Bethan Knights shines for Cal cross country at Pre-NCAA Invitational

The potential discovery of a young superstar — there is perhaps nothing more encouraging or more significant that can happen for a young team hoping to stake its claim as a threat on the national stage for years to come.

At Saturday’s Pre-NCAA Invitational in Terre Haute, Indiana, freshman Bethan Knights emerged as a legitimate star for the women’s team, as she was able to make an impressive 5th-place finish in the 6,000 meter race against the most stacked field she’s faced this year, which included three of the nation’s top-five teams.

Long-time coach Tony Sandoval was excited by the great ability and future of his young runner.

“Bethan Knights is a special person for a youth,” Sandoval said. “And for her to come to a meet like this and run like a seasoned veteran is terrific.”

Propelled by her performance at Pre-NCAAs, the Cal women’s cross country team managed to finish a solid ninth place out of 43 teams. In addition to Knights, a few of the other women also managed to perform well, including top-100 finishers redshirt senior Heather Cerney and junior Mariel Mendoza, both of whom Sandoval was glad to see return from injury. Senior Sydney Gray also recorded a top-100 finish for a Bears team that seems to be coming together at the right time.

The men’s team, however, disappointed. They faced a tough field, including reigning national champions Colorado, who finished first, and Cal only managed to finish in 24th place, bringing into doubt whether this team can hope to defend its home course in the upcoming Pac-12 championships. But with five of the seven runners on the Pre-NCAA team being freshmen, led by 95th place finisher Yohannes Estifanos, this team seems to be more oriented toward the future.

Redshirt junior Chris Walden, the star of the men’s team, led the men in the 8,000-meter race, finishing in 20th place, a little less than 40 seconds off the eventual winning time of Oregon’s Edward Cheserek. Coming off a fourth-place finish in his previous race, team leader Walden surely expected to do even better.

“He did a good job, but he could have done better,” Sandoval said. “I think he feels that he could have done better.”

The Bears also sent a few runners to compete in the Bronco Invitational hosted by Santa Clara University. These runners were looking to perform well enough to potentially have a chance at making it in their team’s top-seven runners, who are traditionally the ones the team takes to their bigger meets. On the men’s side, freshman John Lawson finished in 50th place. The 42nd-place performance of junior Xochitl Navarrete paced the women’s team.

In the weeks ahead, the Bears have to look forward to their most significant meets, where both teams, especially the men, will need to perform better. If Walden can return to the exceptional top-5 caliber level of performance coaches and fans are used to seeing and Knights can show that her excellence this week was sustainable, both teams will have worthy leaders to guide them through their toughest stretch.

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