2013 Cross Country Preview: Men's, women's teams poised for successful campaigns

The cross country season is set to get underway and the Pac-12 men’s and women’s teams are primed for another successful season. All eyes will be on the OREGON women who won their first NCAA title since 1987 and first Pac-12 crown since 1995. On the men’s side, COLORADO has posted back-to-back third-place finishes and claimed consecutive Pac-12 titles. The question on everyone’s mind will be, can they make the jump and stand atop the podium in the final meet of the year this time?

The women’s teams have been especially strong the last few years. The race for the Pac-12 title has been a close one: so close, in fact, that the 2010 title was decided by just three points and the top-four teams were separated by a mere six points. This season, the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Preseason poll has five league teams ranked, four of them in the top eight.

On the men’s side, Pac-12 teams will be looking to dethrone the Buffs. But CU will have extra incentive to take a third-straight title as hosts of the Pac-12 Championships on Nov. 2. They will be challenged as three other teams are ranked in the top 16 of the national coaches poll, while two others received votes.

Continue reading for a team-by-team breakdown of this year’s Pac-12 teams:

ARIZONA

Lawi Lalang highlights the list of returnees for the Wildcat men. Already dominating the competition in his first two seasons, the two-time Pac-12 Cross Country Champion continues to improve. On the track over the summer, the junior clocked the fastest-ever 5k time by a collegian at the Monaco Diamond League, registering a 13:00.95. He has been undefeated in regular-season meets his first two collegiate seasons and will be difficult to dethrone at the Conference meet in November. Lalang was also the NCAA Champion in cross country in 2011 and finished third at the 2012 meet. An Arizona runner has won the Pac-12 Athlete of the Year honor the last three years in a row, with Lalang earning the nod the last two seasons.

On the women’s side, the Wildcats burst onto the national scene in 2010 and have not looked back. Arizona was one of four Pac-12 teams to place in the top nine at the NCAA Championships, coming in sixth place, the team’s best showing since 2001. They lose Jennifer Bergman, who placed in the top 10 at the Pac-12 Championships in her last three years, but still have an experienced core that can lead this group, beginning with junior Elvin Kibet, sophomore Nicci Corbin and junior Amanda Russell. UA will enter the season ranked seventh in the USTFCCCA Preseason Coaches poll.

ARIZONA STATE

The Sun Devil men look to break through and make a return to the NCAA Championships after missing out the last three years. ASU lost its top-three scoring runners in Nick Happe, Zack Zarda and Darius Terry. But Arizona State has an experienced core with redshirt sophomore Ryan Herson, redshirt junior Garrett Baker-Slama, redshirt seniors Steven Schneiders and Garrett Seawell returning. They all ran at the Conference meet last year and will have to lead the charge if the Sun Devils look to improve upon a fourth-place finish at the Pac-12 Championships and earn a bid to the national meet.

Junior Shelby Houlihan, the 2011 Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year, was the only top-10 performer for the Sun Devil women last year at the Pac-12 Championships. She will need some help from a young roster if ASU is going to improve upon a ninth-place showing at the Conference meet in 2012. Houlihan has the talent to carry most of the load as the only runner on the squad to run at the NCAA meet last year. But with 10 underclassmen on the roster, someone will have to step up to assist in the cause. Some of the runners that could be expected to take on the load are junior Macy Bricks and sophomore Tory Haberman, who both ran at Pac-12’s last season and scored points for ASU.

CALIFORNIA

The Bears men’s roster is highlighted by Matt Carpowich, a sophomore who was the top Cal finisher at last year’s Pac-12 Championships. Also returning this season is junior Chris Walden, who was the third-highest Cal placer at the Conference meet, but was the top placer at the NCAA West Regional. California brings back experience as four of the team’s five scorers at the Pac-12 Championships return. It should help the Bears improve upon the ninth-place showing from a year ago.

For the women, junior Kelsey Santisteban is a talented runner who earned an at-large, individual bid to the NCAA Championships last year. She led the Bears at the Pac-12 Championships as the only member of the team to place in the top 10, coming in ninth place to earn All-Pac-12 honors, and was eighth at the NCAA West Regional meet. Santisteban has a young squad behind her as three of the four runners that return who competed in last year’s Pac-12 Championships are only sophomores.

