Talk about riding momentum.
After big performances at last weekend’s West Coast Conference Championships – the Gonzaga men’s cross country team earned its first WCC title while the women finished second – the teams will race in Friday’s NCAA West Regionals at the Arcade Creek Cross Country Course in Sacramento, California.
The top two teams at the regional automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships on Nov. 18 in Charlottesville, Virgina. In addition, 13 at-large teams will be selected on Saturday – 2 p.m. on NCAA.com – to complete the 31-team field.
Compared to other sports, the cross country at-large bids are determined by the results from the regional performances, not on the season as a whole.
The women start their 6,000-meter race at 10 a.m. and the men’s 10,000 will be at 11 a.m. Live results will be on NCAA.com.
Redshirt junior Wil Smith, whose third-place finish (24 minutes, 34.2 seconds) keyed Gonzaga’s first WCC men’s title , was the catalyst, according to coach Pat Tyson.
“He just brings all the things that a coach dreams that they want (in) a leader in the sense that he’s great role model, he pushes the athletes,” Tyson said. “No time for slackers, no time to not do the little things that make big things happen.”
Smith also placed third a year ago as GU finished second with a veteran-heavy lineup. An exodus of seniors from that team thrust Smith, a Lewis and Clark High graduate, into the leadership spotlight.
“He’s the guy that I expect everybody to shadow if you want a chance of being good at our sport, helping the team, go shadow Wil Smith,” Tyson said.
One of the runners who seemed to follow Smith’s lead is redshirt sophomore Bryce Cerkowniak, who finished right behind Smith at the WCC meet in 24:42.1.
The duo helped earn Tyson that elusive WCC title he’s been chasing for 16 seasons as coach.
“I kind of like building things and seeing where they go,” said Tyson, who also credits his former runners coming back to support the 2023 team.
“It’s kind of fun to have them and have their energy, but also to kind of have a reminder of what’s taken to get to where we’re at,” Smith said. “It’s not just our journey, but the people before us who kind of helped build this program.”
Tyson and Smith also understand the mission isn’t over,
“The mentality is generally that it’s a pretty wide-open race for that second automatic qualifier spot,” Smith said.
Gonzaga checks in at No. 6 in the latest U.S. Track and Field and Cross Cross Country Coaches Association West rankings. California Baptist is ranked No. 1.
Tyson told his runners to go out and battle.
“Every jersey is going to matter,” Smith said. “It is probably six or seven teams fighting for that second spot. We’re confident that we can come away with a high enough finish that we do end up making it, but the main message from coach is just go in there and take risks and battle.”
Sophomore Rosina Machu’s victory was the first by a Zag since Shelby Mills in 2015. Her 20:28.8 was 24 seconds faster than the second-place finisher and her third individual win of the season.
GU junior Sadie Tuckwood and freshman Jessica Frydenlund both finished in the top 10. The Zags finished second to Portland by six points.
While happy she won, Machu was disappointed that the Zags just missed out on the team title.
“We’re just going into this as confident as we can knowing and trusting each other that we’re all giving it our best,” Machu said. “We’re just super excited to go race at regionals and just show out.”
Six teams of the 10 in the West have been getting national recognition, so the regional race promises to be challenging. Still, coach Jake Stewart likes GU’s chances.
“For us, I think we have to go into it and really not get caught up in comparing ourselves within the race against other teams, just kind of go run and know what our gaps need to be and know how we need to execute things,” Stewart said.