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Wisconsin Prevails At NCAA Cross-Country Champs

Georgetown won on the women's side.

Georgetown won on the women’s side.

Lawi Lalang leads from the front in Indiana yesterday. Photo: Fox Sports Arizona

Written by: Chris Lotsbom
(c) 2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

With drizzle falling and clouds making for cool racing conditions, the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships went on with plenty of fireworks at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind. Arizona’s Lawi Lalang took home his first national title, while Villanova’s Sheila Reid successfully defended her crown from a year ago. Wisconsin and Georgetown were the men’s and women’s team champions, respectively.

The men’s 10K race began as a pack affair, with a large group hitting the mile mark bunched close together. Oregon’s Luke Puskedra, running for the first time as an individual because his Oregon Duck squad didn’t qualify as a team, was the first to make a move, injecting a surge to take over the lead through two kilometers. Soon, though, he would be joined by a pair of Kenyans in Lalang and Leonard Korir of Iona, as well as Northern Arizona’s Diego Estrada.

The next breakaway move wouldn’t happen until four kilometers, when Lalang began to push, separating himself only to be joined by Canadian Cameron Levins of Southern Utah. Working hard to maintain contact was Korir, who was able to catch back up to the two leaders in front, eventually making it a three-person, single file line as the trio passed by the finish for the first time.

“That was my plan, to stay relaxed for the first 4K, then go for it,” Lalang told broadcaster Jordan Fiffe during the NCAA live webcast post-race.

Working his way up in the field was Stanford’s Chris Derrick, leading the chase pack closer to Puskedra, who was caught in no man’s land behind the front three.

Back at the front, though, Lalang was ready to go. Striding smoothly with a necklace bobbing back and forth across his body, the 20-year-old from Eldoret began to open up a steadily increasing gap. Soon he was cruising along all alone, far ahead of Levins and Korir. Passing eight kilometers in 22:52.3, Lalang knew he had the win in his back pocket.

Coming down the finish stretch, Lalang strode through the line just like he did at the West Regional a week ago, with a comfortable margin of victory. Crossing in 28:44.1, Lalang extends the streak of Kenyan individual champions to three; Sam Chelanga won the previous two championships before graduating from Liberty.

Asked what his thoughts were coming down the stretch, Lalang said, “Let me just move, and if anybody will be coming after me, I will kick with them. But I was ready for it.”

Stanford’s Derrick finished second in 28:57.5, rounding out the senior’s stellar collegiate cross country career with his fourth top-ten finish at nationals.

Third place went to Korir in 29:02.5, while Levins held on for fourth in 29:04.8.

In the team competition, favorite Wisconsin held on despite a second half comeback by two-time defending champion Oklahoma State.

At the first chip checkpoint located at 2K, Wisconsin held a comfortable lead, tallying only 92 points; Oklahoma State was well back in 13th, having gone out conservatively. By 5K, the Cowboys had climbed into fourth, slowly catching up to the Badgers, who had added thirteen points but were still in the lead.

Moving all the way up to second, Oklahoma State was gaining positions rapidly thanks in large part to Colby Lowe and German Fernandez. But they weren’t able to better Wisconsin’s team total of 97 points in the end. The Mick Byrne-coached team earned Wisconsin’s first team title since 2005. Oklahoma State took second, followed by Colorado, BYU, and Stanford.

* * * * *

With each of the top five finishers from last year’s women’s race returning, many were focused on those who had finished near or atop the podium in 2010. But at the beginning of the 6K competition, it looked as if someone who wasn’t even at nationals a year ago would steal the show.

Racing downhill toward the first kilometer mark was Silje Fjortoft of Southern Methodist, who didn’t compete in cross country last year. The native of Orsta, Norway, Fjortoft, 24, was coming off a win at the South Central Regional a week ago where she ran away from the field and won by more than 25 seconds. Looking to do the same, Fjortoft was all alone through three kilometers, in 9:40.2. Decked out in a long-sleeved top and bottoms to fend off the cold, Fjortoft appeared to be pulling away.

Behind, a large chase pack comprised of more than 15 runners were biding their time, waiting to determine the right time to go and catch Fjortoft. Leading the pack was defending champion Sheila Reid of Villanova, as well as last year’s runner-up, Emily Infeld of Georgetown, along with Oregon’s Jordan Hasay.

“I tried to stay there until about 2K, and then at about 3K I decided to take over and really get the pace going, cause we weren’t going to catch her if we didn’t,” said Reid in a post-race interview with Fiffe.

Working together, little by little the group began to chip away at Fjotoft’s lead, especially up the hill approaching 4K. Soon after, the pack came up on the Norwegian’s right shoulder. Leading a charge of about ten women, Reid swiftly passed Fjortoft, who tried to maintain pace at the middle of the pack.

“The girls in the chase pack were really on the pace, and committed to going after her, so that was good,” added Reid.

With less than a kilometer left, the pack was down to eight, the win up for grabs to anyone who dared break away. Approaching the turn leading to the final homestretch, Iowa State’s Betsy Saina pulled even at the front, joining Reid and Hasay to make it three abreast.

The race seemed to be playing out similar to last year’s competition, when Reid sprinted away from Infeld in the final quarter mile to earn her first National Championship title. The only difference this time was the Canadian would have to deal with more than one competitor if she wanted to successfully defend her win.

With the finish line in sight, Hasay turned towards her miler speed, trying to gain the edge on Reid. That’s when the double NCAA national champion in the 1500m and 5000m reacted, pulling even and passing the striding Hasay, who couldn’t match Reid’s winning kick.

Reid crossed the line in 19:41.2, six-tenths of a second ahead of Hasay (19:41.8). Winning the battle for third place was Abbey D’Agostino of Dartmouth, only a sophomore, in 19:42.9. Infeld and Princeton’s Alex Banfich rounded out the top five.

“[There were] a lot more girls coming down that homestretch. It was the hardest race I have ever run, it was tough,” said Reid, who becomes only the fifth women ever to earn back-to-back NCAA Cross Country individual titles.

The team competition was also drama-filled following the finish.

Leading at halfway was Washington, in front of defending champion Villanova and four spots ahead of the number one ranked team, Florida State. That’s when things got interesting. With runners moving up and falling back over the second half, no one was sure who had earned the title after the finish.

While scores were still being calculated, Villanova and Washington were huddled feet away from each other, waiting for the news on who would be champion: Gina Procaccio’s Wildcats or Greg Metcalf’s Huskies. That’s when cameras showed Washington burst into a cheer, followed by a shot of Villanova in tears. Apparently, someone had told the Huskies they had won.

But seconds later, over the public address system came an announcement that even shocked the television broadcasters, the women of Georgetown were the national champions. Chris Miltenburg’s Hoyas, who were not in the finish area, soon were guided back to the finish to celebrate their victory, given the National Championship trophy as well as commemorative hats and t-shirts.

Georgetown won by only eight points over Washington, 162 to 170, in the closest team finish since 2003. Villanova finished third with a score of 181, followed by a disappointed Florida State team in fourth (189). Oregon rounded out the top five with 281 points.