CARY, N.C. – Competitive efforts on the course that will host the ACC Championships in late October was what Florida State cross country coaches Bob Braman and Kelly Phillips hoped to see at Friday’s Adidas XC Challenge. The Seminoles delivered on those expectations – and then some – with the FSU men carving out an impressive victory and the women finishing third, each against quality competition at the rolling WakeMed Course. Race runner-up Harry Mulenga led a quartet of top 10 finishers for the Florida State men, who registered just 34 points to easily outdistance nationally-ranked Virginia and host NC State, who shared second with 66 points in a field of 12 NCAA Division I team.
A senior, Mulenga made a late push to catch Campbell’s Lawrence Kipkoech over the 6000-meter course, but came up three seconds shy of a second consecutive title in 17:45.7. He was followed across the finish line by a trio of FSU newcomers – junior Michael Callegari, freshman Steven Cross and senior Ibrahim Ahmed – who occupied the fifth-seventh finishing positions to all but seal the deal. Senior Grant Nykaza’s 16th-place finish did just that.
“I’m happy with my performance today,” Mulenga said. “Our game plan was to run the first two miles and [based on] how you feel, then you can make your move or stay with the pack. I was feeling very comfortable, but that last one-[kilometer], ‘OK, I’m going to kick up and see what I can do.’…
“I’m definitely excited about the team’s performance. I’m so happy with everybody. We did a very good job. We did exactly what we came here to do…What we have right now is a strong team and we are capable of doing this late in the season.”
Braman called the effort a “B-plus performance” but was careful not to over-hype the win, especially with a trip to the loaded Notre Dame Invitational looming on the horizon.
“I felt really, really good about it,” Braman said. “What we don’t want to do overrate the result, because it doesn’t count for points…How do we match up for the middle September? Pretty good for a team that was ranked behind all those folks, but we can’t say we had an easy win because they chose not to run it hard like we did, but I felt like that was the right thing for us to do.”
Transfer veterans Callegari and Ahmed provided the kind of solid performances the Seminoles will need down the stretch. The most pleasant surprise came from Cross, who was competing in his first collegiate meet. The Florida high school standout from Merritt Island was sixth overall in 18:14.7.
“Cross did a great job,” Braman said. “We’ve seen signs of this in practice and all summer, training with Harry. He has unusual strength for a freshman to handle those collegiate requirements you don’t get in high school – longer distances, hills, faster pace, higher competition. He’s handling it really well. I just have to be smart with him.”
While the men were packing up to secure the win behind Mulenga, the Seminole women were slightly more strung out behind their race runner-up, Carmela Cardama Baez. The sophomore from Spain, coming off a season-opening win at the Covered Bridge Open, cruised home in 16:53.7 over the 5000-meter course to finish 11 seconds behind individual champion Caroline Alcorta from North Carolina.
Running in a pack that included Alcorta and a trio of runners from fifth-ranked NC State, Baez was at the back end of the top 10 early before she found her competitive groove.
“I just focused on running to catch the girls in the next group and the next group,” Baez said. “[The result] gives me confidence that I’m in good shape, but at the same time looking back at it, I could have run better.”
Junior Bridget Blake, led a trio of Seminoles competing for the first time this season in ninth place (17:43.6), followed by freshman Megan Mooney (15th, 17:57.9) and senior transfer Catherine Blaney (20th, 18:01.0). Sophomore Fatema Jaffer finished 30th (18:29.5) to round out the FSU scoring with 76 points. Fifth-ranked NC State won on its home course with 40 points, followed by North Carolina (54).
“Carmela did a great job, and I thought the whole group ran well,” Phillips said. “Having that many people being their first race, it could have been a catastrophe. I think they all see they raced well but they have a big job still ahead of them. That’s kind of where their fitness is right now. We’re still building.”
Behind the scoring five were Hailey Hendry, Tara Rooney and Courteney West, who finished 34-36, followed by Marianne Aguilar in 40th. For Rooney and Aguilar, the race saw them take nearly 50 and 40 seconds, respectively, over their previous best 5000-meter cross country bests.
“I think they all came out of it with something to learn before ACC’s,” Phillips added. “We need to bring our 2-5 closer to No. 1, which I think is going to happen. Bridget Blake did a great job today, but she knows she is a lot better than that…
“Blaney, I would say overall, had the best race except Carmela. She’s new to us and we’re still not sure what she is going to bring to the table. I think they all did a nice job competing the second half of the race because they went out a little conservative. As they get stronger and we stay healthy, I think we’ll be a pretty good team come the regional.”