The #15 nationally ranked UCSB women’s cross country team hits the crux of its young season this weekend when it travels to Palo Alto to compete in the Stanford Invitational.

The task will be especially daunting considering they will lace up sans four of their top tracksters. Returning Big West Champion senior Lauren Christman, 2003 Big West Champion senior Stephanie Rothstein, senior Lindsay Christman and junior Megan Lewis will not participate for the Gauchos due to lingering injuries. There is a looming possibility that all four will opt to redshirt this season, creating a possibility that UCSB’s elite status may plummet them all the way out of the national rankings.

Filling the void left by the hobbled stars are junior Hadas Moser, who finished in 17th place at the Big West Championships last year, and seniors Seanna Martin and Leslie Alexander.

This tournament is essential for the injury-ridden Gaucho squad because it is the unofficial start of the season, and will help them jockey for a position in the Western Region with Cal Poly, Long Beach, Irvine and Stanford, among other western powerhouses. In order to reach the NCAA Championships, Santa Barbara would either have to finish in the top two in the Western Region, or receive an at-large bid based on points accumulated throughout the season. Stanford and Arizona State finished first and second last year, respectively.

This tournament also serves as a good opportunity to get their feet wet on the Stanford course, considering it will be the site of the West Regional Championships on Nov. 12.

The starting gun for the women’s race will go off at 5:15 p.m. Saturday.