Bethan Knights, Chris Walden lead Cal cross country into 2015

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The Cal cross country team is entering the 2015 season with little fanfare after a seventh-place finish at the Pac-12 Championships last year. Despite a few notable individual performances, the team lagged behind more established running programs across the country. After several years of development, the Bears look ready to make an impact on the national stage.

After a grueling summer of training, the Cal men’s and women’s cross country teams enter the season ready to race. The men are led by redshirt senior Chris Walden, who earned Second-Team All-Pac 12 honors after finishing 10th at the 2014 Pac-12 Cross Country Championships.

Sophomore Bethan Knights returns to lead the Cal women after racking up multiple honors as a freshman. Knights placed third at the 2014 Pac-12 Championships and earned First-Team All-Pac 12 honors. The Bears will look for strong individual performances from Walden and Knights while also hoping for other runners to step up and join them on the 2015 All Pac-12 teams.

Cal head coach Tony Sandoval concluded a fruitful off-season with the addition of 10 runners from the recruiting class of 2015. Notable among them are freshman distance runners Robert Brandt, Annika Avery and Marissa Williams.

Both Brandt and Avery enter the season as borderline top-30 cross country runners. Avery, a recent graduate of Fayetteville-Manlius High School, left a lasting impression on the New York junior running circuit. Fayetteville’s women’s cross country team also captured three national championships with Avery on the team.

Brandt, ranked as the fourth best recruit out of California, recently graduated from Loyola High School in Los Angeles. Brandt is a standout mid-distance runner, holding personal bests of 4:08.44 and 8:51.97 in the 1,600 and 3,200 meter events, respectively.

Marissa Williams, a distance runner and graduate of Palisades High School in Los Angeles, is likely the jewel of Sandoval’s recruiting class and ranked as a top-30 cross country runner in the nation. Williams competed in 2012 at the premier U.S. high school cross country race, the Footlocker Cross Country Championships, where she finished eighth.

Cal enters the season as an underdog with a tough task, having to take on several powerful Pac-12 programs, including cross country powerhouse Colorado and programs such as USC and Oregon, which are traditionally very strong across all running events.

Despite the team’s lack of success in previous seasons, Sandoval has secured a very impressive recruiting class for the 2015-16 team. The team is very young, with ten freshman and only two seniors between the men’s and women’s teams. However, the team can reasonably expect to improve on its finish at the 2014 Pac-12 Championships as Knights looks to move up the podium this year and the new additions to the team will make an impact.

“Our mission is a national presence for both men’s and women’s squads in three championships: cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field,” said running director Sandoval, in an interview with Cal Athletics.

The Bears have the entire fall season to continue their training and gain experience without the pressure of expectations and national media. The team will have to walk a long and winding road to reach the top level of collegiate competition, but the talent and willpower to compete with the best programs in the country is all there.

George Wu covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].