It’s a lofty task wearing the large “O” on your jersey at the starting line for a race. The history that comes with the jersey is arguably richer than any other college running uniform. (Ten combined Division 1 Cross Country Championships, 14 combined D1 Track and Field championships, countless Olympians, Coach Bill Bowerman … need I say more?) That’s why a fifth and 14th place finish in the men’s and women’s championships, respectively, might be seen as a down year for Oregon cross country.
Next year, though, it will be much tougher to run with the Ducks.
With the two top runners returning on both the women’s side and the men’s side, Annie Leblanc (junior; Repentigny, Quebec/Jean-Baptiste Meilleur School) and national champion Edward Cheserek (sophomore; Newark, New Jersey/St. Benedict School) look to push these young Duck teams past the marks set in last year’s NCAA Division 1 Cross Country Championships.
Leblanc, fresh off of an 11th place finish in the 800 at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships this June, looks to sustain the women’s team as a perennial powerhouse. Leblanc is one of the two remaining members of the championship women’s team from two years ago, and should offer leadership to the underclassmen.
Another top returner for the Ducks is redshirt freshman Alli Cash. Although Cash (Lexexa, Kansas/Shawnee Missions West) didn’t compete for the Ducks last cross country season, her track season provides enough promise for the Ducks that they have another top runner on the team. At the NCAA Outdoor Championships, Cash finished 15th in the 1,500 after a tussle in recovering from a hamstring injury, an impressive comeback for the promising recruit.
Top recruit Sarah Baxter will also have to make a comeback of her own. Baxter (freshman; Simi Valley, California/Simi Valley), the four-time Gatorade Cross Country Player of the Year in California, looks to be one of the best runners in this youthful ladies pack.
The only setback Baxter may have is her calves. She ended her high school running career early in order to prevent a stress fracture, but if she gets past this hurdle, beware! Baxter will compete with the leaders of the pack if she is at full strength, having only lost one race she’s run in the last five years.
By the time the NCAA rolls around, the ladies might be seeing a better finish than the 14th spot they earned at the NCAA championships, especially since they are regaining all but one runner and adding Baxter to the team. They should be near the top of the Pac-12, but will probably not have enough to dethrone the reigning champion, Arizona, for the title. A second or third place in the Pac-12 meet and a top 10 finish at the NCAA would be a realistic and great outcome for the lady Ducks this season.
For the men’s team, the already running-world famous Cheserek looks to lead the Ducks to another national championship. He won the NCAA Cross Country Individual Championship last year as just a freshman, and the Kenyan-born New Jersey native looks to repeat his individual crown.
Now with Cheserek returning in championship form, the Ducks will have to look elsewhere for a complete top-tier team. No Oregon runner finished in the top 50 at the NCAA Cross Country championships other than Cheserek.
Eric Jenkins might have been that guy Oregon needed to be in the top 50, had he been healthy. Jenkins, a transfer from Northeastern, finished fourth in the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships last June in the 5,000, yet he did not participate in cross country last season due to an injury.
Look for Jenkins to be leading the pack with Cheserek. Jenkins’ time in the 5,000 (13:27) was actually less than 10 seconds off Cheserek’s time (13:18) at the NCAA Championships, so it looks like Oregon will have another elite runner on the team.
Tanguy Pepiot (junior; Bensancon, France/Lycee Jules Haag) is the Ducks’ next best returning member from last year’s team, and looks to be a prominent supporting cast member behind Jenkins and Cheserek. After a Top-25 finish in the Pac-12 championships and a sixth-place finish in the steeplechase at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, Pepiot will most definitely improve from his last year’s performance at the NCAAs.
Expect the men’s team to be in the hunt for the NCAA crown this fall. A top three finish is realistic since all but two runners will be returning to the squad, and the third and fourth place finishers last year, Oklahoma State and BYU, are losing their two best runners to graduation.
A Pac-12 Championship will be hard to compete for, though, as NCAA Champion Colorado is a young and deep cross country team. But watch out! You might just see some long “zeros” holding up some “ones” after the Pac-12 Championships are over.
The Ducks might have to fight their way to the top this year, but the year is also in the wake of a rich program history. Additionally, some top-notch runners will be joining, or in some cases coming back to, the teams. For now, the women’s team and men’s team both look like they will be toward the top of the Pac-12 and the NCAA races.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove
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