After two low-key home meets, team training camp in Sunriver and the last three weeks spent practicing in Eugene, the Oregon cross country team is ready for a challenge.
They’ll get one Saturday in Madison, Wis., during the NCAA Pre-Nationals, a 71-team meet that will include 20 of the top 25 women’s teams and 19 of the of the top 25 men’s teams.
The field was randomly split into two separate elite races for both genders, rendering a couple of juicy storylines moot for at least this weekend.
The fourth-ranked Duck women are entered in the 6,000-meter Cardinal race at 8 a.m. along with No. 1 Colorado, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 9 BYU and six other teams ranked in the top 25 by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
They’ll also avoid No. 3 New Mexico, the defending national champions who remain a favorite to repeat in five weeks when the NCAA meet returns to Madison and the Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course.
With their rebuilt roster and new coaching staff, the Ducks are also expected to be among the contenders for the national title, but they’ll have to wait until Nov. 17 to line up against the Lobos.
“It doesn’t really make much difference,” Oregon coach Helen Lehman-Winters said. “It would’ve been nice to have raced them just because we won’t face them until the NCAA Championships, but we’re not going to do anything different.”
Joining New Mexico in the White race is No. 16 Washington and former Oregon coach Maurica Powell and former Oregon stars Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon, whose fourth- and seventh-place finish, respectively, at the 2017 Pre-Nats led to a team win for the Ducks.
Oregon and Washington will have to wait until the Pac-12 championship meet Oct. 26 to compete against each other.
“At the end of the day with us, we’re just taking this as an opportunity to test our fitness and practice our execution and what we would like to do at the national championships,” Lehman-Winters said.
Oregon will have seven runners entered in the Cardinal race and another two entered in the Grey race, a third competition for those with less competitive times.
It will be Oregon’s first race since winning the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Sept. 21 when the first seven finishers were all Ducks, including winner Susan Ejore.
Ejore is entered Saturday, as are Oregon's other top runners including Jessica Hull, Carmela Cardama Baez, Weronika Pyzik, Isabelle Brauer and Phily Bowden.
“We’ve had a long training block and the Dellinger wasn’t really a test for us in any way, so we’re looking forward to actually race and feel like they have an opportunity to get after it a little bit more,” Lehman-Winters said. “But again, it’s still five weeks before the national championships so this is step one in the process.”
The 13th-ranked Oregon men are taking the long view as well when it comes to their 8,000-meter Cardinal race Saturday at 9:30 a.m., which will include No. 1 Northern Arizona, No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 5 Stanford, No. 9 Colorado State and five other ranked teams.
Like in the women’s race, No. 12 Washington and former Oregon coach Andy Powell, have been entered in the White race. New Husky Tanner Anderson was the Ducks’ top finisher at Pre-Nats last season, coming in 17th to lead Oregon to a third-place finish.
“Sure we’re going to get a look and what we’re going to see in a couple weeks (at the Pac-12 championships),” Oregon coach Ben Thomas said. “But we really need to keep focused on where we are and controlling the things that we can and moving forward.”
Thomas said the Ducks have been consistent in their training the last three weeks and he wants to see that carry over into their first big meet of the season.
Oregon will have seven entered in the Cardinal race and three more in the Grey race. Among those making the trip are Cooper Teare, who will be competing in an Oregon uniform for the first time this season, Oregon XC Preview winner James West, Blake Haney and Jackson Mestler, who has a pair of top-three finishes this season.
“We’re still very much in a building stage, which is a little later in the season than you’d like to be, but I’m happy with how it’s going,” Thomas said. “Hopefully this race will be a launching pad into bigger things.”