Pac-12 cross country teams take aim at NCAA titles

By the Pac-12 Conference

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WALNUT CREEK, Calif.- A combined nine Pac-12 teams are headed to Louisville, Ky., for the 2012 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships on Saturday, Nov. 17. It is the first national championship of the fall season up for grabs. And with the Conference leading the country in all-time team national titles, NCAA Championships has been where Pac-12 teams have risen to the top.

On the men's side, four teams will be representing the Conference, as well as four individuals. Stanford qualified to compete at the championship after winning the NCAA West Regional last weekend. The Cardinal is under the direction of first-year head coach Chris Miltenberg who made his way to Palo Alto after leading his Georgetown women's squad to its first-ever NCAA title in 2011. Miltenberg will be hoping for his personal repeat with either/or the men's or women's squad from Stanford.

UCLA and Oregon earned at-large bids after finishing third and fourth, respectively, at the regional meet. Colorado is the fourth representative from the Conference heading to Louisville. Under the direction of head coach Mark Wetmore, the Buffs are making their 42nd NCAA Championships appearance. CU won its second-straight Pac-12 title and placed third at the NCAA Mountain Regional to earn an at-large bid.

All four of the men's teams headed to the NCAA Championships are ranked in the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) top-30. Both the Cardinal and Buffs have been in the top 10 all season. Stanford leads all Conferences teams as it is ranked No. 2 in the poll. Colorado is No. 7, Oregon is No. 16 and UCLA is No. 22.

Individually, the Conference is sending a contingent of four men's runners who can only challenge for the individual crown. Arizona's Lawi Lalang has been unbeatable, literally, the last two seasons. He is the defending national champion after winning the race last year by 13 seconds over the second-place runner. Lalang is coming off a win at the Pac-12 Championships and the NCAA West Regional. On his heels is teammate Stephen Sambu, who did not compete in cross country last year. Back this season, he has finished just behind his fellow Wildcat at the Conference and regional meets, nearly defeating Lalang at the Pac-12 Championships. The Wildcat duo will be joined by Washington's Joey Bywater and Washington State's Todd Wakefield in Louisville. Both also earned individual at-large bids after solid performances at the regional meet.

The women's Pac-12 contingent of teams is strong, and any one of the five could claim the NCAA title. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and Washington will all represent the Conference in Louisville. Four of those teams are ranked in the top seven in the USTFCCCA Coaches poll and all five are in the top 25. The Ducks are the highest-rated Pac-12 women's team, entering the national championship with the No. 2 ranking. The Cardinal are not far behind, ranking fourth and the Wildcats are fifth. The Huskies are seventh and the Buffs are No. 23.

Oregon seems to be running strong, coming off back-to-back wins at the Pac-12 Championships and the NCAA West Regional. Both titles were the team's first since 1995. The Ducks are led by senior Jordan Hasay, who was named the USTFCCCA West Region Female Athlete of the Year for the third-consecutive year after winning the third-straight West region title. Oregon seems to have put together one of its strongest teams in recent history and is looking to end its national championship drought, which dates back to 1987.

Led by senior Kathy Kroeger, the Cardinal were second at the West region meet, automatically qualifying for the national meet. Kroeger has challenged Hasay every season, finishing in the top three of the Pac-12 Championships in each of the last two season before finally breaking through to win the individual crown three weeks ago in Santa Clarita, Calif. Meanwhile, Arizona has been on the rise the last few years and is relying on a contingent of veteran runners to Louisville.

Washington has been a solid team all season. Last year, the Huskies placed second behing the national champion by just eight points. It was the closest margin of victory at the race since 1998.

Colorado was third at the Mountain Regional meet, led by senior Shalaya Kipp. She was second at the regional meet but is coming off a career season where she qualified for Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics in the steeplechase.

Individually, Utah's Amanda Mergaert makes her third-straight appearance at the NCAA Championships as an individual after placing in the top 25 at the Mountain regional. California sophomore Kelsey Santisteban makes her second-career appearance at the national championship meet.

In order to be eligible to participate in the championships, teams and individuals qualified in their respective regional competitions. Thirty-one teams were selected to participate in each championship. The top two, seven-person teams automatically qualified from each of the nine regions, for a total of 18 teams. Thirteen additional teams were selected at-large. Thirty-eight individuals were also selected to participate in each championship through an automatic qualifier and at-large selection process. All individual qualifiers finished in the top 25 in their region.

Pac-12 teams appear to be coming on strong as the season concludes on Saturday, Nov. 17. With so much talent on the men's and women's side, this could be the year the Pac-12 stands atop the podium for the first time since 2008.

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