Cal cross country readies itself for qualifying test at NCAA West Regionals

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Phillip Downey/File

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Throughout this entire season, the notably young Cal cross country team has utilized each event to gain competition experience, learning how to challenge other elite teams more fiercely. Friday’s NCAA West Regionals is the penultimate competition of the Bears’ cross country season — they must pass this qualifying test at the Haggin Oaks golf course in Sacramento to advance to next Saturday’s NCAA Nationals in Wisconsin.

Everything has been leading up to this. Now is the time for Cal to exhibit the skills, mentality and new experience it has developed over the season.

The best way to understand the regional competition’s significance is in numbers. The women will run a 6K race, while the men will endure the longer 10K battle.

A minimum of two teams per region will qualify for next week’s NCAA Nationals for a total of 31 men’s teams and 31 women’s teams competing.

Seven men’s teams and five women’s teams from the West are projected to qualify. Along with the Mountain region, the West region plays a heavy role in determining which teams qualify. In total, Friday’s regional races consist of 827 runners from 38 teams.

The men’s side of the competition will feature nationally ranked No. 4 Portland, No 5. Stanford and No. 7 Washington. On the flip side, the women’s race will be headlined by nationally ranked No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Boise State and No. 6 Stanford, giving the Bears all they can handle in both races.

Cal has 18 runners set to participate — nine men and nine women. On the women’s side, four of the runners are freshmen and five are sophomores.

The men’s team contains a larger variety of grade and experience levels. The Cal men are currently ranked No. 11 in the West region, two positions ahead of where they stood in the previously released rankings after putting pressure on elite teams at the Pac-12 Championships two weeks ago at Stanford.

The women are currently unranked in the West region but are anticipating a strong showing after focusing heavily on speed and lactic-related conditioning.

Last season, current sophomore Brie Oakley and redshirt senior Bethan Knights were predominant leaders of Cal’s push into national contention. Their absences due to injuries have strained the results of the Bears’ current season. To fill the losses of Oakley and Knights, young prospects such as freshman Marea Zlatunich and sophomore Annie Boos have been leading the Bears and are eager to elevate Cal’s level in elite competitions.

“I’d say I have my own path I want to make. I don’t really like to compare myself to other people. Annie is there to lead me, and that’s really nice since I wouldn’t know what to do,” Zlatunich said. “It’s exciting to already lead races. It’s not what I expected when I came here. I’m really glad I have Annie (Boos) because it’s really nice to have someone to run with, since I don’t like running alone.”

Zlatunich and Boos have produced Cal’s top results in its most recent competitions, including the Pac-12 Championships and the Wisconsin Pre-Nationals, and are expected to lead once again at regionals.

“We work out together a lot and we try to really work together during the races to push each other to go faster. Whenever she speeds up, I try to speed up,” Zlatunich said. “It helps me to relax to have my teammate right next to me. In the beginning of the season, we were working on building a base. And now we’ve been working more on speed.”

This election season has trained all of us to be patient and wait for the results. Cal cross country will still have some more waiting to do after Friday’s competition, as official news regarding the Bears’ bid for the NCAA Nationals in Wisconsin will be released sometime over the weekend.

Stephanie Le covers cross country. Contact her at [email protected].