The Fort Lewis College men’s cross-country team brought home a trophy Saturday. It is one head coach Joshua Coon will long cherish.
The Skyhawks traveled to the D2 Cross-Country National Invite hosted by Lubbock Christian in Texas. Teams had to qualify to gain an invitational to the unofficial championship event during a fall season in which NCAA Division II canceled fall sports championships because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With virus cases rising across the country, many colleges that qualified for the meet opted out. The FLC men were able to gain an at-large bid into the race, and they didn’t waste their opportunity.
With a team score of 123, the FLC men placed fourth out of 11 scoring teams representing seven different states. Alabama Huntsville placed first with 36 points. Colorado Mesa University, the only other Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference team in the meet, placed second with 77 points. West Texas A&M was third with 77 points.
FLC placed in front of Nebraska-Kearney, which was fifth with 147 points.
The result sent the Skyhawks home to Durango with a trophy.
“It means a ton,” Coon said. “A lot of these guys have overcome quite a bit in their personal lives and persevered, so when COVID hit, I feel like they knew how to persist and handle all the adjustments.
“Bizarre is a great way to describe this season, from weekly testing with no positive cases in 12 weeks, to masks to all the layers COVID brings, they handled it really well. As we aim to step up to the next level, I feel like this opportunity can only help us grown into that.”
This year’s coaches poll had Nebraska-Kearney and Oklahoma Christian ranked in the top 15 nationally. FLC was able to perform better than both of those schools Saturday.
Colorado Mesa’s Tony Torres won the men’s 10-kilometer race in 31 minutes, 37.68 seconds. Texas A&M Commerce runner Nicodemus Rotich was second in 31:52. Jerod Kuhn and Mark Testa of Colorado Mesa finished third and fourth, respectively, both breaking 32 minutes.
FLC was led by Steven Nez, an All-RMAC Second Team placer from the conference championship race this season. Nez was eighth in 32:19. He was followed by teammate John Ngaruiya to give FLC two top-10 runners. Ngaruiya was ninth in 32:26.
Nez and Ngaruiya ran the eighth and ninth fastest 10K times in FLC program history.
“They ran really smart with lots of heart,” Coon said. “Steven was steady as usual. He’s grown up right before our eyes, and I expect he’ll be gunning for All-American next year.
“We’ve always known John was capable. He was one of the best junior college runners in the country. He put it all together today and ran a stellar race.”
Also for FLC, senior Cody Speece of Bayfield was 33rd in 33:25. Ricardo Trejo placed 39th in 33:37, and Elvis Chelak placed 48th in 33:48.
“Shout out to Elvis running on a bad Achilles holding our team score together,” Coon said. “Cody was steady as usual, and Ricky bounced back from a poor RMAC race strongly, as well.”
Allen Fowler added a 63rd-place finish for FLC in 34:22. David Wilcox finished 83rd in 37:33. There were 89 competitors in the men’s race.
FLC did not qualify a team for the women’s race but had Makiah Salzano compete as an individual. She placed 15th in the 6K race in 23:04.
The women’s race was won by Florance Uwajeneza of West Texas A&M. She finished in 21:28. Madis Brown of Dallas Baptist was second in 22:14, and Kaylee Stewart of Alabama-Huntsville was third in 22:25.
“Makiah’s top-15 finish is the result of four years of work,” said FLC women’s coach Brett Sublett. “It’s a great example for the younger women on the team.”
Dallas Baptist won the women’s team title with 51 points. Westminster was second with 67 points, while Northwest Missouri was third with 71 points. There were 10 women’s teams in the races representing eight states. No women’s teams from the RMAC competed.
Traditional RMAC powerhouses Adams State, Western Colorado, Colorado School of Mines and UC-Colorado Springs all opted to not send teams because of COVID-19.
“We are so thankful to our athletic director Brandon Leimbach and President Tom Stritikus for giving us a shot to compete,” Coon said. “There is a lot of gratitude to them flowing through our team.”