Pressure, and lots of it — that’s what the Bears are going to be facing Friday. The men’s and women’s cross country teams are heading to Stanford looking to keep their season going as they compete in the NCAA West Regional championships. They will be trying to secure a spot in the NCAA championships next weekend.
The men’s and women’s resumes make it unlikely for them to be chosen as at-large selections, so they will need to finish in the top two at the meet to automatically qualify for the NCAA championships. This will be a tough task for the young Bears, considering the strong fields they will be up against in each race.
The men will be up against four of the nation’s top-20 teams, including No. 2 Oregon, which will be led by Edward Cheserek, the nation’s most-decorated runner. Cheserek has won seven consecutive races, including last year’s West Regionals, and will be the overwhelming favorite to win. In their fight to overcome this stacked field, Cal will be led by redshirt junior Chris Walden, who is coming off a 10th-place finish at the Pac-12 championships. Walden was also recently named to the Pac-12’s second team.
This week’s men’s race is 10,000 meters, whereas most teams’ past races have been 8,000 meters. Given the slightly different format, the usual suspects may struggle more than they otherwise would, giving other runners an opportunity to step up and excel. Because of the longer race, teams that are confident of at least securing an at-large bid for the national championships may rest some of their runners to preserve them for the next week’s championships. This could turn out to be of significance for the Bears, as any potential advantage will be of use for them in the race to qualify.
The Cal women will also face a very difficult field, including six of the nation’s top-30 teams, led by No. 3 Oregon. The Bears will be paced by their star freshman Bethan Knights. Knights has managed to improve her performance in each one of her competitions, starting with a 15th-place finish at her first event, the Roy Griak Invitational, and moving her way up to a third-place finish at the conference championships. She will hope to do so again as she attempts to lead the women to qualification for the NCAA championships.
Knights is coming off of a selection to the Pac-12’s first team in the aftermath of her strong finish in the conference’s championship. She will be looking to catch the pre-race favorite, Arizona State’s Shelby Houlihan, sister of Cal assistant coach Shayla Houlihan. Cal also figures to see strong performances from junior Mariel Mendoza and sophomore Megan Bordes, top-50 finishers at the Pac-12 championships.
If the Bears are unable to qualify for the NCAA championships, this will be their last meet of the season. But if the team fails to qualify, Cal will look to send both Walden and Knights to the championships. In order to automatically qualify for the NCAA individual championships, they must finish among the top four of the runners who are not on the two automatically qualifying teams in each race. But before any of this matters, the teams’ eyes will be set on qualifying themselves for the championships by running past some very tough competition. But if the competition proves to be too tough, the Bears will look at Walden and Knights to carry the Cal mantle one last time at the NCAA championships.
Hooman Yazdanian covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].