MEET PREVIEW: Pac-12 Championships
NEW ORLEANS — Postseason competition in any sport is supposed to bring together the best of the best in an effort to find the rightful No. 1 team.
The cross country postseason is no different, especially in the Pac-12.
Seven nationally-ranked women’s teams and six nationally-ranked men’s teams will converge on Tucson, Arizona on Friday to decide the top team in that conference.
This is the first time since 2011 that the championships have been held in Arizona. Five years ago Arizona State hosted the meet and Colorado swept the proceedings.
Here’s what we’re looking at when the gun goes off Friday.
Start Time – 12:30 p.m. ET
Two teams received first-place votes in the most recent U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) National Coaches’ Poll: No. 1 Colorado and No. 2 Washington. The Buffaloes owned eight and the Huskies nabbed the other four.
By the end of the first race on Friday, we should have a unanimous No. 1 since Colorado and Washington finally square off and are the favorites to win the conference title over No. 5 Oregon, No. 11 Stanford, No. 17 Utah, No. 23 UCLA and No. 25 California.
It would be harder to differentiate a front-runner between the Buffs and Huskies because both have impressed in their own special way this season.
Colorado unveiled its “A” team for the first time this season two weeks ago at the Pre-National Invitational in Terre Haute, Indiana and cruised to a victory. The Buffs put six runners inside the top-50 — led by Erin Clark’s runner-up finish — and tallied a total of 93 points, 61 clear of the Ducks and 86 ahead of Michigan.
Washington opened a lot of eyes that same weekend when it turned the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational into its own personal playground. The Huskies knocked off the No. 1 (Providence), No. 3 (NC State) and No. 6 (Michigan State) teams in the nation on their way to a meet championship. Washington had its entire lineup in the top-50, compared to three other teams who had a maximum of four.
It would be easy to forget about Oregon with the firepower that Colorado and Washington are bringing to Arizona, but don’t do that. The Ducks always run well at Pac-12s — as their two titles in the past four years show — and could contend for a third if the cards fall the right way.
Oregon welcomed Alli Cash to its lineup for the first time this season at Pre-Nats and if she shakes off the cobwebs, she’ll form a dangerous trio with Katie Rainsberger (6th at Pre-Nats) and Samantha Nadel (13th).
As far as the Cardinal, Utes, Bruins and Golden Bears go, they’ll be looking to displace the Buffs, Ducks and Huskies as much as possible.
Stanford will get another great look at a lineup that could excel in the future. Prized freshmen Christina Aragon and Ella Donaghu made their debuts at Pre-Nats and if All-American Vanessa Fraser runs to her potential, the Cardinal could very well impress and move up in the poll.
When it comes to the individual race, watch for one of these runners to get the win: Washington’s Amy Eloise-Neal or Charlotte Prouse, Colorado’s Clark or Kaitlyn Benner (2nd last year), Stanford’s Cranny or California’s Bethan Knights.
Start Time – 1:30 p.m. ET
Pop quiz: Name the last four teams to win the men’s team title in the Pac-12.
If you said anybody other than “Colorado,” you’re wrong.
The Buffs have been simply dominant since 2011. Colorado scored no more than 49 points over the past four years and easily outclassed Oregon and Stanford.
If the rankings in the latest National Coaches’ Poll hold, however, this could very well be the year that the Buffs’ run ends. That’s because No. 7 Colorado is the conference’s third best team behind the second-ranked Cardinal and third-ranked Ducks.
Colorado and Oregon ran against each other two weeks ago at Pre-Nats, while Stanford ventured farther north to the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational.
The Ducks, led by three-time defending NCAA XC champion Edward Cheserek, beat out Arkansas in Terre Haute. Cheserek won like usual and Oregon put four other runners inside the top-40 as it finished with 85 points to 110 for the Razorbacks and the Buffs’ 124.
Colorado didn’t put a runner inside the top-10 and is still trying to find its footing after losing its core to graduation. The Buffs showcased strong pack running, however, as they went 15-24-27-28-30 with Ryan Forsyth leading the charge.
The Cardinal proved why it was a preseason top-5 team with a runner-up finish in a loaded meet. Stanford unleashed its dynamic duo in Grant Fisher and Sean McGorty and they finished 4th and 6th, respectively. That, coupled with pack running from Garrett Sweatt, Jack Keelan and Sam Wharton, allowed the Cardinal to outpoint BYU, reigning national champ Syracuse and upstart Iona, among others.
UCLA shocked a lot of people with a 6th-place finish in Wisconsin, while Washington State and Washington also fared well — but those three aren’t on the same level as Colorado, Oregon or Stanford just yet and should contend for 4th, 5th and 6th.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Ducks don’t get the super low stick from Cheserek. His outing at Pre-Nats left little doubt that he’s in the best shape of his career and he won three consecutive conference titles. Cheserek will be tested by Fisher and McGorty, but ultimately you can expect the Oregon star to pull away and win by about eight seconds, which is the average margin of victory for him from 2013 to 2015.