LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Wisconsin men's cross country team had one goal entering the NCAA championships on Saturday.
The scoreboard says the Badgers didn't achieve what they set out to do. But ask them, and they'll argue that they did, and any claim to the contrary is just a matter of semantics.
Top-ranked Oklahoma State denied UW's bid to repeat as national champions for the first time, as the Cowboys easily outdistanced the runner-up Badgers to claim their third NCAA crown in four years on a sun-splashed afternoon at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park.
"Today was about defending our national title, which didn't necessarily mean getting first place," said UW's Reed Connor, who finished 12th to join fellow seniors Mohammed Ahmed (eighth) and Maverick Darling (11th) as All-Americans. "Defending our title was always about fighting, with pride, and being Badger tough. And that's what we did."
UW's top three were among the top five in team scoring with individual qualifiers displaced, but Oklahoma State won with superior depth. The Cowboys' first four runners were all in the top 20 in the team scoring, and there was a 48-point margin between the fifth runners for Oklahoma State and No. 4 UW.
"We knew it wasn't our race to win," Darling said. "We knew we could come in and maybe steal it, but Oklahoma State just ran phenomenal."
Texas Tech junior Kennedy Kithuka won the race in 28 minutes, 31.3 seconds, setting a course record with the third-fastest winning time at the NCAA meet since the distance was changed to 10,000 meters in 1976 and fastest since 1979.
Kithuka ran away from the Arizona duo of Stephen Sambu and defending champion Lawi Lalang, who finished second and third. The trio separated early from a secondary pack that included Ahmed, who finished in 29:23.9 to claim All-America honors for the fourth time.
"They dominated. I really wanted to be up there with that group that was chasing the individual title," Ahmed said. "I was right there with those guys. We hit the mile; I was with them, and they just took off."
Senior Rob Finnerty took 49th overall for UW and sophomore Alex Hatz was 113th overall to round out the scoring. Sophomore Michael Van Voorhis was 204th, and junior Alex Brill, a former Madison La Follette athlete, was 211th.
The runner-up trophy is the first for UW since 2006, when the Badgers placed second for the fourth time in five years. It also marked UW's third straight top-three finish and 22nd overall, extending its NCAA record.
"We said we're not going to hand this thing to anyone, and we're going to fight like real Badgers, be Badger tough," UW coach Mick Byrne said. "We asked them last night at our team meeting to just trust each other, run for each other, run for the university, run for the tradition, and these guys did that.
"We didn't just give that title away to Oklahoma State. It's awesome to see these guys come out here and fight."