By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE – Texas A&M has now participated in exactly one Southeastern Conference cross country championship and the Aggies have precisely one SEC individual title to their credit.
A confident Henry Lelei, who entered Friday’s SEC Championships with the best 8K time in the conference at 23:26, easily took home the men’s individual title at Percy Warner Park with a winning time of 23:29.95.
“I came here today wanting to do nothing but win the race,” Lelei said Friday. That has been my plan since we joined the SEC, just to go and do my best. I think I did that today.”
Lelei had been feeling good about the SEC Championships and had even set his sights on bigger goals heading into Friday’s competition. He accomplished those as well, setting the course record at Percy Warner Park.
“He asked me yesterday to find out what the course record was,” said Wendel McRaven, Texas A&M assistant coach for distance and cross country. “I think he came in pretty confident. I didn’t want him to get ahead of himself. I said, ‘Let’s try to worry about winning the race first. Those Arkansas guys are good.’”
Those Arkansas guys – Solomon Haile, Eric Fernandez and Kemoy Campbell - definitely are good and they showed it in the meet, finishing 2-3-4, but nearly 20 seconds behind Lelei.
Lelei has shown constant improvement throughout the season, which culminated in the SEC Championship victory. He was second at the Notre Dame Invitational, clocking a time of 23:36, while placing fourth among a highly competitive field at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational in a time of 23:26.
“I think all of my races, I have been racing with the motivation of getting better, getting better,” Lelei said. “That’s the thing that has been giving me the strength and courage to go and do it.”
McRaven believed that Lelei turned in his best showing of the season on Friday, an accomplishment that will help him prepare for the upcoming NCAA regional and national meets.
“It should give him confidence,” McRaven said. “I think he ran better at Wisconsin than he did at Notre Dame and he ran better today than he did at Wisconsin, so the progression and the training is adding up, along with a little bit more racing experience under his belt. The goal is to get through the regional meet in two weeks unscathed and ready to go to the national meet and have some fun.”
The fact that Lelei’s conference crown was the first for the Aggies as a member of the SEC, didn’t go unnoticed by the victor.
“It was the best thing to win our first SEC conference championship,” Lelei said. “It’s really exciting.”
McRaven agrees but says that, in the context of the season, it was a stellar performance helping lead Lelei into the upcoming NCAA meets.
“It will be nice to look back in the record books 10 years from now and see that it was the first time we were in the SEC and Henry Lelei went out there and took care of business,” McRaven said. “For him right now, it’s just another step in the season. It’s good to come in here and be the new kid on the block and step in there and win like that.”
As a team, the Aggies tied for third overall with former Big 12 Conference foe Missouri, each scoring 80 points. For Texas A&M, Friday’s meet provided a solid learning experience heading into the rest of the championship season.
“We set the bar pretty high for ourselves, so they’re walking away disappointed,” McRaven said. “I don’t want them to hang their heads about this because it’s a tough conference, they competed well. We didn’t run our best race by any stretch of the imagination as a team, but the goal is to take something positive out of this. We’ll take some time and we’ll be ready to race 10K in two weeks.”