TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Carmela Cardama Baez and Harry Mulenga have been at the front of the pack every race this cross country season. The second-year Florida State standouts will get a chance to do it again – on the grandest stage of all – at next week’s NCAA Championships. Cardama Baez finished third and Mulenga fifth at Friday’s NCAA South Region Championships, contested on FSU’s home Apalachee Regional Park Course, securing automatic individual qualifying berths to the NCAA Championships for the first times.
The day began with Cardama Baez, a sophomore from Spain, putting herself in position from the starting gun. Racing in the top 10 early, she climbed to fourth-place at the midway point of the 6000-meter race and picked off one last position in the final 200 meters. She finished in 20:13.1; far and away her fastest effort as a collegian.
“It makes me really happy to see all things finally came together,” she said. “Last year at this time, I could have [qualified] but I didn’t have the race to make it. If you just keep working and trying, everything is going to come together. I’m here! I’ll be in Indiana next week!”
UCF’s Anne-Marie Blaney won the individual title (20:07.2) – her fourth career win on the FSU course – and Auburn’s Veronica Eder (20:08.6) was second.
The Seminole women finished seventh overall – four spots better than their region ranking – but well behind South Region champion Mississippi State, which edged runner-up Ole Miss 66-67 for the title. Those teams automatically qualified for the NCAA Championships. FSU finished with 208 points and trailed Vanderbilt (138), Alabama (177), Georgia (195) and Florida (208) in the final tally.
Mulenga, like Cardama Baez, thrust himself in the middle of the lead pack from the start and stayed there throughout the first 10,000-meter race of the season. The senior spent the final 7,000 meters in a lead group of five with Middle Tennessee’s Jacob Choge and Kigen Chemadi, Samford Arse’ne Guillorel and Alabama’s Robbie Farnham-Rose.
When it all shuffled out the Zambian native came home in 30:28.2, which was good enough to collect the third of four automatic individually qualifying spots.
Choge (30:19.8) and Chemadi (30:22.7) finished 1-2 for MTSU, followed by Farnham-Rose (30:24.1) and Guillorel (30:24.6). The fourth and final individual berth went to Alabama’s Antibahs Kosgei (30:33.1), a longtime junior college rival of Mulenga’s.
“Harry’s been good the whole year and I think today he makes that next step in development where he comes in with a big crowd of very talented runners – individually we have a great top 10 in this region – and he’s at risk of not making nationals because he’s not having a perfect day,” FSU men’s coach Bob Braman said. “He learned how to be good even not on his best day…He’s good enough to be All-American even if he’s not perfect, but he’s got to fight like he did today.”
The Seminole men had plenty of fight, but not nearly enough healthy bodies to secure a 13th trip to the NCAA Championships in the last 14 years. The Noles finished fifth with 127 points, well behind auto qualifiers Ole Miss (46) and MTSU (61), but also trailing Georgia (105) and Alabama (122).
An exhausted Mulenga, who was spiked badly in the ankle during the race, fought hard to earn a spot in Terre Haute and extend FSU’s streak of sending at least one runner to the NCAA Championships for the 16th consecutive year.
“That was probably my best because 10k is not an easy distance,” Mulenga said. “You have to be focused and give everything you can to make it, so overall I’m so happy with my performance today, to find myself in the top 10 and placing well enough to go to nationals.
“I’ll go there and represent everybody as a good ambassador for Florida State.”
Besieged by injury late in the season the Noles were forced to race without Michael Callegari, while Ibrahim Ahmed was unable to finish the race. That left freshman Steven Cross to lead the charge and the first-year Nole missed earning All-Region honors by the narrowest of margins, placing 26th (31:17.2)
Bryce Kelley (29th, 31:24.8) and Michael Hall (30th, 31:30.0) were followed by Brandon Shemonia (45th, 31:50.8), to round out the scorers.
“Steven Cross, for a freshman, was fantastic,” Braman said. “Bryce Kelley, who has been hurt and didn’t run all summer, cross-trained his way to a top 30 finish. Then Mike Hall did what Mike Hall always does. He’s a miler on the track and 10k is not his favorite thing, but he’s always in that 29-30-31 zone.
“It has been the most trying year for them, because it’s their team, and I still believe we’re still a top 20 team (nationally) when healthy. We’ve seen that for a couple months this season, but here at the end there have been so many injuries. We’ve not been a team that gets hurt and unravels. We’ve been a team that rallies, hence we’ve made 12 of 13 NCAA Championships before today.”
FSU women’s coach Kelly Phillips couldn’t have been more pleased with Cardama Baez, who missed both the indoor and outdoor track & field seasons with a serious injury after narrowly failing to qualify individually for last year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships.
“I definitely feel like Wisconsin helped her, to know what it feels like,” Phillips said, who watched her sophomore standout race with the nation’s best that day and two weeks later with an All-ACC performance. “It was easier to go fast out today. She felt really comfortable the whole race, which was great. The big thing for Carmela is from the time of the last regional, where she was disappointed, she has really been working on this regional. She has been planning for this – mentally and physically – for a year and she executed perfectly.
“She was very stressed because she felt like she owed it to her team to be a qualifier and she didn’t want to let anyone down. It was just awesome.”
Senior Catherine Blaney was the next Nole across the finish, placing 40th in 21:17.1, followed by junior Bridget Blake (55th, 21:32.4), freshman Megan Mooney (61st, 21:37.3) and junior Tara Rooney (62nd, 21:39.7). Freshman Hailey Hendry (90th, 22:14.5) rounded out the Seminole scorers.
“It’s not where I wanted to be place-wise,” Phillips said. “We were fifth with a kilometer to go and just didn’t finish. Our freshmen are on board and are going to be great. We just need a little age…We should have been better as a whole group, but we ran consistent to what we’ve run all year.
“You lick your wounds, you move on and you keep growing and training harder. They now know what it takes to get here.”