30th Anniversary Season Cross Country Feature
By Steve Newton, thesummitleague.org
When is the last time you have heard an athlete say that the less than ideal field conditions helped them in competition? Just ask Southern Utah University's Jess Baumgartner about his experience at the 2006 NCAA Cross Country National Championships when the course looked more like the famed Churchill Downs after the Kentucky Derby. Ironically, the surface aided by Mother Nature, helped the Cedar City, Utah native carve his way into The Summit League and NCAA record books.
Suffering through multiple injuries during his collegiate career, Baumgartner remained healthy throughout the 2006 season and was determined to improve on his 2004 NCAA National Championship performance where he finished 51st. There was the foot pain he experienced prior to the 2006 NCAA Regional, but unlike his earlier medical setbacks, no rest or recuperation time was required.
"During my running career, I struggled through many injuries and could never have more than a few months of consistent training before I was forced to take more time off," Baumgartner said. "Leading up to the NCAA National Championship, my training had been the most consistent I have ever had. I felt prepared and my goal was to place in the top 20 and perhaps top 10 at Nationals."
The championship course was soft and muddy after rain storms had soaked the Terre Haute, Ind., area the week prior. Baumgartner used the surface to his advantage, as the mud had a cushioning effect on his feet.
When the race began, he nudged his way into the front pack, shook off the muck that was kicked up from the competitors ahead, and with less than 1,000 meters to run, surged ahead with Brigham Young's Josh Rohatinsky and Stanford's Nef Araia for the national title.
"I was surprised, to say the least, that there were only three of us with 800-1,000 meters to go," he said. "The fatigue was really setting in when Rohatinsky and Araia put in a kick toward the end. I didn't go with them at first, but shortly after, I found some strength and began to pick up the pace."
By the time Baumgartner found the energy to chase, Rohatinsky had separated from Araia. Rohatinksy grabbed first (30:44.9), with Araia finishing second (30:52.6) and Baumgartner (30:53.2), just behind, in third.
Baumgartner's third-place finish in 2006 is still the best finish at the NCAA Championships for any Summit League or Southern Utah cross country runner.
Honored as an All-American after his national championship run, it was just one of several prestigious awards Baumgartner received while running at SUU. He was an Academic All-American three times, received two league cross country Athlete of the Year awards, and was a nine-time conference athlete of the week.
"I was very pleased to have finished third at Nationals," he said. "It is difficult to put into words my feeling when receiving the third place trophy and becoming an All-American Cross Country Athlete. The NCAA Cross Country Championships is the race that we train for and to place third was a great culmination to my college running career."
Baumgartner, who was originally offered a scholarship to Southern Utah out of high school, went on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and returned to compete for the Thunderbirds as a walk-on in 2004. It was SUU's reputation in the cross country community that lured him back to his hometown university.
Southern Utah has consistently produced some of the best runners in the nation. Since 1997, SUU's first year in The Summit League, head coach Eric Houle's men's cross country teams have won the league title ten times and were runners-up in three other seasons. The Thunderbirds placed 21st as a team at the 1999 NCAA Cross Country Championship and 10 of the top 13 Summit League's all-time individual finishers at the NCAA Championships have been SUU runners. Along with Baumgartner's All-America honor in 2006, Houle has developed six Academic All-Americans and nine league cross country athletes of the year.
"As a coach you are only as good as your athletes," said Houle, who is in his 18th season as Southern Utah's head coach. "The quality of athletes on your squad does help, but if they are not willing to work hard then you won't have a successful team. I like to stress to all of my runners that they need to put in the work in the offseason because it will pay dividends when it comes time for the regular season."
Like their male counterparts, the SUU women have also proven to be one of the nation's elite programs. The Lady Thunderbirds are winners of nine league championships, including a run of seven-straight from 1998-2004. They were league runners-up three times, and have produced five Summit League Cross Country Athletes of the Year and four NCAA Academic All-Americans.
"I don't remember any one victory from that seven year stretch," coach Houle said. "I just remember our girls having fun. We never worried about winning year after year, but what we did focus on was improving each individual. Our team had the attitude of 'so what if we lose' and that really took the pressure off all the runners prior to meets."
In 18 seasons at the helm, Houle has been the recipient of a combined 16 Summit League Coach of the Year awards.
In 2004, the same season Southern Utah University won its seventh-straight women's conference title, Faithy Kamangila had arrived on the campus of Oral Roberts University.
Tulsa, Okla., was a long way from her hometown of Harare, Zimbabwe, but Kamangila brought a new energy to the women's program at ORU. Kamangila burst onto The Summit League and national cross country scene her freshman season. She became the Golden Eagles' first woman to capture All-American honors in cross country after finishing 11th at the 2004 NCAA Cross Country National Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. Her time that day was the best among Midwest runners and was the second-fastest time for all underclassmen who qualified for the national championships.
The postseason awards did not stop there for Kamangila in 2004; she also brought home the conference's cross county athlete of the year and conference newcomer of the year.
"We were very fortunate to have Faithy as a part of our program," Oral Roberts head coach Joe Dial said. "Throughout her collegiate career, she was a very hard worker and was always willing to go the extra mile. She was extremely talented and had great running career at ORU."
After four years with the Golden Eagles, Kamangila helped lead them to two consecutive league championships (2005,2006), was named the conference women's cross country athlete of the year three times (2004,2005,2007), was a 15-time conference athlete of the week recipient and still holds the second-fastest time in the 6K (20:44.43) in Summit League history.
Although Kamangila may no longer be running for ORU, her infectious work ethic and drive for victory still resonates throughout the Golden Eagle cross country program.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature was originally published in the 2011 Summit League Cross Country Championships program (Oct. 29).
Be sure to check The Summit League website throughout the 2011-12 season for profiles on each member of the Top 30 Distinguished Contributors list. Additional content will also be added as part of The Summit League's 30th Anniversary Season celebration.