National Champions. That’s what the members of the 2020 NIACC men’s cross country team can call themselves for the rest of their lives.
NIACC claimed the school’s first national cross country title and third overall national team title in school history Saturday afternoon at the Lakeside Golf Course. Other NIACC teams to win national team titles were the 1973 NIACC wrestling team and the 1995 men’s basketball team.
The Trojans, whose previous high finish at nationals was fourth in the 2011 NJCAA Division I meet, tallied 57 points to win the NJCAA Division II national title. Allen County CC (Kansas) placed second with 68 points and Cowley College (Kansas) was third with 70 points.
“I felt if we ran like we were capable of, we could be in the mix,” NIACC coach Curtis Vais said. “In cross country, everybody runs on different courses so it’s kind of hard to tell just by looking at times.
“What gave me a little more hope was when we were looking at the times of the Division I race (earlier in the day) between the Iowa schools and the Kansas schools.”
Iowa Central won the NJCAA Division I meet and Iowa Western placed second. Cloud County CC (Kansas) placed fourth and Hutchinson CC (Kansas) was fifth.
Vais, who started the NIACC cross country program in 2004, said his last message to his team before Saturday’s race was a simple one
“I told them that none of them had to be Superman,” the veteran coach said. “I hope that took some of the pressure off.”
NIACC’s Melvin Kipkemboi may not have been Superman on Saturday as he entered the national meet with a NJCAA Region XI Division II title on his resume. He also was honored Friday night as the NJCAA Division II Central Region athlete of the year. But the freshman from Kenya definitely saved his best for last as he claimed the individual national title in a personal-best time of 24 minutes, 58 seconds by outkicking Cowley College’s Adrian Diaz-Lopez in the final 100 meters. Diaz-Lopez placed second in 25:01.
Kipkemboi became NIACC’s first individual national champion in cross country. The previous best finish by a NIACC men’s runner at the national meet was when Brian Jacques placed seventh at the NJCAA Division I meet in 2017.
“It feels good,” Kipkemboi said. “This is just the beginning.”
Kipkemboi became just the second runner in school history to break 25 minutes in the 8K. His time of 24:58 ranks second on the school’s all-time 8K list trailing only Wal Khat, who clocked a 24:49 8K in the 2016 season.
“I didn’t see Melvin finish so I didn’t know he won it,” Vais said. “I was back aways and I saw Jalen Petersen in front of the big scoreboard (showing the team results).
“He started jumping up and down and going crazy. So then I knew we had won (the team title).”
Saturday’s national title performance was a total team effort by the Trojans.
“It’s hard to take anything away from Melvin as he’s a national champion,” Vais said, “but everyone was big (Saturday).
“We knew going in that Janvier’s legs were bothering him, but Ringo stepped up and kept moving forward.”
The Trojans moved forward in the final stages of Saturday’s race to bring the national championship trophy back to the NIACC campus.
At the 3-mile mark, NIACC trailed then leader Allen County CC by 20 points (77 to 57).
NIACC was in third place at the mile, 2-mile, 3-mile and 3.75 mile mark. The Trojans, however, moved into a first-place tie with Allen County CC and Cowley College with 67 points at the 4-mile mark.
By the 4.75 mile mark, the Trojans were in first place with 61 points with Allen County CC in second with 67 points and Cowley College in third with 68 points.
When all of the Trojans had crossed the finish line, they lowered their team total to 57 points and celebration was on. Over the final two miles on the Lakeside Course, the top 5 NIACC runners each passed an average of four runners.
“I’ve been thinking about it this whole past week,” Petersen said. “We knew we had something special.
“We’ve just been grinding together every day in practice and just doing the little things. It just felt special.”
Ruiz said he knew the Trojans had what it took to when the team title.
“We were losing the whole time,” Ruiz said of the first 3.75 miles of Saturday’s race. “I got sixth place. Melvin won. We all deserve it.
“I’m really proud of Coach (Vais). He did an amazing job for us. There’s nothing left to say.”
But what about that final stretch that proved to be the difference between bringing home a third-place or runner-up trophy and the national championship hardware?
“This team is amazing,” Ruiz said. “I said to Melvin that he doesn’t know how good he can be. He ran an amazing race. So did Vicente and Ringo was incredible.”
Ringo shattered his previous personal-best time of 27:41 by 23 seconds in his final cross country race in a Trojan uniform.
“I can’t really put it into words,” Ringo said of being able to call himself a national champion. “It feels great.”
“We knew going into the race that we had a pretty good shot at winning it. I had heard in the middle of the race that we were down by 20 or so points. But somehow all of the guys dug deep and ran the last three miles as hard as they could.”
Kirk Hardcastle, Sports Information Director
Photos from the event can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/niacc/albums