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Sports >  Gonzaga athletics

Gonzaga cross country overcomes obstacles to land spot at NCAA championships

Nov. 17, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 17, 2022 at 9:07 p.m.

Lewis and Clark High graduate Wil Smith lead the Gonzaga men’s cross country team that heads to nationals Saturday.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Lewis and Clark High graduate Wil Smith lead the Gonzaga men’s cross country team that heads to nationals Saturday. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Pat Tyson has running stories that go back 50 years and more, so there’s always bound to be one he can relate to his team of the moment.

This one he exhumed at the low point of Gonzaga University’s current cross country season, which comes to a close Saturday at the NCAA championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma – the Bulldogs going in as the nation’s 15th-ranked team.

That’s a spot lower than they were a month ago when they headed off to Wisconsin for the high-powered Nuttycombe Invitational – one of 19 ranked teams in the field. And where the other 18 all finished ahead of the Zags, who staggered in 26th and tumbled out of the top 30 the next week.

But for Tyson, it brought to mind an episode from his competitive days in 1971 at Oregon when the Ducks had a top-shelf team – led by the redoubtable Steve Prefontaine and Spokane’s Randy James – but got handled by Washington State at both the conference and Northern Division meets. In a workout before nationals, coach Bill Dellinger watched the Ducks step off a brisk 2 miles, shook his head and proclaimed, “I don’t know what’s going on. You guys are fit.”

“Then he just walked away,” Tyson recalled.

And, naturally, the Ducks would blow by the Cougars to win the NCAAs.

So Tyson took a page from that 10 days before the Zags went off to the NCAA West Regional near Tacoma, in a crisp early morning workout up at Hart Field. And, yes, they blew away four teams ranked ahead of them and finished behind only No. 1 Stanford – earning their first automatic berth to nationals.

“That moment (in Wisconsin) and moving forward was our chance to define ourselves – and find the heart of this team,” said sophomore Wil Smith, the former Lewis and Clark state champion and Gonzaga’s captain. “We could have been discouraged and had that same conversation and have nobody believe it, but it was amazing how bought in everybody was.”

The Bulldogs will need lots of belief in Stillwater where they’ll again face their West Coast rivals, Mountain Region bullies BYU and Northern Arizona and host Oklahoma State, running on its multimillion-dollar on-campus course – among the most brutal in the nation. In their first nationals appearance there in the COVID-delayed 2020 season, the Zags attacked the early hills too hard and plummeted from eighth through 2 miles to a 27th-place finish.

“That course,” Smith said, “breaks people like none I’ve seen.”

But, as noted, this team has already weathered some breakage.

If their coach was one of the famed “Men of Oregon,” he’s just as proud to call these Zags the “Men of Washington” – all seven who ran at regionals being graduates of state high schools, and not all of them state champs like Smith and senior Yacine Guermali. So there’s been development, too, and a new twist in Gonzaga’s running evolution: depth. The Zags are well stocked enough that runners nearing sub-30 minutes for 10,000 meters on the track aren’t in the top seven.

“One thing we can do at Gonzaga that might be different at UW or WSU is numbers,” Tyson said. “They can’t carry 30 distance runners on a track team. They have to have throwers and sprinters and jumpers. We’re a distance program and we have to have numbers to be in (NCAA) compliance, and I can redshirt every freshman, so they’ll be here for a fifth year. That builds depth. Evan Bates is a 13:45 guy (for 5,000 meters) who had a bad knee, but if another team lost somebody like that, it may be a top-five guy, a big scorer they can’t replace.”

Not that everyone is replaceable.

James Mwaura, the Zags’ Olympic Trials finalist and All-American, was sidelined throughout much of the fall with a troublesome hamstring. He jumped into racing for the first time at the West Coast Conference championships, and at regionals was actually GU’s No. 4 runner.

“Physically, he wasn’t ready and James has a lot of pride, but he’ll also do what he can and always give his best,” Tyson said. “He’s all right with the role he’s playing.”

Still, it’s remarkable what the Zags have achieved with their most accomplished runner just filling a role, and that speaks to the contributions of Guermali – who led the regional race at 9,000 meters and finished seventh – and Smith, who overtook two Stanford runners in the final kilometer to take fourth.

“He has that hungry look that champions have,” Tyson said of Smith, who chose GU out of high school over Notre Dame and Boise State. “He has the ability to get cozy with pain like the great ones and he’s relentless – he doesn’t want any slacking.”

That may have led to some of the injuries he battled through his first two years at Gonzaga, and he’s now gratified that he can “prove who I am as a runner.”

“I do pride myself on being mentally tough and that’s kind of what cross country is all about,” Smith said. “On a track, it’s all about finding a rhythm and holding it. In cross country, there’s always going to be challenges out there.”

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