It’s been more than a month since Cal cross country took to Golden Gate Park for its season opener, but the Bears’ season will not have truly started until the gun goes off at Pre-Nationals in Tallahassee on Friday.
The blue and gold have two races — the USF Invite and Sac State Invite — under their belts in this fall 2021 season, but the approach to those meets was more laid-back and reserved than it will be at Pre-Nats.
“Pre-Nats will be a real race,” said sophomore Cole Sawires Yager. “I know that the course will be a lot faster than what the other ones have been, and we’ll have some great competition there. We’ve had great competition at the other meets as well, but this is definitely more of a nationwide field. So we’ll definitely be giving it all we have.”
Sawires Yager is right about the level of competition that Cal will be facing: Five of the country’s top eight teams will be competing in the men’s race, including last season’s national champion, Northern Arizona University. The women’s team will face a similar challenge, as it will be up against six of the top 16 teams in the USTFCCCA NCAA Division I Coaches’ Poll.
While the Bears aren’t expected to knock off these ranked foes, it will be fascinating to see what they can do on a fast course at full tilt with a couple of college-distance races in the rearview mirror for their underclassmen. All but one man who ran at both the USF and Sac State invites posted a quicker time at the latter, more recent race. All four women who raced at both meets were faster at Sac State as well. The blue and gold will look to maintain that upward trajectory.
Sawires Yager, for whom the USF and Sac State invites were his first races ever at the 8K distance, attributed the young Cal men’s team’s improvement to its increasing familiarity with the new distance — up from 5k in high school.
“A big part of it is that a lot of us hadn’t raced 8Ks before,” Sawires Yager said. “You definitely feel that extra 3K. The pacing of the 8K is different from the 5K. It’s less about how fast you can get out and more about running smart through that first 4K. And then from there, that’s when the real race starts.”
But Sawires Yager didn’t pin the lion’s share of the team’s improvement on its acclimation to a new distance. Rather, he pointed to the squad’s healthy group dynamic as the primary factor in the Bears’ development.
“We definitely have been training really, really well as a team,” Sawires Yager said. “The energy right now is super good; our team dynamic is flowing really well. At Sacramento, we were able to get a solid pack going up through 4 or 5K. From there, we just gave it everything we had. If there is something reflected in our faster times, to me, it’s mostly how well we’ve been training together.”
The group’s budding chemistry will keep it strong Friday in the face of some of the nation’s toughest competition. And, given the youth of Cal’s cross country program, that chemistry will likely pay dividends further down the road. At the Sac State Invite, all four of the men’s top four finishers and two of the women’s top four were underclassmen.
But, for now, the Bears are locked in on Pre-Nats. Cal has been at it all summer and into fall, logging miles and even taking on a couple of meets. This Friday is when the season truly begins.
Ethan Moutes covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].