As the men’s and women’s cross country teams travel to Tallahassee, Florida for the NCAA South Regional meet on Friday, both are expecting to take positive results, but with different goals in mind.
On the men’s side, the team has been anchored by senior Alfred Chelanga. He finished 2nd, running the 8k course in 22:27.6 at the SEC Cross Country Championships on Oct. 26 and led the team to a 6th place finish.
“I think Alfred ran a gutsy race against a tough competitor and did a great job,” head coach Dan Waters said in a press release. “He gave it everything he had and I couldn’t be more proud of his effort. “As far as the whole team, those six guys ran the toughest I’ve ever seen them run together and I’m very proud of the way they raced today. They went out there and ran their absolute best race on the day it mattered the most.”
Chelanga is no stranger to success during cross country championship races. Last year, he placed 3rd in the SEC Championship meet and 2nd in the South Regional Championship.
“This year, I really had to focus on the SEC Championship race because the team needed someone to step up and finish near the top of the conference,” Chelanga said.
Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, it has missed two of its top three runners, seniors Gilbert Kigen and Vincent Kiprop, the latter being the reigning SEC Cross Country Runner of the Year.
“It has not been easy because last season we trained together all season,” said Chelanga. “Without them, I really have to focus because they used to push me in practice. But I have been successful before in the same situation, so I have been adjusting well.”
As he is preparing for the South Regional meet, Chelanga wants to do well, but also stay healthy for the NCAA Championship meet.
“I have to be very tactical during the sectional meet in order to be at my best during the national meet,” Chelanga siad. “We want to qualify, but also be rested for nationals next week.”
The women’s team is hoping showcase its young runners that have been learning from the seniors on the team.
“At the beginning of the season we had a coaching transition, so the seniors had to take over and set the tone,” Senior Nicole Gardner said. “I think it was important because we were able to show the younger girls what Alabama cross country looks like.”
During the SEC Championship meet, only the top six runners on a team count towards team scoring. For Alabama, only one of the top six runners was a senior, and junior Esther Gitahi finished 20th.
“I thought we showed a lot of composure and maturity today racing in the most competitive field of the season,” said women’s distance coach Will Palmer in a press release. “They ran a really tough back half and I’m really proud of how fearlessly they raced. Esther showed a lot of fight out there and I think she’ll continue to use that as positive momentum throughout the rest of this season and on into track as well.”
Even though the team does not have a good chance of making the NCAA National meet, the Crimson Tide still want to race at the highest level possible.
“We have a ‘storm the castle’ mindset, meaning racing with heart and passion,” Gardner said. “During championship season in past years, we have struggled, so Coach Palmer wants us to set the tone for future championship seasons.”
With Gardner graduating in May as the one of the only senior cross country runners, she believes that the cross country future is bright for Alabama.
“Typically when seniors leave, it hurts the team, but I don’t think that is the case this year,” Gardner said. “I think that the younger girls have done a great job of stepping up and competing well.”
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