Cal shows improvement as season approaches crescendo

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

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Both locally and nationally, the 2021 NCAA cross country season is picking up steam.

While Cal and countless other schools are still in the calm before the storm, pre-nationals conference championships, regionals and — for some — nationals lurk just around the corner. As such, teams are sharpening their focus and tuning up for the postseason.

The latest step in the Bears’ postseason preparation was the Sac State Invite in Rocklin, California. At the meet, Cal faced off against the likes of Sacramento State, Fresno State and, most notably, Stanford.

The women’s 6k race featured a landslide victory for Stanford, which fell just short of achieving a perfect score of 15 when it placed five of the contest’s first six finishers. Led by sophomore Zofia Dudek — last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year — the Cardinal’s top four were separated by less than ten seconds, and its fifth scorer was not far behind. Needless to say, it was a convincing performance by Stanford.

But Cal did not enter the Sac State Invite all too concerned about the scoreboard. For the Bears, the meet was an opportunity to build on the solid foundation they laid at the USF Invite, and a tuneup for later contests like Pre-Nationals on Oct. 15 and the Pac-12 Championships on Oct. 29.

And the blue and gold succeeded in what they sought to accomplish.

All four Cal women — Meredith Corda, Jessica Nye, Piper Wilson and Claire Yerby — who had run at the USF Invite in early September ran faster times this past weekend than in the season opener. And this time, they had company: Kalinda Reynolds, Lauren Calcagno and Natalie Weiner rounded out the Bears’ top seven. Calcagno scored a PR of nearly 40 seconds in her first cross country race since 2019.

The men’s team also turned in a praiseworthy performance in its 8k race. Its objective was much the same as the women’s team, but in the process of taking on the Sac State Invite as a glorified workout, the Bears also managed to claim victory.

Granted, Stanford did not have its top men competing. Charles Hicks and Cole Sprout — both of whom earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors last season — were absent from Friday’s meet, as were multiple other contributors. While the Bears weren’t at full strength either, there’s no question which team was missing more of its contributors.

Regardless of who they were facing, however, the blue and gold looked strong even relative to how they appeared at the USF Invite a few short weeks ago. All but one member of their top seven put up a faster time at this meet than at the season opener and, remarkably, Cal’s first four finishers were underclassmen.

Carrick Denker and Cole Sawires Yager led the charge, finishing first and second on the team and fourth and fifth overall. Denker dropped a 24:48 with an average pace of 4:59 per mile across the nearly five-mile course, and Yager’s time of 24:49 was over a minute faster than what he ran at the USF Invite.

The Bears’ progress in the past month suggests that they’re on their way to peaking at the right time. As the season builds to a crescendo, the blue and gold will continue to find new limits for themselves.

Ethan Moutes covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].