On Nov. 19, Saint Leo University was able to welcome the thirty-two best Cross Country Teams and the best individuals in Division II for the National Championship. From Alaska, Hawaii, over Michigan and many other states, the best runners from all 312 Division II institutions made their way to Florida to crown their champions.
On Nov. 5, the Saint Leo men’s and women’s cross country teams qualified on the same course where the National place took place. After winning the previous year, the men were able to place second behind Lee University from Tennessee, while the women placed second as well behind Puerto Rico.
The event started with the championship banquet place that took place at the Busch Gardens theme park. With the help of the Tampa Bay sports Commission as a co-host, the organizational team around Michael Madagan was able to get this great venue. The opening word was held in the big auditorium of the theme park, before the athletes and coaches were able to have dinner in the Serengeti overlook. After dinner, while the park was already closed for normal visitors, the participants had exclusive access to multiple rollercoasters and other activities in the park.
The morning after the banquet, athletes came to the Abbey Golf course across from the University campus, where the race was to take place. The Saint Leo organization staff took days to set up, fence, and mark the course perfectly for the championship race.
The men’s 10 kilometer race started at 8:30 am with chilly temperatures as the sun was rising above the golf course. Senior Rafal Matuszczak was the best Saint Leo runner in 39th, while earning the first All-American award in program history. Senior Niclas Bez was the second Saint Leo Runner, while the Juniors Anthony Deleva and Joseph Fuller, and Senior Adam Urbanik round up the team result. The Lions were in 19th position until Freshman and SSC Runner of the year Ronald Cheserek dropped out of the race and the Lions finished in 27th place.
“This was a great day for our veterans and a learning experience for our rookies. Rafal ran the best race he has ever run wearing the Green and Gold. To earn All-America status in his final year, and to be the first in our program’s history, is truly remarkable,” said Kent Reiber, Saint Leo’s head Men’s and Women’s cross country coach.
The best men’s team of the day was Adams State University from Colorado, followed by Grand Valley State University. Missouri Southern State sophomore Vincent Kiprop won the individual national championship, after posting a winning time of 29:07.4. Last year’s individual champion, Shorter University’s Alfred Chelanga, was second with a mark of 29:36.3.
The women’s started closely after the men at 9:45 with the temperatures rising, which was about to play a role in the race. Saint Leo junior Colett Rampf had a stand-out performance and earned her second All-American in a row finishing 14th out of the 240 runners. Rampf who already earned SSC runner and South Regional runner of the year awards this season topped her finish from last year, where she got 23rd at the National Meet.
Sophomores Alyssa Bayliff and Laura Tobin improved their result from the last year, with two Juniors Lauren Csubak and Haley Russel rounding up the team result for the Lions. In the end, their performances were good enough for 25th place, which marks the best result for the women’s team in the program history.
“Colett continues to make her name known at the national level. From my recollection, this is the best finish by any women’s runner out of the South Region, and to be able to accomplish that feat on our home course is tremendous. To do what she has done for two years in a row… all I can say is that I’m extremely proud of her, and we’re looking forward to a great spring building off this success,” Coach Reiber said.
On the Women’s side it came to a two-way battle between Grand Valley State University from Michigan and Adams State University. Grand Valley State senior Kendra Foley took individual national championship after posting a winning time of 20:01.8. She was nearly 25 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, University of Mary (N.D.) junior Alexis Zeis. Foley’s individual win was important to help her team win the team Championship in front of Adams State.
Overall, it was a great opportunity for Saint Leo’s athletic department to host the first National Championship. The event helped the athletic programs with positive publicity and showed that Saint Leo is able to host big NCAA events.