Spartanburg, S.C. – Blazing a trail and reaching new milestones is nothing new for the USC Upstate cross country program. Members of the men's and women's cross country teams were part of a new tradition while being honored for their championship success in the A-Sun last fall during the first-ever Chancellor's Champions Dinner hosted by Upstate Chancellor Dr. Thomas Moore Wednesday night.
Moore, just six months into his stint as Chancellor at Upstate, wanted to honor the championship accomplishments of Upstate's student-athletes and invented the idea of hosting a champions dinner for the student-athletes who bring home A-Sun Conference championships in their respective sports. He was able to do just that Wednesday night by honoring the men's cross country team for its a-Sun team championship. In addition, runners Gilbert Kemboi (Eldoret, Kenya) and Jemeli Sang (Eldoret, Kenya) were also recognized for their individual conference titles.
"We have to celebrate anytime anyone at our institution excels, and the competitive world of NCAA Division I is a very competitive arena," said Dr. Moore. "To win the conference championship in our first year with full NCAA postseason eligibility is a stellar accomplishment. We couldn't be more proud of this group and it sets the bar high for our athletic program."
Also in attendance at the champions dinner were former Upstate cross country coaches and Upstate Athletics Hall of Fame members Steven 'Skip' Frye, Mike Massey and Sherman Eller. Former head coach Jimmy Stephens, who built the current program alongside associate head coach Carson Blackwelder, could not attend due to a family commitment.
Frye was the first cross country inductee, joining the Upstate Athletics Hall of the Fame in 2000. As an athlete, he was a two-time All-American (1973-74) and returned to coach at the University for one year in 1978. Massey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. He was a four-time all-district honoree as an athlete and then coached at the university during the Division-II days from 1990-95. He coached the team to three-straight Peach Belt Conference Championships, while picking up PCB Coach of the Year accolades in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Eller was inducted into the Upstate Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008, becoming the third cross country inductee. He was a four-year team member as an athlete, followed by a two-year stint as head coach from 1985-1986. As an athlete, Eller was a three-time NAIA All-District selection. He coached the team to two-straight District Six Championships, earning District Six Coach of the Year Honors in 1985 and 1986. Eller also had a hand in developing current members of the Spartan men's cross country team. He was the high school coach of juniors Cameron Thomas and Christian Ritacco in Niceville, Fla.
Stephens, the most recent former head coach, re-established the cross country programs at Upstate in 2007 after a three-season hiatus. He also is credited with starting the Spartan track & field programs. Stephens served as head coach from 2007-2011. He coached Upstate to 15 combined individual A-Sun Conference Championships in track & field and cross country. He coached 14 track & field individual champions and Upstate's first individual cross country A-Sun Champion in junior Gilbert Kemboi (Eldoret, Kenya) in 2010. Stephens coached 37 men's all-conference selections and 20 women's all-conference picks in track & field and cross country at Upstate, which is a total of 57 all-conference honorees. During his tenure at Upstate, he also had 129 athletes chosen to the A-Sun All-Academic team.
The 2011 A-Sun Cross Country Championships were hosted by Belmont in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 29. The Spartan men took home the team crown, while Upstate collected individual titles in both the men's and women's races courtesy of Kemboi and senior Sang.
The win marked the first Atlantic Sun team title for any Upstate cross country program and the fourth overall since the University transitioned its athletic program to the NCAA Division I level in 2007. The women's tennis team and softball team won the regular season titles in 2008 and the men's tennis team took home the regular season title in 2010. However, this year's men's cross country conference championship marked the first title with all athletic teams fully eligible for NCAA postseason play.
The men's team scored 69 points to defeat two-time defending champions, Kennesaw State, by 10 points. Kemboi crossed the finish line first in a time of 24:27.01, the fourth-fastest time in A-Sun history, to win his second-straight individual title. The junior became the sixth A-Sun student-athlete to win back-to-back individual meet titles.
The Spartan men had three individuals post top-10 finishes as junior Davey Dennison (Carlisle, Pa.) came in sixth with a time of 25:18.35 and Ritacco crossed the line in 10th with a time of 25:41.64. Thomas snagged a clutch 17th-place finish for Upstate with a time of 25:57.73. Kemboi and Dennison earned first team all-conference marks, while Ritacco was a second team all-conference selection. Kemboi was named the A-Sun men's Runner of the Year, while Blackwelder was chosen as the A-Sun Coach of the Year.
"The men's team had a great season and winning the A-Sun Championship was proof of their hard work and dedication," Blackwelder said. "We are honored that the Chancellor invited us to this champions dinner to recognize all the accomplishments we achieved this past season."
On the women's side, the Spartans finished 1-2-3 at the A-Sun meet as the senior Kenyan trio of Sang, Joan Tangwar (Eldoret, Kenya) and Carolyne Chelulei (Eldoret, Kenya) took home the gold, silver and bronze. The trifecta helped Upstate to a fourth-place team finish as Sang crossed the line in 17:20.90, Tangwar in 17:28.10 and Chelulei 17:48.70. This marked the third-straight year the Upstate women have finished fourth at the A-Sun Championship; however this year the team recorded its best score in program history with 91 points.
Sang, Tangwar and Chelulei were all-conference first team selections, while Sang was named A-Sun Runner of the Year. Lipscomb took top honors in the women's team standings, collecting 53 points. North Florida finished second, while Belmont came in third, tallying 69 and 81 total points, respectively. The senior trio was also honored at tonight's banquet.