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Season Review: Cross Country

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Jemeli Sang was one of four Spartans to earn postseason accolades.

Jemeli Sang was one of four Spartans to earn postseason accolades.

Nov. 12, 2009

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The USC Upstate cross country teams concluded the 2009 campaign on Oct. 31 with strong performances at the Atlantic Sun Championships in DeLand, Fla. Gilbert Kemboi finished second and led the men's team to a tie for third-place, while Jemeli Sang and Carolyne Chelulei posted top-10 finishes for the fourth-place women's team.

"The season was a great success for us," said assistant cross country coach Carson Blackwelder. "Our athletes exceeded my expectations as well as Coach Stephens'. I was impressed with the men's team finishing five spots higher than last season and the women finishing three spots higher."

This was the third season for the Spartans in Division I and it was a successful one. The men's tie for third-place was the highest conference finish since 2001 when the Spartans finished third in the Peach Belt Conference. In the previous two seasons of A-Sun competition the Spartans have finished 10th (2007) and eighth (2008).

The women's team posted a fourth-place finish at the championship. That fourth-place finish was the best in school history for Upstate. The last two seasons, the women's team climbed in the final rankings, finishing 12th in 2007 and seventh last season.

"Our program is about two years ahead of where I felt we could be when I took the job," said head cross country coach Jimmy Stephens. "The building process has gone very well for us. Going into our fourth season next year, we should be contenders for an A-Sun title for both the men and women. But, it will be a battle and our athletes must continue to improve to have a shot."

The season got off to a bang for the Spartans in 2009. Both teams recorded first-place finishes at the Wofford Relays on Sept. 1. Kemboi teamed up with Cameron Thomas to finish first with a time of 25:30. On the women's side Chelulei and Joan Tangwar (22:57) finished first, while Lauren Walker and Emily Tangwar finished right on their heels in second with a time of 22:58.

Just four days later, Kemboi and Chelulei recorded first-place finishes at the 26th-Annual Eye Opener Invitational. Kemboi ran away from the field while posting a time of 25:00, which was 29 seconds ahead of the second place finisher. Kemboi's meet time was both an Eye Opener record as well as an Upstate record.

Chelulei (18:12) won her second consecutive race and was the second consecutive Upstate women's runner to win the Eye Opener. Teammate Jemeli Sang finished just two spots behind Chelulei with a time of 18:26.

The women's team posted a first-place finish in the event thanks to strong performances from the rest of the Spartans. Joan Tangwar finished 12th with a time of 19:08. Upstate had two others place in the top 20. Emily Tangwar (19:22) and Lauren Walker (19:28) finished 17th and 18th, respectively. Freshman Laura Transue, the final Spartan to cross the finish line, finished 45th.

At the Eye Opener, the men's team finished third thanks to strong performances by a trio of newcomers. Following Kemboi were Christian Ritacco and David Dennison. Ritacco finished just outside the top-10 in 11th with a meet time of 26:29. Meanwhile, Dennison finished 15th after posting a time of 26:43. James Jackson (27:01) finished 22nd, while Matt Henderson (27:24) and Cameron Thomas (27:34) finished 30th and 32nd, respectively.

Thanks to his strong performances at the Wofford Relays and the Eye Opener Invitational, Kemboi was named A-Sun Runner of the Week on Sept.9. He was the first male Spartan to ever earn a weekly award.

Upstate returned to action on Sept. 18 when they competed at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational in Blacksburg, Va. The women's team finished tied for fourth in the 4.6K event, while the men's team finished sixth in the 7.6K race.

The Spartans had three women runners post top-25 finishes at the event. Chelulei finished 11th after a time of 17:04.6. Sang finished just three spots behind Chelulei with a time of 17:15.8, while Joan Tangwar (17:50.6) finished 22nd.

Kemboi finished second-overall in the men's race and was the first collegiate runner to cross the finish line. He posted a time of 23:49.9 en route to a second A-Sun Runner of the Week award on Sept. 23. Christian Ritacco was the only other Spartan to finish in the top-25. Ritacco posted a 23rd-place finish thanks to a time of 25:14.9.

The women's team found itself ranked in the first United States Track & Field Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Southeast region poll of the season on Sept. 28. The Spartans entered the poll ranked 12th, ahead of regional rivals South Carolina (13th) and Appalachian State (15th). It was the first ever regional ranking for Upstate.

On Oct. 2, the Spartans traveled up I-85 to compete at the Charlotte Invitational. The women's team finished third in a field of 23 teams, while the men's team finished fourth in the 21-team event.

