Defending national champ Eagles return for another run at NCCAA meet

Members of OC's men's cross country team finish up their practice run on Friday morning in Cedarville, Ohio, on the eve of the NCCAA Championship.
Members of OC's men's cross country team finish up their practice run on Friday morning in Cedarville, Ohio, on the eve of the NCCAA Championship.

By Murray Evans
CEDARVILLE, Ohio (Nov. 15, 2013) – After its last two trips to a national men’s cross country meet, Oklahoma Christian has walked away with a national championship banner in 2011 (NAIA) and 2012 (National Christian College Athletic Association).

But, as coach Wade Miller notes, every year is a new year and this OC team differs from the one that won last year’s NCCAA title. When the NCCAA Championship is run Saturday morning at 10:45 a.m. local time (9:45 a.m. Central time) at Cedarville University’s Elvin R. King Cross Country Course, the Eagles could certainly contend but won’t be the favorite.

The Eagles have four runners back who ran here last year, including All-American Roberto Diaz, but three All-America seniors from last year’s team (Brayden Barrientez, David McWilliams and Geoffrey Njonjo) are gone. Miller is confident the runners on this year’s OC squad will rise to the occasion and fill that void as best they can.

“We’ve got some guys who are going to step up tomorrow and race their best,” Miller said. “I feel like it’s a different year and it’s important to distinguish (between years).”

Diaz was fourth individually last year and OC’s other three returning runners – Bryant Keirns (23rd), Brennym Kaelin (24th) and Timothy Zuercher (28th) – also finished high in the 281-man field. Those four runners have been able to offer advice to three NCCAA-meet newcomers – senior Nick Stoots, sophomore Trent Stephens and freshman Evan Durrill.

“They know what it’s like to be on this course and race it hard,” Miller said. “They know the conditions that can come with the course. There are a couple of spots that can be windy and there are a few bottlenecks, so they know what to expect and have passed that down to the (other) kids.”

Diaz and Keirns finished 1-2 at the Heartland Conference Championship three weeks ago in Mansfield, Texas, and joined Kaelin in earning all-conference honors. Miller thinks Diaz and Keirns could be in the lead group again Saturday, when race-time temperatures should be in the mid-to-upper 40s.

“They’ve definitely got a chance to make a big splash,” Miller said. “Last year, Roberto was fourth and Bryant had a little bit of an off race, but I feel like the way that they’ve been training and the way things are going right now, they have a good shot to contend.”

Malone (Ohio) – a team OC outdueled last year in what proved to be a fierce battle for the title – enters this year’s race as the team to beat. Malone has won the NCCAA title a whopping 21 times.

But a handful of other teams could also contend. Miller mentioned Azusa Pacific (Calif.), Colorado Christian, Roberts Wesleyan (N.Y.) and Dallas Baptist (Texas) as teams he thought would be in the mix. DBU and OC tied for top team honors in the Heartland Conference race.

Miller also has full confidence his team will be in the lead group, too.

“There are a lot of really good teams,” he said. “This year it seems like it’s a little bit more even as far as the depth goes. … It’s really kind of up in the air. We’ll really find out a lot once we get pretty deep into the race and we see how things are going. But the guys are mentally prepared and they’re focused. I think that they’re going to be ready to race tomorrow.”