Ducks faced top-ranked teams at Pac-10

The Oregon men and women are in California for the Pac-10 Cross Country Championships today (men at 3 pm and women at 4 pm). The Oregon men are three-time defending Pac-10 champions and two-time defending national champions but are ranked second in the country behind Pac-10 rival Stanford. The Washington women are expected to defend their Pac-10 and NCAA championships ahead of Oregon.

It is always difficult to determine the level of conditioning of the athletes during the cross country season because most of the runners do not focus on the individual meets and instead focus on the Pac-10, NCAA regional and NCAA championship meets. Because of the long distances of the races, it is necessary to put in hard training in the build-up to the championship races at the end of the season.

"I just needed to toughen up," Nicole Blood commented after a poor performance at the Bill Dellinger meet. Sometimes the long distances require the runners to push themselves to a harder pace than they are comfortable with over a longer distance. Past years' performances usually help a prognosticator guess at the conditioning and where the athletes will be at the end of the season.

The Oregon men are led by the Pac-10's top returning runner from the Pac-10 (second) and NCAA championships (fifth), sophomore Luke Puskedra. Two weeks ago Puskedra won the blue race at the Pre-National race but the white race had three runners run faster over the 8,000-meter (8k) course. Puskedra barely beat Stanford's top runner, sophomore Chris Derrick, at the Pac-10 and NCAA meet last year and Derrick should be Puskedra's top challenger and possibly the favorite. Derrick (first in 23:28) and Elliot Heath (third in 23:40) of Stanford both ran faster than Puskedra at the Pre-National race.

Puskedra will be followed by junior Daniel Mercado, a 2007 all-American, who has finished in the top ten in each of his this year's races against top competition. Danny commented before Pac-10 that, "We had a great race at pre-nats and hopefully it carries on forward." 2008 all-American Junior Matthew Centrowitz was fourth (top Duck) at the Dellinger Invitational but 27th (fourth Duck) at the Pre-National Invitational.

"I took a lower key approach than the Dellinger Invitational and personally I could have done better," Centrowitz admitted. "Puskedra and Klotz did better and that was good."

Three-time all-American senior Diego Mercado usually has his best performances during the championship season. 2007 all-American senior Kenny Klotz was an impressive eleventh at the pre-National race. Coach Lananna has believed all season that, "we have a lot of middle distance runners and I think it will come down to whether our middle distance runners can run the course as well as the Stanford distance runners." Junior AJ Acosta and seniors Jordan McNamara and Jonathon Thomas are recovering from injuries last year (Acosta, McNamara and Thomas) and this year (Thomas) but could likely have a large impact at the pac-10 meet.

The seventh-ranked Oregon women are two-time NCAA runner-ups but are missing the runners that finished third through fifth for them at the NCAA meet. Freshman Jordan Hasay ran very well at the pre-National meet (third overall) and was Oregon's top runner and will likely join two-time NCAA top-ten finishers senior Nicole Blood and junior Alex Kosinski. This trio will likely perform better than last year where Washington took the top six positions. Blood commented that, "last year we underestimated Washington."

Senior Duck Lauren Zaludek, redshirt sophomore Claire Michel, and freshman Taylor Wallace are Oregon high school products (Elmira, Clackamas, and Henley respectively) likely to be Oregon's fourth and fifth best finishers.

Oregon's competition is defending champion and top-ranked Washington with last year's champion sophomore Kendra Schaaf and the Huskies' top NCAA finisher sophomore Courtney Babcock and senior Katie Follett. Lananna said before the race that , "I think that we have a great 1-2-3 punch and I think it comes down to whether or not our first three can make a big dent in the first four or five of Washington." If Oregon wants to win the top three girls will have to run very well and Oregon's fourth and fifth best runners will have to stay close or beat Washington's fourth and fifth best runners.

Although this will be a great test for the top two teams to get the Pac-10 titles all teams are focused for two weeks later in Springfield, Oregon, the location of the NCAA regionals, used to qualify teams for the NCAA championships with the major focus on winning the title at the NCAA meet or at least getting a team trophy (top-four finish). Danny Mercado gave the team's strategy, "we developed the idea if we have a tight pack we can win every race." If he and his teammates can stay near the front against the competition at Pac-10, West Regions, and NCAA championships, Oregon won't lose any races.

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