The postseason has arrived. Though it’s been less than eight months since the last running of the Pac-12 championships, the culmination of this past summer’s mileage and the Bears’ racing this fall carry as much gravitas as does any other year.
On Friday, Cal cross country will lace up its flats in Salt Lake City, Utah to take on the conference championships. While it would be a real David and Goliath story to see the blue and gold challenge for the Pac-12 title or even a podium finish, this moment should endow the Bears’ many underclassmen with crucial collegiate postseason experience and serve as a chance for returners to build on past performances.
The Pac-12 is arguably the NCAA’s most competitive conference — in fact, many would see this as a point beyond contention. Four of the nation’s top-30 men’s programs (No. 3 Colorado, No. 4 Stanford, No. 12 Oregon and No. 26 Washington) and four of the top-30 women’s programs (No. 4 Colorado, No. 8 Utah, No. 18 Washington and No. 23 Stanford) reside within the Pac-12.
Stanford, Oregon and Colorado have combined to win nine of the past 20 NCAA cross country titles on the men’s side, while those three programs plus Washington have captured the same number of national titles in as many years on the women’s side. Suffice to say, the Pac-12 is not a friendly conference to be a member of.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the top individual runners in the country also inhabit the Pac-12. It’s conservative to wager that Oregon’s Cooper Teare will finish among the top five when the national championships come around. Colorado’s Eduardo Herrera will also be in the mix when it comes time to perform on the sport’s biggest stage, as will Stanford’s Charles Hicks and Cole Sprout.
Although the chances that the Pac-12’s team and individual winners will be donning blue and gold are slim to none, the conference championships present opportunities for Cal. This will be the first time that many on the Bears’ young roster get to experience postseason at the collegiate level, and veterans of the team will have the chance to improve on their showings at the so-called “2020” Pac-12 championships that took place in March 2021.
Senior Colin FitzGerald, who served as Cal’s top finisher at the 2019 installment of the Pac-12 championships, will look to impress again. After taking 50th place overall, FitzGerald will once more look to lead the pack in his first appearance at conference championships in two years.
The Bears will also look to sophomores Carrick Denker and Garrett MacQuiddy for a boost. They were the blue and gold’s two highest finishers at their most recent meet when Cal flew out to Tallahassee for Pre-Nationals. The two underclassmen were unfazed in taking the reins at a meet featuring fierce national competition and will be ready to do the same at Pac-12s, should the opportunity present itself.
On the women’s side, meanwhile, seniors Mina Anglero, Meredith Corda and Jessica Nye seek to build on their performances at the COVID-19-delayed Pac-12 championships that took place in March. The trio placed 49th, 63rd and 69th, respectively, helping Cal to a seventh-place finish.
Like the men’s team, the women will be looking to a pair of sophomores for significant contributions. Piper Wilson and Claire Yerby, who have emerged as reliable scorers this year, will be taking part in their first Pac-12 championships.
The Bears can’t be expected to lead a pack as ferocious as the one that awaits them at Pac-12 championships this weekend, but this postseason will be an invaluable source of experience for underclassmen — who have already shown great potential this season — and an opportunity for seniors such as FitzGerald, Anglero, Corda and Nye to make a statement at the conference level one last time.