Sports

Stanford's Cuffe runs to a Pac-12 title in cross country

 

Stanford senior Aisling Cuffe won her second Pac-12 women's cross country championship in three years and Sean McGorty was the men's runner-up, as they led Stanford to a pair of top-three team finishes on Friday in Colfax, Wash.

Cuffe, running in her first Pac-12 meet since winning in 2013, covered the 6-kilometer (3.73-mile) course at Colfax Golf Club in 19:53.1, earning a two-second victory over Colorado's Kaitlyn Benner. Cuffe became the first Stanford woman to win multiple titles since Arianna Lambie's Pac-10 triple from 2005-07.

McGorty was second to three-time champion Edward Cheserek of Oregon, 23:06.3 to 23:13.7 over 8K (4.97 miles), but Stanford earned a substantial victory over the Ducks for second, behind defending team champ Colorado. National No. 23 Stanford scored 57 points to No. 1 Colorado's 46. No. 3 Oregon was third with 83.

It was the closest Stanford has come to two-time defending NCAA champion Colorado since trailing by only seven at the 2011 Pac-12 Championships. Last year, they finished 1-2 at the NCAA Championships.

The No. 10 Stanford women were third with 80 points, trailing No. 3 Colorado (45) and No. 5 Oregon (51). Stanford earned significant victories over fourth-place Washington (No. 12) and fifth-place Utah (No. 19), in relation to possible at-large points for the NCAA Championships.

"It was a good day," said Chris Miltenberg, Stanford's head coach. "We definitely made good progress. We ran really well, but we can run better."

Cuffe ran in a large pack for the first half of the race, but it had thinned to about five when Cuffe made a decisive move with about 1,200 meters to go. Washington's Maddie Meyers tried to stay close, but Cuffe pulled away over the final half mile to win going away.

"I base it off of feel a lot of the time," Cuffe said. "I like to run with my teammates so we can gain confidence and feed off of each other. At the end, I got tired of being conservative and I went for it."

Cuffe's title was the 10th women's individual crown in Pac-12 history and the third in four years. It also capped a dramatic return from injury that prevented her from competing during the 2014-15 academic year. In fact, Pac-12 was only her second competitive race of the season. Her Washington Invitational victory on Oct. 2 was her first competitive race in nearly 15 months.

"(The victory) meant a lot, to stick with it and mentally staying in the game while being out," Cuffe said. "I learned how much I missed racing and how much I enjoyed being in every race and being with my teammates."

Even during Cuffe's layoff, Miltenberg was confident she could return and race well because she knew how good she was. This was not a middle-of-the-pack runner trying to raise her game, she has proven herself to be one of the best in the country.

"That's the most important factor that separates the good from the great," Miltenberg said. "She believes she is good, and she runs with that understanding."

Cuffe joins Lambie, Sara Bei, and Regina Jacobs as the only multiple conference champions in Stanford women's history. Plus, it gives her another honor, having been named Pac-12 Women's Cross Country Scholar-Athlete of the Year on Thursday. Cuffe, a biology major, carries a 3.54 cumulative GPA.

Vanessa Fraser was Stanford's No. 2 runner, in 12th (20:23.5). A year ago, she was Stanford's No. 6, but was among several Cardinal who have made great progress. Another was sophomore Julia Maxwell. In 2014, she raced only once and never on Stanford's 'A' team. On Friday, she was Stanford's No. 3 – her highest career placing within the team – while finishing 19th overall (20:30.1).

In the men's race, McGorty did not concede anything to Cheserek. However, the danger is in trying so hard to match the Oregon junior's inevitable late-race surge that he would have nothing left to hold off other runners.

"When you run with Ches, it makes you better," Miltenberg said. "Go with him, but go with your own gear, don't try to match his."

McGorty did so and was rewarded with Stanford's second runner-up finish to Cheserek since the Oregon runner's title run began in 2013, the year Jim Rosa was second. McGorty's place also matches Stanford's best in the conference meet since Elliott Heath won in 2010.

Fifth-year senior twins Joe and Jim Rosa finished eighth and 20th, respectively. They've been plagued by injuries over the past two years, but were able to race together for the first time in cross country since the 2012 NCAA Championships. Joe Rosa was Stanford's No. 2 runner.

The Cardinal No. 3 was freshman Grant Fisher, making his collegiate debut. Fisher, a two-time Foot Locker national champion and sub-4-minute miler in high school, ran 23:28.6 while keeping himself just behind the lead pack and pushing hard to the finish.

"He did a great job," Miltenberg said. "He showed a lot of strength over that last 800 meters."

That is a good sign for Fisher, who is extending his race distance from 5K in high school to 10K for the NCAA Championships. Fisher will not run at the NCAA West Regional on Nov. 13 in Seattle, as Miltenberg intentionally brings him alone slowly, but will be in the Cardinal lineup for the NCAA Championships in Louisville on Nov. 21.

The top two regional team finishers earn automatic berths into the NCAA Championships. After 18 automatic qualifiers are determined around the country, 13 more are chosen at-large through a point system. While Stanford's men are good bets to join Oregon as the West's automatic qualifiers (Colorado competes in the Mountain Regional), the Stanford women are expected to be in a dogfight with Oregon, Boise State, and Washington. The Cardinal's victory over Washington on Friday helps boost its at-large credentials.

— Dave Kiefer/Stanford Athletics

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