Sports

Stanford men, women take runs at NCAA titles in cross country

 

Stanford sends its men's and women's teams to the NCAA Cross Country Championships for the 22nd consecutive season -- the longest ongoing streak in the country -- on Saturday in Louisville, Ky.

Stanford teams have won a combined nine NCAA titles -- the women five and the men four. The Cardinal has intriguing possibilities as the men were second last year and enter ranked No. 3. The No. 13-ranked women are led by Pac-12 champion Aisling Cuffe, who was fourth at the 2013 NCAA Championships.

The women go off first at 9 a.m. (PT) and will race over 6 kilometers (3.73 miles). The men follow an hour later over a 10K course (6.2 miles) at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer Park.

The Stanford men scored 98 points last year and return five members of its 2014 lineup -- Sean McGorty (20th), Joe Rosa (33rd), Sam Wharton(39th), Garrett Sweatt (68th), and Jack Keelan (100th).

The Cardinal lost Maksim Korolev (fourth) and Michael Atchoo (29th), who were in their fifth seasons, but return Jim Rosa, who placed fifth at the 2013 NCAA's before missing 2014 with an injury. The Cardinal also benefits from having freshman Grant Fisher, a two-time Foot Locker national high school champion, who will be racing for Stanford for the second time this season. This will be his first race at the 10K distance.

Stanford has eight NCAA top-two team finishes in its history, but this year's squad remains something of an enigma. Because of injuries and, in the case of Fisher, who has been brought along slowly, this is the first time Stanford is running with its full 'A' team (Keelan did not race at Pac-12's or regionals).

Therefore, an accurate prediction of the Cardinal's chances seems out of the question. Plus, Stanford's men have been wildly unpredictable at NCAA's in recent years, performing much lower than their ranking or much higher, as was the case last year when Stanford entered at No. 9. Stanford has fluctuated in this year's USTFCCCA rankings from No. 2 in the preseason poll to No. 23 (Oct. 20) to its current No. 3.

Stanford has four cross-country All-Americans among its top seven (McGorty, the Rosas, and Wharton), five have run the 5,000 in sub-14 (Keelan, McGorty, Sweatt, and the Rosas), and two are sub-4 milers (Fisher, McGorty). The Cardinal was second at both the Pac-12's (to Colorado, 46-57) and NCAA West Regional (to Washington, 63-83).

The Rosa factor. Jim and Joe Rosa are both capable of top-five finishes if fully healthy and trained. Since that hasn't been the case, they've had to progress with limited racing. They are improving each week, with Jim sixth and Joe eighth at regionals. They are the biggest X-factors in Stanford's arsenal.

As for the Stanford women?

In an ideal world, Cuffe and Elise Cranny would have raced together at Stanford, Cuffe as a fifth-year senior and Cranny as a sophomore. Last year, Cranny was the top freshman at the NCAA Championships, finishing 12th -- the highest by a Stanford frosh since Lauren Fleshman (fifth) and Erin Sullivan (seventh) in 1999 -- while Cuffe missed the season with an injury. This year, Cranny is out with an injury while Cuffe won her second Pac-12 title. Cuffe sat out the NCAA West Regional as an injury precaution and Stanford finished fourth advancing as an at-large team.

In Cuffe's two serious races, the Cardinal was third at both the Washington Invitational and Pac-12 Championships. Stanford has history on its side, the Cardinal has won five NCAA titles and has 10 top-two team finishes in its history. This is Stanford's 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance -- the longest women's streak in the country by far. Michigan State is next at 16.

Cuffe, the fourth-place NCAA finisher in 2013, is the only cross-country All-America among Stanford's lineup.Vanessa Fraser, who has run 15:54.12 in the 5,000, has often been the Cardinal No. 1 in Cuffe's absence.

Last year, Stanford placed 14th with five freshmen in eligibility and returned all seven from that team. This year's lineup will include three of those: Fraser and Sophie Chase, plus Molly McNamara as an alternate.

However, Stanford has been boosted by the emergence of a sophomore who was not part of that group. Julia Maxwell was the team's No. 2 at regionals and No. 3 at conference -- her best individual team finishes. Also, freshman Hannah Long has been a solid part of the top five all season.

The Stanford women have been more consistent at nationals than the men -- with finishes of 10th, third, 11th, and 14th the past four seasons -- and the program will count on that consistency once again. Stanford has finished 16th or better every year since 1993, a streak of 22 years.

Stanford's spread from Nos. 1-7 at the NCAA West Regional was only 21.6 seconds, by far the tightest group in the race. Nos. 1-5 were only 17.6 seconds apart. If Stanford can get a similar spread from Nos. 3-7, the Cardinal may be in business for the podium. However, Cuffe and Fraser should be ahead of that group for Stanford to maximize its point potential.

— Dave Kiefer/Stanford Athletics

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