Helen Lehman-Winters’ first year as coach for the Oregon women’s cross country team was a resounding success.
Last season, the Ducks won their first Pac-12 title since 2015 and finished third at the NCAA championships.
Of course, having a low-stick talent like Jessica Hull leading the way didn’t hurt, and Oregon leaned on its stellar senior throughout the season as she was the Pac-12 runner up and placed third at the NCAA meet.
But Hull is gone, as are all-Americans Weronika Pyzik and Carmela Cardama Baez.
When the Ducks, who are ranked ninth in the USTFCCCA preseason coaches poll, open the 2019 season at 5:15 p.m. Friday in Monmouth at the 4,000-meter Ash Creek Invitational hosted by Western Oregon, it will give Lehman-Winters her first look at Oregon’s rebuilt roster before a two-week training camp in Sunriver.
The race will also give the Ducks a chance to run on the course that will host the Pac-12 Championships on Nov. 1. The conference meet was originally scheduled for Trysting Tree Golf Club in Corvallis, but has been moved.
Friday’s low-key race will have a field of 13 teams, including Lane Community College and Northwest Christian.
“We don’t really anticipate it being particularly strong (competition),” Lehman-Winters said. “Our purpose of going there is just to get a peak of the Pac-12 championship course. We’ll use it as a rust buster and a training tool and get used to the course.”
With that, here’s five storylines to keep an eye on as the season gets underway:
1, Evolution of Susan Ejore
The redshirt senior, an 800-meter specialist in track, flashed distance potential in cross country last season with a pair of individual wins early in the year and then scoring performances in the Pac-12 (sixth place) and NCAA championship (91st) meets. Lehman-Winters said if Ejore improves her race execution, she could emerge as the top runner on the team this fall.
“She has the ability and she had a tremendous track season and has better range than any athlete I’ve ever coached,” Lehman-Winters said. “She just needs to learn how to measure it off a little bit better. With a year under belt she has a much better feel and aerobically she’s light years ahead of where she was one year ago.”
2, Year two for Isabelle Brauer
The redshirt senior followed Lehman-Winters to Oregon from San Francisco last summer with high expectations thanks to her 15th-place finish at the 2017 NCAA championship meet. She didn’t match those results in her first season with the Ducks but was still a solid contributor. She placed 12th at the Pac-12 meet and 52nd at the NCAA meet, scoring points for Oregon in both races. The native of Stockholm, Sweden, has the potential for even more in 2019.
“She hadn’t run all summer when she came in,” Lehman-Winters said. “She’s coming off a really nice block of training this summer and is healthy and feeling really good.”
3, Rise of Amanda Gehrich
The senior was one of only two Ducks to compete in all six races last season and finished 18th at the Pac-12 meet and 108th at the NCAAs, out of scoring range for the Ducks but solid performances nonetheless for the career middle distance runner. Gehrich moved up in distance for the 2019 outdoor season and set PRs in the steeplechase (10:00.25) and 5,000 (16:12.65).
“Made tremendous progress on the track,” Lehman-Winters said. “She’s grown a lot as an athlete. … I expect her to be in a completely different place than she was last year.”
4, Reliance on newcomers
For the Ducks to contend for podium finishes this season at both the conference and national meets, they’ll need to get something out their five newcomers. Lehman-Winter pointed to three who could quickly become valuable contributors in Alessia Zarbo, Penn State transfer Moira O’Shea and Western Colorado transfer Aneta Konieczek. Zarbo, a freshman from France, has international experience having competed at the 2018 European U18 Championships where she placed third in the 3,000, and in the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Argentina. O’Shea, a redshirt sophomore, was 140th at the NCAA meet last season for the Nittany Lions and has a 1,500 track PR of 4:23.34. Konieczek, a junior from Poland and five-time all-American for the Mountaineers, was seventh at the 2017 Division II cross country championships.
5, A challenging schedule
Other than Friday’s season opener, the Ducks will have plenty of chances to test their talent in meets leading up to the NCAA championships on Nov. 23 in Terre Haute, Ind. Once they break training later this month they’ll have a week to prepare for the Bill Dellinger Invitational scheduled for Sept. 28 at Springfield’s Pine Ridge Golf Course where they face a large field that includes four teams ranked in the preseason coaches poll: No. 6 BYU, No. 13 Boise State, No. 15 Furman and No. 21 UCLA. The Nuttycombe Invitational is Oct. 18 in Madison, Wis., and includes 15 ranked teams. The Pac-12 championships will include preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Colorado, No. 3 Washington, No. 5 Stanford, No. 22 Utah and the Bruins.
Follow Chris Hansen on Twitter @chansen_RG or email at email@example.com. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.