GOSHEN — For the second-straight year, the Goshen College men’s cross country team will compete for a national championship.
The Maple Leafs were the final at-large selection into the 36-team field for Friday’s NAIA National Championship run at Seminole Valley Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The 8km (4.97 miles) race begins at 12:30 p.m. and will be streamed online via pay-per-view on the NAIA Network.
The men’s cross country team is the first program to go to back-to-back NAIA national championships in school history. It’s the third time since 2014 they will be running for a national title, finishing 27th in 2014 and 20th in 2019.
While making it to a second-straight national championship race is a big accomplishment, Goshen coach Rustin Nyce expects these appearances to become the norm in future years.
“We want to make it every year … This is what we all, as a team, have worked for,” Nyce said. “I’m happy for Goshen College that we’re having success, in terms of with COVID and this year and working hard to get these kids in position to be successful.”
While the race is being held in 2021, it counts as the championship race for the 2020 season. The championship race was not held in November due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Goshen had a split schedule, as the Crossroads League held competitions in the fall. They ran in the conference championship meet on Nov. 6, 2020, finishing sixth out of 10 teams. They then ran at the Mustang Preview Meet on March 20, a race that saw them place second out of eight teams on the course they’ll run on this Friday.
Nyce, who coaches both men and women cross country and track teams at GC, said it’s been a difficult year for all running teams at the NAIA level.
“This year for (cross country) is not anymore strange than anybody else’s season has; it’s just all been strange,” Nyce said. “One of the particular challenges though is I like to ask (the athletes) and myself to compartmentalize: track is track time and not cross time, and cross time is cross time, not track. And that’s been kind of a challenge. … It’s been a little challenging to come in and out of those different mindsets.”
On top of the spilt schedule, the Leafs had to deal with adversity off the course as well. Freshman Nelson Kemboi, the team’s top runner, had to miss the pre-national race in October due to being a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
That was nothing compared to what happened to senior Salvador Escamilla, though, as the Concord alum was hit by a car while riding his bike along the Pumpkinvine Trail in October. Escamilla’s brakes locked up while he was riding, making him unable to stop as he crossed the road. Escamilla lost two teeth, broke his collarbone, fractured his nose and bruised his lung in the accident.
All of the adversity motivated the team even more, in Escamilla’s eyes.
“One thing we always talk about, as a team, is we’re always going to put in work, regardless of if we know what’s going to happen,” Escamilla said. “Our work ethic stayed the same throughout. As time went on, we got hungrier for it. We’re still putting in everything we’ve got, but then there’s a little chip on our shoulder as well.”
Escamilla is back to being 100% healthy, as he finished 17th with a time of 27:11 at the Mustang Preview Meet. He will be one of seven Leaf runners Friday, along with Kemboi, juniors Liam Elias and Solomon Wiebe-Powell, sophomore Jackson Steinmetz and freshmen Dan Kibet and Emanuel Villanueva.
Kemboi is expected to contend for the individual national championship. He won the Crossroads League championship race, which automatically qualified him for the national championship. He also finished first at the Mustang Preview two weeks ago with a time of 25:18. Even though his spot was secured, Kemboi said having teammates with him will be a nice plus.
“I was happy because I was supposed to go and run by myself, but being able to have the team makes me so happy. ... They give me motivation when I’m running, so it’ll be good,” Kemboi said.
Kemboi, originally from Kenya, has only been running for three years. He spent a year at Southeast Community College in Nebraska before arriving at Goshen College.
“He’s really smart, as far as racing goes,” said Nyce of Kemboi. “He trains hard and he just works to deserve it. I wouldn’t say he’s more gifted than anybody, in terms of talent goes, but he has a good tolerance for pain. He has a good mindset, and he knows when to use his full amount of effort.”
While the Leafs may have been the last team selected for the field, Nyce felt confident his team would receive an invite after their performance at the Mustang Preview Meet. Goshen was ranked 27th in the final NAIA polls, and he hopes his team finishes at or above that mark on Friday.
“My expectations are that since they have experience (racing the national race) … that they’re going to show up and going to compete hard,” Nyce said. “They’ll race well, and we’ll let the results sort themselves out at the end. We’re just going to go put our effort in and see where we land.”