A year after being ranked #17 in the nation, the UCSB women’s cross country team feels this year could be even better, if they can stay healthy.

“We just got ranked 15th in the national polls, but we’ve got some injury problems,” Head Coach Pete Dolan said. “[Junior Lauren Christman] was injured at the end of the summer, and she’s running right now, but she might red-shirt.”

Should Christman be forced to sit out the year, her twin sister junior Lindsay and top seniors Stephanie Rothstein and Megan Lewis may decide to red-shirt as well, saving their last year of eligibility for a united effort at a top-10 ranking.

“They feel they can be a top-10 team, which not too many people can dispute,” Dolan said. “That’s never happened before in the history of the program, and we want to keep that dream alive.”

Should the four Gaucho seniors return this year, they would form the core of a formidable team, building on several years of momentum. After finishing 29th in the nation two years ago, Santa Barbara improved to a #17 ranking last year, and could easily top that this year after drawing a very strong freshman class to complement the returning runners.

In their Sept. 3 season opener, the Gauchos dominated Cal Poly, not only taking the top six spots in the race, but also setting four top-10 records on the course. Senior Lindsay Christman’s first place time of 17:46.1 was the third fastest ever run on the 5000-meter course. Fellow senior Rothstein finished four seconds behind Christman, setting the fifth-best all-time record. Junior Hadas Moser finished third in 17:57.1, good for sixth-best, and senior Seanna Martin’s time of 18:02.6 was the seventh-best all-time record.

One week later the Gauchos finished fifth out of 17 teams at the UC Irvine Invitational in Huntington Beach, despite resting their seniors. Moser set the pace for the Gauchos, finishing 19th with a time of 19:07.2 on the 5000-meter course. Freshman Liza Hitchner finished 24th in 19:13.8, and freshman Danielle Domenichelli finished 34th with 19:34.6 in her first race for the Gauchos, which has Dolan optimistic about the future.

“Liza Hitchner has really come out of the gate well the first two meets,” Dolan said. “We have a really great freshman class. My top freshman were all very good milers in high school; [Hitchner] ran a 5:02 in high school, Erin Schuyler ran a 4:56, and Danielle Domenichelli was a finalist in the state regionals for the mile.”

The Gauchos will know within the next week whether Lauren Christman will return this season and what the consequences of that will be for the other seniors on the team. Whether or not he has his full squad, Dolan is confident about the upcoming year.

“Even if we red-shirt people, we still have a very good team” Dolan said. “No one is graduating, so we’re keeping our nucleus together. It could be one of those dramatic seasons.”