Nov. 20, 2008

By Brett Hess
Special to NCAA.com

 

Oregon cross country coach Vin Lananna must feel like he has a dual personality. At one practice, he's preaching against over-confidence. Later, at another practice, he's extolling the virtues of the underdog.

But to be clear, the venerable coach is playing the roles he should be playing.

Monday in Terre Haute, Ind. are the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. Lananna's top-ranked men's team is a strong favorite to repeat as titlists. The Ducks are led by individual favorite Galen Rupp, the 2008 U.S. Olympian who finished second at last year's meet. The Oregon women are ranked No. 2 and are favored to win "Best of the Rest" honors behind a Washington team some are calling the greatest of all-time.

What Lananna has been telling both camps is this: "Just run your best race of the year and see what happens."

No one knows truly what will happen on Monday, but if everyone runs "their best race of the year", here is what's likely to happen:

MEN

Oregon will win not just because it has the best runner, but it has the best duo (Rupp and Shadrack Kiptoo-Biwott) and the best team (five all-Americans and all seven have run in the championships before.)

"He's a great competitor, has a great attitude and if he runs within himself, he'll win," Lananna said of Rupp. "But just because he ran in the Olympics doesn't mean the others are going to let him win. He'll have to earn it."

Lananna says the Ducks are in the same position team-wise.

"Both teams are in a position to win, I believe," Lananna said, not mentioning by name but obviously meaning No. 2 Oklahoma State. "I think every person who is in an athletic endeavor wants to be in a position to win."

Lananna predicts "a very close" race.

"There is more parity than ever," he said. "Last year and this year will be great examples of this.

Lananna said the Ducks will draw not just on their experience from a year ago, but from winning more recent wars such as the Pac-10 Championships and the West Regional Championships. Those meets, he said, are among the toughest conference and regional meets in the country.

Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith said the Ducks are simply unbeatable, "if you scored 12 or 13 runners." Of course, only five score and therefore the Cowboys have hope.

"(Oregon) has the best runner, certainly," Smith said in reference to Rupp. "But I think we will have three in the top 15 and make up that ground. So, the winner will the team who's No. 4 and No. 5 finish first."

Rupp is certainly the favorite to win, but he's not the headliner of the meet. That distinction belongs to Oklahoma State true freshman German Fernandez.

"He hasn't maxed out yet and that is remarkable," Smith said of Fernandez. "Even (in winning) the Big 12 meet, we held him back until the last 600. Then he put 14 seconds on Ryan Vail (an OSU all-American). Unbelievable."

 At last week's Midwest Regional Championships, Fernandez placed fifth but was held back, finishing in a four-person OSU pack. The Cowboys placed four runners in the top seven and won with 42 points. And, they sat another top-performing freshman in Colby Lowe.

"Oregon is certainly the favorites," Smith said. "But if we run a perfect race, we have a chance. That's what is neat about this meet: there are runner's who haven't maxed out yet so you don't really know what they are capable of."

Smith brings up a good point about not knowing what runners are capable of. The meet certainly isn't a dual meet, that's for sure. Big-time programs Stanford (No. 3) and Wisconsin (No. 4) will provide an intimidating presence. But in the end, it will be a two-team race after-all.<

WOMEN

There are two things certain in....no, check that. Four things certain in life: death, taxes and wins by Sally Kipyego and the Washington women.

Well okay, we'll step back a little from the hyperbole. The Huskies could get lost on the way to course and Kipyego could fall ill. (It's doubtful Kipyego gets lost, seeing as though she's a two-time defending champion on this course.)

First, the individual race on Monday: Texas Tech senior Sally Kipyego will be racing for her third such title. Kipyego doesn't just win, she is oblivious to her competition and simply destroys courses. Two years ago, under very wet conditions, Kipyego won by 27 seconds (20:11). Last year, under more ideal conditions, she set the course record in 19:30. Including her freshman year at South Plains (Junior) College, Kipyego has never lost a collegiate cross country meet.

The Washington women are likely to end Stanford's three-year championship run and given the Huskies' line-up, figure to start one of their own. The Huskies are paced by two freshmen: Kendra Schaaf and Christine Babcock. Schaaf competed in the Canadian Olympic Trials this past summer, one of five Huskies to compete in either the U.S. or Canadian Trials.

Schaaf has led Washington in every race she has run, including the Pac-10 Championships, where Husky runners finished first through sixth. Babcock has placed in the top 5 in every meet this year.

"I'm proud of these two," Washington coach Greg Metcalf said. "They have kept level heads and, they tell me, they've never felt this good before. They are energized right now."

Here's the scary thing for Husky opponents Monday: Washington would have won every meet this year even without Schaaf and Babcock. The Huskies depth is remarkable.

"It takes a lot of pressure off the freshmen to know they are not needed to do well," Metcalf said.

If their 1-6 performance at PAC-10s isn't evidence enough, the Huskies placed five runners in the top seven at last week's West Regionals and sat Schaaf and top five runner Lauren Saylor. In both those meets, Washington beat No. 2-ranked Oregon.

So how does Metcalf motivate a team like this? The win is in the bag, right?

"Every day is the same," Metcalf said. "I challenge them to bring the best product and they have done it. We haven't looked ahead at all. The only thing we've talked about is getting to the line on (November) 24th and standing at that starting line excited about what's about to happen. Then, take care of what we are in control of."

And that's Lananna's line to his women: be excited and run their best races.

"One never knows what is going to happen at the championships," Lananna said. "You put all those great runners on the course and a lot of things can happen. We also have a very strong group. We've run in a great conference and a great region. Our girls are poised to run their best."

Should Washington or Oregon slip, other contenders include Florida State (No. 3), Princeton (No. 4) and West Virginia (No. 5).