COLORADO

The Colorado men are eyeing a three-peat at the Pac-12 Championships and a win this year could be even sweeter than the first two as the Buffs play host to the Conference meet this year. It will be a special occasion for the Colorado faithful, as it will also represent the first-ever Pac-12 Championship-event hosted by the University since it joined the Conference three years ago. The Buffs enter the preseason ranked No. 3 in the country after posting back-to-back third-place finishes at the NCAA meet. Returning four scorers from a year ago will not make it easy for CU to be dethroned. All seven runners placed in the top 20 at the Pac-12 Championships, including three in the top 10. Blake Theroux led the pack coming in seventh place, followed by Jake Hurysz in eighth and Hugh Dowdy in ninth to take the Conference crown in decisive fashion, and all three of those runners will be back again this year.

On the women’s side, the Buffs remain a strong team in the Mountain Region and nationally, earning a No. 14 preseason ranking. The Buffs placed fifth at the Conference meet a year ago, but look to repeat its performance from 2011 when they won the Pac-12 title. Shalaya Kipp returns for her senior year to lead the team. She is a world-class talent as an Olympian in the steeplechase, but will have help from three other seniors: Jana Stolting, Elizabeth Tremblay and Rachel Viger, as well as sophomore Carrie Verdon, who all scored points at the Pac-12 Championships and ran at the NCAA meet.

OREGON

The Oregon men are ranked 12th in the preseason and look to build upon a 20th-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2012 after missing out at the national meet in 2011. The Ducks return all but one of the runners that ran at the Pac-12 Championships last year, but the loss is a significant one. UO will miss out on the services of Trevor Dunbar, the top finisher at last year’s Conference and national meets. What they do return is a lot of experience and the coaching staff should be able to find someone to fill the void. Still, the Ducks have a strong core led by senior Parker Stinson, who was just milliseconds behind Dunbar crossing the finish line at the Pac-12 Championships, as they each finished in third and fourth place, respectively.

Expectations are high for the women’s team after the Ducks won its first NCAA title since 1987 and first Pac-12 crown since 1995. Oregon is ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls and welcomes back a young and talented runner in redshirt sophomore Allie Woodward. Woodward led the entire field at the Pac-12 Championships for most of the race, before crossing the finish line in fifth place. She will have another pair of sophomores in Annie Leblanc and Katie Conlon looking to help in a repeat effort, but it will be challenging. Among the three losses from last year’s Pac-12 Championships lineup are Jordan Hasay and Alexi Pappas. Hasay did not finish lower than third place at the NCAA Championships in her final three years and was the 2010 Pac-10 Champion, finishing in the top three at four-consecutive Conference meets. Pappas was fourth in the Pac-12 standings last year and was third among the team finishers at the national meet a year ago. However, recent history has shown Oregon has the ability to reload quickly and will potentially still be a threat for the Conference and national crowns.

OREGON STATE

The Beavers look to improve upon an 11th-place finish at last year’s Pac-12 Championships. OSU has a good mix of experience and youth on this year’s roster, so the coaching staff should have plenty to draw from. Sandra Martinez was the top Oregon State finisher at the 2012 league meet and she returns for her senior campaign, as do Taylor Nowlin and Teresa Lawson. Each of them scored for Oregon State at the meet. Added to that are a couple of sophomores in Kira Kelly, who was the second-best OSU placer as a freshman, and Samantha Lewis, who also scored points for the team last year.

STANFORD

The 16th-ranked Cardinal has a lot to replace from last year’s team that placed second at the Pac-12 Championships and 16th at the NCAA Championships. Departed are Benjamin Johnson and Miles Unterreiner. Unterreiner was the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year in 2009. But Stanford can still look to a strong and experienced core with junior Joe Rosa and senior Erik Olson, who are the team’s top-returning finishers from the Conference and national meets, respectively. Additionally, senior Tyler Stutzman is another strong runner that has been a consistent scorer for Stanford.

The Cardinal women look to be strong contenders on a national level, earning a No. 8 preseason ranking. Stanford is coming off a third-place finish at NCAAs, its best finish at the meet since winning the national title in 2007. The Cardinal loses Kathy Kroeger, who had finished consistently in the top 10 at the Pac-12 meet in her career, finally winning the individual title last year. But returning are junior Aisling Cuffe and senior Jessica Tonn, who were both top-10 finishers at the 2012 Pac-12 Championships, and turned in impressive performances at the NCAA meet.

