CONCORDIA, Kansas — The Cloud County Community College men's track and field team added a pair of third-place trophies from the NJCAA National Championships to its collection last season and are hunting similar results this spring with the indoor season set to get underway Friday at the Graduate Classic in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"We'd really like to be in that top-5 again at the national meets," said Cloud County head men's track coach Harry Kitchener. "The ideal scenario would be a top-3 team and picking up some national trophies."
With one of its biggest rosters in years, sitting at 37 student-athletes strong entering the spring semester, the manpower is there for the T-Birds to make such a run.
Cloud County, known for its strength in the middle distance and distance races, has the task of replacing three-time national champions in Thobile Mosito and Moses Dirane, as well as 13-time national qualifier Stephen Marindich.
Kitchener believes the T-Birds have been able to accomplish that feat with the additions of freshmen Dennis Kiptoo, Santino Kenyi, Saba Khvichava, Ablel Gebreselase, Anton Reeves and Kwanele Mthembu, as well as the return of sophomore Thom Reynders, who are all expected to fill gaps between the 800-meter run and the 10,000-meter run.
"We do have some big shoes to fill losing our top three distance guys that carried us throughout last season to win those trophies," Kitchener said. "But we do have some new faces who are going to be very talented on the track, especially in the distance and middle distance areas."
The six freshmen all had impact falls on the Cloud County cross country team that finished sixth at the national meet, led by Kiptoo and Kenyi, a former Olympian for South Sudan, in fourth place and 18th place, respectively.
In addition to the distance runs, Khvichava is poised to be a threat in the 3,000-meter steeplechase as he has run times in the 9:05.00 range; faster than Dirane's national championship winning time of 9:18.99 in 2017.
Kitchener said the first three meets of the season, starting with this weekend's Graduate Classic, will help the T-Birds begin to sort out where their plethora of distance runners will be best suited.
"We'll mix and match a lot of our guys. I have them in a lot of events in the first three meets and they're all going to get a chance to run," Kitchener said. "They are all going to get the chance to try a lot of different events these first three weekends."
In the sprints, Cloud County will be led by a pair of returners in Marco Joseph and Lesley Mahlakoane. Mahlakoane was a member of the T-Birds' Distance Medley Relay team that won the national indoor championship and was a three-time national qualifier during the outdoor season.
As for the field events, the T-Birds will have a nice blend of returning and incoming talent.
Sophomores Levi Armon, a national qualifier and future Wichita State Shocker, as well as Jae Eaton and Jerrod Hoover headline the throwing corp, which will also welcome in freshman RaSheed Downer, a thrower from Jamaica who has already landed on Clemson University's radar.
"It was kids like that who helped us win the (2018 indoor) conference championship over Barton," said Kitchener, referencing the Cloud County throwers. "We've got a good group of throwers coming back and we're hopeful to get a couple more coming in who can help us quite a bit."
"All of our jumpers have returned and we've increased our numbers in that area, as well," Kitchener said. "We've got some depth in that jumping crew and we'll sort out who will be our top guys in each jump for the Region VI and national championships as the season progresses."
The T-Birds have also quietly put together a deep and talented group of multi-event athletes in sophomore returners Tanner Brown and Louis Humbert, both of whom qualified for nationals as decathletes a season ago, as well as freshmen Brendan Aland and Johan Cobena.
"Our multi guys are all good sprinters," Kitchener said. "Louis and Tanner are back and they've had really good falls. Coach Ted Schmitz has got that group of guys in much better shape than they were last fall. We have a very solid group of multi athletes. I've always tried to run that with 3-4 kids and it looks like we're going to have a group that should be competitive at the national level."
The march toward those national championships begins this Friday and Saturday when the T-Birds open the 2019 season at the Graduate Classic in Lincoln, NE.