Cole Hocker will be running an unfamiliar distance when he makes his NCAA cross country championships debut for the No. 8 Oregon men.
The course, however, is one he knows all too well.
The highly touted freshman from Indianapolis is returning to his home state for the final race of the season at 9:15 a.m. Saturday on the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute.
That’s where Hocker won his Indiana state title in 2018 and where he competed 12 times over his four-year prep career for Cathedral High School in northeast Indianapolis.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Hocker said.
Those high school competitions were always 5,000-meter races. On Saturday, Hocker moves up to 10,000 for the first time. The course itself remains nearly the same between 5,000 and 10,000 so Hocker will have to run his familiar loop twice.
“I’m trying not to overthink the race,” he said. “At the end of the day you just go out there and run and I sort of just live by that. I’m excited and I don’t want to get too hung up on distance.”
Hocker’s three previous races this season have all come at 8,000 meters and he has performed as expected for someone who came in with lofty expectations following a standout prep career that included a win at the Foot Locker Nationals cross country championship last fall and a runner-up finish at the 2018 Nike Cross Nationals.
In his Oregon debut he was the Ducks’ third scorer as he placed ninth at the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Sept. 28. He was again the third scorer for Oregon at the Nuttycombe Invitational on Oct. 18 and placed 17th overall and was the fifth Oregon finisher at the Pac-12 championships on Nov. 1.
“You can’t ask for a freshman to come in and just be steady, consistent, staying healthy all fall even when you’re jumping up in distance from 5K to 8K to 10K,” Oregon associate head coach Ben Thomas said. “He’s handled it extremely well.”
Hocker didn’t compete at the NCAA West Regional 10K meet last week when the Ducks finished third and earned their spot in the championship meet. Thomas said he didn’t want to race his freshman in long races on back-to-back weekends. It was a decision Hocker accepted through gritted teeth, not that he didn’t see the logic in getting a rest week.
“I just like to race,” Hocker said. “In high school I didn’t sit out too many races. But I completely understood what coach was going for. It’s two 10Ks in eight days. In hindsight I’m happy I’m going to be running on fresh legs.”
For the Ducks to end up on the podium, they’ll need those freshman legs moving fast.
Oregon expects to be among the teams chasing a top-four finish. No. 1 Northern Arizona is favored to win its fourth straight national title with Pac-12 champion and No. 2 Colorado and No. 3 BYU, a team Oregon beat at the Dellinger Invitational earlier this season, the top challengers.
Also expected to be in the mix is No. 4 Stanford, which was third at the Pac-12 meet behind the Buffaloes and Ducks, and No. 5 Portland.
Junior Cooper Teare has been the Ducks’ steady No. 1 runner all season, highlighted by his runner-up finish at the Pac-12 meet and ninth-place finish at the West Regional meet. Junior Jackson Mestler was 14th at the conference championships and was sixth at the West Regional for Oregon’s top finish.
Senior James West has also had a strong season, with a pair of top-10 performances, including a ninth-place finish at the Pac-12 meet.
Sophomore Charlie Hunter and juniors Jack Yearian, Carter Christman and Reed Brown have been filling out the Ducks’ lineup this season.
“I really liked how Jackson and Cooper ran at regionals and I really believe James West can be right there with them,” Thomas said. “And that’s what it’ll take, really. You’re going to have to have three guys all-American and your next two pretty close.”
Staying close in a large, fast-moving race is a difficult challenge, and Hocker learned that when he finished 64th at the 33-team, 230-man Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, Wis., in October.
“It was an eye-opener for sure,” Hocker said. “College running is just a different beast and that was pretty clear there. That was the biggest field this year and in high school I was never really hung up in a huge pack like that. A lot comes down to positioning when it’s such a big field with such a big pack. Everybody’s running the same pace whether you’re in first or 100th place. So if you’re in 100th place it’s hard to move up.”
Hocker has no plans to be that far back Saturday. The freshman is rested and ready to compete on a familiar course.
“I’ve got a feeling we haven’t seen his best race yet,” Thomas said.
Follow Chris Hansen on Twitter @chansen_RG or email at email@example.com. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.