By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information and Kyle Schwartz, OVC Media Relations
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – An outstanding season for the Tennessee Tech cross country program has the potential to culminate in a storybook ending on Saturday morning when runners from all 12 Ohio Valley Conference institutions will meet in Cape Girardeau, Mo. to decide the league champions.
For TTU, the OVC Championships will be the climax of meticulous preparation and five regular-season meets that have seen both the men's and women's teams progress tremendously.
"Our preparation started last summer with the running of hundreds of miles," said head coach Wayne Angel. "At this point, we're just making sure that everyone has fresh legs, feels excited about the upcoming race, and feels sharp – those are our primary objectives."
The preparation begins with a mindset centered on mental toughness.
"I have hammered into their psyches that being the best is a conscious decision," Angel said. "You have to want it more than anything. Whatever we have to do on Saturday, we have to find an excuse to be the best that we can be."
"We also need to have a sense of what our competition is capable of, and we need to know how the course runs. Those will be our biggest challenges."
The biggest question to be answered is whether Purity Sanga can add an individual OVC championship to the greatest season of any athlete in program history.
The Kapsabet, Kenya native's remarkable sophomore campaign has included a five-kilometer school record that she has set and reset on three separate occasions, an unprecedented five Female Runner of the Week awards from the OVC, two overall individual meet victories, two runner-ups, and two sub-17-minute times.
Sanga's credentials make her a near shoo-in for the conference's Female Cross Country Athlete of the Year honor, which will be decided Friday night by league coaches.
However, that award would mean very little at the moment, as Sanga's sights are set on standing atop the podium when all is said and done after Saturday's 9 a.m. race. Her coach, Wayne Angel, believes his young superstar to be the favorite.
"I believe that Purity has a great chance of winning the individual title," Angel said. "She is having a phenomenal season, and has been in a league of her own at nearly every meet we've been to. She is without a doubt one of the greatest female cross country runners in OVC history."
While Sanga has occupied the spotlight, Kwambai and Chepkemboi have both turned in impressive first seasons in Cookeville.
Kwambai and Chepkemboi have run as Tech's No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, all season long. Both have a sub-18-minute 5K time on the season – Kwambai's top mark of 17:38.31 is eighth-best in school history – and neither of them have finished worse than 53rd individually.
"I look for the women to open some eyes at the OVC meet," Angel said. "I think they are capable of a top-five finish."
Eastern Kentucky and Belmont are the believed frontrunners to compete for the women's team crown.
Eastern Kentucky, who has won six-straight OVC crowns, enters the OVC Championship as the only women's team in the conference to be regionally ranked, coming in at No. 3 in the Southeast Region.
The Colonels moved up three spots in the rankings after an 11th place finish at the Penn State National Open two weeks ago.
In that race, junior Lilian Kiborus, the 2016 OVC Freshman of the Year, placed 18th, with the second-fastest 6K time in the OVC in 2018.
Senior Gladys Cheruiyot, who was eighth at last year's OVC Championship, was just one second behind Kiborus at that race.
In six years as a member of the OVC, Belmont has a trio of second-place finishes, a pair of third-place finishes and a fifth-place finish.
The Bruins, who were regionally ranked earlier this season, were second at the OVCs a year ago. Junior Kortney Schardt earned second-team All-OVC honors in 2017 after finishing 13th at the Championship. She has led the Bruins in all four races this season, including winning the Belmont Opener at the beginning of the season.
The Tech men's team has been one of the best in school history. The Golden Eagles recently achieved their highest ranking of all-time in the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's South Region rankings, moving up to sixth after their performance at the UAB Blazer Classic two weeks ago.
"I believe our men will make history this week," said Angel. "They have the ability to be a top-three team at the OVC Championships, with all five of them in the top 20 finishers."
The Tech men have improved as a unit with each passing week this season. The team has shrunk the spread between its No. 1 and No. 5 runners from 1:01.4 at the Vanderbilt Commodore Classic, to 57.37 seconds at the Mountain Dew Invitational, all the way down to a season-best 22.4 seconds at the Greater Louisville Classic. They also recorded a 30.17-second spread at the most-recent UAB Blazer Classic.
Sammy Kipkirui led the way at the first three meets of the year, while Benard Sigei and Brannon Cheplak held that honor at the last two, respectively.
The men have never finished worse than sixth as a team in any race this season, which is particularly impressive considering three of the five meets had at least 19 programs in attendance. The highlights include three runner-up team results: the season-opening Golden Eagle Invitational, the Mountain Dew Invitational (out of 22 teams), and the UAB Blazer Classic (out of 19 teams).
EKU and Belmont are likely to be Tech's stiffest competition in the men's team portion as well.
Eastern Kentucky, the 12-time defending champion, enters Saturday's race as the favorite, ranked No. 19 nationally in the USTFCCCA Poll. The Colonels qualified for the NCAA Championship for five consecutive years (the second-longest stretch for a program in league history) before missing out the past two.
Sophomore newcomer James Sugira has been dominant this season, winning a trio of OVC Runner of the Week awards and last time out winning the Penn State National Open. He also won the Commodore Classic and was fourth at the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational (in a field that included 18 nationally-ranked teams).
Belmont enters the postseason ranked No. 4 in the South Region, one of three OVC teams who appear in the Top 15. The Bruins have been paced by freshman Jacob McLeod, who has led the team in all four meets this season.
McLeod won his collegiate debut race (the Belmont Opener), was sixth at the Louisville Invitational and in his last race placed 28th at the Pre-Nationals.
His brother, junior Kaleb McLeod, has also been consistent this season and is looking to improve on his 12th-place finish at last year's OVC Championship. Belmont has finished in the top five in each of its first six OVC Championship meets.
While Angel is confident that there are some spectacular finishes in store for Tennessee Tech cross country at this year's OVC Championships, he's also excited to see what the next couple of years could bring.
"I don't know what tomorrow holds for these young men and women, but I believe it looks promising," he said. "One thing I am sure of is they are ready, willing and able to do what is necessary to succeed."
Photo by Thomas Corhern