MADISON, Wisc. – Squaring off against the finest collection of NCAA Division I cross country runners at a single meet this season, Florida State’s Harry Mulenga and Carmela Cardama Baez established themselves as All-American candidates with strong finishes at Friday’s Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational.
Racing at the front of a field from the start, Mulenga finished 16th in the field of 209 runners to lead the Seminole men over the 8000-meter Thomas Zimmer Championship Course on a clear, breezy day. The senior from Zambia closed in 24:13.0, dramatically improving on his 66th-place finish at the same meet a year ago.
“It’s so amazing seeing myself in the front pack,” Mulenga said. “It’s better than two weeks ago [at Notre Dame] and it’s better than last year here, because last year when I came here at the three-mile mark, I was done. But this one, only with the last 800 to go, that’s when the elite guys like Justyn Knight from Syracuse were trying to push the pace. I’m proud of what I did today. Sixteenth position is not that good…I’m just so happy to see myself there and put the Seminoles there and shine on us.”
Cardama Baez was equally impressive in the women’s championship race field, placing 23rd in her first 6000-meter race of the season. The sophomore from Spain was in the top 25 from the mile mark on the way to her best collegiate finish in the invitation-only field, crossing the finish in 20:39.6.
Like Mulenga, Cardama Baez’s place was significantly better than a year ago on the same course, where she placed 62nd. Her breakthrough came as a result of her committing to a fast early pace, which is a stark contrast from her preferred approach of building off a conservative start.
“I’m really happy with the start,” she said. “I’m not really good at starting big races where you have to get out really fast, so having Bridget [Blaek] there really guiding me, gave me a lot of confidence toward the rest of the race. I felt fine until the 3k, 4k and 5k. That’s where the race got really rough…You get out really fast and you really try to keep your place.
“It’s not the way I usually run. It’s a totally different perspective. I usually get motivated by passing people, so it’s hard to be there and get confidence…I got a punch-back with 1k to go.”
FSU coaches Bob Braman and Kelly Phillips could not have been more happy with the performances from their front-running leaders.
“This was a real gut-check for Harry,” Braman said. “He was in that big lead pack of 20 and a couple of times he was getting toward the back of that pack and he fought his way back in. He was in that 13-14 spot the whole last 2k or so. I think the finishing part is going to come for him, but when you look at the people, there is nobody in front of him that is not an All-American.
“I was really proud of him. He competed well, he focused well and put himself in a good spot. That bodes well for nationals.”
Phillips was equally excited about Cardama Baez’s showing.
“She has been really, really focused this whole week,” Phillips said. “She knew she had to get out and she and Bridget got out really, really well, and [Tara] Rooney, too. At probably 3k you could tell it really hurt and she knew she had to just tuck in and hang on and she did it. She was fine the last 600 meters.
“She finally has realized what that pain feels like and the next time it’s going to be so much easier. She just raced phenomenally.”
Aside from a handful of individual bright spots, it was not a banner day for team finishes for Noles while facing fields of 19 nationally-ranked men’s teams and 18 on the women’s side.
The Seminole men placed 21st overall, falling well short of where Braman and the team had hoped to finish.
“We’re a tired team,” Braman said. “I could see it. We’re not out there bouncing. We’re grinding, which is okay because you’ve got a ways to go. You’ve got four weeks to regions and that’s an eternity in cross country.
“Mike Hall had a good day – 112 is a nice finish here. Our goal was to get everybody in the top 100 and while that’s not great it would have got us in the top 13-14 teams today. We felt like if got in the top 15 we would have got a whole lot of at-large points.”
Hall (25:08.1), a junior, registered the best career individual finish among teammates. He was followed by Michael Callegari (120th, 25:13.2). Brandon Shemonia (123, 25:14.1) and Ibrahim Ahmed (153, 25:31.6), rounding out the scorers.
“We missed our goal, but we didn’t strike out,” Braman said. “We popped out and grounded out… Seconds-wise, maybe if we’re 10-15 seconds better we’re in the 80s and 90s and now you’re feeling better about yourself. We’ve got to get fresh. There’s no more training for the end of the year. We’ve got an ACC Championship that we need to be fresh for. That’s on me to get them ready to do what they’re capable of doing.”
The results were eerily similar for the women, who finished 26th in the 31-team field.
Freshman Megan Mooney (121st, 21:40.7) and senior Catherine Blaney (133, 21:48.4) were FSU’s second and third finishers, followed by Blake (145, 21:51.5) and Rooney (184, 22:38.7).
“I thought Mooney did a really good job,” Phillips said. “The goal for her was to be top 100 and she was just shy of it. I think she could be up there the next time with a little experience. It didn’t take everything out of her. She raced really well; moved through the group really well. I have to remind myself that she’s just a freshman.
“Blaney also did a really nice job, and even though she’s a senior, she has never been to these kind of meets. Experience-wise she’s almost like a freshman and really stepped up. She’s on a mission and knows she is going to be even better in a couple weeks. Each week she’s getting better.”
While the team showing was disappointing, Phillips is confident her group has what it takes to rebound in time for the postseason, which begins in two weeks at the ACC Championships.
“It’s exciting to see those three run really well,” Phillips said. “The rest of the group, I know we’re a good team, we just have to put it all together at the same time.
“If we can put it together we can have a great conference and region team, but we just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Noles Also Compete At Crimson Classic
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Abdin Fator, Tyson Murray and Will Simons led the Seminole men, while Sarah Candiano, Madison Harris and Marianne Aguilar paced the women at Friday morning’s Alabama Crimson Classic.
Fator finished 62nd overall on the 8,067-meter course in 25:55.2, followed by Murray (74th, 26:03.7) and Simons (94th, 26:19.2) in the field of 217 finishers as the men placed 22nd in the university division while chasing spots on the ACC lineup.
The Seminole women were 20th overall, as Candiano (22:44.1) and Harris (22:44.2), finished 104th and 105th. Aguilar (23:08.3) was 124th in a field of 251 finishers in the first 6000-meter race of the season.