Oregon’s attempt to unseat defending NCAA women’s cross country champion New Mexico will be tougher than expected.
The good news for the second-ranked Ducks is it won’t be easy for anyone else either.
Weather in Madison, Wis., at race time Saturday could include snow and temperatures below freezing for the 8:45 a.m. women’s 6,000-meter race and the men’s 9:45 10,000-meter race.
How the Ducks handle those conditions will play a role in their ability to both chase down the top-ranked Lobos and hold off expected challenges from Colorado, Boise State and Arkansas.
“This is where we put our eggs in the basket,” Oregon coach Robert Johnson said Monday. “This is the meet we want to get to, and we have all these other meets in preparation to get here. We’re going to be ready and fired up and we’re going to go and have a chance to play for all the marbles.”
His women’s team certainly will at least.
The Ducks are loaded, led by senior Jessica Hull, who won the Wisconsin Pre-Nationals race on the Thomas Zimmer Championship course in October and followed with runner-up performances at the Pac-12 championship meet and NCAA West Regional championship meet.
Senior Weronika Pyzik was fifth at the NCAA meet last season for San Francisco, and junior Isabelle Brauer was 15th for the Dons before both transferred to Oregon.
Pyzik was 12th at Pre-Nationals, fourth at the Pac-12 meet and seventh at the West Regionals. Brauer has been Oregon’s steady No. 5, placing 22nd at Pre-Nationals, 12th at Pac-12s and 20th at the West Regionals.
Senior all-American Carmela Cardama Baez has been the Ducks No. 4 finisher all season, placing 19th at Pre-Nationals, eighth at the Pac-12 meet and 13th at the West Regionals. She was 34th for the Ducks at the NCAA meet last season.
The wildcard for Oregon is Susan Ejore, an 800-meter runner who has had an impressive senior season in cross country. She was third at the West Regional meet and sixth at the Pac-12 meet. But she also placed 61st at Pre-Nationals and is the only Duck in their top five who has never competed at the NCAA championships.
Even with all that talent, New Mexico will be hard to beat. The Lobos have the defending champion in Ednah Kurgat and one of the top runners this season in Weini Kelati. Their No. 3 runner, Charlotte Prouse, was 12th last season.
No one needs to remind first-year Oregon associate head coach Helen Lehman-Winters how tough the Lobos are to defeat. Lehman-Winters led San Francisco to a second-place finish last season, losing to the Lobos 90-105. It was the lowest score by the NCAA women’s runner-up in 20 years, and would’ve easily beaten Oregon in 2016 when the Ducks won the national title with 125 points.
Still, Lehman-Winters said the Ducks are confident heading into Saturday’s meet.
“I think were in the best possible position that we’ve been in all season long,” she said. “It’s nice going into the championships being at your best.”
Boise State is led by West Regional winner Allie Ostrander and Colorado has Pac-12 champion Dani Jones leading the way. However, Oregon won the team title at both of those meets.
“We’ll have to be smart and we’ll have to be strategic about how we go about running the national meet,” Johnson said. “In that straightaway you could get passed by 20 or 30 people and that makes a huge difference in the point swing there.”
The No. 12 Oregon men are in a race favored to be won by No. 1 Northern Arizona, which has won the last two national titles.
The Ducks placed sixth last season and return four of their five scorers from that race, including sophomores Cooper Teare and Reed Brown, and redshirt senior Blake Haney, who finished eighth at the West Regional meet last week to lead the Ducks.
Redshirt senior James West, redshirt freshman Charlie Hunter and redshirt sophomore Jackson Mestler have provided Oregon with quality depth this season.
West and Hunter were the Ducks' top-two finishers at Pre-Nationals, coming in 17th and 24th, respectively.
Hunter and Mestler came in 12th and 16th, respectively, at the Pac-12 meet, behind Teare, who led the with a sixth-place finish.
“We’re kind of a hodge-podge group,” Johnson said. “Look at how many No. 1s we’ve had in the last two or three meets. Usually there’s one No. 1 and then everybody else comes in. … What that shows us is that if we can all be on at the same day, we’ll be pretty talented.”