Nov. 22, 2010
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - The University of Arizona women's cross country team finished 11th and Stephen Sambu finished as the national runner-up as an individual competitor to wrap up the season at the 2010 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., on Monday.
The battle for the men's individual title came down to two athletes not competing in the team competition as Sambu took Liberty's Sam Chelanga - last year's national champion - all the way down to the wire in what would be Sambu's second consecutive cross country race ending in a foot race.
In a race that many expected Chelanga to dominate, Sambu stayed with the senior from the onset and kept pace even as Chelanga attempted to to open up his lead. At the 7,000-meter mark, the two were running side-by-side, exchanging the lead for moments at a time and maintained their position all the way until the final stretch at the Lavern Gibson Championship Course.
The turn for the stretch saw the two competitors have to battle a stiff headwind on a very windy and overcast day in Terre Haute with gusts up to 25 miles per hour . Chelanga was able to pull away from Sambu over the last 400-meters to claim his second consecutive title, finishing in 29:22.2 while Sambu came in shortly behind in 29:26.5 and the two were far ahead of Oregon's Luke Peskedra who finished in 29:38.0.
"I was trying to pull away there a couple times," Sambu said after the race. "But he was just too strong and stayed with me."
Sambu's runner-up finish was made more impressive in that it was only Sambu's second career cross country race of 10,000-meters against Division I opponents. In his first, Sambu fell to Portland's Trevor Dunbar by just six hundredths of a second at last week's NCAA West Regional Championships in Eugene, Ore.
"My plan for today was to stay with the second pack and follow along," Sambu said of his race strategy. "But when I saw Chelanga going and the pack was staying back I decided I was going to go with him."
For Sambu, it was the best finish for an Arizona men's athlete since Martin Keino won the national title in 1994. Outside of Keino's victory and Aaron Ramirez's individual title in 1986, it was the best finish of all time for an Wildcat cross country runner.
The Arizona women have prided themselves on their consistency all season long and their ability to run together as a pack proved to be the deciding factor on a day that saw several prominent teams struggle. Of 215 competitors, the Wildcat women finished in a tight scoring group to push them above the other squads that posted some very sporadic finishes.
"We probably could have done better but that's probably what anyone would say in any situation," head coach James Li said of the women. "But to come from 30th last year to 11th this year, we're so proud of of them."
Freshman Elvin Kibet was the first Arizona athlete across the line, finishing 69th overall but 51st among the scoring positions in 21:07.1. Competing in her very first cross country season of her life, Kibet impressed time in and time out as the season progressed, cumulating in leading her team at the NCAA National Championships.
Junior Hannah Moen was next in 21:12.19 to finish in the 60th scoring spot (83rd overall) and was followed by sophomore Megan Meyer in 68th (93rd) in 21:18.0 and sophomore Jennifer Bergman in 90th (120th) in 21:31.0.
Senior Maggie Callahan, competing in her final collegiate cross country meet, rounded out the point-scoring finishers for Arizona in 103rd (137th) in 21:39.4. It was the first meet of the season that the senior leader scored in for the Wildcats.
Villanova won the team competition for the second consecutive season with a team score of 120 points.
The Wildcats improved upon last year's 30th-place finish where they were appearing in their first National Championship in eight years. The Wildcats' 11th place finish was their fourth best finish in NCAA Championships history, matching their 1991 finish.
A staple in the top ten for the majority of this season in the coaches poll, Arizona entered Monday ranked No.9 in the country but the fourth team out of a Pacific-10 Conference that has been incredibly close all season and Monday was no exception., The Wildcats finished with 372 total points to give them the best finish out of the conference, edging Oregon (12th, 378 points) and Stanford (13th, 402).
The biggest bright spot of the day may be the fact that, with the exception of Callahan, Arizona returns every member of this year's team and will again only have one senior on next year's squad in Moen.
With the completion of the cross country season, the Arizona distance squad will not look to the upcoming track and field season set to begin in January. The Wildcat women qualified five women last year for the the NCAA National Championships in distance events and will look to build upon that with this upcoming year.