Sports

Stanford cross country getting ready for NCAA national meet

 

For the first time since 2004, the Stanford men's and women's cross country teams swept the NCAA West Regionals and both have clinched spots at the NCAA Championships for a record 23rd consecutive year.

With the top two teams advancing automatically, the No. 7-ranked Stanford women earned an upset over No. 3 Washington, 71-88, on Friday for their first regional title since 2007. Stanford placed five in the top 20, including three freshmen, while Vanessa Fraser led the team in seventh place.

The favored Cardinal men, ranked No. 4, outran runner-up Portland, 75-90, to earn their first title since 2013. Sean McGorty led a 9-10-11 finish for Stanford, which placed its five scorers in the top 23 with all within 13 seconds of each other at Haggin Oaks Golf Course.

Each team won its 15th regional title and will continue on to the NCAA Championships on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the women for the 24th consecutive year and the men for the 23rd.

"The good thing is, we're getting better by the week," said Chris Miltenberg, Stanford's Director of Track and Field. "That's what you want, to be riding the wave this time of the season. It's just good affirmation that what we're doing is working and we're trending in the right direction."

The Stanford men took a conservative approach and the race played out perfectly, allowing the Cardinal to hold back in the first 10K of the season and still easily secure a berth in the NCAA's, only eight days away.

McGorty, Jack Keelan (10th) and Grant Fisher (11th) never tried to break out of the lead pack and finished within 0.1 of each other, with McGorty and Keelan in 29:55.5. Oregon's Edward Cheserek broke away with 2K to go, but this wasn't the time to try to stay with the three-time NCAA cross country champ.

"Over 10K, it's making sure we practice running with a lot of patience and composure," Miltenberg said. "If we don't need to pull the trigger the last 600 meters, that helps us get recovered for next week. It was pretty clear that with 1,000 to go, we had it locked up, so we just them to stay under control and finish together. If we can come in a little bit under that red line, even better."

Last year, Steven Fahy was 72nd in the regional. This time, the redshirt sophomore was 22nd, just ahead of fifth-year senior Garrett Sweatt, who will be making his fourth NCAA Championships appearance.

Fahy's improvement, plus the return of resting Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Thomas Ratcliffe and redshirt freshman Alex Ostberg make the Cardinal even stronger in Terre Haute and with more flexibility if someone has a bad day.

"You have to go there not needing everything to go exactly right," Miltenberg said. "We're a team on both sides that is very deep and we're just going to go there and put in a great effort. Our job as coaches is to make sure the result keeps getting better, but the effort stays the same."

Sweatt has an unconscious ability to push through pain and stay consistent no matter how he feels. That allows him to be the ideal glue runner who draws the team's second-tier forward in the difficult stages of the race and prevents the team from falling apart.

"The biggest thing we stressed is get what you need to get done, but don't over-exert yourself," Sweatt said. "Three years ago, we won, but we over-exerted ourselves a too much and were a bit tired and burned ourselves out going into nationals.

"The past two years, we've been running controlled, but still running hard. This year, we finally found what we needed. We ran controlled together. The last 3K got a little tough, but we expected it. I'm fully confident we all did what we needed to do."

For the Stanford women, the season has been characterized by the growth of its freshmen, particularly Christina Aragon and Ella Donaghu.

Their debut at Pre-Nationals on Oct. 15 was rough. Stanford placed sixth as a team with essentially the same lineup as Friday, though without freshman Fiona O'Keeffe. The Cardinal lost to Oregon and Portland, two regional foes it soundly beat Friday, and Aragon and Donaghu placed 41st and 47th, respectively.

At Pac-12's, the Cardinal placed third and Aragon and Donaghu were 14th and 20th. Stanford, with O'Keeffe making her first appearance in seamless fashion. Stanford was third behind Washington and top-ranked Colorado.

In this race, Aragon and Donaghu were 17th and 20th, with O'Keeffe, running near her hometown of Davis, in 13th as Stanford's No. 2.

"They've learned a lot," said first-year Stanford women's head coach Elizabeth DeBole. "At Pre-Nats, that was their first race where you're not at the front and you have to learn how to run in the pack and know where you are. We weren't quite ready.

"But they didn't get down on themselves and knew they were a lot better than that. And then two weeks later they go to Pac-12s and really stuck their nose in it and fought really hard. Today, they kept their cool when it seemed they were a little far back. Every race, they get a little more calloused."

At the women's 6K distance, there isn't as much need to be conservative and Stanford treated it as its last hard workout.

Fraser continued to race strong and consistently to place seventh, making it difficult to remember that her previous best regional finish was 39th. She's clearly enjoying the Cardinal resurgence in the midst of such a young lineup.

"I don't think anybody expected us to be this good," said Fraser, a redshirt junior. "But we knew how good we were. I could feel it and I could see that the freshmen were going to step up right away. It's fun to be able to show the world how good we are."

Said Danielle Katz, the team's lone senior: "It's exciting to have this group of freshman that has so much energy and so much maturity. I feel they're learning a lot, but we're learning so much from them at the same time."

Though the freshmen, which also included Hannah DeBalsi in the top seven, get much of the attention, Fraser and Katz are providing the foundation. Both are former walk-ons from local high schools – Fraser from Scotts Valley and Katz from Los Gatos -- who have become integral in the team's success, through their ability and leadership.

Fraser ran 19:44.1 as the team's No. 1, and Katz placed 14th as the Cardinal's No. 3. The last time Katz ran on this course, she was a freshman at regionals and placed 207th.

"It's so fun to see Danielle being able to step up and shatter all expectations," Fraser said.

Katz responded with a compliment right back.

"Ever since high school, racing against Vanessa has been inspiring," Katz said. "I feel I've learned a ton from being on the team with her. I'm really excited for the rest of the year."

The rest of the year comes down to one meet. But, judging from the ease of Stanford's performances – even without injured women's ace Elise Cranny – the teams are entering the NCAA Championships with confidence.

"The key for next week is, Hey, keep your cool, do what we do," Miltenberg said. "It's a little bit noisier and there's more of a crowd, but nothing changes. If there's an art to preparing for this meet, that's the art."

— David Kiefer/Stanford Athletics

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