Samuel Chelanga of Liberty University and Angela Bizzarri of the University of Illinois won the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Monday (23) in very different ways, with Chelanga jumping out to a wide early lead he would never relinquish, and Bizzari reeling in early leaders to reach the front only in the final straight.
Oklahoma State University's men and Villanova University's women were the team victors at the meet, hosted again by Indiana State University.
Chelanga, the younger brother of Kenyan marathoner and 2007 Rotterdam marathon champion Joshua Chelanga, was the second-place finisher at the 2008 championships, also held at ISU's dedicated cross country facility outside Terre Haute. As he did last year, Chelanga jumped to an early lead, but where in 2008 that lead was closed later in the race by eventual champion Galen Rupp of Oregon, this year none of the pursuers were able to reel him in.
"That was part of the plan," said Chelanga after the race. It turned out to be the entire plan. "Last year, I went out really hard, and I got caught. I decided that was not the right way to run, with the first mile the fastest of the race. This year I wanted the last mile to be the fastest."
Only in his third year of NCAA competition, this younger Chelanga arrived at Liberty after a year at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, a school recommended to him by his brother and his brother's sometime training partner, Paul Tergat.
Chelanga sat out a year of competition after his transfer to Liberty, but spent that year training with Josh McDougal, who was Liberty's first NCAA champion in 2007. It took another year of seasoning for Chelanga to gain the experience he needed to run away from the best harriers in the American collegiate system. Despite a slower opening mile, Chelanga finished the 10km course in 28:42, 26 seconds faster than last year.
Behind him, David McNeill of Northern Arizona University (29:07) bested Stanford's Chris Derrick (29:15) for the runner-up spot.
Early predictions on the women's race focused on Colorado's Jenny Barringer, the U.S. record holder in the 3000m Steeplechase and a sub-4:00 1500m runner in last spring's track season. Barringer was one of the early leaders in the 6km women's race, along with Florida State University's Susan Kuijken, the collegiate 1500m champion. Barringer faltered after the halfway point, however, and Kuijken struck out on her own in the rolling inner loops of the course.
Hot in pursuit, however, were Bizzarri and the University of Washington's Canadian internationalist, Kendra Schaaf. Bizzarri, who was third in the U.S. 5000m championships last summer, barely blinked when the pair blew past the struggling Barringer. "I was going along for the ride with Angela," said Schaaf. "I didn't see anyone coming back, it was like suddenly they were there. I would think about it for a minute - uh oh, what's happened - but then push it out of my mind and think about hanging on."
"I didn't want to start too fast," said Bizzarri. "I wanted to go out even. In the last 2 or 3 km they started coming back. I had a lot of confidence in my ability to race well from the chase pack, and to push hard for the whole race, but in the last 600m I was a little shocked that it all worked and that I had the chance to win the race. I knew I was in great shape, but sometimes even when you're in great shape it doesn't happen the way you imagine it."
Bizzarri is Illinois' first NCAA cross-country champion since Craig Virgin, who went on to win the World Cross-Country Championships in 1980 and 1981.
The men's team championship went to Oklahoma State University, whose first two runners, Ryan Vail and Colby Lowe, finished seventh and eight, respectively, but led in John Kosgei (11th) and Girma Mecheso (24). German Fernandez, the U.S. junior mile record holder, closed out their scoring in 77th. "I told them to follow Ryan for 8km and then beat him if they could," said coach David Smith. The 2008 champion Oregon team was just sixteen points behind, with 143 points to OSU's 127.
The women's team trophy will be once again returning to the Philadelphia suburbs with Villanova's women. Coach Gina Procaccio, herself an alumna, observed that this was Villanova's first title since they won their seventh in 1998--the first of those seven coming when Procaccio herself was on the team. Procaccio admitted she had wondered if the University's Penn Relays-driven middle-distance focus had ruled out a cross-country title since the NCAA moved to a 6km race for women, but her team finally proved her wrong.
"I told them, 'when I came to Villanova, a group of us all came in together, then won their first title. I think you guys can do that.'" The team was led by Amanda Marino, a junior who finished sixth, and had only one senior in their scoring five runners; all five finished within thirty-six seconds, scoring 86 points to second place Florida State's 133.
Parker Morse for the IAAF