LOUISVILLE – Texas A&M will have a pair of seniors competing at the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park with Henry Lelei and James Hodges representing the Aggies.
Coverage of the meet will be available online at www.ncaa.com with the women’s race beginning at 11 a.m. (CT) while the men’s race starts at 12:15 p.m. (CT). A pre-race show at 10 a.m. (CT) is available via www.flotrack.org.
Last season both Lelei and Hodges were part of an A&M squad that placed 18th in the national meet. Lelei placed ninth at the NCAA Championship while Hodges finished 157th and was 123rd among the individuals involved in team scoring.
“I was hoping we would qualify as a team to represent the school at the NCAA Championships, but it will be good to have at least one teammate running in the race with me,” said Lelei.
This time a different course awaits the Aggie pair as the University of Louisville plays host after an eight-year run by Indiana State serving as host in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“I like running on a new course that I haven’t been on before,” stated Lelei. “I don’t necessarily enjoy running on the same course again, especially if you didn’t race well on that course.”
Hodges added: “I’m pretty happy that we are going to a new course. I’ve heard it has a short starting area, which is what I like. I enjoy having a quick start and having the field narrow down faster as opposed to a really long start in a big race like this.”
During the South Central meet a strong start had Hodges in third place at the halfway point of the race, covering the first 5,000 meters in 15:25.3 as he led the rest of the lead pack by three seconds while trailing only Lelei (14:43.0) and McNeese State’s David Rooney (15:00.0) at that stage of the race.
Defending his NCAA South Central title last weekend added to the collection of cross country titles for Lelei this fall. Winning the SEC meet last month and earning SEC Runner of the Week honors three times secured the SEC Runner of the Year honor for Lelei during the Aggies first season in the elite conference. Lelei also was named the men’s South Central Athlete of the Year, as selected by region coaches, for a second consecutive year.
Hodges, meanwhile, has been the second finisher on the Aggie squad in four of the five meets he has contested this season. At the SEC meet Hodges placed 15th and then finished 13th at the South Central meet, where he was fifth among the runners not on team qualifying for the NCAA Championships.
“I found out late Friday evening when Coach McRaven called me after we returned home from the region meet,” noted Hodges. “I was in disbelief because when I looked at the results I didn’t think I could make it individually. So, it was a very big blessing to find out that I did make it.
“It will be different racing in this meet individually, because as a team every point counts. Now I’m racing just to finish as high as possible. In shooting for a higher finish, sometimes you can take chances you normally wouldn’t take as part of a team.”
Lelei enters the 2012 national meet with the third fastest time among the nine region meets held this past weekend. He covered the 10,000-meter course at Agri Park in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a time of 29:36.42. Last season Lelei finished ninth in the national meet with a time of 29:29.1.
The two runners who posted faster region winning times last week included defending NCAA champion Lawi Lelang of Arizona, who claimed the West region in 29:01.80, and Eastern Kentucky’s Soufiane Bouchikhi, who won the Southeast region in 29:32.37.
Lelang won the 2011 NCAA title by 13-plus seconds as he produced a time of 28:44.1 over a challenging course while Bouchikhi finished 47th a year ago.
In addition to the defending champion Lelang in the field another returning athlete is Arizona’s Stephen Sambu, the 2010 NCAA runner-up (29:26.5) who had a red-shirt last season. Wisconsin returns as the defending team champion, led by Mohammed Ahmed, who placed fifth a year ago in 29:06.7.
“It will be a different meet this time, running individually rather than as part of a team,” said Lelei. “For me I feel I’m more ready now to challenge the leaders, in particular the two runners from Arizona. After racing them earlier this season at Wisconsin I learned from that encounter what I need to do when I race them again.
“I’ll stick with them as much as I can, because I know when they pull away you normally can’t close that gap again. When they pull away I know it’s time to go. I think it will be a fast race.”
Two other top 15 finishers from the 2011 NCAA race includes Paul Chelimo (13th – 29:39.1) of UNC-Greensboro, who was second in the Southeast region with a 29:36.51, and North Carolina State’s Andrew Colley (15th – 29:40.0), who finished third in the Southeast at 29:39.68.
Double champions on the NAIA and NJCAA levels in 2010 and 2011 are among the challengers this season with Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka and Kemoy Campbell of Arkansas. Kithuka (23:15) won the 2011 NAIA title over an 8,000-meter course for Wayland Baptist while Campbell (25:22.08, 8k) claimed the 2011 NJCAA title for South Plains.
Among a field of over 256 runners, which includes 31 teams comprised of seven runners along with 39 individual runners, the top 40 finishers will earn All-American status.
Top 10 NCAA Region Times – 2012
Time Athlete Region 2011 NCAA result (or another national meet)
29:01.80 Lawi Lelang (Az) West 1st (28:44.1)
29:32.37 Soufiane Bouchikhi (EnKy) Southeast 47th (30:20.7)
29:36.42 Henry Lelei (TxA&M) South Central 9th (29:29.1)
29:36.51 Paul Chelimo (UNCG) Southeast 13th (29:39.1)
29:36.8 Kennedy Kithuka (TxT) Mountain NAIA – 1st (8k 23:15 with Wayland Baptist)
29:37.96 Stephen Sambu (Az) West RS – 2nd (29:26.5 in 2010)
29:39.68 Andrew Colley (NCSt) Southeast 15th (29:40.0)
29:41.40 David Rooney (McN) South Central RS – 50th (30:36.9 in 2010)
29:42.91 Trevor Dunbar (Or) West 35th (30:04.1 with Portland)
29:43.00 Kemoy Campbell (Ar) South Central NJCAA – 1st (8k 25:22.08 with South Plains)
Other 2012 Region champions:
30:04.5 Mitch Goose (Iona) Northeast 40th (30:12.4)
30:23.85 Travis Mahoney (Temple) Mid-Atlantic Red-shirt 2011
30:23.85 Jakub Zivec (FlSt) South 138th (31:07.1)
30:25.87 Chris O’Hare (Tulsa) Midwest Red-shirt 2011
30:37 Mohammed Ahmed (Wisc) Great Lakes 5th (29:06.7)