RICHMOND — With a tip of the cap to Satchel Paige, some free advice to college cross country's big boys:
Don't look back; Eastern Kentucky is gaining on you.
EKU, which qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time last year, is running even better this season.
The Colonels, No. 1 in the Southeast Region, jumped seven spots to No. 13 in the latest national rankings.
Ben Toroitich and Soufiane Bouchikhi are a strong 1-2 punch leading a deep and competitive EKU pack.
"When we started out (the season) around 26th, 27th, I knew that it wasn't going to take us much longer to jump into the top 20 and even the top 15," Bouchikhi said. "Potentially, we are a team that can be in the top 10, for sure. ... We need to get our number three, four and five guys closer to me and Ben. Once we can get those guys closer to us, I think that's the key to getting us into the top 10 in the nation,"
So strong are the Colonels that Rick Erdmann, in his 33rd year as coach, will keep several of his top runners out of Saturday's Ohio Valley Conference Championships. EKU is the prohibitive favorite.
More important to EKU is NCAA regional competition, a week later at Charlotte, N.C. The top two teams in each of nine regions will advance to the NCAA Championships, Nov. 17 at Louisville. In addition, 11 teams will receive at-large bids.
"I would hope that we could live up to our ranking," Erdmann said. "That depends on everybody being healthy."
Toroitich, a sophomore from Kenya, and Bouchikhi, a junior from Belgium, are part of an international flair to EKU's roster.
In EKU's most recent outing, a loaded Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, Toroitich placed 10th among 316 runners with an 8,000-meter time of 23 minutes, 36 seconds. Bouchikhi was 13th, three seconds behind Toroitich. The third Colonel, Wade Meddles, placed 97th in 24:16. Then came Thijs Nijhuis (121st) and Ole Hesselbjerg (138th).
Meddles, whose high school graduating class in Gardnerville, Nev., totaled 10, is the lone American in that group. Nijhuis and Hessel-bjerg are among four Danes on the roster.
No. 6 runner Yosi Goasdoue is French. EKU also has runners from New Zealand and Uganda. Five are from Kentucky, topped by Sean Vandermosten (Conner High), but competition for in-state talent is extreme.
"We've tried very hard (to get Kentucky athletes) through the years. ... But it's tough for us to compete against UK and Louisville and Western," Erdmann said. "So we've got some foreign kids. A lot of them have developed; they weren't super-outstanding. That's been the only way we've been able to compete at this level."
An emphasis on cross country also pays off when track season comes around. Toroitich is an All-American in the steeplechase, and Bouchikhi has 5K and 10K All-America honors.
Erdmann's son and assistant, Cory, does much of the legwork with foreign recruits. Contact usually is initiated by the athlete.
"There was someone from Belgium who was looking for a couple of colleges for me in the United States, and he ended up finding EKU for me," Bouchikhi said. "Once I started talking to them and doing my research, I knew that it was going to be the right place for me to go."
Meddles is a transfer from Azusa Pacific.
"I actually didn't know about this team until probably the middle of summer," Meddles said. "My dad (Wilbur) actually worked for a guy who knew a guy (Tim Menoher) who ran here, so they got that connection going for me.
"I didn't know anything about the team. I just said, 'yeah, sign me on, let's go!' I was ready to step up to the (Division I) challenge. Here, it's a completely different ball game. Every one of these guys has the ability to really step up and be a really good runner. ... And when you put the whole team together, every workout it feels like a race. I mean, people are nervous and you never know what to expect, so the team is an amazing bunch of guys."
Word on the Colonels is getting out now.
"We aspire to get to a certain level and then, all of a sudden, here we are ahead of all the ACC. ... We've beaten all the Big Ten teams, so I'd say there's some teams after us," Erdmann said. "We are a little bit of a target now."
A target on the run.