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Cheserek caps 'phenomenal' frosh year

by: COURTESY OF MEG WILLIAMS - University of Oregon freshman Edward Cheserek (second from right) tucks in behind Arizonas Lawi Lalang during the NCAA 5,000-meter run last week at Hayward Field. Chesereks runner-up finish, after a victory in the 10,000, helped the Ducks roll to the NCAA Division I mens track and field team championship.EUGENE — Edward Cheserek is not Superman. He’s not Steve Prefontaine, or Kenenisa Bekele, or even Lawi Lalang for now.

But Cheserek’s running portfolio through his first nine months at the University of Oregon may be unprecedented.

“Freaking phenomenal,” Oregon coach Robert Johnson said Friday night after the 20-year-old UO freshman’s runner-up finish at 5,000 meters in the NCAA championships at Hayward Field. “We can’t put on tape how I really feel about his season. Unbelievable kid. You probably can look back in history and can’t find a better freshman performance than Edward Cheserek’s.”

Cheserek’s 18 points — including a victory in the 10,000 meters — went a long way toward lifting Oregon to its first national men’s championship since 1984. The Ducks scored 88 points, well ahead of runner-up Florida with 70.

Arizona senior Lawi Lalang beat Cheserek to the tape in a stirring 5K finish to ensure that Cheserek won’t go unbeaten as a collegian. But what a year it was for the native Kenyan, sent from an orphanage to attend high school in Newark, N.J., as a sophomore in 2010.

Since he enrolled at Oregon in the fall, Cheserek has won the NCAA cross-country championship, the 3,000 and 5,000 titles at the NCAA indoor championships and, just Wednesday, the NCAA 10,000 outdoor crown at Hayward.

Forgive Cheserek, then, for succumbing to the highly accomplished Lalang, who a year ago won NCAA titles at 1,500 and 3,000 indoors and at 5,000 and 10,000 outdoors. Lalang, also from Kenya, won Friday in 13:18.36 to Cheserek’s 13:18.71. Both times bettered the existing NCAA meet record of 13:20.63 set by the great Sydnee Maree of Villanova back in 1979.

“It’s a huge to-do for Edward, coming back from the 10K,” Johnson said. “To be able to have a performance like that is awesome. Shows he’s in phenomenal shape.”

It appeared the 5-6 Cheserek was on the verge of victory when he swept past Lalang — who had led through most of Friday’s race — with 250 meters to go. But Cheserek wasn’t able to run away from Lalang, who hung tough, regained the lead over the final curve, then held off Cheserek to win by a couple of strides as 10,104 spectators stood and roared.

“It was kind of windy and I was a little bit tired” from Wednesday’s 10,000, Cheserek said. “I was waiting (to kick) until 200 meters to go, and I was like, ‘I think I got it,’ but I couldn’t get it because of the wind.”

Cheserek had swept to a remarkable 53.4-second finishing lap in winning Wednesday’s 10,000. He was unable to repeat the magic against Lalang, who at 5-9 looks positively lanky compared to the diminutive Cheserek. Lalang had beaten Cheserek to the finish for the 1,500 title in the Pac-12 championships at Pullman, Wash., three weeks earlier, and set a personal 5,000 best of 13:00.95 at Monaco last summer.

“Lalang is a super competitor,” Johnson said. “I thought we had the best of him there, but he’s a fighter. Any time he starts chomping the air, you know he’s coming.”

But Cheserek was happy for a couple of reasons. He set a personal record by nearly 22 seconds — his previous best was 13:40.51. And he led teammates Trevor Dunbar and Eric Jenkins to a 2-3-4 finish that helped swell Oregon’s team point total to 53 going into Saturday’s final day of competition.

“I was running together with my teammates and (against the) top guys in the country,” Cheserek said. “Lalang is a 13-flat guy. I’m excited to get my PR by 20 seconds.

“I’m so happy because of my time. I felt a little tired coming into today, but I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to try my best to run as fast as I can and score as many points as I can for the team.’ ”

While working for The Oregonian, I covered track and field from 1984-89, so I was there when the Ducks won the NCAA men’s title in 1984 at Eugene, led by Joaquim Cruz, Kory Tarpenning, Dub Myers, Jim Hill and Brian Crouser. Likewise with the UO women the following year at Austin, Texas, with the likes of Claudette Groenendaal, Kathy Hayes and Leann Warren.

by: COURTESY OF MEG WILLIAMS - Three scoring Ducks in the NCAA mens 5,000 meters catch their breath and celebrate together near the finish line at Hayward Field: runner-up Edward Cheserek (left), third-place finisher Trevor Dunbar (center) and Eric Jenkins, who placed fourth. I’ve been fortunate to watch most of the great Oregon distance runners over the past four decades, men such as Prefontaine, Cruz, Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa, Paul Geis, Bill McChesney, Matt Centrowitz and Galen Rupp.

And now there is Cheserek, who could have gone to any college program in the country. He chose Oregon, in no small part to the heritage established during the coaching eras of Bill Bowerman, Bill Dellinger and Vin Lananna.

“It’s a big motivating (factor), those guys like Rupp, Salazar, Prefontaine, to hear a little bit about their story,” Cheserek said.

Prefontaine, incidentally, won three straight NCAA cross country championships and four consecutive NCAA outdoor 5,000 titles, but never doubled outdoors at nationals. With Lalang out of eligibility, Cheserek could be the man to beat at both 5K and 10K outdoors over the next three seasons. He might wind up with so many blue ribbons in cross country and indoor and outdoor track, Oregon will need to expand its trophy case in the Bowerman Building.

First comes rest. Cheserek will take the summer off, to “not train a little bit and then get ready for cross country,” he said.

“Oregon is one of those well-rounded programs,” Johnson said. “We do cross country, indoor and outdoor at a very high level. Any

time we get a chance for these kids to get a break, it’s well-deserved.”

Next year, Johnson said, “It’s just a matter of (Cheserek) getting in some good races and getting some really fast times.”

Something to look forward to the next three years. As Johnson puts it, freaking phenomenal.

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