It was only eight months ago that the Gonzaga men’s and women’s cross country teams last raced at the 2020-21 West Coast Conference Championships in Las Vegas, all on minimal racing due to COVID-19.
The Bulldogs are set to do battle again in the 2021 edition of the conference championships on Friday at Newhall Community Park in Concord, California, this time with almost an entire season of racing under their belts.
Having raced in four meets this season, the Zags’ top runners most recently competed at the Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, Wisconsin, where both squads came away with season-best performances, each defeating ranked opponents from the USTFCCCA National Coaches Poll.
The men took down 10 ranked teams, including conference rival Portland for the second time this season, placing seventh overall out of 31 teams despite the absence of redshirt junior Yacine Guermali, who was the Zags’ top runner at the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Eugene but was out with a back injury. Freshman Wil Smith (Lewis and Clark High) and junior James Mwaura led the way, finishing 11th and 14th, respectively, running 23 minutes, 37.1 seconds and 23:38.2 for the 8,000-meter race.
“We thought it’d be nice if we got into the top 10, but we managed to get seventh,” men’s coach Pat Tyson said. “We had some guys step up like Wil, and then others had great races. We got out of Nuttycombe what we needed.”
The men went into Nuttycombe ranked 19th in the national polls and recently have been bumped up to a program-best 13th going into the WCC Championships. They also went up in the West Region polls to third, the highest ranking in program history.
“I think this is a good place to be for us,” Tyson said. “Some programs in there that have pretty much solidified the top 10, and some of them did really well at either (prenationals) or Nuttycombe, but remember rankings are just ego things. It’s what happens in late November that really counts.”
The women finished 21st out of 36 teams at Nuttycombe, defeating three ranked opponents including West Region foe Oregon State. Junior Kristen Garcia was the first to cross the finish line for the Zags, placing 50th overall in 20:55.6 for 6,000 meters.
“It’s cool to see the growth that we’ve have had in the four years I’ve been here,” women’s coach Jake Stewart said. “They ran really composed and confident, and we put a plan together that they were able to execute it well. That was an approach we haven’t had since I’ve been here and to do it in that environment was really cool.”
The women also received votes in the latest national poll for the first time since the 2016 preseason rankings and have moved up to a program-best fifth ranking in the West Region.
“To be fifth in this region, you are looking at maybe being in the top two or three in other regions,” Stewart said. “Our region is a tough region and to be in the company of the schools that we are, it’s a testament to what the group is doing.”
Last winter’s conference championship showed what both GU squads were capable of against the WCC’s best. The men finished a program-best second place and had three runners named to the all-conference team. Smith, one of those honored, said this group has what it takes to beat BYU, which has won the past six conference titles and is competing in its last conference race before heading to the Big 12 next year.
“It would be really cool to win one, especially since BYU is leaving soon to kind of snag that from them,” Smith said. “We definitely have a shot if everything goes really well, so I definitely think we are going out there to give it our best. This is something I’d really liked to do with this team since we have been working toward it for a long time.”
The women will look to build upon a fourth-place result, their highest conference finish since the 2015 season when they won it last. Garcia was the lone GU runner named all-conference with her 12th-place finish.
“I feel like coming out of Nuttycombe the team looks really good,” Garcia said. “I think we will be able to perform big at conference, which is a race I feel will show our strengths. In a race like this one, I know I can be really aggressive because I have nothing to lose.”
With the BYU women being the heavy favorites again this season, Stewart believes the Zags will have to withstand Portland and San Francisco to finish in second place.
“We just have to continue to progress the way we are,” Stewart said. “I think each team in that two, three, four range has some strengths and weaknesses, so it’s about making sure we are solid in our strengths. … I think the three of us are going to be in a really competitive meet.”
Friday’s races begin with the women at 10 a.m., followed by the men at 11. Both will be streamed on WCC Network Live on WCCsports.com.
•Friday also includes the Pac-12 Championships in Salt Lake City, which begin at 9 a.m., and the Big Sky Championships in Hillsboro, Oregon, which start at 11.
The Northwest Conference Championships are at 10 a.m. Saturday in McMinnville, Oregon.
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