Spartans Ready to Run in Championship Event
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - A season ago, the USC Upstate women's cross country team finished seventh, while the men's team finished eighth at the Atlantic Sun Conference Championships. This time around, the Spartans, who have a pair of school-record holders, are looking for an overall better result.
"I am extremely proud of what we have achieved thus far this season," said head cross country coach Jimmy Stephens. "We are substantially ahead of the goals and visions that I had for the third year of competition. When the program was restarted in 2007, the goal was to be in the top half of the conference by the end of the fourth year (2010). In our fifth season, that is when I envisioned us competing for a conference title. So, to be two years ahead of schedule is simply amazing to me."
The 2009 A-Sun Women's Championship will begin at 8:45 a.m. in DeLand, Fla. The men's championship event will follow at 9:45 a.m. Upstate is one of 11 teams competing in the event on Sat., Oct. 31. Joining the Spartans are Belmont, Campbell, ETSU, FGCU, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, Mercer, North Florida and host institution Stetson.
Last season, Jemeli Sang was the first Spartan to cross the finish line in the women's championship. Sang, who finished 22nd, posted a meet time of 19:04. Lauren Walker and Emily Tangwar were the next two runners to cross the finish line for Upstate. The pair finished neck and neck as Walker (33rd) edged out Tangwar (34th). Two more Spartans crossed the finish line in the top 56 of the championship event. Joan Tangwar (20:02) and Carolyne Chelulei (21:00) finished 46th and 56th, respectively.
Leading the way for the women's team in 2009 are sophomores Chelulei and Sang. In Chelulei's three 5K events this season, she has posted a pair of wins complemented by a third-place finish. Chelulei won the 26th-annual Eye Opener Invitational title on Sept. 5 with a time of 18:12.
"The women's side of our conference is very strong and it will be a very competitive event," said Stephens. "The top six teams in this conference are all basically on the same level and it will come down to which team can get the most quality performances."
Assistant cross country coach Carson Blackwelder added, "The goal for the women's team is a top three finish. If we can and run strong, I feel we have a legitimate shot at the team championship."
Chelulei followed the strong performance at the Eye Opener, with a third-place finish at the Charlotte Invitational on Oct. 2. Chelulei set a new Upstate school record of 17:31.40 at the event. Chelulei broke current Spartan Emily Tangwar's record of 18:08.00 at the 2007 A-Sun Championships. After her strong performance at the event, Chelulei was named A-Sun Runner of the Week for the first time in her career.
Sang has been on Chelulei's heels most of the season. The native of Eldoret, Kenya, finished third at the Eye Opener Invitational and was less than 15 seconds behind Chelulei. At the Charlotte Invitational, Sang posted an eighth-place finish as she set a personal-best of 17:39.60, less than nine seconds behind Chelulei. In the Spartans most-recent meet, the USC Upstate Invitational, Sang posted a second-place finish with a time of 18:00.97 which was less than two seconds behind Chelulei, who won with a time of 17:59.88.
"It has been such a quality season for me and my teammates," said Chelulei. "For each of the meets thus far, I have been able to accomplish the goals that I wanted to achieve. I won a couple of races and our team did very well in each of those meets. As a team, we have worked very hard for this weekend's championship event and I know everyone is going to run a great race. For the weekend my expectations are an individual victory as well as a team title."
In 2009, the lowest finish for the women harriers was a tie for fourth at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational on Sept. 17. In the 7.6K event, Upstate tied with Ohio University while Atlantic Coast Conference members Florida State, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech took first, second and third, respectively.
Upstate won the Wofford Relays on Sept. 1 as well as the Eye Opener just four days later. The Spartans earned their first-ever regional ranking in the United States Track & Field Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Southeast region poll. They entered in the polls in 12th-place, ahead of South Carolina (13th) as well as Eastern Kentucky and Appalachian State, which rounded out the Southeast top 15.
Upstate finished third in the Charlotte Invitational ahead of rivals South Carolina and Western Carolina, which finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the meet. Joan Tangwar (18:22.80) and Walker (18:39.40) also set personal-bests at the event.
In the final meet prior to the A-Sun Championships, the Spartans posted a second-place finish with 45 points at the USC Upstate Invitational. They finished just nine points behind race winner Davidson at the Oct. 17 event.
At the 2008 A-Sun Championships, the men's team finished eighth in the 11-team event. Just two Spartans who competed in that event are back this season. James Jackson finished 30th at the event with a time of 26:28. He was named to the All-Freshman team thanks to his strong performance. Meanwhile, Matt Henderson finished 44th after a meet time of 27:07.
"I feel that the guys have matured greatly over the course of this season," said Blackwelder. "We are a young team, but our goal is a top four performance in the team standings. If they go out and compete to the ability that they are capable of, then we will have a strong showing on Saturday."
The men's team has been led in 2009 by freshman Gilbert Kemboi. Kemboi has raced in all five meets that the Spartans have appeared in this season. He began his Upstate career with back to back wins. Kemboi teamed with fellow freshman Cameron Thomas at the Wofford Relays on Sept. 1. The pair combined for a time of 25:30. Just a few days later, the Eldoret, Kenya, native won the Eye Opener Invitational and he was the first Spartan male to ever win the meet. Kemboi shattered both the school-record and meet-record en route to his victory.
"I am anticipating doing my best this weekend as the level of competition will be extremely high and I am looking forward to the challenge," said freshman Gilbert Kemboi. "The season has gone really well, even though the weather has fluctuated from race to race, I have managed to adapt. I am also thankful for Coach Stephens and Coach Blackwelder as they have done a wonderful job with the team this season. It is because of them that I have improved tremendously and I really appreciate their efforts."
Kemboi's time of 25:00 was 31 seconds ahead of the previous Eye Opener Invitational record that was set just a year ago by Patrick Morgan of Furman (25:31). Kemboi also broke Pat McLaughlin's school record of 25:43, which was set at the 1982 Furman Dual Meet.
Thanks to his strong performances, Kemboi won the first A-Sun Runner of the Week award of the year. It was the first for Kemboi and he was the first male to ever receive the honor. Kemboi has added two more weekly awards to his collection this season.
He was awarded his second honor after a strong performance at the VT Alumni Invitational. In the 7.6K event, he finished second with and was the first collegiate runner to cross the finish line. His third and final weekly award came after he broke his own school record at the Charlotte Invitational. He posted a time of 24:28.40, as the men's team finished fourth in the event featuring 21 teams.
Three other Spartans also set personal-bests at the Charlotte Invitational. David Dennison posted a time of 26:13.20 en route to a 33rd-place finish. Meanwhile, Henderson (26:19.60) and Cameron Thomas (26:43.20) finished 38th and 55th, respectively. Freshman Christian Ritacco's personal-best came at the Eye Opener Invitational when he posted a time of 26:29 and an 11th-place finish.
Kemboi won the USC Upstate Invitational on Oct. 17 with a time of 24:38.68, his third victory of 2009 and fifth top-two finish. The Spartans had five other runners finish in the top 19 at the meet.
Dennison posted a seventh-place finish after a meet time of 26:24.12. Jackson finished 11th with a time of 26:42.84 and right behind him in 12th-place was teammate Cameron Thomas (26:46.67). Henderson ran the race in 26:51.31 en route to a 14th-place finish. Rounding out the Spartan charge at the event was Ritacco. Ritacco finished 19th-overall thanks to a meet time of 27:11.49.
"Coach Blackwelder and the men's and women's teams have been working extremely hard all season long," said Stephens. "The effort and dedication they have put forth has shown in their performances this season. I am very excited about where our programs are headed."