The nation’s 12th-ranked team is competing at home this weekend, and plenty of good seats remain unclaimed. There will be no radio or television coverage, even after Washington State’s impressive road performance last week.
If you’re thinking football, think again.
The WSU men’s cross-country team is also ranked 12th in the nation. And no matter what happens at the WSU Invitational this weekend, coach Li Li won’t be accused of abandoning the running game.
But the men’s team is only half of the story. The WSU women have also fared well.
Led by Kim Schmolka and Kristin Ritzenthaler, the 25th-ranked Cougars moved into the rankings this week, marking the first time in recent memory that both WSU teams have been ranked among the Top 25.
Both teams have Saturday morning tee times on the university’s golf course for the WSU Invitational, in which Washington figures to provide most of the serious opposition in the event that includes runners from six teams.
“This is probably the best depth our men have had in 10 years,” Li said. “In terms of quality, I don’t think we really have the best quality - I mean, back in the 1970s, we’d have people finishing first and second in the NCAA.”
The current men’s team may lack a Henry Rono or even a Josephat Kapkory, but the Cougars don’t lack talent. Bernard Lagat leads a team that seems destined to reach nationals for the first time since 1984.
WSU’s top men, with the exception of Eric Kamau, are expected to take Saturday off. They want to be rested heading into next week’s Chili Pepper Invitational in Fayetteville, Ark.
A strong showing against No. 2 Arkansas and No. 10 Oklahoma State could be critical in helping the Cougars reach nationals, unless they are able to secure one of two automatic berths from District 8.
Top-ranked Stanford and No. 6 Oregon are the district favorites, although WSU came within three points of upsetting the Ducks at last weekend’s Mountain West Classic in Missoula.
Lagat led for most of the 8,000-meter race, but a side ache caused him to fade in the last 2,000 meters.
“Bernard will hopefully find a way to solve that problem and then definitely be a top-5 or top-3 runner in the nation,” Li said.
The WSU women probably don’t have the depth to contend for their first trip to nationals since 1985. But they did manage to upset seventh-ranked Arizona last week, their first victory over the Wildcats since 1990.
The Cougars were able to prevail on the 6,000-meter Missoula course because Schmolka and Ritzenthaler were not running alone. Those two, along with teammates Joanne Hunsinger, Megan Maynard and Tammi Green, finished within 28 seconds of each other.
With that kind of talent, and with the WSU men already entrenched in the Top 25, the Cougars might have the best cross-country program this side of Colfax.
Community Colleges of Spokane is favored to win its 15th and 16th conference titles, and coach Larry Beatty thinks his Sasquatch match up favorably with the Cougars.
“I think right now we’d give old Wazzu a run,” Beatty said.
Now would be a good time to stop laughing, for Beatty’s braggadocio may not be hollow.
While the WSU men were competing at the Mountain West Classic in Missoula last weekend, CCS sophomore Shawn Beitelspacher was taking fourth out of 327 runners at the Willamette (Ore.) Invitational.
His 8,000-meter time of 24 minutes 36.14 seconds was a school record, and it compares favorably with times posted by WSU’s best.
Even more impressively, Beitelspacher finished ahead of several big names, including 11th-place finisher Jose Uribe, who was an All-American at Boise State last year. (CCS freshman James Barry, from University High School, was 14th.)
The Spokane women feature Erika Colin, Christina Werther and Angie Simmers.
Colin finished fifth out of 279 women at the Willamette meet. Simmers, from East Valley, was 36th.
How good are the Sasquatch?
“I’m kind of bummed,” Beatty said, “because we’re going down to the University of Oregon meet next week and WSU isn’t going to be there.”
Area cross-country notes
Idaho: Josh Muxen and Andrea Jenkins lead the Vandals. Their biggest accomplishment, according to fiery coach Mike Keller, is “surviving a year with me.”
Kidding aside, Muxen has been Idaho’s top finisher in every meet this season. The junior was seventh at last month’s Idaho Invitational.
Jenkins, from Rathdrum, Idaho, has been the Vandals’ top finisher in all but one event. She was eighth at the Idaho Invite.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs’ best runner, Jessica Fairbanks, is studying abroad in Florence, Italy. She was 14th in the NCAAs last year.
Sophomore Shane Litzenberger leads the GU men. Tim Harding, a freshman from Pullman High, makes his season debut at Saturday’s WSU Invitational.
Neither GU team is expected to contend in the West Coast Conference, which is traditionally dominated by Portland.
EWU: Eastern Washington is off until Oct. 19, when the Eagles host a scaled-down EWU Invitational at the Finch Arboretum in Spokane. Many of the area’s top runners will be competing at the University of Oregon.
Tyson Estes and Chris Henderson lead the EWU men. Amber Johnson and Darcy Steele are the top women.
Whitworth: Annie Scott leads the nation’s 25th-ranked NAIA women’s team. Scott, a freshman from Ellensburg, recently finished seventh among small-college runners at the Sun Dodger meet in Seattle. The Whitworth men have not been competitive.
WSU Invitational note
In addition to WSU and UW, there will be runners from Idaho, Gonzaga, Whitworth and Portland State.
The meet will not be scored between WSU and UW, allowing the Cougars to rest their top men without risking their national ranking.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Coming up Saturday: At WSU Golf Course, men’s 8,000 at 10 a.m., women’s 5,000 at 10:50.