While the football team continues to eat up headlines almost as fast as its running backs eat up yards, Stanford’s first Pac-12 title in any sport could very well come from the men’s and women’s cross country teams, which will take to the course tomorrow morning in Litchfield Park, Ariz. for the first-ever Pac-12 Championships.
Both teams are ranked in the top 10 nationally — the men are No. 4 and women No. 8 — and swept the team titles at last year’s race. But although the men are slight favorites over No. 6 Colorado heading into the race, the women will face stiff challenges from a very deep field. No. 2 Washington, No. 5 Arizona, No. 10 California and No. 11 Oregon are all expected to be factors in the race, and this year the final results could be even closer than last year’s, when four teams finished within six points of one another.
The Cardinal women will once again look to the leadership of two-time All-American Kathy Kroeger. The junior from Franklin, Tenn. finished second to Oregon phenom Jordan Hasay — who again is the pre-race favorite — at last year’s race, and has put together an impressive junior campaign with a win at the Stanford Invitational and a 10th place finish at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational.
Kroeger paces the squad, but freshman Aisling Cuffe has performed well in her own right in her first year on the Farm, and redshirt senior Stephanie Marcy has a history of coming up clutch in big meets. Cuffe finished second to Kroeger at the Stanford Invitational this year and was a U.S. Junior Champion in high school, while Marcy placed fifth at last year’s Pac-10 Championship and is a three-time All-American.
In order to win the team’s fifteenth conference title, however, they will need help, possibly in the form of sophomore Jessica Tonn or freshman Molly McNamara. Tonn finished eighth at last year’s Pac-10s and McNamara has showed flashes of brilliance early in her college career with a top-10 finish at the Stanford Invitational.
The men’s side is not expected to be as crowded, with the Buffaloes, Cardinal and No. 20 UCLA the only teams inside the top 20. But Colorado is brimming with confidence after winning the NCAA Pre-National Invitational last weekend. Stanford and several other top teams did not compete in the race, but led by senior Andy Wacker, the Buffs could make some noise.
It will help that the Cardinal might have the best one-two punch in the nation with the senior duo of Chris Derrick and Jake Riley. Derrick finished third behind Riley and graduated senior Elliot Heath at last year’s Pac-10s, but won the same race in 2009 and was sixth at last year’s NCAA Championships, one spot ahead of Riley.
The race could come down to the final few racers on each team, however, and that’s where Stanford looks to have a decided advantage. Teams are allowed to put 10 runners in the field (as opposed to the usual seven that compete in most events), with the top five counting towards the overall team score.
The Cardinal has at least eight runners that are competing to fill in behind Riley and Derrick. And with redshirt junior Benjamin Johnson, sophomore Erik Olson and redshirt senior Brendan Gregg all posting very low times consistently this season, Stanford has a good shot at taking its third straight conference title and 11th overall.
Both team races, which are being hosted by Arizona State at the Wigwam Golf Course, will assuredly be tight. And look for the men to set a blistering pace early, as Arizona’s Lawi Lelang has burst onto the national scene with some outstanding results and is the current favorite for the individual NCAA title.
The men’s race will start at 9 a.m., while the women will kick things into gear shortly after the first race ends at 10 a.m.