EVANSVILLE, Ind.— “Never under-estimate the heart of a champion!”
That’s the message that Adams State head cross country coach Damon Martin told his Grizzly men’s and women’s teams after they claimed won their ninth overall dual national championship at the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships held Saturday, here on the campus of the University of Southern Indiana.
Adams State College senior Rueben Mwei (Kapsabet, Kenya) lead the way for the Grizzlies as he became the first individual champion for Adams State since 2003 when Celedonio Rodriguez won the men’s title. A furious kick down the final straightaway netted him his first cross country and second overall individual national title.
Mwei, who had won the 3,000-meter steeplechase title during the 2009 outdoor track and field season, finished the 10-kilometer course in 30 minutes, 27.8 seconds defeating Harding (Ark.) sophomore Daniel Kirwa by four tenths of a second.
In the process, the Grizzlies put three runners in the top six and five in the top 11 as they dominated the rest of the field with a team score of just 23 points, the lowest at any NCAA Division I, II or III National Championship since 1992 when the then ASC Indians made collegiate cross country history that has not been repeated when they “perfect-scored” their first NCAA Division II and 13th overall national championship win in Slippery Rock, Pa.
The Grizzlies have now won back-to-back and seven total NCAA Division II crowns as they matched arch-rival Western State for the most in the division’s history. ASC’s 19 total titles, 12 of which came at the NAIA level, are the most of any college at any level in the country.
The Mountaineers finished second on Saturday with 86 total points despite the fact that all five Grizzly scorers finished ahead of their No. 1 man— senior Iain Donnan.
The Grizzlies, who had five of the top eight team scorers, were so dominant that they would have defeated the other 23 teams in the meet by a 23-42 margin if those squads could have joined forces. All seven ASC runners earned U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-America honors that went to the top 40 individual finishers.
On the women’s side, freshman Alicia Nelson (Craig, Colo.) finished in ninth place and seventh amongst team scorers to lead the Grizzlies to their seventh straight and 15th NCAA Division II title in 18 seasons since moving up from the NAIA ranks, where they also won three crowns.
“The race was exciting and emotional,” said Nelson of her first national championship event. “I’m just so glad that I ran it with this team. They give so much and always run for something bigger then themselves.”
Nelson, the top finishing freshmen in the entire field, led the Grizzlies to a 73-81 win over Grand Valley State (Mich.), which finished second behind the Grizzlies for the second straight year and for the third time in the last four.
The Grizzlies, who had five total All-America efforts, entered the meet tabbed fourth in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s rankings but came out on top of the No. 1 Lakers, still in search of an elusive national title. No. 2 Missouri Southern State, which helped drop the Grizzlies out of the No. 1 spot after besting the defending champs earlier in the season at the Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree, finished third with 104 points.
Sixth-ranked Seattle Pacific (Wash.), led by now 3-time individual national champion Jessica Pixler, finished fourth with 151 points while No. 3 Alaska-Anchorage took fifth with 158. Pixler is the first woman to ever win three NCAA Division II individual titles.
Although Nelson, led the way for ASC, it was a truly team effort, aided in a big way by junior Ashley Quintana (Pecos, N.M.).
Quintana, who entered the race after being ASC’s seventh runner at the Central Regional Championships, stepped up to help her team by being the Grizzlies’ third runner finishing the race with a time of 21:31.6. She finished in 20th place and 14th amongst team scorers to earn her second All-America honor and the first since 2007.
“I knew I had to step it up when I saw that our top girls were struggling a little,” said Quintana. “It’s just a great feeling to know I helped the team.”
“She’s a great runner who has struggled in the past,” said Martin. “She couldn’t have picked a better time to step up big, when the team needed her, she was there for the team.
“Team, that’s what it is all about.”
Senior Vanessa Roy (Pont Sainte, Maxence, France) ended her cross-country career with a strong race as she finished in 13th place and ninth amongst scorers, to earn her first cross-country and third career All-America honor. She finished the course in 21:12.3.
