CROSS COUNTRY HEADS FOR NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS
BOULDER - The third ranked University of Colorado men's cross country team and seventh-ranked women's left Friday morning in preparation for the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships to be decided on the Irv Warren Golf Course in Waterloo, Iowa on Monday, Nov. 24.
It is the CU men's 18th consecutive trip to the biggest race of the year and 22nd in 23 seasons. This year's championship celebrates the 12th straight appearance for the Buff women, and 14th in 15 seasons. Colorado is just one of 14 programs in the country to send both its men's and women's teams, but only one of seven (including Michigan, Georgetown, Providence, Florida State, NC State and Stanford) to advance both squads on automatic bids as CU advanced with a men's win and women's runner-up finish at last weekend's NCAA Mountain Region Championships in Riverdale, Utah.
Both teams go into the championship in slightly unfamiliar territory, as neither team is a heavy favorite to take home a team title.
Defending national champion, and top-ranked Stanford is the heavy favorite in the men's 10k race, as the Cardinal return all seven runners from a 2002 national title team that put on a clinic in winning last year with 47 points. Wisconsin was the national runner-up a year ago and is the second-ranked team in the country going into Monday's race. Colorado was fourth in Terre Haute, Ind. last year and despite the graduation of '02 national champion Jorge Torres and three All-Americans from last year's roster, should be expected to make a podium finish.
In the women's 6k loop, defending national champion and top-ranked BYU as well as 2002 runner-up and second ranked Stanford should battle it out for the team title, but will be challenged by several teams for the upset, including the CU women.
Head coach Mark Wetmore will head into Monday's races with his annual expectations to run better than each team's respective national ranking, "In both cases, we're fairly ranked this year. If we can execute a race plan better than our opponents, then finishing better than our rankings is a reasonable expectation.
"Stanford returns everyone from last year. They're the heavy favorites, and deservedly so. They will have to have something go terribly wrong not to win it. The BYU and Stanford women are only slightly better than four or five other teams that are dreaming up ways to win. We're ranked seventh and will hopefully finish higher come Monday."
Wetmore will bring both one of his youngest men's teams ever into a national championship spotlight with a roster of freshman Brent Vaughn, five sophomores and two juniors. Sophomore Casey Burchill and junior Jared Scott, along with Vaughn, will be making their NCAA Championship debuts. Sophomore Dathan Ritzenhein finished fourth in this race two years ago, and will be an individual favorite Monday, while classmate Billy Nelson was an All-American as a freshman last year. Sophomores Payton Batliner and Brett Schoolmeester ran in Terre Haute a year ago, but failed to score, while junior Jon Severy has a pair of national championship races under his belt, scoring as CU's fifth runner a year ago.
"Dathan is my favorite," laughed Wetmore. "But there are five or six guys around the country that have reason to hope to win"and there's always a dark horse you don't know about."
While youth will be served on the CU men's team, Wetmore will bring a plethora of experience into the women's race. Georgia Tech transfer and current CU junior Renee Metivier will be running in her third championship, and she was the individual national runner-up in '01 and could be the surprise of the day Monday. Villanova transfer Kalin Toedebusch and junior Natalie Florence also have two NCAA races on their resumes, with Florence coming away with an All-American finish last year. Sophomore Jackie Zeigle scored as CU's fifth runner a year ago, while Christine Bolf and Kendall Grgas-Wheeler came in as CU's sixth and seventh runners, but are having much improved '03 seasons. The only woman on the CU roster that will be running in her first national championship race is redshirt freshman Laura Zeigle. The obvious omission from the women's roster is Sara Gorton, who has a pair of top-10 finishes, and All-American certificates, in this race. She's out for the season following posterior tibialis surgery earlier this season.
"I think experience helps in this race, but when I look at the youth of these teams, I think, cool". they'll be back for a few more years," says Wetmore.
While the competition will be fierce on the course, the Buffs' biggest opponent may be off as Mother Nature has ordered up temperatures in the low 20s for Monday's races and a better chance than not for snow showers. The last time the Buffs were faced with similar conditions on the biggest race day of the year was the conclusion of the 2000 season when the conditions, with wind-chill, were well below zero. It was that year in Ames, Iowa that the CU women won the national title and Kara Grgas-Wheeler and individual crown. The CU men finished second that year.
"There isn't much you can do about the weather," said Wetmore. Just grin and bear it. I don't think either of these teams will be intimidated by the scenery. They all know how to put their numbers on and know how to tighten their spikes. They know the race isn't won in the first kilometer and I'm not concerned about their excitement causing tactical mistakes."