By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – In what has become almost a weekly occurrence this season, the 2018 Tennessee Tech cross country teams added more record book material at Friday morning's NCAA South Region Championships. Purity Sanga re-established the program's best individual finish, and the men's team – led by Brannon Cheplak's all-region performance – took seventh out of 24 teams, the best regional result in Wayne Angel's tenure as head coach.
Sanga's six-kilometer time of 20-minutes, 43.0-seconds awarded her seventh place overall among 208 runners in the competition, and improved on the program's top individual finish, which she set last year with an eighth-place result.
Sanga, who continues to make her case as the best runner in Tech history for either gender, recorded her second all-region honor in as many seasons, and will also be headed to the NCAA Championships for the second straight year. Her qualification for the championship meet comes by virtue of being the No. 4 individual finisher not affiliated with a team that finished in the top two.
In this case, Florida State and Florida took the top two team finishes with 60 and 64 points, respectively, and featured the first, second and sixth overall finishers, leaving Sanga to snare the fourth and final individual ticket to Madison, Wis.
Obviously, this left her coach beaming with pride.
"Could not be more proud of Purity," Angel said. "She continues to show that she belongs among the nation's elite, and her determination and competitiveness is second to none. She is absolutely deserving of everything she has received, and I can't wait to see what she can do at the NCAA Championships following one final week of preparation."
Astonishingly, the seventh-place finish marked the first time that Sanga fell outside the top three at a meet this season.
Sanga's placement acted as the cornerstone for a Tech women's team that finished 19th overall out of 30 teams. In the process, the Golden Eagle women took the second-best result of the four OVC teams that filled out a complete lineup, landing ahead of UT Martin (21st) and Jacksonville State (28th), and behind Belmont (14th).
OVC Female Freshman of the Year Janet Kwambai was Tech's No. 2, finishing in the top 50 percent of the field at 95th overall, with a time of 22:41.9.
In an act of remarkable consistency, Kwambai's mark was just seven tenths of a second behind her only other six-kilometer attempt (22:41.21, Greater Louisville Classic).
Sharon Chepkemboi was next at 22:57.8, which gave her 113th overall.
D'Airrien Jackson, who is much more well-known for her accolades on the track, paired with Ashley Daniel to round out Tech's female quintet. Jackson finished in 32:26.3, while Daniel looped in 35:16.9.
All in all, for a lineup that featured one sophomore and four freshmen for much of the season, Tech's team performance is nothing to scoff at, and Angel sees a lot of potential for where this team could be a year or two down the road.
"It's important to remember how young we are when you look at our results," Angel said. "For almost all of our women, these are the biggest meets they've ever been a part of, and adjusting to the size and flow of a championship meet at the Division I collegiate level is no easy task. I'm excited to see what this group can do next season after this year of experience."
On the men's side, Brannon Cheplak finished inside the top 25 overall to give Tech an all-region honoree in each of the last three seasons. He extends the streak started by former Tech great Gilbert Boit, who claimed all-region titles in both the 2016 and 2017 campaigns.
Cheplak came in 19th to lead TTU's seventh-place, 242-point team performance, crossing the line with a 10-kilometer time of 31:57.7. It's Cheplak's best 10K result in three career attempts, and the first time he has broken 32 minutes. It was also his sixth top-20 finish in seven meets this season.
"Brannon was great today," said Angel. "He's worked very hard in his three seasons to get to where he is now, and it feels great to see that hard work pay off for him in getting all-region. He is a terrific leader for our men's team, and I'm sure more great things are in store for him in his senior year."
Redshirt freshman Gabriel Kiprono, racing in his first-ever collegiate 10K, brought his very best on Friday morning, finishing as Tech's No. 2 runner for the first time this season. The transfer from Texas-Rio Grande Valley completed the course in 32:32.9 for 35th overall, a result that could potentially have a tremendous effect on his confidence going into next year.
Competing in his first 10K in a Tech uniform, Sammy Kipkirui was the team's third finisher, placing 51st overall in 32:51.9.
Benard Sigei, who joins Cheplak as the only upperclassmen in the TTU cross country program, was fourth for the Golden Eagles, taking a time of 33:12.3 for 67th place. It was Sigei's second 10K of his career, as he competed in the 2016 race that was also held at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee.
Ababu Mohamed finished 75th with a mark of 33:27.6, which meant that all five Golden Eagle men finished in the top half of the 172-member field.
Belmont was the only OVC team to come out ahead of Tech at the regional, finishing fourth with 139 points. Ole Miss won the team portion with 45 points, followed by Florida State with 92.
"What an outstanding season for our men's team," said Angel. "We knew coming in that we would be pretty good, but the way this team progressed throughout the year, and continued to close gaps for lower and lower team scores was excellent. And the plus side to that is, we get everybody back next year. There's a strong chance that we'll be talking about something even better than this one year from now."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information