By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Nimrod Lelei didn’t leave much of an impression on Eastern New Mexico University cross country coach Joel McMullen last year.
McMullen said he hardly noticed Lelei running for Wayland Baptist even though the Kenyan consistently beat all of ENMU’s runners. But the Hounds’ best runner, Felix Boit, hailed from Lelei’s home town of Eldoret, Kenya, and was aware of him.
“The next thing I know, Nimrod contacts me last spring and said he was very unhappy at Wayland,” McMullen said. “It just worked out that after he came over on his visit he really liked it. We’re real happy to have him.”
Lelei, 27, has been the team’s top runner at every meet this fall. In fact, he’s only lost to one Division II runner, fellow Kenyan David Kemei of New Mexico Highlands, at the University of New Mexico’s Lobo Invitational.
ENMU’s next meet is a big one — the University of Arkansas’ Chile Pepper Festival on Oct. 14 in Little Rock.
Lelei has aspirations of doing well at the Division II nationals, and hopes to bring his teammates along with him.
“We have a goal as a team to get to the nationals,” said Lelei, who was 38th in NAIA national competition last year at Wayland. “Cross country is about teamwork. It doesn’t matter if someone wins a race and the rest (of the team’s runners) are so far behind.”
His teammates are better off for the competition, McMullen said.
“He’s a Division I-quality runner, and he’s been good for the other guys,” McMullen said. “He sets the standard for what we’re trying to do.”
A public relations major at ENMU, Lelei said the change in schools has been good. He said the main reason he wanted to transfer was because his scholarship at Wayland was about to be reduced.
“I’m happier here,” he said. “I like the folks around here because they are so friendly.”
He did not know Boit or ENMU’s other Kenyan runner, Kennedy Baiywo, before coming to Portales, although all are from the same area. Boit, 23, is the son of former ENMU track and cross country All-American Mike Boit.
“I knew (Boit’s) family; I knew Dr. Boit,” Lelei said. “But when I came over here is when I met Felix and Kennedy in person.”
While he admits there are some unusual reactions to his first name, Lelei said that in Kenya it has a Biblical connection meaning “great hunter for the Lord.”
Lelei said he’s fine with it.
“In Kenya, people like the name and it’s not associated with anything (negative),” he said. “(But) many people here remember (me because of) my name.”