The UCSB men’s cross country team faces its first true test of the season Saturday at the Stanford Invitational.

Saturday’s race in Palo Alto, Calif. will be a good indicator of the team’s progress in the early parts of the season. A strong performance against Stanford, the fourth ranked team in the nation, may be what the team needs to springboard them toward a great showing in Pre-Nationals.

“We have to be careful, we still have a long way to go to get too excited,” Head Coach Pete Dolan said. “Sometimes teams will get too excited and run too fast too early, so we have to run strong but make sure we finish strong as well.”

The Gauchos began their 2005 campaign with a strong preseason performance against last year’s conference champion Cal Poly. Although junior Chris Ashley was racing unattached and UCSB was missing several of its key players, Santa Barbara still kept it close against one of its toughest rivals, losing by a score of 28-34.

Mike Chavez carried UCSB with his first place finish at Cal Poly. This weekend, Chavez will be joined by familiar faces at the front of the pack, with Ashley and all-conference distance runner Micah Tyhurst. Tyhurst missed the first race of the season, but is expected to suit up for the Gauchos this weekend. With its full contingent racing for the first time this season, UCSB looks to have a stronger showing against tougher competition.

“We know being competitive against Stanford would be a good boost for us,” Dolan said. “This is our unofficial first big [race] and it’s important to us because it’s major competition in a major arena.”

While this race is not do or die for UCSB, a strong showing would surely be a boost of confidence for the team heading into the Pre-Nationals meet Oct. 15. Saturday’s race boasts a strong group of competitors, including several programs that may be among the top 50 teams in the nation that make up the field for Pre-Nationals.

The Gauchos, however, are not concerned with the other teams in the field. Rather, they see this race as more of an indicator of their own progress in preparation for Pre-Nationals.

“The goal is to finish the race with a lot left. We want to finish saying ‘I can’t wait for the next race because I have so much left in the tank,'” Assistant Coach David Monico said. “A good performance would solidify that we are a national-caliber team, but the main thing is to finish the race feeling fresh.”

After Saturday’s race at Stanford, the Gauchos have a two-week bye before heading to San Luis Obispo for the Cal Poly Invitational.