When Aisling Cuffe does what she loves, she can overcome any obstacle.
Despite a nearly 15-month-long absence from competitive racing due to injury, Cuffe, a fifth-year senior, won her second Pac-12 women’s cross country championship in three years on Friday in Colfax, Washington.
“If you love the sport that you do, it’s not that hard to stay to motivated,” Cuffe said. “You just want to get back out there as soon as possible.”
Cuffe covered the 6-kilometer course in 19:53.1, becoming only the fourth Cardinal women’s runner to win multiple conference titles in program history and the first since Arianna Lambie ’08 achieved a three-year streak as Pac-12 champion from 2005-07. The Pac-12 meet marked only her second competitive race in over a year, the other being her victory at the Washington Invitational on Oct. 2.
Cuffe’s performance rounded out an impressive showing from both teams: The No. 10 Cardinal women placed third at the Pac-12 championships, while the No. 23 Cardinal men, led by junior Sean McGorty’s second-place finish in 23:13.7 over the 8K course, deployed their strongest lineup yet this season to notch a second-place Pac-12 finish. The victory over top schools like No. 3 Oregon makes the men’s team a heavy favorite for an automatic berth into the NCAA championships in Louisville, Kentucky on Nov. 21.
The Cardinal women’s team will face close competition from Oregon, Boise State and Washington for an automatic berth. However even if the automatic berth eludes them, the Cardinal women’s third-place finish over No. 12 Washington on Friday will help the team’s bid to claim one of 13 at-large spots for the NCAA championships.
Head coach Chris Miltenberg said that the Cardinal women’s strong performance reflects a competitive spirit that the team has developed with each other.
“All of them just did a great job of running and competing like they knew they were good and knew they belonged up there,” Miltenberg said. “That, with our women’s team, is the thing we’ve been really working on the most — be confident, assertive, aggressive.”
Junior Vanessa Fraser ran at the No. 2 spot and placed 12th of 107 runners in 20:23.5. Last year, Fraser ran at Stanford’s No. 6 spot in the Pac-12 meet. Sophomore Julia Maxwell placed 19th in 20:30.1 as the Cardinal’s No. 3 runner, her highest-ever lineup spot.
Cuffe, a biology major with a 3.54 GPA, also received honors for non-running achievements this weekend. On Thursday, she was named Pac-12 Cross Country Scholar-Athlete of the Year. This award is given to one man and woman in each Pac-12 sport who excels both academically and athletically.
For the Cardinal men’s team, the second-place result may mark a turning point after a slow beginning of the season. Injuries prevented the Cardinal from bringing together a star-studded lineup before the Pac-12 meet, and the team’s national ranking dropped from its preseason No. 2 spot to No. 23 after a young and less experienced Cardinal lineup placed 21st at the Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 2.
McGorty said the chance for young runners to race in the competitive Wisconsin Invitational would help the team tackle any postseason challenge.
“Even as people are getting healthy, you never know what could pop up,” he said. “We just have to stay focused and know that whoever is on that line can get the job done.”
In addition to facing perennial rivals Colorado, Oregon and Syracuse, McGorty had a familiar opponent in junior Edward Cheserek of Oregon, whom McGorty has raced since high school. Cheserek won his third Pac-12 championship on Friday in 23:06.3, while McGorty stayed tough to cross the finish line seven seconds later as runner-up.
“Running in the Pac-12 is to run against some of the best teams before nationals, which I really like,” McGorty said. “You want to face the best as much as you can, so you know what you need to do to get the job done.”
Also on the men’s side, fifth-year seniors and cross country All-Americans Jim and Joe Rosa came back from injuries to race together for the first time since the 2012 NCAA Championships. Joe Rosa placed eighth out of 79 runners, clocking in at 23:23.5 as the Cardinal’s No. 2 runner. Jim Rosa placed 20th in 23:47.4 at the team’s No. 5 spot. Freshman Grant Fisher, a two-time Foot Locker high school national champion and sub-4:00 miler in high school, posted an impressive collegiate debut despite having to adjust from a 5K high school course to the 8K Pac-12 course. Fisher placed 16th in 23:28.6 as the Cardinal’s No. 3 runner.
“There was so much hype and unrealistic expectation,” said Miltenberg about the beginning of the Cardinal men’s season. “It’s great for these guys to finally just be able to say, ‘Hey, this is who we are. This is where we’re at, and let’s do everything we can for the next 21 days to get better.’”
Contact Alexa Corse at corsea ‘at’ stanford.edu.