Preview: NJCAA Cross Country Championships

National Championships Season kicks off in a big way on Saturday!

Six national championship races are slated for Saturday as the NJCAA hosts men’s and women’s champions across its three divisions. Division I and II will be held at Pole Green Park near Richmond, Virginia, while Division III descends on Council Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia, which is about an hour southeast of Atlanta. The races will be the first time an NJCAA cross country championship has been held in either state.

From The USTFCCCA InfoZoneMeets & Results | USTFCCCA Scoreboard

This will be the 63rd year the NJCAA has held national championships in cross country – from 1959-90 (1976-90 for women) the competition was in a single division, while the organization divided programs into three divisions in 1991. Division II was not contested in cross country from 2004-19 and was re-instituted last year.

Here’s an overview of what we think to expect in a day likely full of surprises.

NJCAA Division I

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Racing starts at 10:30 a.m. ET with the men’s 8k. The women’s 5k is set for noon.

Men’s 8k Championship

Defending champion Iowa Central CC has been a unanimous No. 1 in the Coaches’ Poll ever since taking over the top spot in Week 2. The Tritons are especially loaded up front, with defending individual champ Kelvin Bungei now the team’s No. 2 runner behind freshman Asbel Kiprob. A win by Iowa Central would give the Tritons back-to-back crowns for the first time since 2014-15.

The group of challengers is led by No. 2 Colby (Kan.) CC, which won the deep Region VI Championship over two other top-10 teams. No. 3 Iowa Western CC was runner-up to Iowa Central at the Region XI Championship by nine points (the closest any JUCO squad has been to the Tritons this year) as the Reivers are led by a top individual threat in Nicholas Kiprotich. New Mexico JC started the year at No. 1 before dropping out of the top-5 until a victory at the Region V Championship over No. 7 El Paso (Texas) CC moved the T-Birds up to No. 4 in the rankings. Cloud County (Kan.) CC fell out of the top-5 for the first time this year after finishing third in the tough Region VI; the now-No. 7 T-Birds return four scorers from last year’s national runner-up team.

No. 5 Northwest Kansas Tech features one of the leading individuals in Vincent Nchogu, who defeated Garden City (Kan.) CC’s Dennis Mutai for the Region VI title. Other top individuals include El Paso’s Adams Biwott, the Region V winner, and Emmanuel Biwott of No. 8 Trinidad State (Colo.) JC, who claimed the Region IX title over teammate Brian Rotich with the same time.

Women’s 5k Championship

Four teams received a first-place vote in the latest coaches’ poll, but the majority went to Iowa Central CC after the Tritons earned the No. 1 ranking on the heels of a 4-point win over No. 2 Iowa Western CC in the Region XI Championships. Iowa Central is looking to regain the title it couldn’t defend last year due to COVID-19 concerns within the program. Meanwhile, previous (and season-long) No. 1 College of Southern Idaho is No. 3 after competing as a non-scoring guest in the Region IX Championships. The Golden Eagles, members of Region XVIII, garnered one of the first-place votes last week and have one of the tightest top-5 units this year that has featured three different runners in the No. 1 position.

Competition does not appear to drop off. No. 4 Cloud County (Kan.) CC, last year’s runner-up, also earned a first-place vote after winning the Region VI Championships. No. 5 Central Arizona won the Region I Championships and No. 6 El Paso (Texas) CC claimed the Region V title, while No. 7 Trinidad State (Colo.) JC – the fourth team to earn a first-place vote – scored a perfect-15 to win the Region IX Championships.

Individually, most eyes are looking for a duel between freshmen Faith Nyathi of El Paso and Mercy Biwott of Iowa Western. Neither has found another JUCO runner close to her all year – in Nyathi’s case, the closest margin has been 81.8 seconds. Other top individuals include Chloe Garcia Grafing of Iowa Central, Sharon Jesang of Trinidad State, Louise Cocking of Hutchinson (Kan.) CC and Aaliyah Moore of Monroe-New Rochelle (N.Y.).

NJCAA Division II

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The men’s 8k is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. ET, with the women’s 5k concluding the day at 12:45 p.m. ET.

Men’s 8k Championship

Cowley (Kan.) has been No. 1 since Week 2, but the Tigers saved their most impressive performance for Region VI Championships, scored separately as Division I and Division II. However, Cowley finished second in overall scoring ahead of two top-10 DI teams. Cowley is led by Adrian Diaz-Lopez and Amos Pkiach, who were 2-3 in last year’s national championships when Cowley finished third as a team.

