of these guys, all nine of them, contributed to this championship, whether they scored for us or not. They all came to practice everyday with a great attitude, worked really hard, and gave it everything they had. This group really deserves this.”
Teamwork was on full display during the race, as the large group of Owls towards the front of the pack made sure to push each other during key points of the meet.
“Nabil and I ran together for a good portion of the race, and at one point, he kind of tapped me on the back to let me know that he was going to step it up a notch, and that I should follow if I could,” said Nieminen, who had the second highest finish of all the Owls Saturday with a fifth place performance. His time of 25:54 was a big improvement from the 26:17 that he ran at the A-Sun Championship in 2008 when he was named to the All-Atlantic Sun Freshman Team.
With a core group that had turned in strong performances all season long, it was junior Nathan Haskins who provided a race that may have very well put the Owls over the top. The Thomasville, Ga., native, has been battling injury all year and had only run in two races coming into Saturday. His eighth place finish and 26:26 time gave KSU some extra depth and made them even tougher to overcome.
“Coming into today, I really wasn’t sure how much I would be able to contribute to the overall score, since my competition has been limited this season,” said Haskins. “I started out pretty well, and at the three-mile mark, I was getting tired, but I figured everyone else was tired at that point as well, and there was no reason I couldn’t finish strong.”
The win was especially satisfying for seniors Scott Burley, Matt Auers, and Michael Johnson, who ran in their final A-Sun Championship on Saturday. Burley was glad that he and his fellow seniors will be getting a champion’s sendoff.
“It’s great to finish off my career as part of a championship team,” said Burley, who was named to an All-Atlantic Sun Cross Country team for the third time in his career. “The effort was great today, and it took every one of us to accomplish this.”
East Tennessee State senior Kenneth Rotich won the individual title for the second straight year, coming in with a time of 25:31. USC-Upstate freshman Gilbert Kemboi was the runner-up, running the course in 25:36 and taking home A-Sun Freshman of the Year honors. He was followed by Hamid.
Coach Sims was selected as the Men’s Coach of the Year through a vote by all of his fellow Atlantic Sun head coaches. It is the first time he has received the honor since joining the A-Sun; he won Peach Belt Men’s Coach of the Year honors six times.
“This is a great award, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the fact that I was carried on the backs of others to this award,” he said. “Winning Coach of the Year is really a nod to the great people I’ve had to work with this year, both on my staff and my runners.”
The season will continue for the men on November 14, when they run in an NCAA Division I post-season meet for the first time in program history at the NCAA South Regional in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
2009 ATLANTIC SUN MEN’S CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIP
1. Kennesaw State 40 pts
2. East Tennessee State 82 pts
T3. USC-Upstate 98 pts
T3. North Florida 98 pts
5. Belmont 102 pts
6. Lipscomb 134 pts
7. Mercer 194 pts
8. Florida Gulf Coast 206 pts
9. Campbell 210 pts
10. Jacksonville 324 pts
11. Stetson 354 pts
3. Nabil Hamid 25:45
5. Jaakko Nieminen 25:54
8. Nathan Haskins 26:26
11. Scott Burley 26:39
13. Piotr Witczak 26:45
21. Ryan Burruss 27:04
23. Mike Johnson 27:10
41. Peikko Solla 28:02
50. Matt Auers 28:47
All-Atlantic Sun Conference First Team: Nabil Hamid, Jaakko Nieminen
All-Atlantic Sun Conference Second Team: Nathan Haskins, Scott Burley, Piotr Witczak
All-Atlantic Sun Freshman Team: Nabil Hamid
Atlantic Sun Men’s Coach of the Year: Stan Sims