Cross CountrySports

Duck men, women among favorites at NCAA Championships

On the strength of a couple automatic bids to the NCAA Cross Country Championships, the No. 3 Oregon men and the No. 6 Oregon women have gained confidence.

“I like the way we’re going,” head coach Vin Lananna said. “When we started the year, we knew it’d be a tough year. We had a lot of people that graduated.”

The Ducks are in Terre Haute, Ind., Monday, competing on the LaVern Gibson Championship Course. Oregon has not finished lower than second in the men’s race in the past three years; the Duck women are hoping to put a disappointing ninth-place finish behind them.

The women’s 6,000-meter race begins at 9:08 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, with the 10,000-meter men’s race following at 9:48 a.m.

Familiarity with the course, a venue that has hosted multiple cross country championships since its dedication in 1997, plays a major role in strategy for the veterans.

“It’s such a big field, so you really need to get out really hard and establish yourself from the beginning,” senior Alex Kosinski said. “You get out, and there’s a big downhill for the first K (thousand meters), so you can’t look at the time of the first K because you’ll psyche yourself out and be like, ‘Oh man, I went out way too hard.’ Then the second K is going to be really slow because the second K is uphill.

“For me, I’m going to try and not look at the times and put myself in a good position.”

Kosinski and Zoe Buckman are the only seniors in the Ducks’ championship contingent; Claire Michel is the only junior.

Oregon elected to bring sophomores Jordan Hasay (expected to be an individual title contender), Anne Kesselring, Becca Friday and Taylor Wallace along with freshmen Melanie Thompson and Sarah Andrews to Terra Haute. Either Friday or Wallace will sit out as the “eighth” runner for the Ducks.

Defending national champion Villanova holds all 12 first-place votes in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll and wears the target entering the race, which Lananna foresees as more highly competitive than at first glance.

“I have no idea who’s going to win,” he said. “Villanova has been the favorite all year.”

Oregon joins No. 4 Washington, No. 7 Stanford and No. 9 Arizona as Pac-10 representatives. The four teams, so even throughout the conference and NCAA West Regional championships, may yet again contend with one another for podium positions.

“I would be surprised if there are not four Pac-10 teams in the top 10,” Lananna said.

On the men’s side, Oregon is ranked behind only Stanford and Oklahoma State in the USTFCCCA poll, and earned a first-place vote as well. The top two schools, however, are separated by just a point in the polls, and No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 New Mexico are also considered title contenders.

The men’s side of the race will include seniors Matthew Centrowitz, A.J. Acosta and Danny Mercado; junior Luke Puskedra; redshirt sophomore Bryce Burgess; and freshmen Ben DeJarnette, Parker Stinson and Brian Shrader.

Last season, the Oregon men placed second at the NCAAs with its most complete performance of the season. That team had performed erratically throughout the year and received an at-large bid to NCAAs.

“I’d say the lesson learned would be to just go in there ready. You can’t take anything for granted. Don’t take any position you’re in for granted,” Mercado said. “Accept the fact that it’s going to get hard, accept the fact that it’s going to get tough. You just can’t take it for granted. I know a lot of teams did last year.”

The Ducks had the race lead through 9,000 meters but could not seal the deal at the finish. The frustration from that result stayed with the runners, such as Danny Mercado’s twin brother, Diego. He exhausted his NCAA eligibility running cross country last year.

“Diego told me basically the whole summer, ‘Don’t make the same mistake I did. There was a time when all the others took off, and I didn’t. I don’t want you to make the same mistake. So just don’t,'” Danny Mercado said. “Just go out of there and come out of the race with no regrets.”

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