BENTONVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas Community College's initial step into athletics is off to a running start.
College trustees voted 7-1 in November 2019 to start a cross country program to compete in Division II of the National Junior College Athletic Association. Competition started this fall.
The first season ended Nov. 13 at the national championship at Pole Green Park in Richmond, Va., where the men's team finished 11th. Cowley (Kan.) College won the 30-team men's division.
Emmanuel Kipchirchir, a first-year student, was Northwest Arkansas Community College's best finisher in 29th place among 221 runners. He had to push through a nagging muscle strain in his right leg.
Kipchirchir, from Kenya, called the showing at nationals a team effort.
"It was not an easy task," he said. "Cross country is all about fighting as a team."
Northwest Arkansas Community College didn't have the full complement of women runners to compete in the team standings in Virginia, but Sophia Rodriguez (100th) and Caitlyn Barron (159th) were among the 197 runners who finished. Lansing (Mich.) Community College won the women's championship. There were 26 women's teams.
Teams are allowed seven runners, but only the top five finishers count toward team points.
Todd Schwartz, a college Board of Trustees member, said the season was "quite frankly above expectations." He watched nationals via a livestream and was able to follow the college runners as they crossed the finish line.
"Not too many schools go to nationals in their first year," he said.
Coach Josphat Boit didn't start recruiting until March, and the first meet was in September. He ended up with a men's team of 10 and a women's team of three. Only two of the 13 were enrolled in the college when Boit began to recruit. Boit said his main goal for next year is to field a full women's team.
Boit is a former University of Arkansas Razorback. He won two NCAA national titles, eight All-America honors, six Southeastern Conference titles and two conference Athlete of the Year awards. He was also a 10-time all-conference performer. Boit remains the second fastest 8-kilometer cross country performer in Arkansas and is one of three Razorbacks to win consecutive conference individual titles, according to the college's cross country web page.
"I wanted to build something from the ground up," he said. "I thought it would be a challenge. It's a good chance to prove yourself."
Mike Power, cross country coach at Bentonville High School, said the community college program brings a larger scope to the sport in the area. The University of Arkansas cross country teams are well known for their national success.
The first year of a program can be hard, Power said.
"You are a bit nervous about that first class," he said. "In recruiting athletes, you have nothing to sell them on, but the first class is an important class because it is a stepping stone. The first year is always tough, but they did fantastic," he said of the community college teams.
The college men's team came into nationals after winning the Region 2 meet at the University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain on Oct. 30 by placing runners first, second, third, fifth, sixth, 11th and 13th.
Aries Burasco, a first-year runner from Rogers, said the team set a standard at the first meet of the year in September, then built on that toward nationals. Burasco was Boit's first signee.
The team was funded entirely with about $45,000 in private donations this season, said Todd Kitchen, vice president of student services.
Schwartz said his personal goal is to continue to fund athletics through private donations. Money this year went for expenses such as uniforms, food, rental vehicles, airline tickets and coaches' salaries, he said. It will be easier to raise money based on this year's success and as the area recovers from the impacts of covid-19, he said.
The college hosted the Eagle 5K and Fun Run on Nov. 20. The $2,500 raised will go toward the cross country program.
Boit said he is focused on fundraising. He acknowledged that part of the job was tough initially because he had nothing to pitch to potential sponsors. Now, he has a men's team that finished 11th at nationals and will have almost all of its members back next year.
"We're going to be dangerous," said team member Matthew Ball of Springdale.
Cross country is a three-year pilot program at the college. Officials aren't talking about adding more sports for now, Schwartz said.
"We thought it would take three years for the program to get its wings, but the program proved this year that it has wings," he said.
Runners must be full-time students at the college and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Teams are open to men and women at all skill levels. Scholarships are available to qualifying student-athletes, according to the Northwest Arkansas Community College website.