By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — The odds may be long, but Eastern New Mexico University junior Mariana Chavira plans to give it her best shot in Saturday’s South Central Region cross country meet at Warrensburg, Mo.
More than 25 schools are eligible to compete in the event, hosted by Central Missouri, but only three men’s teams and two women’s squads will qualify for NCAA Division II national competition on Nov. 18 at Pensacola, Fla. The region includes the Lone Star Conference, Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association and Heartland Conference.
Also, the top two individuals on non-qualifying teams — or anyone else on a non-qualifying team finishing in the top five individually — are eligible to go.
Chavira, a transfer from El Paso Community College who was 16th in NJCAA national competition last year, is the Zias’ top hope in the women’s 6K event.
“My goal is to shoot for the top 15,” she said. “I just want to run a smart race and not take off too fast.”
To that end, she plans to run with the Zias’ No. 2 runner, Stacy Salazar, for the first mile. Chavira is hoping to keep from expending too much energy early in the race.
“I want to push her,” Chavira said, “and I want her to push me.”
Third-year ENMU coach Joel McMullen said both runners have the potential to do well.
“Stacy has been gaining on Mariana all year,” he said.
ENMU’s men, meantime, have a little better shot of qualifying as a team.
Abilene Christian, which last month won its 16th consecutive Lone Star Conference men’s title, is a solid favorite this weekend, meaning the other teams are probably competing for two spots.
McMullen is hoping for big performances from his top two runners, Kenyans Nimrod Lelei and Felix Boit, in the 10K men’s race.
“We’re hoping Felix and Nimrod will really peak,” McMullen said. “If they can run in the top 20 (individually), we have a shot.”
Still, he knows it’ll be tough.
“We finished fourth in the conference,” he said of last month’s LSC meet in Stephenville, Texas, “and all but a couple of the guys ran season-bests.”
The Hounds were eighth in last year’s regional meet, while the Zias were 16th.
Abilene Christian is among the women’s favorites. The Wildcats have won the last six LSC titles.