Spartanburg, S.C. – USC Upstate cross country runners Gilbert Kemboi and Joan Tangwar each turned in standout performances en route to winning their respective races at the USC Upstate Invitational Saturday morning at the Milliken Research Park. Their efforts helped the men's and women's team take second place in the meet.
Upstate finished second in both races to A-Sun rival North Florida. UNF claimed the women's championship with 30 points and was followed by Upstate (47), Mercer (64), Wofford (91), ETSU (137), Georgia Southern (162), Darton (195), Belmont Abbey (214) and Newberry (262).
On the men's side, UNF claimed the top spot with 36 points and was followed by Upstate (45), Mercer (83), ETSU (101), Darton (143), Wofford (148), Belmont Abbey (190), Limestone (225) and Piedmont (231).
"We are doing well and are heading in the right direction with our performances," said Upstate assistant coach Carson Blackwelder. "Today was a pretty good day for us. Our top three runners on the men's side are pretty strong, we just need to have our four and five guys come together if we want to compete. The same thing on the women's side. We have to work on the four and five scores. Both teams have strong 1-2 runners and we need to build off of that. But, I thought today was a pretty strong performance and something we can be proud of."
The women's race started first and North Florida's Shelby Kittrell took the lead. However, as was the strategy heading into the race, a pack of Upstate runners that included Tangwar (Eldoret, Kenya), Carolyne Chelulei (Eldoret, Kenya) and Jemeli Sang (Eldoret, Kenya), stalked the lead and pushed the pace. With about a little over a mile to go, the Spartans made their move and Tangwar bolted to the front. She would not relinquish the lead and won the 5k race in 17:34.56. She finished over four seconds faster than UNF's Kittrell. The time was also 27 seconds faster than she ran in winning the Eye Opener meet in early September.
"We concentrated on running as a team today," said Tangwar. "We were moving as a pack, but toward the finish we realized we had to make our move. The leader was moving fast and we had to make our move. This is our home meet and we didn't want to lose it. I just tried to take the lead with my teammates and do what I needed to do to win the race."
Upstate battled North Florida at the front of the pack. Tangwar won the individual championship with UNF's Kittrell finishing second. Chelulei claimed third, while UNF's Erin Nixon came in fourth. Upstate placed three runners in the top five with Sang's fifth-place finish. However, UNF three more runners cross the finish line before the next Spartan and went on to win the race. Upstate was second in a strong showing. Upstate's Lauren Walker (Columbia, S.C.) finished 14th with a time of 19:26.31.
"Joan has really stepped her game up this year and has worked really hard," said Upstate head coach Jimmy Stephens. "The team really tried to work together in this race and did well."
Chelulei finished third with a personal best time of 17:54.84. Sang (18:04.91) and Mary Alexander (19:56.32), a junior from Spartanburg, each ran their best times on the Milliken course.
After the women's race wrapped up, the men's teams took to the starting boxes and from the pop of the starter's pistol, Kemboi (Eldoret, Kenya) bolted out front. He had a 15-yard lead heading into the first turn at the bottom of the hill and did not look back. He turned in a dominant race from start to finish and ran the 8k in 23:59.97. The time was the second-fastest on the 8k course at Milliken behind that of Rend Lake College's Stephen Sambu in 2008 at the NJCAA National Championships. It was also 13 seconds faster than the time he ran in the Eye Opener meet at Milliken at the beginning of September.
Kemboi ran such a dominant race that it took more than a minute and 20 seconds after he finished for the second-place runner, ETSU's Benjamin Ronch, to cross the finish line.
"I thought it was a good race today," said Kemboi. "I felt good from the start and got into the lead early. I didn't have to push myself that much in the race. We talked about trying for the course record, but I fell a little short. I just tried to do my best."
"Gilbert is an incredible athlete," said Stephens. "He always pushes himself. We were hoping for a course record today, but fell a little short. I am proud of his effort. He works so hard and shows up every time he steps on the course."
Despite Kemboi's dominant performance, Upstate finished second to North Florida. The Ospreys claimed positions 3-6 in the race to finish first. Upstate's Andrew Kipchumba (Eldoret, Rift Valley, Kenya) finished eighth in a time of 26:07.72, nearly 17 seconds better than he ran on the same course in the Eye Opener meet in September. Davey Dennison (Carlisle, Pa.) led a group of three Upstate runners who finished 11th, 12th and 13th. Dennison ran the race in 26:11.15. He was followed by Carmeron Thomas (Niceville, Fla., 26:11.52) and James Jackson (Aiken, S.C., 26:12.28).
Four Spartans who finished in the top 40 ran personal best times in the race Saturday. Thomas and Jackson each ran their fastest times in the 8k to finish in the top 15, while Christian Ritacco (Niceville, Fla., 26:52.62) knocked 18 seconds off of his top time to finish 25th. Ross Oden (Salisbury, N.C.) also ran a personal best with a time of 27:28.53.
Upstate will take to the Milliken course for the third time this year when it plays host to the 2010 A-Sun Championships in two weeks on Oct. 30. It marks the first A-Sun conference championship hosted by Upstate. Stephens certainly hopes the home course advantage and the experience on the course will help during the meet.
"It's gonna be a battle in the conference," said Stephens. "We are going to have to step it up as a team. We were close, but North Florida got us today. I think there will be four teams on both the men's and the women's side that have a legitimate shot at winning the conference championship.
"It was important to come out and compete today. Sometimes it is a good thing to lose to show us what we have to do to get better. But, the races today are good things to build on. Carson (assistant coach Carson Blackwelder) has done a great job getting the teams ready and we perform at a high level each week."