Nov. 23, 2009


By John Schwarb
Special to

TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—Samuel Chelanga put the hammer down early Monday. The race for the individual medal at the NCAA Division I Men’s Cross Country Championship wasn’t really a race at all.

For the large crowds that filled the LaVern Gibson Championship Course at the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center—at times running themselves to get to the next great viewing spot—the better battle was for second place.

Once David McNeill knew that was the case, he attacked it as if it was for the title.

The Northern Arizona junior and native Australian won the “race within the race” Monday, finishing second in a time of 29 minutes, 5 seconds, first among team runners. Chelanga, an individual qualifier from Liberty University, won in a time of 28:41.

“I’m happy with second, it’s the best I could have done today,” McNeill said. “After about a kilometer, after he got away, (Chelanga) made a pretty substantial (lead). Once we were getting on those switchbacks, I noticed he was getting further away. It was like, ‘do I go, or do I just wait and see if he comes back?’ At the end, it was my decision to do the latter. He really got away strong, there wasn’t much I could do about it.”

Chelanga never came back, but McNeill couldn’t worry about it while he was locked in a battle with Stanford’s Chris Derrick and Mississippi’s Barnabas Kirui. The three battled through much of the 10K together, with McNeill finally making a gap at the end. He finished eight seconds ahead of Derrick and 18 clear of Kirui.

“We got to 1K to go, I’d been trying to drop him ever since we got to the top of that hill with about 2.5K to go,” Derrick said. “I was just really hurting, tried to keep it for as long as I could, hope maybe he didn’t have that killer kick. We just came into the straight and he kind of broke my heart a little bit.”

For McNeill, that finishing kick is a trademark. He knew it would be there at the end.

“I guess I have to have a lot of confidence in my kick. I’m not the strongest runner in the middle of the race, that’s something I was wary of,” said the Mountain Regional champion. “For me, it was a matter of holding onto that pack of three for as long as I could, luckily for me I could do that until the last 400 (meters). Once I got around that turn, I just put on that extra gear, which usually could last for about 60 to 90 seconds.

“It held on for long enough.”

That kick helped Northern Arizona to a fourth-place team finish, one of the surprise team efforts of the day. The Lumberjacks came into the race ranked 13th in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll, but Monday’s race was full of poll-defying performances. Top-ranked Stanford finished a disappointing 10th, eighth-ranked Oregon finished second and gave champion Oklahoma State a strong challenge, and then there was NAU in fourth.

Earning third-place team points and finishing fifth overall was fellow junior Jordan Chipangama, at 29:34.

“Jordan had a massive race today,” McNeill said. “Last night, when we were talking about team goals, he said he was going to try to be a hero today, and he definitely was.”

Make that two heroes for the Lumberjacks, starting with the best runner not named Samuel Chelanga.