Junior transfer Kristen McGlynn (Bailey, Colo.) was the next Grizzly through the chute as she finished the race in 21:35 to earn 24th place and 17 points for the team. McGlynn, a transfer from Baylor, had been the Grizzlies’ top finisher in four of the team’s five earlier meets, three of which she won.
Senior Janette Cary (McCarroll) (La Jara, Colo.) capped off her cross country career with her fourth straight team national championship. “It’s huge and it means a lot to me,” said Cary. “I put a lot of work into it and it’s just awesome. Not many people can say that.”
Cary, who did not run cross country while at Centauri High School, earned her fifth total All-America in her collegiate cross country and track and field career as she finished the race in 21:56.9, good for 37th place overall and 26th amongst the team scorers.
The next Grizzly past the finish line was Addison LeMaster (Tulia, Texas), who finished the course in 22:24.1 while finishing 60th. Junior Sofia Monroe (Pueblo, Colo.) rounded out the Grizzly runners as she finished in 74th place overall. Monroe, injured for much of the 2009 campaign, finished the hilly race in 22:36.0.
After the race, the women did not know if they had won it and as the unofficial results were being read out loud, the team got into a huddle with Adams State fans who drove and flew from as far as England waited to hear their fate.
Cheers and chants of “ASC! ASC!” erupted into the nervousness filled the air as the announcement was read that Adams State had won.
The men’s race, which followed the women’s announcement, was equally as exciting for ASC fans as the loaded Grizzlies, who have been ranked first in the USTFCCCA rankings throughout the season, made their claim to being one of the best teams in history to wear an ASC jersey.
The beginning of the race looked like ASC was having a good day as they had all seven of their men in the top 15. After about 5,000 meters, the Grizzly pack had thinned out just a little but still held on to four of the top six spots.
As fans waited near the finish line they saw Mwei and Kirwa in a neck-to-neck race. With less than fifty meters to go Mwei edged out in front of Kirwa to seal the individual championship.
“That was really tough, not easy at all,” said Mwei. “With 300 meters to go we were running next to each other and I remember thinking ‘this will be mine.’ I had a lot of energy left and with 50 yards left he was still with me so I gave it everything I had for the team.”
“We have come to see Rueben come full-circle,” said Martin. “Coming off of basically being on the sidelines last year and watching the team win a national championship and watching him have an amazing performance and kick was awesome.”
Mwei, now a 7-time career All-American, attended last year’s title-winning meet in Slippery Rock, Pa. but did not run as he was injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident a week prior.
The next Grizzly runner through the chute was senior Aaron Braun (Fort Collins, Colo.) who finished the race in fifth place and third among scorers with a time of 31:08.2. Braun earned his 13th All-America honor in the process.
Senior Brian Medigovich (San Luis Obispo, Calif.), who earned his tenth All-American honor, finished right behind Braun in sixth place with a time of 31:12.6 scoring just four points toward the Grizzlies’ total.
ASC newcomer Anthony Gauthier (Orleans, France), not even amongst the team’s top seven for the regional championships, was right in front of senior teammate Luke Cragg (Leeds, England) in tenth place overall. Gauthier who made the national team in after an intrasquad time trial on the regional course in Wayne, Neb. stepped up big as he finished the race in 31:28.4 to get the team seven points.
Cragg earned his second career All-America honor after he finished the race in 31:38.2. The time earned Cragg 11th place overall and eighth among scores, a big improvement from last year’s 24th place finish, when he helped lift the Grizzlies to their first title since 2003 in place of Mwei.
Nathan Sellers (La Crescenta, Calif.) also made the team because of the time trial and finished in 19th place with a time of 32:00.0. He finished 15th amongst scorers.
The final Grizzly running in the race was junior Ryan McNiff (Los Alamos, N.M.). McNiff, who finished 16th a year ago, finished in 29th place this year and 22nd amongst scorers with a clocking of 32:13.8 en route to his sixth career All-America honor and his third straight in cross country.
The Grizzlies will be losing four seniors in Braun, Craig, Medigovich and Mwei but Martin said, “They have actually made it better and now I will challenge new kids to step up and do more for the program in the future.”
All four of those men still do have track and field eligibility remaining to use later this academic year.