Tough Pac-12 Championships helps prepare Oregon cross country for Nationals

The No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers men’s cross country team led by Elliot Krause and Reed Connor compete against the No. 8 Oregon Ducks in the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 in Springfield, Oregon. Wisconsin would go on to beat the Ducks and place first with a final score of 24 points. (Nate Barrett/Oregon Daily Emerald)

This past weekend, Oregon cross country had the perfect chance to kick the tires as it headed into championship season. The team traveled up north to Colfax, Washington, to compete in the Pac-12 Championships on Friday afternoon — a race that featured some of the best programs in the nation.

“The Pac-12 meet is probably the best meet in the country — some would argue even better than the National meet,” Oregon head coach Robert Johnson said. “If you take a look it seems like our whole conference is ranked somewhere, on both the men’s and women’s side.”

The Pac-12 is one of the deepest conferences in terms of talent this season, and it showed in Colfax. On the men’s side, seven different schools had an athlete place in the top-10, while the women had six. Colorado, Stanford, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and UCLA all have been ranked this season, and have been in the national spotlight in terms of performances.

As Johnson put it, the race had “the same cast of characters that is always really good.”

The team to beat right now, and one of the favorites heading into the National Championships, is Colorado. The Buffalo were able to sweep the Pac-12’s. They had all five scoring runners on the men’s side finish in the top 15 and had four women place in the top 10.

Stanford has also been impressive, with the Cardinal men claiming second and the women taking third. Their star runner, Aisling Cuffe, won her second individual women’s title, marking the third time in the last four years the Cardinal have been able to win it.

The Ducks ran well too, with the men taking third and the women taking second, and have a lot to work with as they head into the final weeks of the season.

“It’s definitely good to get exposed to that earlier than other schools,” Oregon redshirt senior Ryan Gil said. “We had a stiff Pac-12 meet, which is really good for getting calloused for the NCAAs.”

Gil, a transfer from Georgetown, ran his first ever Pac-12 Championship. He is hoping to qualify for his second NCAA berth.

For the first time this season, the full squad of runners was sent to the Pac-12’s. The Ducks were able to battle with the talented runners in the conference, getting a feel for how competitive things will be. They also got a chance to work out the kinks in their strategy and pick up on some of the opposing athletes quirks and tendencies.

“We know we can compete with them,” Gil said.

This is just the latest step Oregon has taken in preparing for Nationals. Back on October 17th, the team traveled to compete in a meet at E.P. Tom Sawyer Park in Louisville, Kentucky — the site where the NCAA Championships will be held.

“We went into Louisville and the point was to see the course,” redshirt senior Waverly Neer said. “Obviously we raced hard, but it was nice to see how it is to race on that course.”

Each location is different, so giving the team a chance to preview what to expect can help alleviate some of the tension heading into such a big race. Between that and the conference meet, the younger runners on the roster should have a good feel for what happens at the biggest stage.

Oregon is ready for the postseason and is looking forward to competing at Regionals — the final step before Nationals. The NCAA West Regional race will take place on Friday, November 13 at Jefferson Park in Seattle, Washington.

Follow Christopher Keizur on Twitter @chriskeizur

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