HOBBS, New Mexico — Prior to the start of Saturday's 4X400-meter relay final to conclude the NJCAA National Outdoor Track and Field Championships, hosted at Ross Black Field of Champions in Hobbs, New Mexico, Cloud County Community College head men's track coach Harry Kitchener was busy dissecting every possible scenario.
But he didn't see this one coming.
While the T-Birds didn't have a relay team in the race, they had everything on the line holding an 88-83 lead over Barton Community College in the team standings with one event remaining.
Barton, the No. 1 ranked 4X400-meter relay team in the country heading into the meet, had to finish third or better to be the outright champion. But the Cougars were eliminated before the starting gun, called for a false start violation that sent the Cloud County faithful into an uproar as the program clinched its first ever national track and field championship.
"We knew if Barton got fourth in that race we'd tie, third or better they'd win and we thought that was going to be the scenario. When the false start happened, it was just a lot of excitement for our entire guys and girls squads," said Cloud County head men's coach, Harry Kitchener. "It feels unbelievable. We've been knocking on the door for years, finishing as the runner-up or in the top-3 and top-5. We can run with these guys and most of the teams we're competing against are full-ride scholarship programs. It feels great we were finally able to break through."
The T-Birds led the majority of the weekend, briefly losing the team lead late Saturday before freshmen 5,000-meter runners Dennis Kiptoo and Kwanele Mthembu vaulted the team back in front with 13 points in the next to last event of the day, setting the stage for the dramatic 4X400-meter race.
Kiptoo, who won the 3,000-meter steeplechase championship on Friday, earned his second national runner-up finish of the meet with a second-place finishe in the 5,000-meter. He crossed the finish line with a time of 15:14.51, while Mthembu was close behind in fourth with a time of 15:28.29.
The duo had entered Saturday's final as the sixth and eighth seeds, respectively.
"It was a crucial race. One we absolutely had to have points in," Kichener said of the 5,000-meter run. "Kwanele and Dennis ran across the top talent in the country and those 13 points were very, very important."
The performances from Kiptoo and Mthembu were just two of many big-time performances the T-Birds received Saturday to close out their national title win.
Freshman middle distance runner Dais Malebana picked up key points in the men's 1,500-meter run and 800-meter runs.
Malebana place second in the 800-meter run in a photo-finish with a time of 1:54.55, just .13 seconds off of event winner Rayon Buttler of Western Texas.
He'd add a third-place finish in the 1,500-meter run (3:59.46), with fellow freshman Santino Kenyi earning fifth place (3:59.46) to join Malebana on the podium.
"Dais Malebana was our savior (Saturday) getting that third in the 1,500 and second in the 800 after not being ranked in the top-10," Kitchener said. "Dais performed excellent. His two races ended up being very, very important."
Mahlakoane cut a half-second off his national qualifying time to finish fourth in the 400-meter dash final (46.41), while Hoover and Bavinga each added sixth-place finishes out in the field in the javelin (176'9.75) and triple jump (51'0.75), respectively.
The time of 46.41 for Mahlakoane set a school record, edging out the 46.54 time ran by Jumanne Washington in 1993.
"Lesley ran an exceptional race. Coach (Ted) Schmitz has had that quarter-mile group on board and hitting unbelievable marks," Kitchener said. "He gets the credit for the growth of Lesley and Tanner (Brown) in the 400-meter. Those were a huge five points from Lesley."
As a team, the T-Birds had 17 individuals or relay teams record a top-9 finish over the three-day event to earn All-American honors.
Year No. 42 at the helm ended up being the lucky number for Kitchener, with 2019 being a record-setting year for the T-Birds' program after they picked up their first Region VI/KJCCC Championships in the indoor and outdoor seasons that preceded this weekend's triumph.
It was a year, Kitchener said, that took every student-athlete and member of the Cloud County coaching staff to make possible.
"It was a complete team effort with a lot of kids that contributed along the way in winning the Region VI and KJCCC West Championships. We have kids back home who helped us win those championships," said Kitchener, who was named the Men's Coach of the Meet on Saturday. "We had a lot of people cheering for us and we've made a lot of people happy. They were happy to see the little community college knock off the big dogs."