NCAA XCountry Preview (Men)

Two-time defending NCAA team champion Ducks will struggle to trophy in the men's race this year. Lingering physical issues have slowed the Ducks and the loss of two three-time cross country all-Americans (top 10 finishers each time) has not been overcome so far.

The Oregon men's cross country team will race at the NCAA championships in Terra Haute, Indiana on Monday at 9:08 am, televised live on Versus (32/732 HD in Portland on Comcast).

The Duck men will be led by the NCAA championship's second best returning runner, sophomore Luke Puskedra. Puskedra ran at the World junior cross country championships and won two more all-American awards on the track last year. At the pre-Nationals race October 17th, he won one of the two races (8,000 meters) on the NCAA championship course in Terra Haute. After the Dellinger Invite (he was sick and finished eleventh) he has been the top Ducks finisher in every race. He was fourth at the Pac-10 meet and after taking the lead at the West Regional (10,000 meters) race he relinquished the lead once it was clear he couldn't help the Ducks (third place) finish as one of the top two (automatic qualifying) teams.

After the West Regional meet he believed that the team learned, "We are not going to be able to control the race. We will have to run as a group and not get too overwhelmed with what everyone else is doing."

After Puskedra, the only consistent competitor has been redshirt junior cross country all-American (41st in 2007) Danny Mercado. The two-time NCAA competitor in the 10,000 meters has taken the mantle of team leader and he represents the core of the team along with his brother, senior two-time cross country (missed by four positions last year) all-American (best was 30th in 2007) Diego, and senior cross country all-American (37th in 2007) Kenny Klotz.

Danny said the team had extra motivation going into the NCAA meet, "This (third place West Region finish) is definitely a good motivation going into this weekend. With all of the lessons we have learned (10k is a long race, run with teammates, be calm and focused) I think it is all just going to come together (at NCAA meet)." He was the #2 Duck at the Dellinger Invite (eighth overall), pre-Nationals (sixth), and West Region meet (14th). He was the #4 Duck at pac-10s (13th) overall on a flat, warm course that was unusual. All of his finishes have been the best of his career.

Both Diego and Klotz have battled medical issues this year. Diego has an IT band problem that affected him in track (DNF at NCAA 10,000 meters) last year and he does not seem to have overcome the issue. The #3 returning runner was the #3 runner for the Ducks (his top finish of the season) at the West Region meet but the 24th place finish was the worst of his career. He had been the Ducks #5 runner in two other meets. Klotz has consistently run at the front at the beginning of races but has fallen back in every race except for the pre-Nationals where he was Oregon's #3 runner and finished eleventh overall. He has had exercise induced asthma that is being treated with approved medication but he does not seem at the level he was at when he teamed with Diego to help the Ducks win the pac-10 track title in 2008. He did not finish better than the #6 runner for the team in any other race except for the West Regional meet where he was the #4 runner and finished 32nd overall (worst finish of his career).

The most up-and-down runner on the team is super-talented junior cross country all-American (2008) Matthew Centrowitz. He was Oregon's top finisher at the Bill Dellinger Invitational (fourth) and was Oregon's #2 finisher at the Pac-10 meet (fifth). He was Oregon's #4 runner at the pre-National meet (27th) and was Oregon's last finisher at the West Regional meet (73rd) and it was clear he had a lot more to give in both races. Because he is trained as a 1500/5000-meter runner it is probably not important to press in the longer races unless it is important for team standing. In discussing Centrowitz Director of Track Vin Lananna said, "It is not easy to run 10,000 meters," but knowing Centrowitz, "he will suck it up for the team (at the NCAA meet)." He will likely run very well at the NCAA meet like he did last year (45th).

Redshirt junior AJ Acosta (four-time track all-American) battled injuries last year but has been very consistent this year. He was Oregon's #4 runner at the Dellinger Invite (23rd) and finished as Oregon's #5 runner at the Pac-10 (15th) and West Region (33rd). Redshirt senior Jordan McNamara may be the secret weapon of the team. He came to Oregon after running at Lane CC, dominating the league cross country championship, set records on the track and ran at the 2007 US championships and 2008 Olympic Trials in the 1,500 meters. Until spring of 2009 he had been injured but improved on the track steadily throughout the season and broke a 4:00 mile over the summer. Because of his limited mileage, he has run few cross country races. He ran with the leaders early in the Bill Dellinger Invite but fell back to be the #8 runner for the Ducks (36th overall in 24:35.23) in the meet October 2nd. He didn't run at the pre-Nationals race but finished as Oregon's #3 runner at the Pac-10 meet (23:21.14). He missed the West Regional meet as other top runners from Oregon have done in big meets (Matthew Centrowitz missed the 2008 West Regional and Diego missed in 2007) but it is likely that he will run in Terra Haute, Indiana.

Two freshman could break into the team, redshirt freshman Bryce Burgess from Portland's Franklin high school or true freshman Mac Fleet. Burgess is a good distance runner but has not pushed himself in races and ends up finishing strongly or has too much left in most races. Fleet won the US and Pan Am junior 1,500 meter races last year and has shown a tough side that has helped him run well but not score (top five) in any of his races so far. It is unlikely either will run unless an injury prevents one of the previously discussed top seven from running.

At the NCAA level one team has stood out for much of the year much like the Washington women did last year. Stanford has been exceptional all year. Sophomore Chris Derrick has won every race and beat Liberty's Samuel Chelanga (undefeated and set several course records last year until the NCAA meet) at the 8,000 meter pre-Nationals race held in Terra Haute, Indiana.

Things do change radically at the NCAA meet from the pre-Nationals.

"The five mile race at the pre-Nationals is very different than 10,000 meters (NCAA championships). There is no reason to go (to pre-Nationals) for the men but Andy (Powell, distance coach) and I wanted to see some things," said Lannana.

Lananna feels the team is ready for the NCAA meet.

"Andy Powell, in particular, has done a really nice job at getting the kids physically prepared," observed Lananna. " I believe that we have enough winners on our team and that uniform that says Oregon on it represents a great deal of pride for these kids."

Oregon has lost to four of the teams ranked ahead of them (#1 Stanford, #3 Alabama, #4 Portland and #5 BYU) but did beat two of them during the season (#3 Alabama and #4 Portland). Oklahoma State is ranked #2 but has not beaten anyone during the season and top runner German Fernandez has not run as well as he did last year. Oregon lost to Portland at the West Regional meet when the race was not important to win and just to qualify. With the great experience the Ducks have and the pride of the team leaders, Oregon could finish as high as second and make a run for the title if Stanford falters. The most hoped for scenario would be Stanford, Oregon, Oklahoma State and Portland. That is a likely outcome for this outstanding group and would match the pre-season predictions (Stanford has surprised everyone).

At least six members of Oregon's top seven have won an NCAA title and Lananna knows how this team fights to win and carry on tradition, "The athletes really look at that (the O) as something that carries a tremendous motivation."

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