Pac-12s Preview: #1 Colorado/Edward Cheserek and #3 Oregon/Shelby Houlihan Lead Stacked Fields

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By LetsRun.com
October 27, 2014

A prediction: it’s going to be loud at the 2014 Pac-12 Cross Country Championships. Sure, there will be cheers for Edward Cheserek and the men of Oregon, #1 Colorado and freshmen sensations Elise Cranny and Bethan Knights. But Metropolitan Golf Links will be loud on Friday for the same reason it’s always loud — it’s right next to an airport. Literally.

Just like the planes departing Oakland International Airport, the news of what happens at Pac-12s will travel quickly across the country as make no mistake about it, this is the best conference meet in America (in terms of talent, at least). We break down the men’s and women’s races below and let you give us your picks in our LRC NCAA XC Fan Polls.

Details

Location: Metropolitan Golf Links, Oakland, Calif.

Start time: Friday, 10 a.m. PT

TV coverage: Monday, 6 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network

Men’s Race: Is this the best conference meet in NCAA history?

Teams

2013 results

1. Colorado, 28 points
2. Oregon, 54
3. Stanford, 79
4. Arizona State, 140
5. Washington, 142
6. Washington State, 151
7. UCLA, 152
8. Arizona, 194
9. California, 220

(Oregon State, USC and Utah do not have men’s XC programs)

Ranked teams: #1 Colorado, #2 Oregon, #9 Stanford, #11 UCLA, #12 Washington

The #1 Colorado Buffaloes have won this meet every year since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 and after dominating #2 Oregon, 35-91, at Pre-Nats two weeks ago, the Buffs should win their fourth straight conference crown on Friday. How far ahead of the rest of the Pac-12 is Colorado? The Buffaloes put five in the top nine to score a scant 28 points at Pac-12s last year and return all five of those runners in 2014; Colorado also had six in before Oregon’s third at Pre-Nats. We spent last week’s column assessing the gap between Colorado and the rest of the NCAA, so there isn’t much point explaining how Colorado is going to win this meet. Suffice it to say, Colorado will win barring a major upset.

The far more interesting battle is for the next few places, as Oregon, #9 Stanford, #11 UCLA, and even #12 Washington (who finished one place behind UCLA at Wisconsin) will all enter the meet thinking they have a chance to finish as runners-up. Five Pac-12 schools raced each other at the Wisconsin meet, including Stanford, UCLA and Washington. Here’s how the Pac-12 schools would have scored if you remove all other runners:

1. UCLA, 40
2. Stanford, 43
3. Washington, 48
4. Arizona State, 100
5. Arizona, 120

Yes, even though UCLA finished 16 points (and two places) behind Stanford in the overall standings at Wisconsin, their depth on the back end (five in before Stanford’s fourth) on paper was enough to negate the advantage of front-runners Maksim Korolev and Joe Rosa in a smaller meet. Washington also made up a lot of ground on UCLA and Stanford, both of whom beat them soundly at the Washington Invitational on October 4. Stanford beat them by 60 without Korolev/Rosa; the Cardinal only beat the Huskies by 47 at Wisconsin even though they had Korolev/Rosa and it was a much bigger field. It should also be noted that Lane Werley, UCLA’s #1 at Washington, was the Bruins’ fourth finisher at Wisconsin.

Oregon, of course, didn’t run Wisconsin and probably has the best chance for second of anybody. The presence of Edward Cheserek means that the Ducks essentially only score four runners, and Eric Jenkins could be the best #2 in the conference, and therefore the country (it’s close between him and Rosa). What separates Oregon from Stanford (and gives them the best chance to beat UCLA) is its depth at #4 and #5. Remember that Oregon put four in front of Syracuse’s #2 at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, where it beat Syracuse handily. Syracuse, in turn, put five in front of Stanford’s three (and five in front of the #2s of UCLA and Washington) at Wisconsin, where the Orange dominated all of the Pac-12 schools. Oregon didn’t run as well at Pre-Nats as it did in Boston — Sam Prakel, who was a second behind #3 Daniel Winn in Boston, was 41 seconds back in Terre Haute — but it’s hard to pick anyone else #2 considering how badly Oregon beat Syracuse in Boston. If the Ducks get second, the fight for third may come down to whether Stanford can get Korolev and Rosa ahead of Colorado’s #1. If the Cardinal have six Buffaloes between its #2 and UCLA’s #1, they should have enough to hang on for third. If Korolev/Rosa falters — or if UCLA can break up the Colorado pack — the Bruins have the strength at the back to knock off Stanford.

