Arizona coach Li looks ahead to Pac-12 and NCAA championships
What are your goals for the men's and women's teams at the Pac-12 Championships?
Coach James Li: I hope the men's team can get it together. Obviously, we've had three guys who have been running really well -- Lawi Lalang, Stephen Sambu and Kenji Bierig. They are running very well, the others will have to step up. Now that we will get the service and help from Jonas Legernes, I have good reason to think he's going to help us. He has not competed yet this year so we don't know exactly what we are going to get but I think he will help. The other guys really have to come through and do well, so with that, my expectations are that we will do significantly better than what we have done. Hopefully, we can finish in the top four or five in the conference meet. That would be a tall order but I think we can do it.
On the women's side, of the top six teams in the nation, four of them are in our conference. So we'll go there to compete and try to do our best. I think it can go any way, we could win it or we could finish fourth or fifth. Last year, Colorado came out of nowhere and won it, so who knows. We're in this unbelievable conference. But, I think our ladies are looking really good. This year, I'm really happy with how everyone has conducted themselves and how much they have improved and how consistent they have been. We have a fighting chance to go there, do well, then qualify for the NCAA Championships and do well there. I think this is going to be an exciting week and month.
What can you attribute the consistency of the women's team to?
Li: I think the consistency has a lot to do with our ladies working hard over the summer. They are also a lot more mature this year. We have a good mixture of seniors, juniors and sophomores. In general, they are happy and content -- I think that has a lot to do with it. So far, all the races we have competed in, they performed very well. There was very little fluctuation, which we saw quite a bit last year and previous years. I would attribute it to the hard work, maturity level and the team atmosphere. I would also attribute the team's overall improvement to those same factors. Going into big meets I think they are more confident. They know have been training well and it seems like they can handle the pressure of the big meets a lot better.
Aside from the obvious success of Lawi Lalang and Stephen Sambu, do you think the men have been running to your standards and their standards? Can they run even better?
Li: I think they can run even better. I really feel those two are among the top runners in the country. I think they are doing better than when Stephen ran in 2010 and Lawi in 2011 [because] they feed off each other quite a bit. Lawi broke two course records this year. In Wisconsin before the race, we talked and that wasn't even one of our goals, to run fast and break the course record. But he still did, which is an indication to me that they are getting better. Almost all the other guys are getting better as well, but right now our fourth and fifth runners are not running fast enough, even though they are better. They need to figure out a way in the upcoming races to answer the challenge. I really do feel that if we get our fourth and fifth runner close to our third runner, then we have a shot at making the NCAA Championships.
What does it mean for the women to be ranked No. 5 heading into the championship portion of the season?
Li: We were ranked second a few weeks ago but even at that time I didn't take too much from it. It was still relatively early in the season and the rankings could still fluctuate dramatically. Two weeks later, everybody has competed and everybody's season is underway. At this point, the rankings won't change much so I think this No. 5 ranking is realistic. The top teams in the nation have emerged and we are still in a great spot. We certainly performed well without Nicci Corbin, who is our third or fourth runner. I feel that if we do everything right and if everybody stays healthy, we will have a chance to finish in the top five at the NCAA Championships. That is something we haven't done in a long time, so that's where we are.