2010 NCAA men's cross country preview

The third-ranked Oregon men's cross country team has had a fantastic season. The men lost two all-Americans from last year's NCAA championship runner-up team but have performed well throughout the season through the improvement of every runner.

Last season the Oregon men surprised many pundits with their runner-up performance last year. The team was third at the West Regional meet but out-performed the two teams that finished ahead of them, Stanford and Portland, at the NCAA championships eight days later. This year Oregon changed its scheduling and won the Notre Dame Invitational over eventual fifth-ranked Mountain Region champion New Mexico and 11th-ranked Florida State. Junior Luke Puskedra won that race and senior Matthew Centrowitz was third.

Oregon's top runner the last two years has been junior Luke Puskedra. The six-time track and cross country all-American (two in cross country) has shown improvement this season. At the second meet of this year, the Bill Dellinger Invitational, he admitted to not giving his body rest last year and wearing himself out physically and mentally. Both last and this year he finished fourth in the Pac-10 meet over the 8,000 meter course (8k) but was almost as fast on a tougher course and was closer to the winner Chris Derrick of Stanford. A fourth place finish at the West Region meet over the 10,000 meter course (10k) was also the best finish of his career. He is hopeful to equal his best finish at the NCAA meet, fifth in 2008, against improved competition. Earlier this week he said, "This year I feel a lot more laid back about it."

Senior Matthew Centrowitz has had to recover from injuries after the last two track seasons but is confident after a career best finish in almost every race. Last weekend he was sixth at the West Regional meet. He was 27th at last year's NCAA championships for his only cross country all-American award and has been competitive with the top collegian runners all year this year.

He may not have been Oregon's top runner but the leader the last year has been redshirt senior Danny Mercado. Danny has been a part of the second most successful run (two NCAA championships and a runner-up finish) for Oregon cross country and was on the Duck NCAA team every year since 2007 (did not run in 2008). Last year he won his second cross country all-American award by finishing a career-best 31st. This year he has been a steady #3 runner for the Ducks and equaled his best finish at the Pac-10 meet, 13th, and finished a career-best 11th at the West Region meet.

Senior AJ Acosta has been one of the top collegiate milers the last three years but at the end of last season he took another step forward in track and field and so far has taken a significant step in cross country. In the last three years he had two top-four finishes at the indoor NCAA championships over a mile but had not scored outdoors until he was the runner-up to teammate Andrew Wheating earlier this year. His track season started late due to another injury but he scored in three races at the Pac-10 championships and then after helping the Ducks to a 1-2-3 finish at the NCAA championships he ran a big personal record of 3:53.76 for a mile in a B race at the Prefontaine Meet and then set the Oregon school record in the 1,500 meters (3:36.48) while racing in Europe. He had a slow start this cross country season but had a lifetime-best eighth place finish at the Pac-10 cross country meet and showed a significant personal improvement over the longer 10k course at the West Region meet by finishing 16th.

The big question for the Ducks this year was who would emerge to be Oregon's #5 (last scoring) runner. Last year redshirt freshman Ben Dejarnette did not run cross country in green and gold but showed improvement during the track season. His summer training encouraged the Ducks to have him run at the John Frank Memorial the day after their first training session and he won the four-mile race. Since then he has consistently been the Ducks #5 or #6 runner (except for one race). The person consistently trading that position with him has been redshirt junior Chris Kwiatkowski. He spent part of this summer training with Centrowitz and credits that time for his development. Freshman Parker Stinson had a busy summer (sixth at the world junior 10k) and has run every race for the team and finished once as the fifth Duck (Bill Dellinger) but has not finished any higher than sixth in any other race. Kwiatkowski did not run at the West Regional meet which may have been a strategic decision to save him for the NCAA meet.

The West Regional meet every year is the first race over 10k of the season. The NCAA championship is over the same distance but is just eight days later. Last season Stanford had been dominant. This year the top three Stanford runners finished in the first three spots and went 1-3-5 (Derrick, Elliot Heath and Jake Riley) last year. They had dominated every race until the NCAA championships where the only runner that ran to his potential was junior all-American Chris Derrick and the team finished tenth. The University of Portland had run well all year, finished second ahead of Oregon at the West Regional meet but only finished 13th at the NCAA meet. Both teams underperformed last year and seem to have not put as much emphasis on the West Region meet this year. It was clear to Puskedra that top-ranked Stanford was not running as hard in the West Region (finished 7-9) meet so they could save themselves, "I know their top 3 could have been there." Stanford is missing their #4 runner from last year, Justine Marpole-Bird but have everyone else back (or have found an equal replacement).

Many of the top teams across the country, like second ranked and defending champion Oklahoma State, did not win their region and one of the favorites, 14th ranked Northern Arizona, also did not win their region.

All of these schools qualified for the NCAA championships and will likely give their all at the NCAA championships. Stanford showed great depth at the Pac-10 meet with a 9-11 place finish for their #4 to #6 runners but they were 48 seconds behind their trio of winning teammates partly due to the pack they were running in falling behind the lead group of eight runners. Oklahoma State has shown a tight group of runners competing over 10k and running fast times. At this time I would pick Oklahoma State to barely beat Stanford with Oregon being among a group of seven teams that could win a team trophy (top four teams). If Puskedra and Centrowitz run with Stanford and Oklahoma State runners and Mercado and Acosta can stay fairly close all Oregon will need is for a fifth runner to finish in the top 50 for Oregon to get a trophy.

Luke said this week, "It's who shows up that day and that's definitely the biggest thing we are trying to emphasize." Mercado is encouraged by the familiarity, "I've never have a bad race on this course. The course is really fun to run on." Puskedra does like the course, "That's all they do with this course. It's really exciting to do just two 5k loops."

Puskedra also knows his competition, "Oklahoma State and Stanford definitely look good. They have a lot of good runners." Mercado respects the teams but is not afraid of them with the evidence being last year's race, " It goes to show rankings don't really matter."

When it comes down to it though it is what the athletes do and Mercado is confident, "Anybody can win on any day. You can't go into the meet not believing you have a chance." Danny believes in the training that Associate Athletic Director Vin Lanannna and head cross country coach Andy Powell and is not concerned with having two 10ks within eight days, "Vin and Andy trained us with this in mind. A lot of that training is going to show quite a bit. It showed this week and its going to show Monday."

At the same time you have to perform on that day, "If its your day, its your day." At the same time this is it and Danny wants his teammates to understand, "Just go in there ready to lay your life down. Don't take any position you're in for granted. Accept the fact it is going to get hard, accept the fact it is going to get tough the third and fourth mile, that's the just the way it goes."

He plans to give it all, "It's whatever it will take for us to win. If they tell me to catch a bunch of guys that's what I will do."

Let's hope the rest of the team can follow his example and they can win a championship

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