Walden, Knights make cross country history at NCAA Championships

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At Saturday’s NCAA cross country championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, Cal history was set. With his 17th-place finish, redshirt junior Chris Walden became the highest-finishing Cal man in over 30 years. Freshman Bethan Knights became Cal’s highest-finishing freshman of all time at the NCAAs with her 25th-place finish.

With their impressive finishes, both runners were named NCAA All-Americans, an honor that goes only to each race’s top 40 finishers. The naming of Walden and Knights as All-Americans makes it two consecutive years that the Cal cross country team has had at least one All-American. Kelsey Santisteban was named an All-American by finishing in 10th place but is currently redshirting due to a foot injury.

Walden’s 17th-place finish has only been surpassed by Tom Downs in Cal history. Downs managed consecutive top-15 finishes in 1981 and 1982.

“Chris Walden ran his greatest race ever,” coach Tony Sandoval told Cal Athletics.

The Cal team as a whole was unable to qualify for the NCAA championships at last week’s NCAA regionals, so it was up to Walden and Knights to represent the school on their own, and neither disappointed.

Walden’s effort was one of his strongest in his Cal career. He managed to stay in the front pack for the whole race, running in fourth place through 8,000 meters of the 10,000-meter race before faltering some at the end. Oregon sophomore Edward Cheserek ultimately won the race, making him a two-time champion in his already illustrious career. Colorado, which entered the race as a heavy favorite, was also able to repeat as national champions on the team side.

Knights, the lone representative of the women’s cross country team, managed to excel yet again. As has been evident for the whole year, Knights has clearly emerged as someone who will be the face of Cal cross country for many years to come. Knights finished in third place among the freshmen in the race, yet another promising sign in a season full of them for Knights.

“This was Bethan’s most competitive field in her short career as a Golden Bear,” Sandoval said to Cal Athletics. “She’s raced all year with poise and toughness that is unusual for such a newcomer, and today was no exception.”

Her performance was especially impressive given that the field she was facing was the toughest one of the year, consisting of all of the nation’s best teams led by wire-to-wire winner Kate Avery of Iona. The Michigan State women won the team race.

The ending of the NCAA championships marks the end of a season of highs and lows for the Cal cross country teams. There were many lows, including the inability of either team to qualify for the NCAA championships and, importantly, the inability of Santisteban, the team’s star, to compete in any races this year.

But there were also many highs for the team, not just limited to the phenomenal performances of Walden and Knights. The women’s team performed quite well all year and came just short of qualifying for the championships, while the men showed some flashes of promise, which were significant for such a young team. Next year, the Bears will likely see the return of Santisteban as well as further improvement for Knights and Walden. With three returning All-Americans, the Bears will look to build upon a 2014 rollercoaster in 2015.

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