After a long season of races, cross country fans may finally find out who the best in the Big West is.

The UC Santa Barbara men’s and women’s cross country teams will head north to San Luis Obispo to compete in the Big West Conference Championships this Saturday. Cal Poly’s Fairbanks Cross Country Course will be the site of a potential fourth title in five years for the Gaucho women. Hopes are high, particularly after senior Bethany Nickless’ 22nd-place finish at the Pre-National meet in Indiana helped her squad rise to 24th in the national rankings.

“I didn’t expect that,” Head Coach Pete Dolan said. “After not beating Wisconsin and North Carolina State, we were running a better race, but we did better than I thought. [Senior] Megan [Lewis] was smiling and Bethany was smiling because it’s always good to go up in the poll.”

Last year, the Gaucho women exploded with four top-10 performances at the conference championships, and the usual suspects continue to shine again this season. Nickless has turned heads with her Big West Athlete of the Week honors and Lewis has been right behind her in several races. The junior tandem of Danielle Domenichelli and Liza Hitchner has been the picture of consistency, especially after the duo placed 57th and 58th, respectively, at Pre-Nationals.

“I think the Gauchos can run with the best in the country,” Dolan said. “We lost four out of seven of our top runners from last year, but I’m a believer that we can finish in the top 20 this season.”

UC Irvine and UC Riverside represent the main competition for UCSB after the Gauchos barely edged their two conference opponents in the coach’s preseason poll.

“We are still the favorites in the conference,” Dolan said. “And the way to do better is to relax. We’re good, but we don’t need to train too hard or over-prepare because you want practice to be boring and to be thrilled at the races.”

The men’s squad comes off of a 24th-place finish at Pre-Nationals and will hope to challenge host #27 Cal Poly. Injuries limited Gaucho seniors Tim Aukshunas and Micah Tyhurst in Indiana’s meet, but fellow senior Mike Powers came through in 73rd place to highlight the Pre-National event. The Mustangs boast an impressive resume, which includes four consecutive Big West titles and the returning 2006 Big West Athlete of the Year in Philip Reid.

“Everybody’s planning for that meet, but no one is trying to do too much,” Dolan said. “We are relaxed and ready for Cal Poly.”

The men’s 8k race is scheduled for 9 a.m., and the women follow the men with their 5k at 9:55 a.m.