Cal cross country bounces back after Joe Piane Invitational

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This season, almost half of the Cal cross country team is composed of freshmen — a much higher proportion than usual. As the season hits the halfway mark, the younger, less experienced members of the team are showing that they are not only fast runners but also fast learners.

Cal’s motivation manifested into favorable signs of progress during the headline competition this weekend: the 2018 Wisconsin Pre-Nationals. Here, the Bears were hoping to forget the specter of the Joe Piane Invitational in September.

Freshman Marea Zlatunich displayed an especially commendable performance as the leading Bear in the race, reflecting the younger runners’ zeal for proving themselves. Zlatunich earned 57th place with a time of 21:17.6.

“She got out right in the front and settled into the pack,” said senior teammate Jordyn Colter. “That really helped the rest of the team feed off that energy and continue to move up throughout the race. All of the girls got out hard and that put us in good position from 1K on, which is something we have really been working on.”

While Zlatunich took the initiative to move ahead of everyone else, the rest of the women’s team discovered the effectiveness of running as one unit. During these types of competitions, there is a tendency for teams to melt and mix up with other runners and teams.

But in this race, the Cal women managed to spot and find each other during moments of such pressure, showing resilience and knowledge of how to execute their strategy.

The top seeds on the women’s side proved that they were the top seeds for a reason. Meanwhile, Oregon outperformed expectations, finishing in second place.

BYU overwhelmed competitors once again, finishing in a respectable fourth place after both their men’s and women’s sides completely dominated at the Joe Piane invitational. Cal finished in 23rd place at that event with a score of 633 and a total time of 1:50:12.

This event was integral for building the team’s confidence, especially the freshmen, who were hesitant to make a quick start to the race. This was where the leadership of the older runners revealed its value.

On the men’s side, No. 1 Northern Arizona cemented its dominant status, winning the competition with a score of 41 and total time of 1:59:59.

Among all 35 teams competing, Cal finished in the middle of the pack at 18th place with a score of 573 and a time of 2:06:04 — only five positions below No. 3-seed and host Wisconsin, which had an underwhelming performance.

Cal’s performance and results indicate that the team has indeed improved since its own disappointing performance at the Joe Piane Invitational.

As he’s done this entire season, graduate student Garrett Corcoran finished as the top Bear in action, earning 59th place with a time of 24:42.5. Similarly to the women’s side, the men’s team also packed together as a method of running more consistently.

“I feel like it was a great learning experience, but it was also extremely frustrating,” said freshman Colin Fitzgerald. “The biggest challenges were the vast open areas of the course where it was easy to get caught up and settle, rather than keep on pushing. We feel like this meet was a step in the right direction. We’re definitely not satisfied with the result, however.”

The Thomas Zimmer Championship Course provided the runners with plenty of difficult conditions, such as hills and chilly 34-degree weather, a fitting challenge to prepare for the 2018 NCAA Championship coming up in November.

The rest of the team competed closer to home at the Santa Clara Bronco Invitational. Both the men and women finished at 17th place; the men earned a score of 633 and the women earned a score of 423. This event was definitely used as a learning experience for the Bears and also assisted in determining individual runners’ levels.

For example, this race saw redshirt junior Kai Benedict making progress toward improvement after recently coming back from injury. He finished in 32nd place with a time of 24:28.0. Freshman Sydney Vandegrift was the top Bear to finish the race, finishing in 52nd place at 21:32.1.

“A standout individual moment is probably approaching the race as a fun learning opportunity,” Vandegrift said. “This approach helped me relax and enjoy the race with my teammates. This was reflected as a group, and I think we all cherished the opportunity to race and be healthy, and it ended up translating into good times.”

Good times and hard times are definitely coming up for the Bears. The Pac-12 Championship at Stanford is coming up faster as the season comes closer to its end. Cal’s exposure to the course and the competition that the team will meet again will certainly foster its aspirations of growth for this season.

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