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EKU cross country on the move in national rankings

RICHMOND — The Campus Beautiful, as Eastern Kentucky University is dubbed, also is Campus Speedy.

The EKU men's cross country team, fresh off a victory in the 10-team Navy Invitational, has vaulted from fifth to No. 3 in the Southeast Region rankings, and from 28 to 27 in the national coaches' poll.

Rick Erdmann, in his 32nd season with the Colonels, has arguably his strongest team.

That's saying something for someone who, including indoor and outdoor track, is a 55-time Coach of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference.

"I think we have the best potential," Erdmann said. "We're still in the process. It's a long season and hopefully we can get closer as a team."

At Navy, the Colonels scored 45 points, followed by the Midshipmen with 59. LaSalle was third with 70, followed by Louisville with 78. The Cardinals, by the way, dropped from second to fifth in the Southeast, but remain just ahead of EKU in the national rankings at No. 25.

With the nucleus back from a fifth consecutive OVC title team, EKU has added Ben Cheruiyot and Peter Sigilai.

Both are graduate students from Kenya, via the Southeastern Conference.

Cheruiyot is a two-time All-American from Auburn, while Sigilai was Tennessee's No. 2 runner in the SEC Championships. They also were teammates at Rend Lake (Ill.) Community College.

Cheruiyot and Sigilai have fit in "perfectly," said Soufiane Bouchikhi, a sophomore from Belgium and individual winner of the Navy Invitational. "I think we really needed guys like Peter and Ben. Especially their experience is going to help the team out a lot, and they're also pretty good.

"When I saw the roster and I saw that the assistant coach (Tim Moore) and the coach in general did a pretty good job recruiting, I was really happy about that. ... Individually, it also motivates (me) to try to do better than last year."

Bouchikhi, the OVC Runner of the Week, covered 8,000 meters at Annapolis in 24:16.79, beating U of L's Tyler Byrne by nearly six seconds. Cheruiyot was third in 23:24.48. Next for EKU came Sigilai, seventh in 24:38.90; Kenyan sophomore Adams Ronnoh, 15th in 24:52.07; and New Zealander junior Daniel Jones, 19th in 24:59.42. That's 43 seconds from EKU's first runner to its fifth.

Not bad for an early-season meet, Erdmann said, but he thinks the Colonels can cut the gap. In cross country, where scores are calculated by adding the places of the top five runners, teams want to run as a pack.

"We're going to work on running closer together," Erdmann said.

What's scary about EKU's roster is its depth.

At Navy, No. 6 man Thijs Nijhui, a freshman from Denmark, finished one second behind Jones. Then came five seniors: David Mutuse, winner of A Midsummer Night's Run; fellow Kenyan Evans Kiptoo; Musa Kimuli of Uganda; Alex Dreyer of Australia; and Chris Rice of Woodford County.

"We have a lot of guys almost on the same level," Bouchikhi said, "so I think from No. 4 to No. 10 ... can run (close)."

EKU has a roster of 22, including four Kentuckians and three from adjoining states.

The top runners, though, have an international flavor.

"I was looking for a grad school," Sigilai said in explaining how he landed at EKU. "At the same time, I was looking for a place where I can have people to train with. I think I was training alone most of the time (at Tennessee) and I wasn't getting that much better."

Jones, for one, reported in great shape. In New Zealand, his summer training consisted of about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) a day over hills, sometimes more. Speed work hasn't even entered the picture yet, so he and his teammates figure to get sharper.

"It was quite a step up, considering (it's) just the start of the season," Jones said of the Navy win. "The guys just went along there looking for a good result. ... We have a good base in now and are just running on strength at the moment."

How far can EKU go?

"It would be an achievement for us to get to the nationals, being in the region we are, with tough teams," Erdmann said. "You have the ACC and some SEC schools, but also have the William and Marys and those kind of schools that are very distance-oriented. That makes it very difficult."

Only the top two teams from each of nine regions will qualify for nationals, along with 13 at-large berths.

Teams can earn points to help in positioning for at-large berths by running in select regional competition. EKU has two such trips planned, the Notre Dame Invitational on Sept. 30 and the NCAA Pre-Nationals, Oct. 16 at Terre Haute, Ind. The Colonels will play host to the OVC Championships on Oct. 29. The Southeast Regional will be at Louisville on Nov. 12, with the NCAA Meet at Terre Haute on Nov. 21.

"I think the top 20 or even top 15 would be a really nice goal for us this season," Bouchikhi said. "Or, who knows, maybe even higher. I think with this team almost everything is possible this year. We just have to keep working hard and keep improving."

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