UCLA

The Bruin men made a return to the NCAA Championships last year for the first time since 2008 and posted their best showing at the meet since 1985. UCLA appears to be a program on the rise with five of its seven runners that competed at the Pac-12 Championships returning and have earned a No. 13 preseason ranking due to this fact. Junior Lane Werley, a 6-5 runner from Riverside, Calif., was 24th at the NCAA Championships and the top runner at the league meet, leading the Bruins to a fifth-place finish. The team can draw from several seniors on the roster who gained valuable experience at the NCAA Championships last year.

On the women’s side, the Bruins can tap into the experience of juniors Bronte Golick, Annie Mooney and Kelsey Smith. The only three runners returning that competed at the Pac-12 Championships last year, but they were also the team’s top-three finishers. UCLA placed sixth at the team competition at the league meet, and they will be a key component as the Bruins look to move up in the final standings.

USC

The Women of Troy’s 10th-place showing at last year’s Pac-12 Championships was a two-place improvement from the 2011 championship. USC could continue to make an improvement in the standings as it only loses two runners from last year’s lineup, welcoming back two of the team’s top-four finishers. Among those returning are juniors Erica Capellino and Erin Robinson who will continue to bring along a talented sophomore crew of Nicole Davies, Natasha Strickland and Jenna Tong who were also in the lineup at the Pac-12 Championships. 

UTAH

The Utes were seventh at last year’s Pac-12 Championships, in large part due to a sixth-place showing by Amanda Mergaert. But Mergaert, who went on to run at the NCAA Championships for the third-straight year last year as an individual competitor, does not return having exhausted her eligibility. The question looming Utah is who will take the reins and lead the team this year. Some of those prospects could come from a core of juniors and a redshirt sophomore who all ran at the league championships. The lineup from last year’s Pac-12 meet is early intact. Other than the loss of Mergaert, only one other runner does not return, leaving five experienced runners to build off of.

WASHINGTON

Three Huskies from last year’s sixth-place team at the Pac-12 Championships return. Tyler King and Aaron Nelson are two of them, both of which are sophomores and placed in the top 25 of the competition. Additionally, Aaron Beattie was in the lineup and scored points. Their experience from last year will make for a good foundation for UW’s quest to move of the standings this season. However, the Huskies will miss the services of Joey Bywater, who was the team’s top scorer and was also the lone representative at the NCAA Championships having earned an NCAA bid as an individual.

The Husky women look to be national contenders, once again, as well as contenders for the Pac-12 title. Preseason-ranked No. 5, they are among the five teams in the league who have made the women’s Pac-12 race an exciting one to watch. UW was one of four league teams to place in the top nine at the NCAA meet and placed fourth at the Pac-12 competition. Washington has an experienced group and is just two years removed from a national second-place finish, with five of the runners in the lineup returning, including the 2011 Pac-12 Champion Katie Flood is back for her senior campaign. Additionally, Megan Goethals was the team’s top finisher at both the league and national competitions. Look for the Huskies to make a serious run at both titles, once again.

WASHINGTON STATE

Every runner in the Cougars’ lineup from the Pac-12 Championships returns this year. The Cougs, who placed eighth in the men’s competition, have an experienced roster to draw from in order to try to improve in the final standings. Among them are seniors Andrew Gonzales, Drew Jordan and Richard Shroy, couple with juniors Lee George and Todd Wakefield. Forrest Shaffer was only a freshman when he ran in the lineup last year and scored points for the team, and could be one to watch. WSU earned a spot at the NCAA Championships only two years ago and hopes to get back to that level.

On the women’s side, the Cougs look to build on the foundation that second-year head coach Tim Riley put down in his first season at the helm. Unlike the men’s team, the Washington State women are very young with mostly sophomores and freshmen on the roster. The only seniors on the squad are Ramona Morshead and Courtney Zalud, and only Zalud competed at the Pac-12 Championships last year. The good news with a young group is that WSU welcomes back all but one runner that participated at the league championships last year.