Oregon in rare position as underdog at NCAAs
The goal for the Oregon men’s and women’s cross country teams at the NCAA Cross Country Championships today is simple: Take home a trophy.
Both teams find themselves in an unusual position in recent years — the No. 8 men are no sure thing to crack the top three teams, despite having won national championships in the past two seasons, while the No. 4 women are a long-shot contender for their first national cross country title since 1987.
The Ducks took different roads to get to the national championships, which will be broadcast on Versus at 9 a.m. today. By finishing second at the NCAA West Regional meet on Nov. 14, the Oregon women secured an automatic berth for the 6,000m women’s race. The Oregon men fell in the team race at regionals to No. 1 Stanford and No. 7 Portland (the Pilots moved up to fourth in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Poll), finishing third but requiring an at-large bid to make the field of 31 teams.
“We just didn’t put it together that day. We’ve done all the work. We just have to show up on race day,” sophomore Luke Puskedra said. “It was definitely humbling, knowing that Stanford showed up to race and Portland did, too. We’ve got all the ingredients. Now we’ve just got to put them together.”
The Oregon men attempted to come out strong on a muddy, slippery regionals course at Springfield Country Club to take the Cardinal and Pilots head-on, but began to fade as the race — the Ducks’ first of the season at 10,000m — progressed. Stanford held steady, as sophomore Chris Derrick captured the individual title in a 1-2-3 Cardinal finish. Portland took advantage of the Ducks’ attrition to capture the second automatic bid.
“We’re just going to have to run as a group and not get caught up in what everybody else is doing,” Puskedra said. “We just need to come together as a team, and this week has been good for doing that.”
Puskedra, Oregon’s top runner, has enjoyed positive individual results at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, Ind. At last year’s national championships, the Ogden, Utah-native finished fifth overall and second on the team, behind individual national champion Galen Rupp — the best finish by a freshman at last year’s meet. Earlier this season, Puskedra won the Pre-National Invitational men’s Blue race, also held at LaVern Gibson.
“It’s a good course for cross country just because they have the hills. It’s a pretty smooth ride,” he said. “You can get some momentum on the course. I think our team is a lot better suited for that kind of race.”
The Duck women received some possible foreshadowing as top-ranked Washington placed five women in the top 10 to secure the Regionals team title with relative ease over Oregon.
“At regionals, they ran really smart. Their four, five and six girls positioned themselves right up front,” senior Nicole Blood said. “At Pac-10s, they ran really strong, even though Alex (Kosinski), Jordan (Hasay) and I positioned ourselves in front. We were within (seven) points, which they said was an off-day.”
Blood and Kosinski have combined for four All-American honors in their Oregon careers, and Hasay is likely to earn her first in today’s race. The Ducks will need strong performances from their fourth and fifth runners, however, to cement a spot on the podium and make a run at the national title. At regionals, sophomore Claire Michel and senior Lauren Zaludek finished 25th and 26th, respectively, for Oregon.
“There are a lot of teams across the country that are going to give it a run for first place,” Blood said. “We’ve just got to shoot for top three, and that’s a heavy task. We’ve all gotta position ourselves up in that front pack, have a strong last K, and hopefully numbers four through seven can position themselves in the middle of the pack.”
“The women all season have dedicated themselves to getting better every week,” head coach Vin Lananna said. “I think, so far, they have accomplished that.”
Outside of Washington, Lananna specifically mentioned No. 2 Villanova, No. 6 Colorado and No. 8 Florida State as title contenders — those four are the only teams that have beaten the Oregon women this season. On the men’s side, Stanford has established itself as the prohibitive favorite after its West Regionals performance, with No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 3 Alabama and the Pilots all in contention.
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