At Saturday’s NCAA cross country championships, all of Cal’s hopes hinge on two runners: freshman Bethan Knights and redshirt junior Chris Walden. Walden and Knights will be the only two runners representing Cal at the cross country season’s final meet in Terre Haute, Indiana.
During Nov. 14’s NCAA West Regionals, the rest of the Cal men’s and women’s cross country teams were eliminated from further contention, leaving only the two young stars qualified for a chance at the individual championships.
Walden, who finished fifth in the previous week’s race and is a member of the Pac-12’s second team, has consistently been the Bears’ best performer on the men’s side. In every race this year, Walden has been able to run with the front pack and put himself in a position to succeed. He will look to do so again in the men’s 10k race Saturday as he faces the toughest field he’s faced yet. Walden’s competitors are led by Edward Cheserek of Oregon, who will be the favorite going into the race despite his shocking second-place finish in last week’s regionals. Cheserek’s main competition figures to be Stanford’s Maxim Korolev, the only man to beat him in a cross country race in more than a year. Walden figures to be a contender in the race, as he came within 10 seconds of victory the last time he raced against them.
Bethan Knights will ensure that Cal also has a championship contender on the women’s side. Coming off three consecutive top-five finishes, Knights looks to be one of the favorites in the women’s 6k race. The Pac-12 first teamer started her current streak of successes with a fifth-place finish at the pre-NCAA invitationals, her first race at the Terre Haute course. That race served as the performance that propelled her to the forefront of the Cal cross country team and revealed her as someone who can be one of her sport’s biggest stars.
Some of Knights’ strongest competition will come from familiar foes in Shelby Houlihan of Arizona State and Elise Cranny of Stanford, two runners who have consistently finished just ahead of Knights. Knights has finished behind Houlihan in three races now, including the Roy Griak Invitational, the Pac-12 championships and the regional championships. Meanwhile, Cranny has consistently rivaled Knights for recognition as the nation’s best runner and ultimately came ahead of Knights by winning the Pac-12 freshman of the year.
On top of the challenges presented by these stacked fields, Walden and Knights will also be racing against the elements. Racing in Indiana in the late fall presents its own set of challenges, as it has been freezing all week at the race course, and there is expected to be rain at race time. This will make for an extremely tough course for the runners and may result in a slower pace than most of the runners are used to.
No matter the conditions, there are no two runners Cal should feel more confident sending to a championship race than Walden and Knights. They have consistently paced the team all year and give Cal a legitimate chance at leaving Indiana with an NCAA champion.
Hooman Yazdanian covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected]al.org.