Oct. 30, 2008
The Santa Clara cross country teams are preparing for the West Coast Conference Championships at Crystal Spring Cross Country Course on Sat., Nov. 2. The men's race, an 8K, is at 9 am. The women's race, a 6K, is at 9:45 am. Both Bronco squads were picked to take fourth in the WCC pre-season polls. The coaching staff is confident that their teams are poised to rewrite those polls in the Finals on Saturday.
Santa Clara head coach Tom Service looks at the WCC Championship differently than maybe other coaches do and that's important. While he sees competitive racing during the season as necessary for training purposes, as far as results Service believes `they are nice to build confidence or to put the wins on your website, but that's it.'
It's championship season now and it's what the Santa Clara cross country teams, Service, who coaches the women's team, and assistant coach Felipe Montoro, who coaches the men's team, have been preparing for since they set goals last spring during finals.
"This is a whole new season for us right now. It is the championship season. When we step up to the start line at Crystal Springs, nobody will remember we got third at USF or won the Wilamette race - they will remember what we do during this race," said Service. "Cross country is different than many other sports like basketball or baseball where wins during the season make a difference at the end. Our season, for the women comes down to 21-22 minutes, and for the men, 25-27 minutes. What they do during this race counts."
The race will be run at the Crystal Spring Cross Country course, just 30 minutes from Santa Clara's campus. Service sees it as a classic cross country course and one that Santa Clara trains on a few times a year.
"There aren't many place like Crystal Springs," said Service. "You can only run or hike on these trails - no bikes allowed (with a smile). It's been used by high schoolers, collegiates and even Olympians for more than 40 years. It's a `throw back course'. A lot of regional and national championships are held on golf courses now, but this is a true cross country course. It has really challenging hills and dirt trails. Because the course is so tough, you have to run smart."
The WCC has been run at Crystal Spring the last 25 years, but Service said there is talk of moving it to a rotating championship in three different areas: Northwest, Bay Area and Southland. Services sees the pros and cons of moving it. In addition to wanting the race run closer to their schools, some coaches feel the Crystal Springs course may be too tough of a warm-up for the NCAA Region Championship and NCAA Championship. Service likes the course for just that reason - it is very tough.
Portland rules WCC cross country, having won 11 of the past 12 women's titles - with Santa Clara winning it all in 2001. The Portland men, ranked No. 4 nationally, have won an NCAA cross country-best 29 straight conference titles. The Bronco women, with four seniors and strong leadership, should finish in the top three and the Bronco men could be anywhere from second to fifth.
"Portland is ranked No. 4 on the men's side nationally," said Montoro. "So they are seen as the favorite. From there - it's wide open. It could be Santa Clara, LMU, Pepperdine or USF in that next spot to the fifth team on the men's side. All four of those teams are in a very similar position and have run against each other at least once this year."
"It should be a tremendous women's race between Santa Clara, USF, LMU and Pepperdine," said Service. "We have raced them a couple times each and have seen mixed results."
Service points out a flat race would favor more of a middle distance cross country team, while this course favors a more distance-heavy team. And this is where Santa Clara's team enters as Service and Montoro see their teams as more distance-based.
The Bronco women are led by four seniors: Veronica Vazquez, Whitney Porter, Noelle Lopez and Anna Wheatley. The two juniors are Stephanie Wilson and Anne Murphy-Hagan. The two exciting freshmen are Jennifer Clarke and Nicole Giove.
On the men's side, outstanding sophomore Robbie Reid continues to run well and should be amongst the leaders. The second men's runner is a fifth-year senior Chris Gumbs. He already has one All-WCC first-team honors under his belt (he was sixth in 2006) and after being injured last season, he is running well this year.
"We also have two runners that are coming back from injuries last year in Chris Sampson, a sophomore who was second team All-WCC last year (was 13th in 2007). And then Stephen Koch, who had surgery last year. They are running positive right now and should have an excellent championship season," said Montoro. "Junior John Laughlin had a break-out track season last year and Chris Mosier, just a sophomore, should also run well.
"This is the first time since Tom and I have been here that we don't have a freshman male in the top seven," said Montoro, pointing out the team is youthful and only features one senior in the top seven, but that isn't all bad. "Everyone has participated in the postseason in our top seven and two of our top runners were All-WCC in the last two years."
To be All-WCC first team, a runner has to finish in the top 10 and to be All-WCC second team, a runner must finish from 11-15 position.
While Portland was light years ahead of everyone a few years ago, Service and Montoro both like the direction the WCC cross country programs are headed in as many have started to close the gap with their recruiting efforts.
"Now Santa Clara, USF, LMU and Pepperdine are very serious competitors in the cross country ranks," said Service.
Montoro said their strategy in the WCC Championships is to run smart and know the competition in the second half of the race.
"We have run against a number of these teams on both sides this year so they are very familiar with each other. That, and they ran against each other quite a bit in high school," said Montoro. "The first part of the race we can't go out too fast - we have to run smart and be patient. The second part of the race we should be concerned with individuals from other teams and know who we have to beat."
Both coaches like Santa Clara's chances.
"I am 100 percent confident we are ready to produce our best effort so far this year and if that doesn't get us second, then we got beat by a better team that day," said Montoro.
"We are fit, we are fast and we are ready for a peak performance on Saturday," said Service.