OC wins 1st NAIA men's cross country championship

The Oklahoma Christian Eagles celebrate Saturday after winning the NAIA men’s cross country title in Vancouver, Wash.

By Murray Evans
VANCOUVER, Wash. (Nov. 19, 2011) – The scenario Oklahoma Christian cross country head coach Mark Thompson had pictured months ago came to happen on Saturday morning.

Thompson hadn’t shied away all season from talk that his Eagles could win the NAIA men’s national championship, and they went out and did so in dominating fashion on a brisk fall day at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

“We thought going in, if we really executed well, we’d win, and we executed well, better than I expected,” Thompson said.

With three runners – Silas Kisorio, Geoffrey Njonjo and David McWilliams – finishing in the top 20, the No. 1-ranked Eagles posted a team score of 93, well ahead of second-place California State-San Marcos, which finished with 188. The national championship was the first in the OC cross country program’s history and the fourth in university history in any sport. OC won the men’s tennis title in 2003 and men’s golf titles in 2009 and 2011.

OC’s previous best national finish in men’s cross country was fifth in 1976.

“In a race like this, you expect a few guys to run well and a few guys to not have their best day,” said Thompson, who was named the NAIA coach of the year. “I don’t think that happened. Really, one through seven, we ran about as well as we could have. There were maybe a few points here or there, but we didn’t leave many points on the course.”

The Eagles didn’t wait long after the race to celebrate, dousing Thompson with water after it became evident they’d won the title. Later in the day, after an awards ceremony at nearby Hudson’s Bay High School – in a gym named the Eagles’ Nest, just like OC’s – team members took turns holding and posing with the national championship trophy.

The big red NAIA championship banner soon will hang from the wall of OC’s Eagles’ Nest.

Rain that had fallen all week in Vancouver stopped overnight and temperatures were in the low 40s at race time. The Eagles responded to the favorable conditions with arguably their strongest performance of the season.

Kisorio, who won the individual NAIA title as a sophomore in 2009, ran second on Saturday behind Kennedy Kithuka of Wayland Baptist (Texas), the same runner who beat him in the Sooner Athletic Conference meet. Kithuka covered the 8,000 meters in 23:15 to repeat as the individual national champion with Kisorio finishing in 23:59 – faster than his winning time two years ago.

“I stayed with him for 2 ½ loops (of a four-loop race), which was great, because he pulled me away from the rest of the field,” Kisorio said. “I made sure at the end there was no chance of passing me. Whenever I saw that I wouldn’t catch up with Kennedy, I just thought it would be a wise idea to stay relaxed and watch out for the guys at my back.”

Njonjo finished 11th in 24:21, and in what he called “the best race of my life, by far,” McWilliams was a hard-charging 19th with a time of 24:37.

OC’s No. 4 runner, Brayden Barrientez, narrowly missed earning All-America honors, finishing 34th in 24:59. Nathan Mesta rounded out the Eagles’ scorers, passing more than a dozen runners down the stretch to finish 56th in 25:20.

The Eagles’ sixth and seventh runners weren’t far behind, as freshman Roberto Diaz was 64th in 25:25 and Austin Simkins was 95th in 25:42. The race drew 312 entrants.

“That guy (McWilliams) is just mentally tough,” Thompson said. “You can’t coach it. He’s so tough. He’s so purposed. We needed good efforts from our 3-4-5 (runners). At three with David, we had 10 points less than we thought. At four, with Brayden, I was thinking top 30 if everything was perfect, and he was 34th, so we don’t lose anything there, and then Nate came up big. In the last 800 meters he must have passed 15 guys.”

Kisorio earned cross country All-America honors for the fourth straight year and now has 19 All-America honors in both cross country and track. Njonjo now is a two-time All-American while McWilliams received the honor for the first time.

The team race wasn’t close. Barrientez, running fourth for OC, beat Cal State-San Marcos’ No. 3 runner. Defending champion Southern Oregon finished third with 206 points. Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) was fourth at 228 and Wayland Baptist was fifth with 254, led by Kithuka, fourth-place Edward Taragon and 18th-place Hildon Boen.

The SAC had a third top-10 team, as Oklahoma Baptist was seventh at 279, paced by Cordell Baker, who finished 21st to earn All-America honors. Seven SAC runners finished in the top 21.

“You’d like to say you’ve got the best conference, and I think we proved that today,” Wayland Baptist coach Brian Whitlock said.