The Community College of Rhode Island has had a long tradition of athletic success.
Finding CCRI nationally ranked in sports like baseball and basketball sometimes seems more common than seeing the Knights on the outside of the polls. Just this season, the basketball team qualified for the national tournament for the second time in five years.
Track and field, though, doesn’t usually fall into the same category.
At least for one season, Bobby Allen changed all that.
The former Cranston West star and current CCRI freshman put the CCRI track and field program on the map earlier this month at the NJCAA Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships in Charleston, Ill.
Allen became the first CCRI indoor track national champion in the history of the program – and he did it twice. Allen captured the national championship in both the 3,000-meter run and the mile run, earning All-American honors in the process.
“I was confident going into the race, but I was still surprised that I won nationals,” Allen said. “I train every day. I won and I was just so happy.”
Allen came to CCRI this season with an already-impressive pedigree. While starring for the Falcons in high school, Allen dominated his senior year to win the state and New England championships in cross country.
In indoor track, he won the state 3,000 and 1,500 meter championships, and he took home the title in the 1,500 in outdoor track.
At New Englands, he finished in first in the indoor track one-mile run and second in the outdoor 1,600.
But all of those accomplishments, as special as they are to Allen, can now take a backseat to two even bigger ones.
“Winning states and New Englands in those three sports in high school, that was amazing,” Allen said. “But winning nationals just feels really big.”
The way that Allen was actually able to win the races only added to it.
He entered the 3,000 seeded third in the event thanks to his time of 8:29.27 at the Boston University Valentine Invitational. The top-seeded runner was Iowa Central sophomore Stanley Kebenei. Kebenei, who came to Iowa Central from Nakura, Kenya, had a seeding time of 8:10.15 and was the clear favorite to take the title.
So Allen mapped out his strategy prior to the race.
“Every time someone is ranked ahead of me in a race, I’ll play it safe,” Allen said. “I’ll conserve my energy and stay with the top group, the top three people, and then when it comes down to the half-mile mark, or the 600 meters to go, I just kick. Whoever has the strongest kick wins.”
And Allen felt confident that his kick would win out.
Sure enough, Allen outlasted Kebenei at the finish line. Allen’s time of 8:34.87 was just enough to edge Kebenei’s 8:35.14.
“He definitely had to sit back and wait,” CCRI head coach Gregg Cornell said. “He couldn’t be a front-runner, because the kid was ranked first. He definitely would have eaten him up if he had taken the lead.”
Next up was the mile run, where once again Kebenei was the biggest obstacle. Just like in the 3,000 Kebenei was the top-ranked runner with a seeding time of 4:11.03. Allen wasn’t very far back, as he was seeded second with a time of 4:11.79.
But once again, Allen knew he couldn’t take the lead early. In the same way that he waited in the 3,000, he waited again.
Then, in the final 600 meters, Allen took off. He got out in front of Kebenei, taking home first with a time of 4:14.93. Kebenei took second with a time of 4:15.63.
“He did it in both races, and the kid was unable to respond to it,” Cornell said.
Kebenei went on to win the national championship in the 1,000 and the 5,000, but Allen denied him a chance at four titles.
“I knew the other kid was going to be doing multiple events, more so than Bobby – and Bobby ran four events out there,” Cornell said. “I knew the format for how the coaches out there will take a couple of their international runners and stack them in a bunch of events.”
Allen’s national championships were surprising on the surface only because he wasn’t favored in either event. But they weren’t particularly surprising to Cornell.
“He never misses a practice,” Cornell said. “He’s more consistent than any other kid on the team as far as getting to practice. He definitely showed that if you put the work in, you’re going to improve and you’ll be able to get to big races and do big things.
And Allen responded on the big stage like he has every time he’s been put to the test.
“My coach says I’m like a robot,” Allen said. “Everything they tell me to do, I do it.”
Allen became CCRI’s first male track and field All-American in either indoor or outdoor track. He was the first distance runner the school has ever had place nationally.
The school’s only other national championships came in outdoor track, where Jasmine Jennings won the hammer and shot put titles in 2005.
Armed with two indoor titles already, Allen is now setting his sights on adding to his legacy in the upcoming outdoor season.
“My goal is to try to become national champion in the 1,500 and maybe the 800,” Allen said.