OKLAHOMA CITY (Sept. 4, 2013) – It’s a lofty goal, but after the last two years, it’s one that shouldn’t be surprising for Oklahoma Christian’s men’s cross country team.
Not many programs – any level, any sport – ever receive the chance the Eagles have in 2013, the opportunity to win a third consecutive national championship. After taking the NAIA title in 2011, then the National Christian College Athletic Association crown in 2012, the Eagles would like nothing better than to be holding another championship banner come November.
But for that to be a possibility, second-year coach Wade Miller said, the Eagles will need to work as hard as they ever have before and continue improving. As OC prepares to open its season Thursday at the Strohman Dental/Midwestern State Stampede on Thursday in Wichita Falls, Texas, Miller knows replacing three departed senior All-Americans (Geoffrey Njonjo, Brayden Barrientez and David McWilliams) won’t be easy.
“I think we surprised some teams in our first year in the NCCAA,” Miller said. “I’m not sure that everybody knew who we were. But they do now and we’ve definitely got to really be focused. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get back to the point where we were at last year. Replacing three All-Americans is a tough, tough task.”
Only one runner returns who has competed in both national-championship races for OC, but he’s a special one. Junior Roberto Diaz made the jump from good to great in 2012 and seems poised to take another step forward this fall. He is unquestionably the top returning runner in the Heartland Conference and already is a six-time NCCAA All-American in track and cross country. In last year’s NCCAA Championship, Diaz finished fourth individually.
“Roberto has been great to work with,” Miller said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s going to get after it. He makes his teammates better just by being in the mix. He brings a really good racing mentality. I think being around those guys his freshman year when we won the NAIA title, those guys all had a racer’s mentality where they could produce under pressure. I think that definitely has passed on to Roberto.”
The good news for the Eagles is that they don’t lack big-race experience, as three other runners return who raced in last year’s NCCAA meet – junior Brennym Kaelin and sophomores Bryant Keirns and Timothy Zuercher.
Keirns emerged as a solid No. 5 runner for OC in 2012 and figures to compete for the No. 2 spot this season. Kaelin has come on strong at the end of both his freshman and sophomore seasons – finishing ahead of the Heartland Conference individual champ at the NCCAA meet in 2012 – and Miller hopes to see continued improvement.
Zuercher was a pleasant surprise as a freshman and Miller believes he could make a big move in 2013.
Other returnees vying for spots in the Eagles’ top seven include senior Nick Stoots – who captured Heartland Conference runner of the week honors once in 2012 – and juniors David Koistinen and Riley Compton and sophomore Trent Stephens.
“Our guys know we lost three All-Americans,” Miller said. “They know that it’s going to take a solid summer of work and really being focused on the little things to get to the point where they can contribute in the way that those guys did. … I think they realize that and they’re taking steps to apply that.”
Of the newcomers, Kyle Broaddrick has emerged as the leader to seize a starting role. He’s finished in the top seven in the Oklahoma Class 6A prep meet each of the last three years and won the 3,200-meter title at the 6A state track meet this spring. He competed in February in the USA Junior Cross Country Championships and finished 47th while running the collegiate 8,000-meter distance.
Junior-college transfer Blake Thompson is coming off a spring injury, but comes from the same high school program that produced Keirns and Barrientez. Thompson also has the advantage of having run the 8,000-meter distance for two years at Pratt (Kan.) Community College.
Durrill, who comes from one of the top prep cross country programs in Texas, and Giles both have looked good in preseason training runs and Miller is hopeful they quickly adjust to collegiate racing.
“I think the depth we’ve had will be there again,” Miller said. “We’ve got six or seven guys who can, on any day, step in and help out. It’s a good position to be in.”
The Eagles have their usual challenging schedule that includes trips to the Missouri Southern Stampede, the Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree and the Chile Pepper Festival before they make their debut in the Heartland Conference Championship on Oct. 26. (OC runners will be allowed to compete but the Eagles won’t be eligible to win the official team title.)
Three weeks after the conference race, OC will travel back to Cedarville, Ohio, for the NCCAA meet and a chance at the three-peat.
“I think they’re going to figure it out on their own,” Miller said. “I don’t think that anything that I can say is really going to get that going. I think it’s going to be them matching up against some really good competition along our schedule and kind of finding out where they’re at, and then going from there. I definitely feel like we’ve got a legitimate shot.”