Tritons race for national crowns

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Iowa Central cross country program has positioned itself as a yearly contender at the NJCAA Div. I Championships.

And this season is no different.

Both the Triton men and women will be chasing hardware this Saturday when they compete at the University of New Mexico North Golf Course here. Action begins at noon with the men’s race, as the women are set for 1 p.m. Iowa time.

“It is often difficult navigating two distinct teams throughout a season and into a national final,” ICCC Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Dee Brown said. “We do everything together: workouts, travel, team meetings, everything. Our goals are always the exact same every year. How we strive to reach those goals often varies.

“I feel confident that our staff has done everything within our power to get them as ready as they can be for this weekend. We left no stone unturned in our training and preparation. We are physically and mentally ready for our final exam.”

Last year, Iowa Central earned silver in the men’s team race, adding a string of six consecutive first or second place finishes. Overall, they have placed first or second eight times since 2004.

Ezekiel Kipchirchir was third a season ago, making him the 10th Triton to place the Top-3.

Both Milos Pendic and Awet Yohannes earned Cross Country Coaches Association All-American status last year. Pendic was 24th at nationals and Yohannes 34th.

Coming into the meet, Cloud County holds the No. 1 spot in the rankings with Iowa Central second, El Paso third, Central Arizona fourth and Southern Idaho fifth.

Cloud County was sixth at nationals a year ago and features top runner Dais Malebana. They have just six runners on the roster. El Paso boasts three runners back from the Top-10 a year ago when they finished third, while Central Arizona is unbeaten against fellow junior college programs this year.

The Vaqueros have four national titles and three runner-up finishes in the past seven years.

“The men are preparing for a battle. It is going to be a real nail-biter,” Brown said. “There are legitimately four, if not five, teams that could contend for the title on Saturday. Cloud has locked down the No. 1 ranking all season and they have beaten us head-to-head not once, but twice.

“However, we know they are beatable. Maybe we only beat them one time out of 10, we are counting on that one time to be this weekend. Our cross country program has a good reputation in the NJCAA as a team that peaks at the end of the season and performs their best when it matters.”

The individual race is sure to be just as close of a battle as Yohannes, defending champion Andrew Kibet of Hutchinson, Colby’s Wesley Banguira, Gideon Cheplak of El Paso, James Kapel from Central Arizona, Dillan Haviland from Lansing and Geoffrey Bwalley of Monroe are looking to cross home first.

“After seeing these men execute our game plan so precisely at the Region XI Championships, I have every confidence they are prepared to do their best in Albuquerque,” Brown said. “The key to our success will be our ability to run together in packs and not get separated from each other. We need to be patient and move up systematically throughout the 8-kilometer race.

“If there is anything the Iowa Central men are known for, it is battling. Each year for the past six, we have finished among the Top-2 teams in the nation. Our goal isn’t to place among the Top-2, our goal is to win. If we come home short of that goal, I will be the first to congratulate anyone finishing ahead of us because I know they brought their A-game.”

Meanwhile, the Triton women are looking to score a third consecutive national title after winning gold in 2017 and ’18. Iowa Central also had a three-peat between 2011-13.

Overall, the Triton women have won seven national titles and finished in the Top-5 each of the past 12 years.

“The women have literally sailed through this season,” Brown said. “They have been a dominant force in nearly every meet we have attended. We are blessed to have four ‘No. 1’ runners on our team.

“Lately, Winrose Chesang has emerged as their leader on the course. The exciting part is that these girls are all gamers. They rise to the challenge when it counts and there is something on the line.”

Two returning NJCAA All-Americans lead the way this season in Lilian Busienei and Florance Uwajeneza. Busienei was third a season ago and Uwajeneza finished sixth.

Winrose Chesang was a Cross Country Coaches Association All-American after crossing home in 19th.

The Tritons are No. 1 coming into the meet followed by Central Arizona, South Plains, Southern Idaho and Monroe.

Only one other program has ever won three consecutive titles, as Ricks reeled off seven in a row from 1995-2001. Iowa Central would move closer to Ricks’ overall lead of nine championships with a victory.

“They know our history, they want to three-peat as it is something we have talked about,” Brown said. “Plain and simple, they want to win. They have thought about nothing else since this fall, since last spring, and since the day after the 2018 cross country championships.

“This could be one of the best teams we have ever had at Iowa Central and that says a lot. I am excited to watch them put on a show Saturday afternoon.”

Central Arizona has six runner-up finishes since they took home the trophy in 2009, with South Plains featuring defending race runner-up Gladys Jemaiyo. Southern Idaho has two Top-3 finishes at nationals over the past two seasons, with Monroe searching for its first-ever Top-10 nationals finish.

Along with silver medalist Jemaiyo and bronze winner Busienei, the individual champion is back in the field. El Paso’s Everlyn Kemboi will be pushed by those two and New Mexico’s Flomena Aseko, along with Chesang, Iowa Western’s Faith Linga Chepengat and Monroe’s Sharon Chumo.