A number of programs appear well-suited to challenge for the title. No. 2 Daytona State (Fla.) returns six of the seven runners from last year’s team that finished fourth, the same position top Falcon Andy Martinez claimed as an individual. No. 3 Mesa (Ariz.) CC was the only other team to earn a first-place vote in the last poll; the Thunderbirds were unable to compete last year and were runner-up in Region I by one point to No. 9 Paradise Valley (Ariz.). No. 4 Lansing (Mich.) CC also didn’t compete last year but this season won a deep Region XII Championships. No. 5 Heartland (Ill.) CC won the Region XXIV crown with a perfect-15 score after starting the year No. 1 in the rankings.

Defending team champion North Iowa Area CC is No. 8 after winning the Region XI Championships. The Trojans’ Melvin Kipkemboi is looking to repeat as individual champion, but should see competition from the above-named runners as well as Calton Kibet of Carl Sandburg (Ill.), Coleman Clark of Grand Rapids (Mich.) CC and Yotuel Garcia of Mesa. Clark’s teammate, Joshua Kipkoech, was fifth individually last year.

Women’s 5k Championship

A close competition is anticipated as the same three teams received multiple first-place votes for the second week in a row in the coaches’ poll. The No. 1 position is now owned by Lansing (Mich.) CC following a dominating Region XII victory over three other top-20 teams. The Stars are led by Haley Ellis, who has earned National Athlete of the Week twice this year.

No. 2 Heartland (Ill.) CC had the year’s longest previous occupation at the top, perched No. 1 for the previous three weeks. The Hawks were dominant winners of the Region XXIV Championships with a third runner leading the way in Natalie Garneau, joining previous No. 1 Olivia Bloyd, winner of National Athlete of the Week honors earlier this year. The final team to receive love at the top of the polls is Mesa (Ariz.) CC, which won the Region I Championships. The Thunderbirds have had three No. 1 runners this year, but most often it is Kate Brockman leading the way. Other teams to watch include No. 4 Wallace State (Ala.) CC, winners of the Region XXII Championships with a perfect-15 score, and defending national champion No. 5 Cowley (Kan.), which claimed the always-tough Region VI.

Sarah Bertry of North Iowa Area CC looks like the favorite individually. She was runner-up last year and has been virtually untouchable by other JUCO runners this year. Other leading contenders include team leaders already mentioned as well as Harleigh Bilz Crist of Daytona State (Fla.) and Cowley’s Karissa Glover.

NJCAA Division III

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Action gets underway at 10 a.m. ET with the women’s 5k, followed by the men’s 8k an hour later.

Women’s 5k Championship

Five teams from two strong regions will clash for the first time. No. 1 Joliet (Ill.) JC topped No. 3 College of DuPage and No. 5 Harper (Ill.) in the Region IV Championships. Meanwhile in Georgia, No. 2 Oxford (Ga.) dominated on the course that will host the national championships, scoring a perfect 15 over No. 4 Georgia Military. Other regional winners in the top-10 were No. 6 Suffolk County (N.Y.) CC, No. 7 Anne Arundel (Md.) CC, No. 8 Mineral Area (Mo.) CC, No. 9 Hudson Valley (N.Y.) CC and No. 10 Kellogg (Mich.) CC.

Individually, Tiffany Lehmann of Joliet seeks to defend her national title. She has been National Athlete of the Week twice this year, but she has been matched in that honor by Julia Danko of Oxford as the two will meet in a highly anticipated duel. Not to be forgotten is Leah Lloyd of Finger Lakes (N.Y.) CC (also a two-time winner of NAOW honors this year) along with Yasmeen Araujo of Suffolk County (N.Y.) CC.

Men’s 8k Championship

Two-time defending champion Mineral Area (Mo.) CC has been No. 1 for three weeks in a row in the coaches’ poll. The Cardinals are led by Kyle Vinyard, twice winner of National Athlete of the Week. No. 2 College of DuPage (Ill.) won a hard-fought Region IV Championships by four points over No. 3 Joliet (Ill.) JC, last year’s national runner-up, as well as No. 7. Harper (Ill.). One should not forget No. 4 SUNY Broome (N.Y.), which won the Region III title over two other previously ranked teams.

Vinyard – fourth in last year’s national championships – will face individual challenges from Joliet’s Hunter Phillips and Logan Van Buren of Clinton (N.Y.) CC. All three runners earned National Athlete of the Week honors this year in a potentially wide-open race, as Shazim Permaul of Hudson Valley (N.Y.) CC and Teddy Purdon of Brookdale (N.J.) CC also were named NAOW winners this year.