Disappointing final few weeks mar impressive Cal cross country season

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Phillip Downey/File

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On Nov. 19, the Cal cross country team left the NCAA Championships with mere disappointment coming off its worst performance of the season. A golden opportunity for national prominence turned into a nightmare that overshadowed the 2016 campaign.

The road to Terre Haute, Indiana, began at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where right from the start, redshirt junior Trent Brendel and sophomore Robert Brandt easily stood out. At the USF Invitational, Brendel picked up the course record, finishing in a time of 24:21.1 to give him an individual win.

The early push that Brandt gave Brendel finishing just one second behind him would serve as the ignition in matching each other’s performances throughout the season. Their first- and second-place finishes were enough to earn the program’s fifth victory in this invitational.

After missing out on the 2015 NCAAs, junior Bethan Knights was ready from the opening gates in the women’s 6K event. Knights finished in fourth place with her time of 21:02.8, while sophomore Marissa Williams came in second in the team’s scoring. This duo played a significant role because, just like Brendel and Brandt, they would also go on to run as counterparts going forward.

A key race for the Bears was when they traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to compete at the Joe Piane Invitational. This was the first true test, as 48 squads made their way to the starting line for their respective races.

The women’s team looking at where they stood among premier powerhouses in the 5K event as they ran a combined time of 1:25.09. This finish placed them in ninth out of 23 teams, showing them an early glimpse of their surrounding competition.

Meanwhile in the men’s 8K, the Bears had a similar showing as they clocked in at 2:01.47 for eighth place out of 25 teams. Brandt got the better of Brendel this time around, as he came in at 23:50.9, completing the course six seconds faster than Brendel.

With the postseason in every Cal runner’s mind, it could have been easy for the runners to simply go through the motions as they approached the final race of the regular season. Instead, the women went out at the NCAA Pre-Nationals and placed in the top 10 out of 41 teams, while the men basically replicated that in finishing 10th out of 40.

Everything was set for a memorable 2016 ending, but things went downhill for the team in the postseason. The women’s sixth place finish out of 12 and men’s sixth out of nine placement in the Pac-12 Championships were fairly appalling considering how well they responded in important competitions. This led to the NCAA West Regionals, where only Knights was able to qualify as an individual, and the men — on a brighter note — traveled to the national championships as a unit.

The road ended here with the men placing last and Knights finishing 89th, finally putting an end to the dismay. The Cal cross country team’s 2016 season is left in the books, but one last chapter is yet to be written with a shot at redemption.

Oscar Oxlaj covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected]