Cal cross country season characterized by youth, injuries, growth

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The team may not have qualified for nationals, but this season, Cal cross country has experienced enough growing pains and progress to suggest a stronger outcome next year.

The Bears opened their season with a repeat domination of the USF Invitational at nearby Golden Gate Park: The men earned first place and the women placed third after having mostly rested their top runners.

Graduate student Garrett Corcoran earned first place and his first collegiate cross country win, establishing his status as the season’s star and top finisher. The event also introduced freshman Marea Zlatunich to collegiate racing.

Zlatunich and sophomore Annie Boos were particularly solid and consistent for Cal this season, often training and running together as a duo and finishing as the top two Bears in a number of events.

For athletes, perhaps the only thing worse than losing is getting injured. Last year, then-freshman Brie Oakley and then-redshirt junior Bethan Knights carried the women’s side, dominating events to bring Cal to nationals. It was largely because of them that the women’s side entered this season nationally ranked at No. 20.

Their absences this season because of injury heavily shifted the women’s dynamic. Instead of relying on Oakley and Knights, attention had to shift to youth development.

At the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, seven out of the 14 Bears — both men and women — were in their first year with Cal, including six true freshmen. The Pac-12 Championships women’s team consisted of five freshmen. Gaining elite competition experience was indubitably a benefit for these competitors, regardless of the result.

“Marea is very raw and new to it. It’s been very cool to see her going her own path,” said head coach Shayla Houlihan. “(Ariane Arndt) will also be a really solid individual for us, along with Annie Boos, who’s been our rock all year.”

Meanwhile, Corcoran entered this season in the best shape of his life and aimed for a streak of excellence as his last hurrah of collegiate cross country running.

Unfortunately for Corcoran and the men’s team, he picked up a few injuries during the season. Although he was still able to compete, Corcoran’s performances and results were undoubtedly hindered.

Corcoran started the season strong and is projected to end it strong as the only Bear who qualified for nationals after placing sixth at regionals.

Although Corcoran’s final cross country race for the Bears is imminent, Cal won’t be without ample leaders on the men’s side next season.

Redshirt sophomore Andrew Burkhardt first impressed at the Capital Cross Challenge, in which he was the first Bear to finish. And at Pre-Nationals in Wisconsin, Burkhardt exhibited qualities of a natural leader as he engaged with the men’s team throughout the race, gaining more attention from coaches and teammates alike.

“There are quite a few individuals who have stood out,” Houlihan said. “Steven Khan and Andrew Burkhardt made strides towards their ultimate athleticism. They are going to be the leaders of the younger freshman we will have (next season).”

Cal cross country expects to bring several exciting shifts in the coming season: youth to experience, injuries to comebacks, and growth to results.

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