The women's team was led by a pair of top-10 finishers. Chelulei finished third after posting a personal-best and school-record time of 17:31.40. Her record-setting performance garnered Chelulei A-Sun Runner of the Week accolades on Oct. 7, the first weekly award of her career. Meanwhile Sang finished in eighth-place after posting a time of 17:39.60, a personal-best for the sophomore.

Two other Spartans posted personal-bests at the Charlotte Invitational. Joan Tangwar finished 20th with a time of 18:22.80 and Lauren Walker finished 25th with a time of 18:39.40.

Like the women's team, the men's team had four individuals post personal-bests at the Charlotte Invitational. Kemboi led the charge as he broke the school record for the second time this season. He finished second-overall in the event with a time of 24:28.40. His dominating performance earned him his third A-Sun Runner of the Week award of the season on Oct. 7.

Also setting personal-bests were David Dennison, Matt Henderson and Cameron Thomas. Dennison finished 33rd after a time of 26:13.20, while Henderson (26:19.60) and Thomas (26:43.20) finished 38th and 55th, respectively. In the final tune-up prior to the A-Sun Championships, the men's and women's team both finished second at the USC Upstate Invitational on Oct. 17.

The men's team placed six individuals in the top-20 in the meet. Kemboi led the Spartans while posting a time of 24:38.68 en route to his third victory of the season. Dennison was the second Spartan to cross the finish line. He finished seventh with a meet time of 26:24.12.

James Jackson (26:42.84) and Cameron Thomas (26:46.67) finished 11th and 12th, respectively. The final two Spartans to finish in the top-20 were Henderson and Ritacco. Henderson (26:51.31) finished in 14th-place, while Ritacco (27:11.49) finished 19th. Freshmen Dylan Taylor and Dustin Thomas rounded out the meet for Upstate, finishing 61st and 65th, respectively.

On the women's side, the Spartans had the top-two finishers and had five top-25 performers. Chelulei (17:59.88) and Sang (18:00.97) went one, two as they were neck and neck down the stretch. Joan Tangwar also recorded a top-10 finish as she finished seventh with a meet time of 19:07.63.

Lauren Walker was the fourth Upstate runner to cross the finish line. She finished 12th with a time of 19:18.12. Emily Tangwar finished 25th after a time of 20:06.06. Also crossing the finish line for the Spartans were Laura Transue (48th) and Jillian Finney (92nd).

At the A-Sun Championships in DeLand, Fla. on Oct. 31, the men's team finished tied for third, while the women's team posted a fourth-place finish in the 11-team event.

Gilbert Kemboi led the men's team, finishing second with a time of 25:36. His strong performance earned him multiple conference accolades. He was selected to the A-Sun All-Conference First Team as well as the All-Freshman team. The native of Eldoret, Kenya, was also named A-Sun Freshman of the Year.

Joining Kemboi on the All-Freshman team was Christian Ritacco. The Niceville, Fla., native finished 15th after a time of 26:53. David Dennison finished right behind Ritacco with a meet time of 26:55. Jackson (27:36), Cameron Thomas (27:38) and Henderson (27:40) finished 32nd, 33rd and 35th, respectively.

"Gilbert broke the school record by 1:25, but along with him five of the top 20 performances in school history were recorded," said Blackwelder. "The men's team relied on four freshmen who rose to the challenges of a collegiate season. The guys surprised a lot of people placing third at the conference meet."

For the first time all season, Jemeli Sang finished ahead of teammate Carolyne Chelulei. Her fifth-place finish earned her a spot on the A-Sun All-Conference First Team. Chelulei (18:16) finished ninth in the event and earned A-Sun All-Conference Second Team accolades.

"I am so proud of Coach Blackwelder and all of our athletes," said Stephens. "Carson has stepped in and done a tremendous job. We are fortunate to have a coach of his caliber in our program and our athletes have really responded to his training methods. They all have stepped up and now know exactly how good we can be. Some may have this perception that we cannot be as good as some of the other Division I schools, but we fully intend to get our program where we can go head to head with anyone."

Joan Tangwar was the third Spartan to cross the finish line and was a split second ahead of teammate Lauren Walker. Tangwar finished 27th with a time of 19:07, while Walker finished 28th with a similar time of 19:07.

Emily Tangwar and Laura Transue were the final two Spartans to cross the finish line. Tangwar finished 46th with a time of 19:46, while Transue (20:48) finished 63rd.

Stephens added, "Cross country at Upstate has a tremendous tradition of excellence. Our goal is to continue that tradition and to go to the next level. We don't want to just want to be part of Division I; we are here to be competitive at this level. With hard work and commitment, we will be a contender."

USC Upstate Cross Country
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