Between a large group of veterans and a handful of talented newcomers, expectations are rising for the Oregon men’s cross country team as it begins the 2019 season.

The No. 11 Ducks return their top six finishers from last season’s Pac-12 championship race and six of their seven finishers from the NCAA championships.

Of course, those teams finished fourth and 15th, respectively, so there is plenty of room for improvement heading into Friday’s 5:45 p.m. season opener at Western Oregon’s Ash Creek Invitational in Monmouth, a 6,000-meter race that will also include teams from Lane Community College and Northwest Christian University.

“This week is not too intense,” Oregon associate head coach Ben Thomas said. “Just getting back together, showing some of the new folks the places we have to train around here and getting them used to some of the routines.”

Thomas and his team had to adjust to each other quickly last year when Thomas was brought in late in the summer with little time to get ready for the 2018 season.

Now with a full year under his belt, Thomas said his second season with the Ducks will begin with a better conditioned and prepared team.

“It’s nice having had a full summer with the team in the sense that they had a plan at the beginning of summer,” Thomas said. “Some of the most important work that gets done is the work they do before they even get on campus, and we did a good job with that. I was pleased with how the summer went.”

The Ducks will go directly from Monmouth to Sunriver for two weeks of training camp before returning to Eugene and having a week to prepare for the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Sept. 28 at Pine Ridge Golf Club in Springfield, where it will face a large, stacked field that includes three other teams ranked in the USTFCCCA preseason coaches poll in No. 2 BYU, No. 6 Portland and No. 22 UCLA.

Oregon also has challenges ahead at the Pac-12 meet on Nov. 1, which will take place on the same course as Friday’s meet. Washington opens the season ranked third, followed by No. 4 Colorado, No. 10 Stanford, Oregon and then UCLA.

As the season gets underway, here are five reasons to be optimistic about what the Ducks can accomplish this fall:

1, Cooper Teare

The talented junior has shown his potential several times over the past two seasons. He was the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2017 after finishing eighth at the championship meet and 44th at NCAAs. He was sixth at Pac-12s last year but finished 94th at NCAAs. He’s coming off an outdoor season that saw him win the Pac-12 title in the 5,000.

“Cooper Teare was really solid last year with a lot less training in the summer,” Thomas said. “So I’m excited, with him having a full, consistent summer, to see what he can really do on the course.”

2, The return of James West

In his first full season of cross country at Oregon, the redshirt senior scored at both the 2018 Pac-12 and NCAA meets and also posted a win in the season-opening Oregon XC Preview. He’s coming off a long track season that included a PR in the 1,500  when he ran 3:35.74 — second-fastest all-time at Oregon — in June. He also had a fifth-place finish in the 1,500 at the British Championships on Aug. 25. West will now get a short break to recover.

“I think he’s going to be there when it counts,” Thomas said. “He had a couple up-and-down races last fall but I think he’s a guy, with the experience he’s gained this summer, come October and November, will be really solid.”

3, Jackson Mestler’s quiet progression

With little fanfare, the redshirt junior from Sheldon has become one of the Ducks’ most reliable performers. He was Oregon’s top finisher at the 2018 NCAA championship meet, coming in 73rd overall, and was the the Ducks’ second finisher at the Pac-12 meet, coming in 12th. Mestler also had solid track seasons in 2019 as he set PRs indoors in the 5,000 (13:46.9), 3,000 (7:57.72) and mile (3:59.77), and outdoors in the steeplechase (8:44.72).

4, The addition of Cole Hocker

The freshman from Indianapolis was one of the top recruits in the nation last year. He won the 2018 Foot Locker Nationals cross country meet and was the runner-up at the 2018 Nike Cross Nationals. Thomas said Hocker has been “Mr. Consistency” so far this summer.

“Exactly what you’d hope for in a freshman coming in,” Thomas said. “Seems very levelheaded, excited to be here. It’s always a challenge, he’s going from 5K to 8K-10K at this level, so it’s too early to say exactly what he’s going to be able to do, but so far, I feel very positive about the possibility of him contributing this season.”

5, Depth potential

Beyond the predicted top three of Teare, West and Mestler, and the potential of Hocker, the Ducks still need to develop a solid top seven, Thomas said. Sophomore Charlie Hunter, who was the 2018 Pac-12 freshman of the year, junior Reed Brown and redshirt junior Jack Yearian all competed at the NCAA meet for Oregon last season. Transfer Noah Affolder, a junior, also has NCAA experience from his time at Syracuse. Two other transfers, Soren Knudsen (Northern Arizona) and Lucky Schreiner (Columbia), could also contribute.

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