Cal cross country contends for Pac-12 championship at Stanford

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Cal cross country will make its presence known at Stanford this Friday, not for a Big Game, but a big race. The biggest races of the cross country season, the NCAA West Regional and the NCAA Championship, are also coming up fast. But first and foremost are the Pac-12 Championships at Stanford.

Graduate student Garrett Corcoran is expected to lead and impress per usual, while younger prospects such as sophomore Andrew Burkhardt and freshman Marea Zlatunich are expected to build upon their recent favorable results.

More than half of the conference is nationally ranked. The Pac-12 is arguably to some and unquestionably to others the most competitive conference in the NCAA. The Pac-12 has featured the most teams in the NCAA Championship, the third and final championship competition of Cal’s cross country season.

The Pac-12 Championships competition field is small, composed of nine men’s teams and 12 women’s teams. Results in this championship competition will provide the Bears with better knowledge about where they stand among some of the highest-ranking teams in the nation and West region.

Stanford is entering the event with home-field advantage and support. Meanwhile, a number of teams, such as Washington and UCLA, have the advantage of familiarity with the Stanford course, where they raced approximately one month ago at the 2018 Stanford Invitational.

Runners will experience a prominent rolling 2,000-meter loop extending across four holes on the Stanford golf course’s lower section. The course is also notably flat, which will extract a faster performance from each competitor.

The women’s race will feature three of the nation’s top six teams, led by three-time defending champion and current No. 1 Colorado. No. 4 Oregon and No. 6 Stanford are the two other top-10 teams in the women’s field.

The Cal women’s side is seeking improvement in performance and ranking, currently positioned at No. 14 in the West region, down four spots from its last ranking. But the Bears feature the most exciting youth prospects of the competition and are hoping to improve on last year’s fifth-place finish. Zlatunich and sophomore Annie Boos, Wisconsin Pre-Nationals and Joe Piane Invitational standouts, are expected to excel in the women’s competition.

“The race will be a much smaller field, at most about 120 girls. This will allow us to see each other more often throughout the race and work together,” said freshman and up-and-comer Jessica Nye. “Overall this year, many of us are around the same pace, so we can work together in many parts of the race. By the end, I anticipate there will definitely be some breakout performances.”

The men’s 8K race will follow the women’s 6K race. Stanford, which finished in first place last year, is the highest-ranked team in the field at No. 4 and is the favorite to defend its title. On the men’s side, the Pac-12 features six top-30 teams, including No. 7 Washington and No. 8 Colorado, followed closely by No. 11 Oregon and No. 12 UCLA.

The Cal men enter as the No. 13 program in the West region, down one position from when the last rankings were released. Corcoran has been the Bears’ most successful and prominent individual runner this season. The individual race will certainly reveal itself to be highly difficult as well, featuring nine of the men’s top 10 finishers. Burkhardt and redshirt junior Paul Zeiss finished behind Corcoran at the Wisconsin Pre-Nationals and are aiming to elevate the team.

“Usually Pac-12s is a tactical race, so I think it is a great opportunity for all of us to pack up and carry each other to the best position possible,” Zeiss said. “The team is starting to feel really good with more race-specific workouts under our belts. Coach Houlihan always has us feeling our best at the end of the season, so I am confident that we can take down a nationally ranked team if each of us run a solid race.”

To prepare for the best of the best in the NCAA West Regional and NCAA Championship, the Bears must first face the best of the West. Friday’s race will be considerably special, since it just so happens that the best of the West constitute some of the best as well.

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