CARY, N.C. – Harry Mulenga and Carmela Cardama Baez arrived at Friday’s ACC Cross Country Championships on a mission: Improve on their All-ACC performances from 2015 and further establish themselves among the elite.
Battling back from a somewhat conservative start on the fast 6000-meter WakeMed Course, Cardama Baez came racing home with a seventh-place finish (20:09.6), leading the Seminole women, who were ninth overall and just seven points out of sixth place.
Methodically picking off runners, Cardama Baez climbed from 14th-place after 2000 meters to 11th at the 4000-meter mark.
“I had a plan in the race and knew exactly what I had to do in every part of the race, so that really helped me get through and the race went by really fast,” said the sophomore Spaniard. “At the same time I don’t think I’m in my best peak of the season yet. I still need to work. I didn’t feel as good as I was expecting to.
“I have two weeks to regionals and I’m definitely looking forward to getting that speed that I need and that start that I need to be in the place that I want to be. I’m happy with the seventh place. I think it was a good race overall. I think I ran good, but I don’t think it’s enough. I think I can run better.”
“She did a fantastic job the second half and like the rest of our team, she didn’t get out,” FSU coach Kelly Phillips said. “If she had gone out a little faster I think she would have been in contention for the top three and that was definitely in her ability. She still ran a tremendous race considering the competition she raced against.”
Building off a monster summer of training, Mulenga had designs on a big improvement from last season’s 11th-place ACC Championship finish. The junior college transfer from Central Arizona, via Zambia, wasted no time establishing himself as a contender.
Running in the lead pack from the start, Mulenga came charging home in fourth-place, completing the 8000-meter course in 23:04.1 to pace the fifth-place Florida State men.
“Honestly I’m so, so happy with my performance today,” Mulenga said. “This is what I wanted to do…It wasn’t an easy course. We tried to do our best as we could as a team and I tried to fight from the first mile through to the end. Seeing myself in the top five with those elite guys in the NCAA it’s an amazing thing in my life. I’m proud of what I’ve done today and proud to put FSU in the top five.”
Cardama Baez and Mulenga were the lone All-ACC performers for the Seminoles on a day that had a smattering of highs and lows.
The Seminole women came into the meet with designs on a top-five finish, but never quite recovered from a slow start from the pack.
Third-ranked NC State ran off with the team title (53 points) with Notre Dame (74) second. Virginia Tech (153), Louisville (157) and Syracuse (184) rounded out the top five. Clemson, Pitt and Wake Forest followed with matching scores of 207, followed by the Seminoles (213).
Senior transfer Catherine Blaney (40th, 21:09.5), junior Bridget Blake (44th, 21:15.6) and freshman Megan Mooney (49th, 21:23.8) formed the kind of pack Phillips was hoping for, albeit a little bit further back in the field than she desired.
“Blaney has been so consistent all season long,” Phillips said. “She did a tremendous job. She’s a newbie for us and this is the first time that she has been at this level, at the conference level, and she handled it really well.”
Still the team finish did not sit well with the second-year coach.
“Sixth I could swallow and be a little disappointed,” Phillips said. “Ninth, even if it is just six points, we gave it up. The freshmen did a great job, even if it didn’t really pan out the way they wanted to. They did the race plan. They got out hard. They went after it and paid for it a little bit, but that’s what is going to make them great two years from now. We’ll get there.”
The Seminole men came into the meet with designs on a spot in the top three, but those hopes took a turn for the worse when Michael Callegari and Ibrahim Ahmed – two of the team’s top runners all season – were carted back to the team area after dropping out due to nagging injuries at mid-race.
Fortunately, FSU coach Bob Braman could lean on one of his deepest teams in years to avert a potential disaster behind Mulenga’s big day.
“Harry ran incredible,” Braman said. “He beat a ton of All-Americans. He put himself in position at four miles to win the race and they took off on him, but he matched them and fought like crazy. I was real, real proud of Harry.
“Overall we ran really tough. We’ve just got to get healthy. Bryce Kelley has only been running four or five days a week and he gets 42nd place and puts his nose in it the whole way to give us the chance. Grant Nykaza has been injured and we didn’t even know if he was going to run for us and finished 40th for us. Our pack did a great job.”
The Seminoles placed six runners in the top 42 overall, with graduate transfer Brandon Shemonia continuing his penchant for clutch performances, placing 26th(23:59.0). Freshman Steven Cross (31st, 24:10.1), junior Michael Hall (33rd, 24:11.9) and Nykaza (40th, 24:20.2) rounded out the scorers, with Kelley (42nd, 24:21.7) displacing several others.
“Once again we lost Ibrahim [Ahmed] and Michael Callegari, two guys in our top three, and the guys stepped up and didn’t let it bother them,” Braman said. “They got the thing done. It may not show totally on the stat sheet … but I think it bodes well for where we’re trying to go. Today is the first day since we were here six weeks ago that we got a glimpse of the team we can be and that’s what we came here to do. Mission accomplished. Now we’ve got to be better in two weeks.”
The Seminoles will return to action on their home course, Nov. 11 at the NCAA South Region Championships.