Cal cross country takes on tough competition at Pac-12 championships

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Halloween is usually a day when the biggest challenge is how a person can carry all the free candy being handed to them, all for dressing up in a costume. This Halloween, the Cal cross country team certainly has a much more daunting task ahead of them.

The Cal men and women will be hosts for the 2014 Pac-12 cross country championships Friday. While this is a smaller field than many of their previous races have had, this is arguably the most stacked field the Bears will face as a team, and it comes in their most important race to this point.

The women will have their work cut out for them, as they face six of the nation’s top-30 teams including No. 3 Oregon. On the individual side, it doesn’t get much easier, as Cal will be faced with a truly loaded field, led by one of the favorites for the individual national championship, Arizona State’s Shelby Houlihan. The last time the Cal women competed against her, Houlihan crossed the line in first place at the Roy Griak Invitational.

On the men’s side, things look tough as well. In fact, Cal may be in for a really difficult time. They will be facing two of the cross country world’s biggest locks to win every race they compete in, reigning national champions No. 1 Colorado, for the team event, and Oregon’s Edward Cheserek on the individual side.

“Colorado is the defending national champion, and they have the whole team back,” said head coach Tony Sandoval. “They’re definitely the favorites.”

Cheserek has won every race he has competed in since last year’s Pre-Nationals Invitational and has won six races in a row. So even at the start of the race, the Cal men are expected to be running for second place, at best. And this is no easy task, as the rest of the field is made up of five of the nation’s top-12 teams.

The men’s team is reasonably young, with freshmen — both true and redshirt — making up six out of the eight runners, and it will be fighting to stay afloat against these powerhouses of cross country. They may find their brightest spots on the individual side, where redshirt junior Chris Walden, the leader of the team, will be one of the race’s most well-equipped runners to compete for the spots behind Cheserek. Other runners such as redshirt freshman Yohaness Estifanos and true freshman John Lawson will also be fighting not only to compete in this race but to set a solid groundwork for the future of this team.

The women’s team is more likely to be competitive in its race, but even they will have a tough time, especially with news coming out that the team’s star, Kelsey Santisteban, has been forced to redshirt this year as a result of a foot injury she suffered in the spring’s track and field NCAA championships.

Racing in such a tough field, the team may struggle, but it will be able to use the race as a valuable experience on which to build upon. They, too, will probably be forced to look to the individual side for their most encouraging spots, where emerging superstar freshman Bethan Knights will lead the team and look to compete against the stacked field.

“You have to continue to expose yourself to top competition,” Sandoval said. “Bethan Knights stepped in and will be leading us to the Pac-12 championships.”

With such difficult competition, this may be a long Halloween for the Bears. But they will look to seek solace in the performances of their two biggest stars, Knights and Walden.

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