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Cheserek's freshman year at Oregon: 'Freaking phenomenal'

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."

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 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.

"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 entering Saturday's final day of competition, all but ensuring the Ducks' first men's team championship since 1984.

"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.' "

Oregon senior Mike Berry finished second in the 400. That, combined with the 19 points in the 5,000, pushed the Ducks' team total to 25 more than runner-up Florida with 28. The Gators have plenty of point potential left Saturday, but the title is Oregon's to lose.

It was a fabulous day for the Ducks in the women's competition, too, as they are poised to claim an NCAA title for the first time since 1985. Oregon leads with 43 points, followed by Texas A&M with 33 and Texas with 29.

Senior Laura Roesler blew away the field with a devastating kick over the final 200 meters to win the 800 in 2:01.22. Senior Phyllis Francis finished second in the 400 in 50.59, and sophomore Jenna Prandini -- with a long jump crown already in the bag -- overcame a horrendous start to finish third in the 100 in 11.42.

"A lot of good stuff," Johnson said. "Prandini had one of her worst starts of the year, but she's a fighter. The best part of her race is the bottom end. Can't say enough about (Roesser). She was phenomenal. Phyllis ran her own race from lane eight. That's not easy. Great job."

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.

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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