Big shoes to fill
Luke Puskedra’s 2008 cross country season could not have been any better for a highly touted freshman.
He was a productive runner for the Oregon Ducks, and he was not required to carry more than his share of the workload. Puskedra, a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, who attended Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, had posted all-classification record times in the 1,600m and the 3,200m in high school.
But he was just as big a threat in cross country, having taken fifth place at the prestigious Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in 2007. The Ducks did not lack star power among the cross country ranks in 2008, led by then-two-time cross country All-Americans Galen Rupp and Shadrack Biwott. And don’t forget All-Americans Diego and Daniel Mercado and Kenny Klotz, along with A.J. Acosta and Andrew Wheating.
“It was definitely a different experience (compared to high school),” Puskedra said. “We had Galen and Shadrack to look up to training-wise. We had 10 guys doing all the workouts — you never knew who was going to be in the race.”
As is tradition, the talented bunch of individuals that comprised the team went to Sunriver for September’s training camp, and became a team. Days were reserved for group workouts and nights for board games and card games and the occasional arm-wrestling match. Puskedra’s long, thin arms didn’t win him many matches, but he felt the bonds of the team growing stronger.
“That was a key part to our success down the road,” he said. “There was a family-like atmosphere where you were in it not only for yourself, but for your other teammates. It was bigger than just, ‘Oh, I’m going to race well here.’ If you were hurting in a race, you’d think ‘Oh man, we have that many guys and I’ve gotta help those guys out.'”
Comfortable with his teammates, Puskedra quickly became comfortable with collegiate competition. His first race of the season was the Bill Dellinger Invitational, where he held strong with the leaders and finished a surprising third — the top placer for the Ducks — behind Portland’s David Kinsella and Alfred Kipchumba. Oregon went on to take the 8,000m race with 49 points to the Pilots’ 56.
“He’s a tough kid,” Biwott said of Puskedra following the Dellinger.
Success carried over through all three races. After finishing second to Rupp in the Pacific-10 Conference Championships, he finished sixth at the NCAA West Regionals — his lowest individual finish all season — and fifth at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, earning All-America honors. His NCAA finish was the best by a freshman since Steve Prefontaine in 1969.
“Luke is very tough and a great competitor,” Lananna said last season. “The kid is really emotionally, psychologically tough. He’s for real.”
And his season wasn’t even over. Puskedra competed in the 2009 U.S. Junior Cross Country Championships at the start of 2009 and finished third overall, securing one of the U.S.’s seven spots for the IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships in Amman, Jordan, in March (between those two races, Puskedra finished sixth in the 5,000m at the 2009 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, earning All-America honors). It was Puskedra’s first true international competition — and an experience he relished.
“It was cool to see. It was definitely a different culture,” Puskedra said of the Middle Eastern nation.
The U.S. cross country team visited Petra, the ancient archaeological site most famous for its appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the Dead Sea on Jordan’s border with Israel. The team also interacted with many of the other 114 athletes in the field, representing 28 countries, and exchanged athletic gear with them.
The U.S. junior team was composed of Chris Derrick of Stanford, German Fernandez of Oklahoma State, Ryan Hill of North Carolina State, and Pat Dupont and Francisco Medrano of Syracuse — “major competition” for Puskedra, who had raced against many of his teammates in high school. Derrick, a cross country All-American who’d faced off against Puskedra three times last season, was his roommate. Slowly but surely, the team of rivals formed a strong bond over the week spent in Jordan.
“It was definitely a good experience to meet those guys,” Puskedra said. “These guys are my rivals during the season but they’re kind of coming together on a bigger thing. I’d kind of questioned how those guys go to the World Championships or go the Olympics — I always kind of wondered how that worked, if there was that pride (in teamwork). But everyone came together as a group.
“If anyone had any feelings (of rivalry) like that, it was thrown out the window the first day.”
The U.S. squad, competing on a hilly Amman golf course with a “packed dirt surface,” performed well on the major stage, finishing in fifth place as a team. Fernandez was the top U.S. finisher in 11th place; Puskedra came in No. 30.
Keeping the tradition rolling
Oregon formally begins its quest for a third consecutive men’s cross country national title Friday at the Bill Dellinger Invitational at Springfield Country Club.
Ranked No. 1 by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll, the 2009 Ducks will have to forget about last season without having to remind themselves of it.
“Hey, this is life without Galen Rupp,” Lananna said.
In Rupp’s place are a host of talented freshmen — Elijah Greer, Ben DeJarnette, Mac Fleet, Mitchell Hunt and Elliott Jantzer — but it is Puskedra who must replace Rupp’s performance. As he tries to manage his own expectations, he has worked to get the young Ducks comfortable with collegiate athletics, rekindling the bonds of a true team.
“I think at Sunriver, the best thing was getting them into the group. I think that’s the best part about camp,” Puskedra said. “You get to know the guys and stuff. It’s good to create that same atmosphere so that, when race day comes around, it’s not just you you’re trying to help out.
“It’s everybody getting out of their comfort zone — it’s bringing everybody in. It’s definitely good to have that many guys just all trying to work for the better, trying to keep the Oregon tradition rolling.”
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