Men's Cross Country Prepares For Breakthrough Race
Nov. 5, 2001
In 1998, the men's cross country team congregated in a classroom to discuss what it would take to produce a team that could qualify for the NCAA National Championships. Though the program had produced exceptional individual athletes, no Gaucho lineup had ever advanced to the event. Now, after three years of grueling miles and an intense training regime, the men are one race away from achieving their goal. With a lineup possessing only two athletes recruited with scholarship money, the Gauchos have surprised the collegiate running community as one of the favorites to advance to South Carolina, site of the national meet. This year UCSB has gone from not being ranked as a top-10 team in the Western Region, to being ranked as high as 11th in the country. Cross country is second only to basketball as the most widely offered sport in collegiate athletics -- with over 300 teams competing in the division, the ranking places the team in the elite bracket of the top 5% of all collegiate programs. The Gauchos now stand ranked 13th in the country, and number three in the West Region.
This weekend the Gauchos will travel to Tucson, Arizona to compete in the NCAA Western Region Championships. In the Gauchos' previous 31 years of division I competition, this race has marked the of end of the season. To qualify automatically, the team has to finish first or second. In addition, there are 13 "at-large" teams that are granted trips to South Carolina, based on their performance over the year. These 13 spots are spread out over the nine regions. The West has always been one of the toughest districts to compete in. In the most recent ranking, the West has six teams recognized nationally in the top 20, a statistic unmatched by any other region. Number 2-ranked Stanford is the favorite to finish first, while #8 Portland is hoping to take the other automatic position. The Gauchos possess the next highest ranking and are aiming to challenge Portland. Though the Gauchos want an automatic spot, the team is keeping a close eye on their position. Number 14 Arizona State, #18 Oregon and #20 Arizona are going to be clawing at the Gauchos for a higher finish.
The team is approaching the race with a "business as usual" mentality. Head coach Pete Dolan states that the team just needs to keep doing what they've been doing. "We don't need any miracles," said the 2001 Big West Coach of the Year. "If we run the way we have been all season, we should go (to South Carolina)." Analyzing the region, and assuming nothing unusual happens, all six of the top teams should earn either automatic or at large bids. Therefore, in theory, the men could finish as low as 6th and still advance due to the region's strength. However the Gauchos aren't taking anything for granted after watching unranked Cal Poly block three ranked teams from going to last year's NCAA championship, by finishing in third place.
The 1-2 Punch
The Gauchos are expected to be led by fifth year seniors Eric Gans and Josh Horton. The pair finished first and second respectively in a thrilling Big West Championship race last week, and will be crucial in establishing the team's up-front power. Horton has always been recognized as one of the top track runners on the west coast with personal records of 14:07 and 29:09 in the 5k and 10k. This cross country season, the Virginia native has shown that he is to be regarded as one of the region's top cross country runners after taking 8th in the Pre-NCAA Gold Race, covering the challenging 8k course in 24:34. Gans is also recognized as one of the region's top cross country runners after finishing 25th in the single-heat 2000 Pre-NCAA race. This year Eric has extended his hard training with the intention of peaking late in the year. His efforts were illustrated by claiming the Big West Conference title last week, a strong improvement from all of this season's previous races. Overall the pair should be able to stay with the lead pack for the majority of the race, and taken into consideration that they both have extremely quick closing speed, the duo should both be in the hunt for a top-ten finish.
After two years of injury-plagued seasons, red-shirt junior Brandon von Guenthner has found a groove that has made him one of the team's most consistent runners. With the exception of only two races in which Brandon was victim to illnesses, the Laguna Niguel native has a remarkable record of providing consistent races for the past two cross country seasons. "VG" as he's called by his teammates, has earned All-Conference honors, placed 35th in this year's Pre-NCAA Gold Race, and 18th at the Stanford Invite. Assuming illness does not come into play, expect Mr. Consistent to be in the hunt for a top-20 finish as one of the team's front five.
