Santisteban’s steady performance highlights Cal cross-country’s season

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On Nov. 23 in Indiana, junior Kelsey Santisteban was the 10th runner to cross the finish line at the NCAA Championships. But nobody else from Cal’s cross-country team was able to run with her there.

Earning All-American and Pac-12 first team honors in her 2013 campaign, Santisteban never slowed down this season and became one of the country’s best runners, but she was the only runner to have major success for Cal.

When Cal kicked off its season with its first race in San Francisco, there were signs of promise. Santisteban did what Santisteban does and claimed the first of her three individual titles. Junior Chris Walden finished second overall as he led six of the men to finish in the top 15 out of 47 runners. The men and women each placed second in team scoring.

That trend did not continue. Almost a month later, Cal traveled to Virginia for the Panorama Farms Invitational. Having to run with tougher competition — particularly against schools from stronger divisions such as the SEC — and on unfamiliar hilly terrain, the Bears were not able to duplicate the success they had in San Francisco.

Still, Cal fans had reason to be optimistic because of two takeaways from Virginia. The first was Santisteban’s fourth-place overall individual finish. The junior ran aggressively and effectively throughout the race. The second was Cal’s resilience. The Bears started off poorly, falling behind quickly; however, they were able to pick themselves up and make up for lost ground with an impressive second half.

But the season would not quite play out like the team’s race in Virginia. Struggling to find a consistent starting lineup for regular meets, the Bears were not able to make much of a push to bring the team to national relevance.

For the most part, Cal as a team experienced difficulties from the day of the Virginia competition. The Bears dug themselves a hole and never really fully made it out. There were times when it seemed like the team was starting to figure things out, such as when the women finished first overall as a team in the Pre-National race in Indiana, but that would be the peak of the women’s 2013 season.

The men’s team saw many runners step up for important races. Scoring in cross-country, however, requires every competitor to run well, and a meet at which everybody on the team found success at the same time never happened.

With both teams never quite figuring it out, individual success remained the one thing Cal could be satisfied about. Toward the end of the season, sophomore Leland Later and redshirt senior JP Slater made some late noise, with the former finishing 28th overall in the Pac–12 Championships and the latter finishing one second behind him at 29th. The duo ended up finishing strong in the West Regional Championships when Slater took 54th overall out of 187 runners and Later claimed the 60th spot. Despite Later’s and Slater’s late season efforts, neither was able to edge out enough runners to qualify for the national championship.

2013’s apex came in the last meet of the season, in Indiana, when Santisteban closed out her memorable season with an even more memorable performance in the national championship.

Santisteban burst out of the starting gates in San Francisco. From that point on, she never slowed down throughout the entire season until she reached her final finish line in the national championship in Indiana.

Needless to say, Santisteban had an absolutely dominant year. She’s only a junior, so the Bears are looking forward to seeing what their cross-country star has to offer for them for 2013. With only two redshirt seniors departing, Cal will have most of its core members returning.

In basketball, one player can take over a game and lead his team to victory. Cross-country doesn’t work like that. For a team to find success, everybody with a number on his or her uniform needs to contribute. As evidenced by this season, the Cal cross-country team has lots of holes to fill.

Richard Lee covers cross country. Contact him at Contact him at [email protected].