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Cross Country: Stanford looks to bounce back at Regionals after falling short of conference championships

After coming up just short at the Pac-12 Championships two weeks ago, both the men’s and women’s cross country teams will be looking to pick up the pace and qualify for the NCAA Championships tomorrow morning when they host the 2011 NCAA West Regional at the Stanford Golf Course.

The top two teams in each race — the men’s 10K run will start at 10 a.m. with the women’s 6K to follow at 11:15 — qualify automatically for the NCAA Championships, as do the top four individuals from non-qualifying teams.

The stakes are high, but as women’s head coach PattiSue Plumer was quick to point out, this weekend’s event is a tough race to master from a tactical standpoint.

“I think that it’s easy to overlook Regionals and not take them seriously enough,” she said. “And then physically you might be fine, but emotionally you kind of set yourself up for not as good a meet at Nationals.”

It is unlikely that either Stanford team would fail to make it to the national meet, with 13 at-large bids going to teams around the country based on a season-long points system from the NCAA. The men’s squad is No. 6 in the country in the rankings, and the women are No. 8; only a disastrous run tomorrow could keep the Cardinal from running in Terre Haute, Ind. at the NCAA Championships on Nov. 21.

More important for both teams will be to rebound from somewhat disappointing results at the Pac-12 Championships. On the men’s side, top-four finishes from seniors Chris Derrick and Jake Riley had Stanford in serious contention for the team’s third-straight conference title.

But conference newcomer Colorado stepped in and snatched away the win. The Cardinal led through four runners but couldn’t close the deal, and the No. 4 Buffaloes snuck through the opening with a stronger fifth runner for a seven-point victory.

Derrick, a 10-time All-American in his career, was visibly upset after the race despite finishing second and talked about the mental challenges that the team faces after what was a very good run from the top four.

“We had a pretty good talk after the race about refocusing ourselves, and we’re living up to the kind of team we want to be,” Derrick said. “It was mostly disappointing because we thought that we beat ourselves in some respect. Obviously Colorado is a very good team and ran a very good race, but we did not run the race that we are capable of, which is always disappointing.

Colorado competes in the Mountain Regional, and will not be in the race tomorrow, leaving Stanford as the favorite. But No. 8 Portland will push the Cardinal, as will defending champion No. 17 Oregon and No. 21 UCLA.

And it might be tough for Derrick and Riley not to push themselves too hard as they compete for the individual title with freshman sensation Lawi Lelang of Arizona and defending champion Trevor Dunbar of Portland.

Stanford easily has the most depth of any of those schools, with up to 14 runners notching times of 24:20 or faster for 8,000 meters. But as head coach Jason Dunn noted, that depth doesn’t matter if the Cardinal can’t get find a fifth runner that can move up in the field.

“I tell the guys, depth is great, but what’s most important is for us to figure out how to get five guys across that finish line before anybody else,” Dunn said. “They don’t score it through 15 runners — if they did we’d be the best team in the country without question. It’s just a matter of that depth pushing everybody in front of them.”

The women’s race might be even tighter, however. With one of the deepest fields in the country thanks to six ranked teams, Stanford will be hard-pressed to snag one of the automatic bids. No. 6 Washington is the very slight favorite after edging the Cardinal by a mere two points for second place behind Colorado at the Pac-12 Championships. But No. 11 Oregon — featuring the always-dangerous junior Jordan Hasay, winner of the Western Regional last year — is looking to assert itself before Nationals, along with No. 16 Arizona and No. 26 California.

Junior Kathy Kroeger, who was the Pac-12 runner-up and finished fifth last year at this event, said that the team must remain focused and not let up during the race.

“I think the biggest challenge is to not be distracted by being at home with the big Oregon football game and all its excitement,” she said. “We have to realize we can’t get too comfortable and remember that this is a big deal and we have to really bring it just like we would anywhere else.”

At the Pac-12 Championships, Stanford got big contributions from Kroeger, senior Stephanie Marcy and Jessica Tonn. But freshman Aisling Cuffe also ran inside the top 25, finishing 24th in 20:44 despite nearly collapsing 35 meters from the finish and wobbling across the line while at least half a dozen runners passed her.

After suffering through very hot conditions at the Pac-12 Championships in Arizona, Stanford will have the advantage of running in cooler weather tomorrow on its home course.

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