Coming off a respectable fifth-place finish at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Cross Country Championship meet, the Cowboys are looking for an even better performance at the NCAA Central Region meet this Saturday in Wayne, Neb.
The Cowboy harriers upset the then 18th nationally ranked Nebraska-Kearney squad and came close to topping Metro State, a squad ranked as high as No. 14 this season, at the RMAC meet.
NMHU head coach Bob DeVries says it will take an even better race at the regional meet to qualify for nationals.
“Only five teams are going to qualify out of our region; it is the most out of any region, but ours is the toughest in the country by far,” said the longtime NMHU coach.
Current national rankings among Central Region teams include RMAC foes Adams State, Western State and Colorado Mines, ranked first through third in the current poll.
Add in Augustana (No. 11) and Metro (now No. 18) as well as UNK and Minnesota State teams that have been ranked among the top 25 this year and you can see why DeVries calls the Central Region “more like a super-region.”
The Cowboy squad is led by sophomore Moses Kirui, who placed third at the RMAC championship. Kirui was named conference Runner of the Week twice this fall and is expected to be among the lead pack at the NCAA Regional meet.
He is followed closely by returning All-American Nicaise Kazingo. Kazingo has been bothered by minor injuries and illness this season, but he seems to be his healthiest all year heading into the all important NCAA regional meet, coaches say.
“Nicaise and Moses will take care of their business up front,” said DeVries. “Our chance to make the NCAA national meet will be decided with our 3, 4 and 5 runners. Whoever races the best and lays it on the line in the pack is going to come out of the meet with a spot at nationals.”
Freshman Justin Lueras has been the ‘Pokes’ consistent No. 3 man in each race this season and was one of the top four freshmen at the recent RMAC meet. He knows the regional will be tougher.
“You add in another good conference and some strong runners. I need to move up and break up the Metro pack this time,” said the Los Lunas High School graduate.
Local standout Henrique Chavez was the squad’s fourth runner at the RMAC meet. Chavez, who won the New Mexico Class 2A 800-meter and 1,600-meter runs last year while running for former Highlands basketball great Mark Cassidy at Mora High, has raced tenaciously all year and could be a big surprise at the regional 10K distance.
Yet another freshman, Elijah Wolfe (also coached by a former Highlands athlete, Sal Gonzales, while at Rio Rancho High) had been moving steadily closer to Lueras before suffering a poor race at the RMAC meet. DeVries is looking for better: “We definitely need Elijah to bounce back this week and run his race of the year.”
Joshua Garcia and Juan Sanchez round out the Cowboy group heading to the regional meet and add yet another “Cowboy connection” to the squad. Both runners were coached at Belen High School by Garcia’s father, Joe Garcia, who himself raced in the NAIA Nationals for Highlands in the early 1980s. Garcia ran his best race of the year as the Cowboys’ fifth man at the RMAC meet and is ready to go.
“I’m going to race my heart out,” he said, “if I’m fourth, fifth or seventh — it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs to race hard and challenge themselves.”