LAWRENCE, KS -- He will be the first to admit it. The Rend Lake College men’s cross-country team brought tears to the eyes of Coach Brent McLain Saturday morning.
But no need to feel sorry for the fourth-year mentor.
Those were tears of joy streaming from the three-time National "Coach of the Year" both during and after the 2003 National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Championships at Rim Rock Farm near the Kansas University campus.
"It was great to see all seven Rend Lake College guys running together like they did. The crowd was amazed. It was just an unbelievable feeling," McLain admitted after his team’s third straight NJCAA D-II title.
Unable to crack a South African-Kenyan monopoly at the forefront, the Winged Warriors representing Ina, IL and Region XXIV bunched seven runners between sixth-place overall finisher Rey Alvarez (second as far as team standings were concerned) and the No. 7 RLC finisher, 16th overall (12th team-wise), to run away with the team championship.
The 2003 National Champs finished with a team-best 23 points, thanks to Rey Alvarez (Danville) in 25 minutes 50 seconds over the five-mile layout under chilly, less-than-ideal conditions; seventh-place Justin Kunz (Lebanon) in 25:51 (third, team); ninth-place Tim Clark (Indianapolis, IN / Franklin Central High School) in 26:04 (fifth, team); 10th-place Ricky Alvarez (Danville) in 26:06 (sixth, team), and 11th-place Thomas McQuade (Berrie, Ontario, Canada) in 26:15 (seventh, team).
McLain called it "the best race we have run all year. On a cold day -- nasty, really -- they just got themselves ready to run and went out and did it. It was something to see. We cried after we won. It was just a great feeling."
Rend Lake College claimed its first cross-country national trophy in 2001 with 55 points -- runner-up Paradise Valley Community College out of Phoenix, AZ had 76 -- and dominated last fall with a winning 45-point total -- Johnson County (KS) C.C. was second with 90 then. Warrior Ian Hornabrook was the individual medalist both of those years before graduating and moving on to the University of Florida program.
This time, Paradise Valley had to settle for second with 50 points behind Kenyan Dan Kanyaruhuru, who was fourth overall in 25:44.
Lansing (MI) Community College was third with 92 points, Johnson County was next at 109 and Pratt (KS) Community College was fifth with 130 points.
The top three spots all went to foreign athletes representing Cloud County C.C. (KS), but the team’s other competitors were nonexistent at the finish line on Saturday, not unexpectedly.
Marc Rodrigues of Cloud County, by way of South Africa, was first in 25:12. He was chased by teammates Juddah Tallam and Lucky Hadebe, both Kenyans. Tallam was second in 25:36, Hadebe third in 25:37. Tallam was fifth overall as a freshman; Rodrigues was a Third-Team All-America pick a year ago after taking 14th.
The No. 1 American-born runner on this occasion was fifth-place Thomas Ruddy of Mott Community College (MI) in 25:48, four seconds behind Paradise Valley’s Kanyaruhuru and two seconds ahead of the Rend Lake College Warrior entourage.
In addition to the five places that counted, McLain got a 15th-place showing from McLeansboro contributor Justin Crain (11th, team) in 26:24 and a 16th from Jeremy Kunz (Lebanon) in 26:28 (12th, team).
McQuade was a First-Team All-America honoree as a freshman after finishing third overall behind Hornabrook. Crain was 18th in last fall’s second National Championship.
The other five 2003 entries for McLain are freshmen, including the Alvarez twins and the Kunz twins. Yet another freshman, Jason Phillips (Lafayette, IN / Jefferson H.S.) was third two weeks ago when RLC swept Region XXIV laurels with the top seven runners, minus McQuade.
The championship squad could just as easily have included Chris Herren (Harrisburg), a National Finals veteran who was 23rd a year ago, former Indiana All-Stater Bryce Smith (Brazil, IN) or fellow freshman Lucas Roethlisberger (Nashville).
Next year the NJCAA will combine cross-country into one division, lumping those schools which give room-and-board athletic waivers with those which do not (currently Division II, which awards only tuition and fees).
Central Arizona won this year’s Division I crown on the same Rim Rock Farm course just north of Lawrence. In case you are wondering how RLC would have fared . . . all seven Warriors finished better time-wise than the second best member of the D-I champs. Pretty impressive.
Other D-II teams in the running included No. 6 Macomb C.C. (MI), 203; No. 7 Hutchinson (KS) C.C., 212; No. 8 William Rainey Harper College (Palatine, IL), 240; No. 9 Oakland C.C. (MI), 260; No. 10 Illinois Central College in Peoria, 269; No. 11 Coffeyville (KS) C.C., 283, and No. 12 Northwest-Shoals C.C. (AL), 323.