CROSS COUNTRY: Western new SBC champions

Josh Buckman

Curtiss Long got a birthday present any cross country coach would like.

On his 60th birthday, Western’s men’s and women’s cross country teams won the Sun Belt Conference Championships Saturday.

Senior Bonita Paul finished first out of 66 runners to become the SBC champion in 22 minutes, 35.40 seconds. Looking comfortable and in control the entire race, Paul finished 1:05.54 ahead of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Natalie Gillis.

Junior Cara Nichols was third (23:50.68), earning all-conference honors.

Also earning this award were freshman Nicole Jaggers and junior Emily Leeper. Jaggers finished ninth (24:30.33), and Leeper followed close behind, claiming 10th (24:30.58).

“I knew that Emily was behind me at the end, so that helped me try to push harder and everything,” Nichols said. “But I was glad she was behind because we worked together at the end.”

Holding nothing back the entire race, the Lady Toppers refused to focus on anything but the finish line. After racing 6,000 meters in 75 degree weather at Kereiakes Park, exhaustion met them at the finish line.

As a team the Lady Toppers totaled just 38 points, while runner-up North Texas scored 91.

This is the first conference win for any team member.

“We should have probably won my freshman and sophomore year and we didn’t get to, we came in second,” Nichols said. “So it feels great to do it here and finally do it my junior year.”

The men’s race was anything but predictable as the Hilltoppers had to ad-lib their way to first.

Junior Daniel Roberts pulled off the upset to win the SBC Championship individual title (26:10.84).

Trailing for much of the race to UALR’s Johan Lindgren and Dmitry Shokur, Roberts became the first Kentucky high school graduate to win the title.

“I saw that a couple of my teammates weren’t having as good a race as they wanted to,” Roberts said. “So when the UALR guys took over the race, I knew we had to do something. So I just gave it everything I had.”

Junior David Altmaier, who missed all of last season with a stress fracture, was fifth (26:40.38) Sophomore Kevin Dick followed for the sixth position (26:51.66).

Senior Enda Grandfield became the fourth Hilltopper to earn All-Conference honors. He finished eighth (27:07.12).

The team barely won the meet, edging out UALR by six points (38-44).

After the races, the conference coaches voted Paul and Roberts the Championship’s Top Performers and named Long Coach of the Year for both teams.

“It’s an award you accept on behalf of your athletes because it is their efforts that put you into consideration,” Long said.

Reach Josh Buckman at [email protected]