Cross CountrySports

Pac-12 cross country to be highly competitive

The Pacific-10 Conference Championships, held Saturday in Seattle, concluded with one of the closest races in conference history on the women’s side and a statement victory on the men’s side.

When the dust settled, Stanford had swept the men’s and women’s team races. Four women’s teams ­— No. 4 Stanford, No. 6 Arizona, No. 11 Washington and No. 7 Oregon — were separated by just six points, while the No. 2 Cardinal men scored 25 points to the No. 3 men of Oregon’s 56.

That same day, in Stillwater, Okla., 1,512 miles southeast of Seattle, Colorado’s No. 9 men’s team and No. 8 women’s team both finished as runners-up at the Big 12 Conference Championships. Defending national champion Oklahoma State placed four runners in the top five to best the Buffaloes on the men’s side, while the Texas Tech women scored 44 points, just ahead of Colorado’s five, to win their third consecutive conference title.

Also on Saturday, in Laramie, Wyo., 932 miles southeast of Seattle, the Utah women’s cross country team finished fifth at the Mountain West Conference championships. New Mexico, which ranked 10th in the nation entering the meet, was the champion. All six runners for the Utes, ranked 12th in the Mountain region by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, placed in the top 50.

In 2011, Utah and Colorado will join the Pac-10 to create what looks to be, at face value, a potent distance-running conference. In the most recent USTFCCCA polls, released Monday, Pac-12 members make up three of the top 10 men’s programs and five of the top 11 women’s programs.

The conference is growing in power — and not just in football.

A national powerhouse

Mark Wetmore is one of the most respected and productive coaches in the nation for distance running.

Wetmore, in his 16th year as the Buffaloes’ head coach, is the only coach in the nation to win all four NCAA titles — men’s team, men’s individual, women’s team, women’s individual — at the same school. A three-time NCAA coach of the year (twice for women, once for men), Wetmore has been with the program for 19 years. Colorado has won 25 conference championships and five NCAA team titles in that span.

The Buffs, as Wetmore sees it, are jumping from one powerhouse conference — three Big 12 men’s teams and two women’s teams are ranked in the USTFCCCA top 10 for cross country — to another.

“Until now, both conferences were very good. I think it would be fair to say the Pac-10 was maybe a little better at the third-, fourth-best teams,” he said. “Teams up front were national championship contenders. There was never a year that a 10th-place team (at nationals) won either conference. The Pac-10, soon to be Pac-12, will be very formidable distance conference.”

“I think it was maybe last spring when we first heard (conference expansion talk),” said junior Christian Thompson, who finished seventh at the Big 12 Championships on Saturday. “It was brushed under the rug fairly quickly. (I thought it wasn’t) going to affect me, didn’t think much of it. When talk came back around in June, I thought it would be cool.”

Also, competitive.

“It’s going to be the best cross country conference in the country,” Thompson said. “The Pac-10 meet is almost going to be kind of a pre-national meet. Super-competitive, for men and women.”

“The Big 12 is an excellent track conference. The Pac-12 will also be,” Wetmore said. “It might give us opportunity to have an impact in some events (at the conference track meet) that were hard for us because the Big 12 was a deep, deep sprinting conference.”

An immediate concern for Colorado relates to its travel budget. The Buffs could take buses to meets hosted by Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska and Missouri to pare down costs; that won’t be able to happen in the Pac-12.

“It’ll be a stretch if we have to fly to everything,” Wetmore said.

Initial reports indicated that Colorado would move into the Pac-10 in 2012, but the school was convinced to move in a year earlier. That leaves less time to answer some critical questions, but more time to enjoy the move for some of the athletes.

“I was pretty excited about finding out we’re moving next fall,” said sophomore Allie McLaughlin, a fifth-place finisher as a freshman at the 2009 NCAA meet. “I only have a couple more years left. I’m glad we’re moving quick.”

A possible fast-riser

Kyle Kepler remembers when Utah made the announcement that it was becoming a part of the new Pac-12: May 17, 2010.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he said.

Kepler is in his sixth year as head coach of the Utes’ women’s cross country and track and field program. (Utah discontinued men’s track and field and cross country in 2005 after 100 years due to Title IX concerns.) He has coached 32 conference champions and nine NCAA All-Americans. Starting next year, his program gets a major shot in the arm.

“Olympic sports in Pac-10 are every bit as important as football and basketball,” Kepler said. “They are so far ahead because of Olympic sports and maybe lesser-known sports in Pac-10. We know we’re walking into the best conference in terms of track and field and cross country.”

Of course, Utah wants to remain competitive within the conference. Kepler and his distance runners finished third at the Mountain West Conference cross country championships two seasons ago, the best in school history. The Pac-12 will have more, faster athletes.

“I expect it to be amazing competition,” said sophomore Amanda Mergaert, who finished seventh at the Mountain West meet on Saturday. “I’ve looked at Pac-10 results and we’re definitely going to need to step up our game, and I think we can.”

The Utes have just three seniors on the distance running roster, which enables them to grow into the Pac-12. The challenge, of course, remains the same from a competitive standpoint.

Kepler and his athletes relish the challenge.

“This is a chance to compete against the best in the country,” Kepler said. “They want to be here. They want that opportunity. I don’t want kids who fear it. Amanda has expressed anxiety; that’s a good thing. That’s going to create some adrenaline. Recruits that get excited about (Pac-12 membership), want to be a part of that, those are the kids that we want.

“It’s all about adaption, knowing what it takes to compete, understand what it takes and what marks are, working toward those goals.”

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