Much like incoming freshmen at UCSB, the men’s and women’s cross country teams are embarking on an important journey this weekend.

The two previous races, the UCSB Lagoon Open and the Aztec Invitational, will soon become a memory because points are going to count across the country when the Gauchos toe their lines on Saturday. However, the men’s and women’s squads recently established a valuable strategy to improve their results.

Head Coach Pete Dolan emphasized running in groups when San Diego State University hosted the Aztec Invitation nearly two weeks ago and senior captain Tim Aukshunas spearheaded the men’s event by finishing fifth (25:29) in the 8k. Three Gauchos came in within the top 20, including junior Scott Smith, senior Mike Powers and sophomore Dillon Brook who finished 13th, 16th and 20th place respectively.

“It’s important to try running together and see how that feels,” Dolan said. “By covering your team’s moves you understand that it is easier to run as a pack than by yourself. I think both teams had a game plan and they did very well.”

For the women’s 5k, senior Megan Lewis finished a solid sixth place (18:04) while juniors Liza Hitchner and Danielle Domenichelli teamed up to finish 16th and 17th respectively.

“Megan ran a little bit slower so that she could stay with her teammates, but she could have won that race,” Dolan said. “It was important to get out there with a few others because [sophomore] Stephanie Garcia, for example, had her best race of her life because she ran with the team.”

The Gaucho women placed second behind #4 Arkansas while the men edged out Southern Utah with a second place finish demonstrating the overall improvement of group runs for both teams.

“It’s not exactly the preseason in the first few races, but practicing something in a less stressful setting makes it easier when you are in a high stress environment,” Dolan said.

Looking ahead to the women’s Griak Invitational in Minnesota, Dolan remains optimistic because he knows seniors like Lewis and Bethany Nickless have the experience of last year’s historic season under their belts and the men’s Stanford Invitational is a significant starting point as well.

“The women know what’s ahead of them and they can do it. On the other hand, the men are running 8ks and 10ks so it’s more difficult and none of the other teams in California are going to help us up in Palo Alto,” Dolan said. “The unfortunate thing about coaching both teams is that I can’t be in two places at once so Coach Blackwell will travel with the men. We need to run fast and have confidence because this is when it counts and it will be all or nothing at Pre-Nationals.”