EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - - Dealing with a measure of adversity, Belmont University men's cross country showcased their vintage depth and mental toughness to earn a second-place finish in the 2019 Ohio Valley Conference Cross Country Championships Saturday.
Down two of its top runners, Belmont battled brisk temperatures, a challenging race course and ever-formidable national fixture Eastern Kentucky.
Going into the race, the men's race plan was rather conservative, going out cautiously the first & second mile and allowing other teams like Eastern Illinois and favorite Colonels to endure the lead. Then around mile three, Belmont would slowly sift through the runners until the final 600 meters, where the heart and closing speed prevail.
As the race unfolded, Eastern Kentucky took a commanding early lead as predicted, but reliance on the race plan and patience was key for the Bruins. At mile one mark, the Bruins were led by Kaleb McLeod and Ben Naeger as they worked together in the pack of competitive Colonel runners. Through miles two through four of the 8K race, the pack of Taylor Vroon, Declan McManus, and Jackson Vroon surged through crowds of Eastern Illinois and UT-Martin runners to put the Bruins top 5 runners in excellent position into the final stretch.
Senior Kaleb McLeod led the late charge to an impressive individual fifth place finish, only trailing the Eastern Kentucky top four.
Not to be outdone, Naeger earned a sixth place finish, also securing first team all-conference honors.
Veteran Declan McManus claimed 14th place to clinch a third All-OVC position for the team.
Taylor and Jackson Vroon placed top 20.
A commanding margin over third place Eastern Illinois provided overall satisfaction to the team and staff.
"I'm really proud of the guys," program director Jeff Langdon said afterwards. "We stuck to the game plan today and fortunately came out with a strong second place finish. This team really fights for each other and loves to compete. We are looking forward to regionals."
"Given our successful race tactic, our second to a very tough Eastern Kentucky will give us the proper momentum going into NCAA Regionals in two weeks," McManus added.
Of note, Belmont has placed nine runners on the all-OVC teams the last three seasons, including the elder McLeod and McManus on three occasions.
Belmont cross country returns to competition Nov. 15 in the NCAA South Region meet in Tallahassee, Florida.
"Even though we've faced some setbacks this season, we've had an excellent year of training and we're ready and excited to race the 10K at Florida State," Naeger said after his all-conference performance.
5. Kaleb McLeod, Sr. - 24:56
6. Ben Naeger, Jr. - 25:08
14. Declan McManus, Sr.. - 25:31
17. Taylor Vroon, So. - 25:33
19. Jackson Vroon, So - 25:37
31. Finn Birnie, Fr. - 25:59
47. Daniel White, Jr. - 26:54
52. Ben Weisel, Sr. - 27:17
Our men's competitors are off on the 8K course. pic.twitter.com/L1g7WaYyu9— OhioValleyConference (@OVCSports) November 2, 2019