Cal cross country exceeds expectations at Joe Piane Invitational

Ketki Samel/File

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In cross country, there are a few markers for success. One being improving on a previous year’s results, the other is competing well against other teams — there’s nothing better than doing both. The Cal men’s and women’s cross country teams finished 7th during this past Friday’s Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational in a field of some very competitive teams.

The women improved on their 9th-place finish from last year with an even more impressive showing. Senior Bethan Knights, a consistent top-finisher for the Bears, placed 5th, but freshman Brie Oakley was the true X-factor, placing 12th, giving the Bears a formidable front duo.

But it wasn’t a simple cruise to the finish line for these two. The No. 1 and No. 2 finishers in the women’s race, a pair of New Mexico runners, took the first mile out at a blistering pace, forcing the rest of the runners to follow suit. This was a huge challenge for Cal’s top two runners as they were forced to match pace with the front pack.

“A couple of New Mexico women went out way way too fast. They went through the (first) mile in about five flat,” say Cal head coach Shayla Houlihan. “(This was) nothing we were prepared for at this point in the season, so it was a big shock to the system … but it was a good experience regardless because it’s something that could happen at nationals or regionals.”

The men’s team was led by senior Trent Brendel, who finished 12th and ran most of the race in a large front pack. Anyone unfamiliar with this should know that running in a large pack can be extremely difficult as one tries to traverse through a sea of bodies, trying to both not get hit by another runner, and get stuck behind slower competitors.

“For the most of the race that from pack was 20 to 30 men, and it was everyone for themselves in the last 1-2k,” said Houlihan.

Behind Brendel, senior Garrett Corcoran and sophomore Paul Zeiss also had impressive top-30 finishes. Unfortunately, senior Kai Benedict did not have a strong showing. Regularly one of Cal’s top finishers, Benedict finished as the Bear’s last runner.

“He didn’t feel well at all. In the middle of the race he got elbowed in the stomach, and he’s been feeling a bit tired so we’re just trying to hold him back for a little. … But he’s definitely been in the top three to four guys so I’m confident in him,” said Houlihan.

These words bode well for the Cal men’s team as they try and make a second consecutive trip to the NCAA National Championships. While the team was not at full strength today due to Benedict’s lackluster performance, the Cal men’s team projects to be even more deadly once they are at full strength.

“It was great to see both teams succeed,” said Houlihan. “Sometimes you walk away from a meet with one team performing well and not the other, but it was nice to walk away Friday knowing that everyone did the best that they could.”

Harshil Desai covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].