As it is for the rest of their classmates, this will be the biggest weekend of the Fall Quarter for the #13 men and #7 women of the UCSB cross country team. However, instead of celebrating Halloween, the runners will spend Saturday attempting to sweep the Big West Cross Country Championships at Cal Poly.
The men’s team will attempt to end #24 Cal Poly’s run of dominance, as the Mustangs have won seven of the past nine Big West titles. With their strong performance at Pre-Nationals earlier this month, however, the Gauchos soared to their highest national ranking in five years and supplanted Cal Poly as the Big West favorite.
“I’m excited because we are favored. Nobody on this men’s team has won a Big West championship so they’re very motivated at this point,” Head Coach Pete Dolan said. “Obviously it’s a great position to be in. I will never complain about being favored.”
The Gauchos and the Mustangs have been rivals for years, but as of yet, this year’s senior class has been unable to defeat Cal Poly when it counts. Seniors Chris Ashley and Mike Chavez will lead a Gaucho squad that will try to improve on last year’s second place finish to the Mustangs.
“We respect them and I think they respect us, but to be a real rivalry we have to win it once in a while,” Dolan said. “I want to keep it a true rivalry, but they’ve really owned us the last four years.”
Cal Poly returns four of last year’s top 11 finishers, but the tables have turned this season as Gaucho runners hold four of the top nine race times this season. Ashley is the defending Big West champion and Chavez has run the fastest time this season by a Big West runner. The two Gauchos will most likely battle Cal Poly junior Phillip Reid and UC Irvine senior Ricky Barnes for the individual championship.
“Chris is the defending champ and he’s a big time racer, but at this point you have to say [Chavez] is the favorite to win it all,” Dolan said.
On the women’s side, the Gauchos are heavy favorites after losing last year’s championship to UC Irvine. Seniors Lauren and Lindsay Christman and Stephanie Rothstein all red-shirted last year, but the trio should lead the way on Saturday – the Gauchos are expected to place five runners in the top ten. While Irvine probably does not have the depth to repeat as team champions, sophomore Laura Olvera and junior Sara Mickelson will give the Gaucho seniors some stiff competition for the individual title.
“The women are really confident, and they have so much experience with winning that they really know what to do,” Dolan said. “You can’t buy experience.”
With midterms and Halloween offering the potential for distractions, the team will travel to Cal Poly early and stay in a hotel on Friday night to focus for Saturday’s race.
“So much is on the line this weekend. There’s just too much at stake,” Dolan said. “This season’s bigger than Halloween.”