One other thing to watch for: the return of Stanford’s Sean McGorty. Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg said that McGorty will make his season debut on Friday. McGorty DNF’ed Pac-12s last year but ran 13:37 on the track and was fifth at Pre-Nats last year. If he’s fit, he could be a big factor for the Cardinal.

Whatever happens, Pac-12s will make history. Looking at the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll archives (which date back to 1998 for the men and 1995 for the women), no conference has ever had five men’s teams ranked in the top 12 entering conference weekend (the Pac-12 had five women’s teams in the top 12 in 2011).

Cheserek (far left) and Korolev (second from right) went 1-3 at NCAAs last year

Cheserek (far left) and Korolev (second from right) went 1-3 at NCAAs last year

Individuals

2013 results

1. Edward Cheserek, Oregon
2. Jim Rosa, Stanford
3. Blake Theroux, Colorado
4. Connor Winter, Colorado
5. Ben Saarel, Colorado
6. Parker Stinson, Oregon
7. Pierce Murphy, Colorado
8. Aaron Nelson, Washington
9. Ammar Moussa, Colorado
10. Mac Fleet, Oregon

Like Colorado in the team race, Oregon’s Edward Cheserek is a similar lock for victory in the men’s individual race. Since winning Pac-12s last year, Cheserek hasn’t lost a cross country race. If everyone keys off Cheserek, as the fields have at the Battle in Beantown and Pre-Nats, it will be a very close and exciting men’s individual race. Cheserek only beat Colorado’s Blake Theroux by 1.6 seconds in Terre Haute and two of the top three finishers from Wisconsin — Korolev and Washington’s Aaron Nelson — will be running at Pac-12s as well. Add in Rosa, Jenkins and the packs of Colorado and UCLA and there’s more quality here than at any conference meet in the country. Oregon and Colorado will likely be content to let the race go slow, trusting their runners’ kicks, so it will be interesting to see if a team like Stanford, with two of the top individuals in the field, will push the pace.

Who do you think will come out on top? Tell us in our LRC NCAA XC Cross Country fan polls.

Women’s race: #3 Oregon, Shelby Houlihan and the battle of the freshmen

Teams

2013 results

1. Arizona, 69 points
2. Colorado, 75
3. Washington, 111
4. Oregon, 113
5. Stanford, 129
6. Arizona State, 138
7. UCLA, 173
8. Utah, 207
9. California, 213
10. Washington State, 260
11. Oregon State, 269
12. USC, 346

Ranked teams: #3 Oregon, #7 Colorado, #11 Stanford, #17 Washington, #22 Arizona State, #29 UCLA

After defeating #7 Colorado, 139-186 at Pre-Nats, #3 Oregon remains the favorite for the women’s team title. We’ve mentioned frequently how the Ducks have yet to race Waverly Neer and Sarah Baxter but as Jesse Squire of the Daily Relay noted last week, if they haven’t raced by this point in the season, they’re likely redshirting. Our preview will operate under the assumption that the team Oregon will run at Pac-12s is the same one that raced at Pre-Nats.

The good news for Oregon is that that team is still very good. Oregon put all five scorers in the top 36 at Pre-Nats and had a 10-second spread from #1 to #5. That was good enough for second behind #2 Georgetown, and Oregon could have been even closer (it lost by 29) with a better day from Lindsay Crevoiserat, who was the team’s sixth finisher (46th overall) in Terre Haute. Crevoiserat was the Ducks’ top finisher in their first two races and a solid race from her would have seen Oregon threaten Georgetown for the win. Oregon’s depth is actually pretty phenomenal. Its top finisher at Pre-Nats, Megan Patrignelli, was Oregon’s ninth runner at the Washington Invitational two weeks earlier.

