LAWRENCE, Kan. — Eric Avila was aware of the whispers. He knew his time at the 2012 NAIA Cross Country Championships had raised at least one big question.
Southern Oregon University had a horse, but was he also a big-race performer?
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Avila, a junior, didn't leave an iota of doubt Saturday in his second crack at the NAIA title in frigid conditions at Rim Rock Farm.
Yes, he is a big-race runner. And, yes, Southern Oregon has its first individual national champion in 35 years.
The Raider men claimed second place as a team, too — their fourth straight top-three finish — racking up 124 total points to champion Oklahoma City's 77. Eric Ghelfi joined Avila as an all-American by placing 20th out of 313 finishers.
"Last year we sort of felt like we gave a national championship away," SOU head coach Grier Gatlin said of the Raiders, who placed second after coming into the meet with the NAIA's No. 1 ranking in 2012, too. "This year, we raced great and just got beat by a better team. We were physically tough, we were mentally tough, and the best effort the kids had in them is what they gave."
Avila didn't need his best effort over the last half-mile. He slowed up when he realized how big his lead was, electing to cruise to the finish line and soak up the moment. He eventually completed the 8,000-meter course in 24:02.45, a full 19 seconds better than runner-up Sam Atkin of Lewis-Clark State.
Last year, in placing 52nd, Avila was 1:44 behind champion John Gilbertson of The Master's.
"In my head, I had some unfinished business," Avila said. "Last year I definitely had an off race because most of the year I was running about 40 seconds faster than what I did at nationals. It was my first season at SOU and I just felt really tired by the end. I think I kind of folded under everything."
This time around, he tried something different. The 24-year old Avila — a Chula Vista, Calif., product who started his collegiate career at Northern Arizona and landed at SOU after taking two years off — woke up at around 5 a.m. Saturday and dived into some political science homework. Then, when he arrived at the course with the rest of the Raiders, he did a little more.
"It was completely different than my usual routine," he said. "Usually I'm thinking about the competition. I think maybe I haven't addressed the pressure in the right way mentally in the past, but I didn't think anything about the race this time and it kept me calm. When I got out there I was ready to go, though."
He made his first move at a downhill slope with around three miles to go. He noticed the surrounding crowd was "kind of pumping their breaks. That's when I realized I had to go, and I couldn't believe they weren't going with me."
Avila had created a gap. And when the pack spent its energy catching up with him about half of a mile later, he used one last surge to put it away. He covered an average mile in 4:50.2.
Kelly Jensen had been SOU's only other individual champ, earning his title in 1978. Avila was the first since the inception of the Cascade Conference, which he also dominated two weeks ago for his third straight win entering nationals.
"It's been a process to get (Avila) to buy in and for him to get to this point," Gatlin said. "But he dominated this race; he just had more gears than everyone else. Whatever the level, he's probably one of the best 20 runners in college distance running right now."
Ghelfi, a junior from Redding, Calif., wasn't far behind, finishing in 25:02.3. Two weeks ago, he was an all-conference performer for the first time with a fifth-place finish.
Tyler VanDyke just missed all-American status, coming in at 25:13.53 for 33rd. Jared Hixon was 36th (25:19.73) and Hector Aleman 74th (25:39.54) to become SOU's other scorers. Kevin Jorgensen (78th, 25:40.37) and Matt Battaglia (81st, 25:43.27) completed the pack.
Oklahoma City's five scorers placed eighth, 11th, 22nd, 25th and 38th. Emmanuel (Ga.) was third in scoring, 24 points behind SOU.
Southern Oregon's three representatives in the women's race stayed beside each other for a majority of the 5,000 meters. Alexandra Rudd was first in, placing 49th in 18:47.75. Rebecca Lupescu (19:01.54) and Summer Cano (19:05.23) were next in 69th and 81st, respectively.
"I was very proud of the women," Gatlin said. "I thought they ran really well. We were running a little on the conservative side and then in the last half-mile started just rolling by people."
College of Idaho's Hillary Holt, the Cascade Conference champion, became a national champion by finishing in 16:48.13 for a nine-second win. British Columbia edged College of Idaho for the team title.