The promise of better competition in the expanded Pac-12 Conference is certainly coming true as six of the nation’s top 16 teams will face off at the first Pac-12 Cross Country Championships. The field includes teams like Washington, Stanford and Oregon with great cross country traditions, up-and-comers Arizona and Cal, and Colorado, the new kid on the block.
Washington skyrocketed from 24th in the USTFCCCA poll all the way to second after winning the big Wisconsin Invitational two weeks ago. The Huskies were led by Katie Flood in seventh place with Justine Johnson and Lindsay Flanagan both in the top 25. They are well prepared to do well in large fields like they encountered at Wisconsin but performing well in a smaller race like Pac-12′s is much different. Especially important will be shoring up the always critical fifth runner.
The Arizona women’s team has risen from obscurity to a national contender in recent years and a win at the Pac-12 meet would top the transformation. Coach James Li has two strong front runners in Elvin Kibet and Jennifer Bergman who have potential to be top five finishers. But like many other teams, the performances of the Wildcats’ third through fifth runners will be the key to success or failure.
Although just fifth at Wisconsin and ranked eighth in the country behind UW and Arizona, Stanford has an equally good chance at winning as its rivals do. Freshman Aisling Cuffe had an off-race in Madison to finish well back in 55th place as the Cardinal’s fifth woman. But back in late September Cuffe finished just seconds behind Kathy Kroeger at the Stanford Invitational. If Cuffe can race to her potential and the rest of the team holds up, Stanford could very well pull off a second straight conference title.
The success of Cal, currently tenth in the coaches poll, has been a major surprise this fall. The Bears tied for the win at the Roy Griak Invitational and backed that up with a solid seventh place finish at Wisconsin. Deborah Maier has progressed to be one of the nation’s best cross country runners and is the biggest threat to Jordan Hasay defending her individual championship.
Hasay’s Oregon squad lost a lot of talent from previous Duck squads, forcing coach Vin Lananna to rely on many runners without much championship cross country experience. Interestingly, freshman Molly Grabill won the ‘B’ race at Wisconsin in a time faster than a number of Oregon women running the varsity race. Look for the San Diego native to be on the starting lining contributing to the Duck effort on Saturday.
Colorado was a disappointing fourth at Pre-Nationals with its fifth runner finishing well back in the pack. The problem could be solved if World Championship steeplechase finalist Emma Coburn makes her season debut, but in an interview with Flotrack Coburn said she still may redshirt this fall. A large part of the Buffs’ result will dependent on whether or not she toes the line in Arizona.
Host Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, USC, Utah and Washington State are the remaining teams set to compete on Saturday morning. The gun for the men’s race goes off at 9:00 AM Pacific Time while the women are scheduled to start at 10:00 AM.