Some might say it’s not good that Oregon’s top runners are so inconsistent, but the Ducks’ depth will be a strength at Pac-12s, where each team can enter up to 10 runners. Consider this: Oregon narrowly defeated Stanford, 48-55, at the Washington Invitational. There were 12 teams in that field (identical in size to Pac-12s) and the top four teams all happened to beat Pac-12 squads. In that meet, Oregon put seven runners in front of Stanford’s #5, with the Ducks’ #6/#7 runners providing two points of their seven-point margin of victory. In a similarly small race, Oregon’s depth could be the difference. Not only can the Ducks displace runners, but they will also benefit from being able to enter 10 runners — because, as Patrignelli showed, their #9 from one meet could be their #1 in the next.

Colorado is tough but its chances of upsetting the Ducks took a hit when Carrie Verdon (1oth at Pac-12s last year) broke her foot at the Rocky Mountain Shootout, sidelining her for the rest of the season. Verdon was the Buffs’ second finisher at the Rocky Mountain Shootout and slotting her in that spot at Pre-Nats would have knocked about 50 points off Colorado’s team score, putting it within striking distance of Oregon. #11 Stanford was seventh at Wisconsin but only lost to Oregon by seven at Washington. If defending individual champ Aisling Cuffe and Cami Chapus weren’t out for the season, the Cardinal may well have been favored at this meet but as it stands, Stanford is likely a year away. The Cardinal could be a serious national title contender as soon as next year, as Chapus and Cuffe will be back in 2015 and three of its top five at Wisconsin were freshmen.

Houlihan was 8th at NCAAs last year

Houlihan was 8th at NCAAs last year

Individuals

2013 results

1. Aisling Cuffe, Stanford
2. Elvin Kibet, Arizona
3. Kelsey Santisteban, California (has not raced this season)
4. Shelby Houlihan, Arizona State
5. Kayla Beattie, Arizona 
6. Nicci Corbin, Arizona (has not raced this season)
7. Kelsey Smith, UCLA
8. Shalaya Kipp, Colorado
9. Jessica Tonn, Stanford
10. Carrie Verdon, Colorado

As you can see, more than half of last year’s top 10 won’t be running at Pac-12s in 2014 and two more runners — Cal’s Kelsey Santisteban and Arizona’s Nicci Corbin — haven’t raced at all this season even though they’re still listed on their schools’ rosters. That leaves Arizona State’s Shelby Houlihan as the favorite for the women’s individual title. After defeating a strong field at the Roy Griak Invitational on September 27, Houlihan entered Wisconsin as the favorite. Though she only finished third, she was still the top Pac-12 finisher by 12 seconds and it would be a surprise to see her lose on Friday. Houlihan has the closing speed (NCAA 1500 champ, finalist in the 800 at USAs) to win a tactical race and is more experienced than any of the other contenders for the win — Colorado sophomore Erin Clark (7th at Pre-Nats), Stanford freshman Elise Cranny (7th at Wisconsin) and Cal freshman Bethan Knights (5th at Pre-Nats).

Entering the season, it was fairly obvious that the top freshman in the NCAA was going to run for a Pac-12 school. Baxter, a two-time NXN champ in high school and Cranny, fourth in the 1500 at World Juniors in July, stood out as the best recruits in the class of 2014. While it’s still true that the best freshman in the NCAA is in the Pac-12, it might not be Cranny or Baxter, but Knights, who was the top freshman at Pre-Nats in fifth place. Cranny, who won the Washington Invitational, is still the smart choice for the top freshman at Pac-12s — and NCAAs — as seventh against a stronger field at Wisconsin is probably slightly better than fifth at Pre-Nats (Cranny was also 18 seconds behind the winner at Wisco while Knights was 33 seconds back at Pre-Nats). It will be difficult for either first-year to upset Houlihan, but based on the results of two weeks ago, Cranny and Knights are better than everyone else in the Pac-12.

Who do you think will come out on top? Tell us in our LRC NCAA XC Cross Country fan polls. Login below to vote: Click here if you do not have a login

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