Cal cross country team heads to Stanford, Minnesota

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The Cal cross country program is racing in two very competitive meets Saturday, which should be a strong indicator as to where the men and women stand in the race to contention for the national championship.

The Bears are competing in the Stanford Invitational, where they will be competing exclusively against teams from the West Coast, and in the Roy Griak Invitational, hosted by the University of Minnesota and featuring teams from around the country.

While most eyes will be focused on Minnesota, Cal will be sending four to five men and women to Stanford. Whereas the Griak Invitational is mostly about seeing where Cal stacks up against some of the sport’s powerhouses, the Stanford Invitational will be about giving Cal’s younger runners an opportunity to prove themselves. Furthermore, it will give the runners the valuable early experience of competing with Stanford, home of top-five men’s and women’s teams. It will be interesting to see if any runners are able to warrant a promotion after this meet.

The Griak Invitational serves to be the main barometer of the talent and potential of this year’s teams as Cal sends its best seven men to race against 30 other teams, as well as sending its top-seven women to face 35 other teams. In addition, the men will be facing two top-25 teams in North Carolina and Texas, both of whom will be formidable challengers to the Cal men, who are looking to capitalize on their first place finish at the USF Invitational from earlier in the year.

But the team with a lot to prove is the women, who, coming off a second-place finish at the USF Invitational, must face five top-25 teams, including two top-10 teams in Michigan State and Iowa State. On top of this already arduous challenge, Cal must make do without last year’s star and the only member of either team to make it to the NCAA championships, 10th-place finisher Kelsey Santisteban, who is still out due to a stress fracture to her foot. According to longtime coach Tony Sandoval, recovery has taken longer than expected, but the team doesn’t want to risk the promising young runner’s future by rushing her back.

With Santisteban injured, the women are relying on senior Sydney Gray and redshirt senior Heather Cerney. Cal will also be extremely reliant on its young runners, such as Bethan Knights, the freshman that set the national record for the two-mile event. Coach Sandoval pointed to Knights as “a runner to watch,” despite the fact that she has never competed in a race of this length.

On the men’s side, redshirt junior Chris Walden and redshirt freshman Yohaness Estifanos, the top two overall finishers at the USF Invitational, are two runners who are expected to run very well.

Despite coming off a strong start at USF in late August, Saturday will be the largest indicator as to where the Cal team stands in relation to the national title picture.

“Everything before this was the preseason,” Sandoval said. “This one counts. This is an important meet for us.”

Hooman Yazdanian covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].