The Juco Rivalry/Tandem
Perhaps the oddest pair on the team, fourth year junior transfers Bryon Lamorandier and Aaron Sharp have an unusual, but positive impact on the squad. The pair each come by way of a junior college, or "Juco Juice" as Dolan calls them, and are the only two athletes to be recruited with scholarship money. Dating back to their early "juco" days, they share a very intense rivalry. After careful calculations, the two have determined that they have each beaten each other six times in the twelve races they've faced each other. Lamorandier tied the rivalry-score with his amazing 5th place finish at last week's Big West Conference Championships, while Sharp was 11th. Sharp, from Port Hueneme, CA, is an accomplished 10k runner illustrated by his 30:15 personal best, and "All-Conference" honors last track season. During the 2000 cross country season, Sharp ran his best two races over the distance of 10k, and the Regional distance of 10k is expected to benefit the senior. Lamorandier, from Jamul, CA was previously regarded as a 800/1500 runner with bests of 1:51 and 3:50. However, that is no longer the case as the 6'4 red-shirt junior has made a convincing case for himself as a cross country athlete by posting outstanding races all season. Sharp has already declared that he's going to "smoke Lamo," while Bryon has claimed a condescending ignorance of "who's Sharp?" While some may regard the inner-team rivalry as unhealthy, the benefits have been outstanding for the team. At the Pre-NCAA race, the pair blazed over the last two miles of the course, running side by side trying to outgun the other. Sharp edged Bryon by finishing 59th, while Lamo was 60th. The result was that two moved up about 20 positions during their storm over the final two miles. Though Lamorandier was not in the top five for scoring, he finished faster than any other teams' sixth man in both races, with the exception of Stanford. In Tucson, expect the two junior college transfers to again try to outdo each other, and in the process be in the hunt for "All-Western Region Honors" with a top-25 performance.
During the summer of 1999, coach Pete Dolan offered J.T. Service an admission spot to the UC Santa Barbara. Service was on his way to a junior college, and did not expect to be granted admission to UCSB. Dolan had some leftover admission slots and decided to "settle" on Service. J.T. had less than impressive credentials including an 11th place finish at his league cross country championships, and not cracking 10 minutes at the Gaucho 2-mile time trial. In Service's first races in a Gaucho uniform, he continued to struggle as the team's slowest runner, but due to a depleted lineup, he was allowed to compete in some big races. The coaching staff openly admits to having zero confidence in J.T., especially during his track season when Dolan offered the terse race strategy of "hang in there" to Service, following an extensive tactical plan instructed to the veterans. Since that conference race where Serviced ended up scoring, J.T. has embraced the fact that he has been overlooked and disregarded. However, the word is out now on Service. In a breakthrough race at the Pre-NCAA Invite with J.T. taking 44th in a time of 25:18 as the team's fourth finisher, it is now clear that Service has ascended to the upper ranks of collegiate running and can be expected to contribute to the team's top 5. Even the coaches now mock themselves by offering Service short words of encouragement such as, "just hang in there J.T.," or "do your best Service."
The Safety Position
The Gauchos final position on the 7-person lineup remains undecided. Depending on one's perspective, Coach Pete Dolan has the luxury or burden of selecting sophomore Chris White or senior Steve Rider for the final spot. White, a true sophomore, came on strong for the team at the conference meet taking 17th and only 20 seconds behind 5th man Aaron Sharp. Given the depth of the Big West this year, it was easily White's best cross country race of his career, and would probably have earned "All-Conference" honors in past years. Rider, a fifth year senior with track credentials of 14:26 and 30:25 in the 5k and 10k, has been desperately battling a shin injury during his final season. Prior to his injury, Rider finished as the team's 5th man at the UCSB Lagoon race clocking 25:13 on the 8k course. Whoever is selected is expected to provide a safety net for the team, aiming for a top 50 place to secure a solid team score in the unlikely event of two athletes falling back.
The men's race is scheduled to commence at 9:45 A.M. Mountain Time, while the women will begin at 10:30 A.M.
West Region Rankings
|2) Stanford||2) Portland|
|3) Arkansas||3) UCSB|
|4) Wisconsin||4) Arizona State|
|5) Notre Dame||5) Oregon|
|6) North Carolina State||6) Arizona|
|7) Villanova||7) Washington|
|8) Portland||8) Cal Poly SLO|
|9) NAU||9) Washington State|
|10) Providence||10) UCLA|
|14) Arizona State|
|15) Air Force|
|16) Eastern Michigan|
|17) Wake Forest|
|19) Michigan State|
|21) Utah State|
|23) Colorado State|
|24) William & Mary|
|25) Indiana / Utah|