VANCOUVER, Wash. - Led by All-Americans senior Phil Rizzo (Evergreen Park, Ill./ Evergreen Park), junior Mike Blaszczyk (Novi, Mich./ Novi) and freshman Brandon Carson (Waterford, Mich./ Mott), University of St. Francis (Ill.) won the 2012 NAIA Men's Cross Country National Championship Saturday at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
USF's national title is the second in school history and the first for men's cross country. The Saints captured the NAIA baseball championship in 1993.
Placing three runners among the top 30, St. Francis totaled 138 points in the final team standings. Southern Oregon University was the runner-up with 153 points, followed California State University-San Marcos (165), Oklahoma Baptist University (179) and Aquinas College (191). In all, 31 teams participated in the meet.
Rizzo finished in eighth place overall as he covered the 8K course in 24:44. Blaszczyk and Carson crossed the line one second apart (25:10, 25:11) to place 23rd and 24th.
"I was pretty surprised when I heard we won it," said Rizzo. "The other top teams were running strong, and we did not get out very well. We were way back early on so to hear that we won it, we were definitely surprised.
"It is amazing to see that our hard work paid off, just a bunch of average 20-year olds from the Midwest coming together and feeding off each other."
First-year head coach Jeff Barker's team entered the event ranked second in the final NAIA regular season poll behind Southern Oregon. Prior to Saturday's first-place performance, the Saints' best national finish was a 13th-place showing a year ago.
Following the race, Barker was named the NAIA National Men's Cross Country Coach of the Year.
"It was very humbling to win the national championship," Barker said. "We stuck to our game plan and pulled it off. It's amazing. I thought we could get on the podium (the top four teams get introduced), but I just wasn't sure if we had enough to win the championship.
"I have to give credit to former head coach Drew Ludtke, as he recruited all these guys. He did a great job of building the program. He built the foundation with kids of character and kids who believed in being one big family."
Juniors Dylan Reyes (Sterling, Ill./ Newman Central Catholic) and Jake Ferris (Joliet, Ill./ Plainfield South) rounded out the Saints' five scorers. Reyes finished 60th overall (25:45), while Ferris checked in 74th (25:54).
Senior Mike Topp (Gaylord, Mich./ St. Mary Cathedral) (93rd/26:04) and sophomore Matt Peacock (Hesperia, Mich./ Hesperia) (228th/27:22) were USF's sixth and seventh finishers.
John Gilbertson of The Master's College paced the 309-runner field with a winning time of 23:56.