Cal cross country team looks to improve on mixed 2015 finish

The Cal cross country team is entering a new season where it will look to surpass last season’s expectations. Given last year’s improvement, the Bears will look to take another step forward and grow upon the men’s 23rd-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2015.

Expectations are higher when the same group of runners returns for a new season, but this time they will have to manage without their biggest asset. The men will no longer be able to rely on the leadership of former Cal runner Chris Walden, who finished his career as a Bear after leading the men with a finishing time of 30:46.0 and placing 59th overall at the NCAA Championships. He left a long-lasting impression with noteworthy performances that will be remembered for seasons to come.

The team’s centerpiece for many years is gone, which means it’s time for new guys to step up to the plate. In that same race, the rest of the Cal finishing times were just seconds behind Walden, meaning possible candidates may have already emerged. Then-sophomore John Lawson (31:00.4), redshirt sophomore Trent Brendel (31:23.9) and freshman Robert Brandt (31:31.8) all finished within the same minute range. And now with national experience under their belt, they will hope to draw from that and lead the 2016 campaign.

Even with so much attention placed on last year’s results, there will be a new era upon the Cal men’s and women’s cross country teams as former Cal associate head coach Shayla Houlihan was named the new head coach during the offseason. Her goal for the women’s team right off the bat is no different from what the men were finally able to accomplish a year ago. She is looking forward to ending a four-year drought and coaching the women to an NCAA Championships appearance. Earning the respect and trust from her runners will not be a problem, as Brendel has no doubt that his new coach will do a fine job.

“It’s super exciting for me to have her as the head coach,” Brendel said, on the first day of practice, to Cal Athletics. “She’s gotten me through a lot over the year so it’s amazing to finally have her as head coach to really drive our efforts.”

Junior Bethan Knights will be leading the way for the women’s side. Knights will look to consistently lead the way for her team and erase the “what if” factor after not being able to compete in last year’s NCAA West Regional Championships. Missing her usual top finishing performances really ended up hurting the team as the Bears finished in 7th place — short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. A year later, Cal will depend on Knights to be there to lead her team, not just all season but when it matters most.

The goals are simple for the men — improve upon what was done a year ago. For the women, the objective will be to end their long drought and make it to the national stage.

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