Red-Hot Racing At The Chile Pepper Festival

“We’re in a tough position. We want to get that kind of competition that pushes us and race teams that make us better, but there aren’t many meets that let us race against those top NCAA DI schools. It’s like we’re not welcomed into NCAA DI meets.” ~ Colorado School of Mines coach Chris Siemers

Something beautiful happened this past weekend in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Blue-blood programs from NCAA Division I went head-to-head against the best NCAA Division II, NJCAA Division I and the NAIA had to offer at the Chile Pepper Festival.

That’s not how it usually goes, though.

“We’re in a tough position,” said Colorado School of Mines coach Chris Siemers, whose men have been ranked No. 1 in the NCAA DII National Coaches’ Poll for the past four weeks. “We want to get that kind of competition that pushes us and race teams that make us better, but there aren’t many meets that let us race against NCAA DI schools. It’s like we’re not welcomed into NCAA DI meets.”

SEE MORE: NCAA DII Men’s Cross Country National Coaches’ Poll (Week 4)

That kind of treatment isn’t limited to just top NCAA DII programs.

“I can’t begin to tell you how tough it’s been for us to get into competitive races the past few years,” said Oklahoma City coach Matt Aguero, whose men have been ranked No. 1 in the NAIA National Coaches’ Poll for the past nine weeks. “Our guys love when they get the chance and we want to give them that experience, but sometimes it feels like we’re stuck.”

SEE MORE: NAIA Men’s Cross Country National Coaches’ Poll (Week 2)

So when the opportunity came up for their programs to race on the well-manicured grounds of the University of Arkansas Agri Park this past weekend, Aguero and Siemers approached it with cautious optimism. The Chile Pepper Festival had been on their schedule since the summer and they knew the history of the meet, but they just didn’t know how it would be set up.

“When I first heard that there would be more teams than usual coming because Arkansas is hosting a regional, the first thing that popped into my head was that it’s going to be DI and everybody else or big schools in one race and small schools in the other,” Aguero said. “You can bet that I was going to fight for my guys to get into the top race, if that was the case.”

Siemers had a more holistic outlook.

“They want what is best for their meet, right,” Siemers said. “I thought we’d get to race against the big schools if they broke it out. There is a lot more interest in that way. Plus, it’s better for the sport.”

Sure enough, when the race assignments came out, the Orediggers and Stars would be joined in the Men’s Seeded 8K by the likes of Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Texas, as well as Cloud County CC and Iowa Central CC – the top-2 teams in NJCAA Division I – among others.

The race lived up to the hype, too. It was high-quality, cross-divisional racing at its absolute finest.

SEE MORE: Chile Pepper Festival Results | 1 Mile Split | 5.5K Split

By the time the race really started to materialize at the 5.5K split, three teams had all of their scorers in the top-50 – Texas (13-14-16-23-37), Mines (17-19-21-24-26) and Oklahoma State (5-20-25-28-50) – but it was clear the race for the team title would come down to the Longhorns and the Orediggers. Both of those teams were moving through the pack with conviction, especially Mines with a SEVEN-SECOND SPREAD between its top-5 athletes.

Texas, up just four points at the 5.5K split (93-97), distanced itself from the Orediggers to win by 22 points (74-96). Mines finished a clear runner-up, while NCAA DI #8 Oklahoma State held off a hard charge from NCAA DII #3 Western Colorado to place third. The Mountaineers ended up fourth, 31 points fewer than the host Razorbacks. Oklahoma City was the best of the rest in sixth.

Even more impressive was the parity in the top-10 of the individual race. Take one look at the standings and you’ll find four NCAA DI athletes, three from NCAA DII programs and one JUCO runner in the mix (The remaining two were unattached athletes from Arkansas).

“This is the way it should always be,” Aguero said. “The best competition brings out the best in everybody, no matter what it says on the front of the jersey. It can say ‘Oklahoma City,’ ‘Arkansas,’ ‘Oklahoma State,’ or whatever else, but all bets are off when you get on the starting line. The best athletes and the best teams are going to win.”