NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Texas A&M senior Henry Lelei (La-Lay) become the school's first individual champion in the Southeastern Conference on Friday when he claimed the men's SEC cross country title with a time of 23 minutes, 29.95 seconds on the 8,000-meter course laid out at Percy Warner Park.
"It will be in the books forever that I'm the first person ever to win an SEC title for Texas A&M," stated Lelei. "Even next year when the team competes at the SEC Championships, it will be noted that I was the first Aggie to win in the SEC. I'll forever be proud of that honor."
Texas A&M assistant coach Wendel McCraven added: "I think the stepped up and wanted to be a champion. He came into the meet pretty confident and has been running well all season. He smashed the previous course record here and looked really good throughout the race. It just sets him up as one of the top guys in the country."
Lelei's effort led the Aggies to a third-place tie in the team scoring at 80 points with fellow SEC newcomer Missouri. Arkansas placed three finishers among the top four behind Lelei to successfully defend its team title. The Razorbacks put together a score of 35 points to claim a third consecutive title and their 20th overall in cross country since they joined the league in 1991. Georgia placed second in the team chase with 73 points.
"It was a good race, I came here to win for my team," noted Lelei. "That was the main thing. I asked what the course record was here yesterday, so that when I'm getting ready for the race I know what I'll need to do to break the record and win the race.
"I relaxed during the flat portions of the course. When we had uphill portions of the race I kept pushing the pace during that time, since most people can't run hold their pace uphill. I told my teammates when we hit the last uphill section that is where your number in the race will be given, so be ready. If you don't like the number, keep fighting."
Florida surprised the field to capture the women's team title over Arkansas and defending champion Vanderbilt. The Gators scored 61 points to better the Razorbacks (70) and host Commodores (119). Texas A&M women finished in eighth place with 224 points.
On an overcast day with temperatures in the mid-50s, the time posted by Lelei is the fifth fastest ever for an SEC victory over the 8,000m distance, which they have been running since 1986. On the Vanderbilt course, where the SEC meet has been held in 1987 and 1999, the previous best time to win the conference title was 24:10.60.
Lelei took control of the race on an uphill portion and cruised to a 17.5 second victory as it started to rain lightly over the last half of the race. Trailing Lelei was a Razorback trio of Solomon Haile (23:47.27), Eric Fernandez (23:52.16) and Kemoy Campbell (23:55.38). Fernandez was the defending individual champion.
"I used the same strategy I had in Wisconsin," said Lelei. "I tried to push the pace the whole way since I knew the three guys from Arkansas was going to sit behind me the whole way. So I tried to make the race hard for anybody who wanted to pass me."
James Hodges had a solid effort as he was the second Aggie finisher, placing 15th in 24:19.25. Isaac Spencer and Stephen Curry followed closely behind in 17th (24:24.63) and 18th (24:25.86) place. With four runners already in, A&M completed its team score with C.J. Brown finishing 29th (24:45.88).
The rest of the Aggie crew included Colin Slattery in 45th (25:14.97), Michal Dettmer in 48th (25:20.08), MacLean O'Donnell in 67th (25:38.87), Jake Hervey in 80th (26:01.10) and Bobby Zeller in 86th (26:13.09).
"We ran pretty well as a team, but I still think our best races of the season are still in us," noted McRaven. "We moved up to the front a little earlier than I wanted and that group wasn't able to hold it on the second time through the hills. It's a good lesson for them, and now we've got two weeks until the region meet."
Kentucky's Cally Macumber was the women's individual champion, running a time of 20:23.29 to better Florida's Florence Ngetich, who ran 20:27.41. Another Kentucky runner, Chelsea Oswald, finished third in 20:35.03.
Amanda Jenkins led the A&M women for the third consecutive meet as she placed 36th with a time of 21:36.08 on the 6,000-meter course. Hillary Montgomery and Gabby Salazar were the next pair of Aggie runners in 41st and 42nd place as they clocked 21:40.16 and 21:41.44. Then Shawn Dalglish placed 48th (21:47.80) with Sophie Blake wrapping up the team score with her 60th place finish (22:02.34).
The rest of the A&M squad included Tara Upshaw in 71st (22:12.08), Grace Fletcher in 72nd (22:13.57) and Heather Sterling at 99th (22:53.26).
"There is not too much experience with the group we lined up in the women's race," said McRaven. "The nice thing is they ran a lot better than we did a couple of weeks ago. That was a positive step for this group, and I think they can walk away feeling they made progress."
2012 SEC CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIPS
Men: 1. Arkansas, 35 points; 2. Georgia, 73; 3. tie, Missouri & Texas A&M, 80; 5. Florida, 121; 6. Kentucky, 161; 7. Tennessee, 217; 8. tie, Auburn & Mississippi State, 237; 10. Ole Miss, 305; 11. Alabama, 309; 12. Vanderbilt, 358; 13. LSU, 378.
Individuals (8,000m): 1. Henry Lelei, TAMU, 23:29.95; 2. Solomon Haile, Ark, 23:47.27; 3. Eric Fernandez, Ark, 23:52.16; 4. Kemoy Campbell, Ark, 23:55.38; 5. Matt Cleaver, Ga, 24:01.49; 6. Peter Okwera, Tenn, 24:04.97; 7. Mark Parrish, Fl, 24:06.09; 8. Hayden Legg, Mo, 24:08.24; 9. Max Storms, Mo, 24:10.07; 10. Luis Orta, Ky, 24:10.83 ... (other TAMU finishers) - 15. James Hodges, 24:19.25; 17. Isaac Spencer, 24:24.63; 18. Stephen Curry, 24:25.86; 29. C.J. Brown, 24:45.88; 45. Colin Slattery, 25:14.97; 48. Micah Dettmer, 25:20.08; 67. MacLean O'Donnell, 25:38.87; 80. Jake Hervey, 26:01.10; 86. Bobby Zeller, 26:13.09. (117 finished)
Women: 1. Florida, 61; 2. Arkansas, 70; 3. Vanderbilt, 119; 4. Ole Miss, 122; 5. Kentucky, 130; 6. Georgia, 132; 7. LSU, 199; 8. Texas A&M, 224; 9. South Carolina, 256; 10. Mississippi State, 264; 11. Alabama, 2689; 12. Tennessee, 285; 13. Missouri, 296; 14. Auburn, 378.
Individuals (6,000m): 1. Cally Macumber, Ky, 20:23.29; 2. Florence Ngetich, Fl, 20:27.41; 3. Chelsea Oswald, Ky, 20:35.03; 4. Carly Hamilton, Ga, 20:39.11; 5. Grace Heymsfield, Ark, 20:39.64; 6. Agata Strausa, Fl, 20:40.96; 7. Hannah Jumper, Vandy, 20:41.72; 8. Kristen Findley, Vandy, 20:43.23; 9. Katie Breathitt, Ms, 20:45.16; 10. Andrina Schlapfer, Ark, 20:54.37 ... (TAMU finishers) 36. Amanda Jenkins, 21:36.08; 41. Hillary Montgomery, 21:40.16; 42. Gabby Salazar, 21:41.44; 48. Shawn Dalglish, 21:47.82; 60. Sophie Blake, 22:02.34; 71. Tara Upshaw, 22:12.08; 72. Grace Fletcher, 22:13.57; 99. Heather Sterling, 22:53.26. (124 finished)