In the previous 20 Atlantic Sun Men's Cross Country Championships, at only one, the 2004 race, had the hosting school also produced the individual champion. On Saturday, as USC Upstate hosted its first A-Sun Championship in any sport, fans of the Spartans witnessed sophomore Gilbert Kemboi leave the rest of the field in his wake in one of the most dominating performances in Championship history.
Kemboi turned in the third-fastest time in conference history and won by a whopping 41 seconds - a winning margin not seen in the A-Sun since Georgia State's Andrew Letherby won the second of his three A-Sun titles in 1996.
Campbell's Terence Attema hung with Kemboi through the first mile of the race, but as the competition drew on, Kemboi built up his lead to such margins that the home stretch was little more than a coronation for the man whose year concludes with four individual titles and an eye-popping 755-2 record in head-to-head competition.
"It was very fantastic having all these fans cheering," Kemboi said. "It kept me pushing and pushing. I was watching my watch and I knew I was very close [to the course record]. That's what I was after. I missed it by something like six seconds but I still have time to do something about that."
Only a third-place showing at the Greater Louisville Cross Country Classic (where he finished less than two second behind the winner) prevented Kemboi from putting together a perfect season.
"Gilbert's an amazing athlete...he's the leader of our team," USC Upstate head coach Jimmy Stephens. "This year he stepped up and won every race, except for Louisville where he was third and was leading that race with 200 meters to go. On his home course, I knew he would step up."
In winning A-Sun Runner of the Year, Kemboi became just the fourth Spartan in the program's four-year history in the conference to garner a conference superlative award. Emily Tangwar won Track Athlete of the Year at the 2008 Indoor Track & Field Championship, Anna Novo picked up the Player of the Year in women's tennis in 2008, Morgan Childers received the softball Pitcher of the Year award in 2008, and Perrish Goggins earned Field Athlete of the Year at the 2009 Indoor Track & Field Championships.
With two years in Spartanburg still in front of Kemboi and the Spartans gaining access to NCAA Championships in one year, opportunities exist for Kemboi to chisel his name into both A-Sun and USC Upstate lore.
"Next year when we are NCAA eligible, we're going to shoot for nationals," Stephens said. "We're looking for people to push him and make him better. He's just going to continue to get better because his work ethic is amazing."