Oregon head cross country coach Vin Lananna referred to the area designated by the NCAA as the West Region — schools from Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Nevada and Hawaii — as “the toughest region in the country.”
Lananna has no reason for hyperbole.
When the NCAA West Regional kicks off tomorrow (the 10,000m men’s race begins at 9:45 a.m., the 6,000m women’s race at 10:45 a.m.) at Springfield Country Club, five ranked men’s teams and six ranked women’s teams all take to the course. The 28 teams in each field are competing for two automatic spots in the NCAA Cross Country Championships field, with 13 at-large bids up for grabs from teams in each region.
“It’s important for both the men and women to be on top of their game,” Lananna said.
More so, arguably, for the men. The Ducks were decidedly beat by Stanford — the No. 1 team in the nation, according to the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll — at the Pacific-10 Conference Championships on Oct. 30. The No. 3 Ducks will also have to contend with a strong Portland squad, ranked seventh in the nation, that just won its 31st West Coast Conference championship in a row and boasts a possible individual champion in sophomore Alfred Kipchumba.
No. 13 Arizona State, led by Pac-10 runner-up Brandon Bethke, and No. 17 Washington will also look to steal points away from the top three teams.
“We’ve had a steady progression,” said sophomore Luke Puskedra. “The progression in season’s been going really well. We just need to put it together. We can’t be too comfortable.”
In not winning the Pac-10 men’s team title for the first time in four years, Oregon has experienced some adversity in Lananna’s fifth season. Last year’s squad looked to Galen Rupp and his consistently stellar performances. This year, the Ducks are practicing what junior Diego Mercado calls “a collaborative effort toward leadership.”
“There is no captain, no one on top of the totem pole,” Mercado said. “It’s more of, ‘what do I need to do for points scored for our team?’
“With Galen and Shadrack (Biwott, who also graduated last year), it was so much easier for us to just lean back and ride along. Now we don’t have that luxury.”
In the women’s race, No. 14 Stanford, No. 16 Arizona State, No. 24 Arizona and No. 27 Cal will likely be spectators to Oregon vs. Washington II. The fifth-ranked Ducks came within seven points of top-ranked Washington at Pac-10s, and senior Nicole Blood and freshman Jordan Hasay finished first and third, respectively. This is the same Washington team — almost to a woman — that swept the 2008 Pac-10s with an unheard-of score of 15 points, leading some to speculate what happened to Washington.
“They’re no different. They were a good team last year, and they’re a good team this year,” Lananna said.
The Huskies are a young team, with just one senior, Katie Follett, among the top seven runners. Several Oregon runners have admitted that Washington snuck up on them last year at Pac-10s; this year, familiarity has bred competitive advantage.
“I’ve been racing this same core of girls ever since I’ve been in college,” said junior Alex Kosinski, who finished ninth at Pac-10s and is the reigning NCAA West Regional individual champion. “They push me to do better, and I push them.”
Pac-10s represented the most complete race for the Oregon women on the season, and it yielded promising results against the reigning national champions. The Ducks believe they are in condition to improve upon those early returns.
“We’re in a really good position going into the meet,” Kosinski said. “The coaches are doing a really good job getting us at the physical fitness level we need to be at. We don’t want to peak at regionals.”
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