It’s go time for the UCSB men’s cross country team when they travel to Indiana for their first big meet of the season: the NCAA Pre-Nationals.

Racing in a field that includes the nation’s top-ranked teams, the Gauchos will need a strong performance in order to put them back on the national map. Should UCSB finish well, it would bolster their positioning for a berth in November’s NCAA Championships, which it has not appeared in since 2001.

The Gauchos have been running conservatively thus far, focusing their preparation on the big meets – the first of which is Pre-Nationals. In their last meet, the Stanford Invitational, UCSB’s goal was to conserve its energy throughout the race and still have some left over. The result was an impressive third place finish behind only #5 Stanford and perennial powerhouse Chico.

Thus far this season Santa Barbara has been led by star juniors Chris Ashley and Mike Chavez, who finished 10th and 11th at Stanford, respectively. The Gauchos have also received solid contributions from their seniors, Scott McConville, Scott Brandos and Alex Cardiasmenos. This core group of veterans will have to come up big to solidify a standout finish.

The field for Saturday’s race provides no easy breaks for the Gauchos, as it features such national powerhouses as #3 Colorado, #5 Stanford, #7 Notre Dame, #8 Iona and conference rival #10 Cal Poly. In all there are 22 of the top 30 teams in the nation competing. To strengthen its bid for a National Championship invite, UCSB would need to finish ahead of several teams outside its region to earn at-large points.

While tough competition should provide enough motivation for the Gauchos, they will likely have extra incentive to have a strong showing due to a disappointing performance in Pre-Nationals last season. Though they were an unranked team going in, UCSB had expected to surprise some people. However, they did not run to their expectations and came away with a disappointing 28th place finish out of 35 teams. Experience should be a crucial factor in the Gauchos performance as they look to eclipse the memories of last year’s letdown.

As vital as Pre-Nationals is to the Gauchos’ season, it is only the beginning as the next three big races come one after the other. Two weeks following Pre-Nationals, UCSB travels to Riverside for the Big West Championships, which is followed by the NCAA West Regional Championships and then culminates with the National Championships on November 21 should the Gauchos make a strong enough case.