Since Sean Davidson’s freshman season, the Cal Poly men’s cross country team has come all the way back to its former glory. Laura Hollander is trying to get there herself.
The Mustangs host the Big West Conference Championships at the Fairbanks Cross Country Course on Saturday for the first time since 2007.
That year, Cal Poly was in the midst of an eight-year string of consecutive titles and set a Big West record for scoring in the conference championship meet by sweeping the top five spots.
Three years later, the streak of dominance was broken when Davidson, a Simi Valley Royal High product, was in his first season at Cal Poly.
The Mustangs quickly rebounded, winning Big West team titles each of the past two seasons. And thanks in part to a breakout season by Davidson in his senior year, Cal Poly is a favorite to keep the new streak going strong.
“We expect to perform well,” said Davidson, who had his best performances at Pre Nationals and NCAA West Regional Preview meets in recent weeks. “We expect a win out of it, and we’re going to get as many guys as we can into the top 10.”
Hollander helped the Mustangs women to their third overall Big West title with a superstar freshman season last year.
To many, Hollander was the national breakout performer after winning every meet on her way to the postseason and setting several course records along the way.
Since a ninth-place finish at the 2012 NCAA Cross Country Championships, Hollander has been hamstrung by a knee injury and a hip injury suffered in a freak bicycle crash during track season.
She has only raced once this cross country season, a dominant effort in the season-opening UC Santa Barbara Lagoon Open, where she collected another course record (16 minutes, 37 seconds).
Battling continued knee issues, Hollander is expecting to make her return
Saturday. The men’s race, an 8K, is scheduled to start at 9:45 a.m. with the women following at 10:40 with a 5K.
“That’s the plan,” Cal Poly head coach Mark Conover said of Hollander’s intention to race. “It’s kind of a day-by-day thing for her right now.
“She had a sore knee that has lasted a little bit but still headed in a positive direction.”
Men’s runner Chris Frias, another Mustangs senior, took the individual conference title last year, when Cal Poly had all five of its scorers place in the top 15.
Frias has continued his solid running this season, placing first or second among his teammates at every meet this season, including an overall victory in the Fresno State Invitational (19:15) and a second-place finish in the Lagoon Open (24:25).
Davidson has turned it on in the second half of the season to become a significant contributor.
At last season’s Big West Championships, Davidson was the fourth-best Mustangs finisher, placing ninth overall behind Frias, Blake Ahrold and Mitch Moriarty, who has returned to consistently rank as Cal Poly’s No. 3 runner as a junior this season.
Davidson was second in 23:30 at the NCAA West Regional Preview in Sacramento earlier this month, and in his most recent race, Davidson was 17th overall at the Pre Nationals in Terre Haute, Ind., leading the Mustangs to a 12-place team finish on the NCAA Championship course in 23:47.
“The last two races I’ve been pretty excited with,” Davidson said. “In Sacramento, I was close to winning that race, and I was in the lead for a good part of it.
“Getting 17th at Pre Nationals was equally as satisfying and energizing. It felt like an honor to be running up with these guys I’ve been looking up to my freshman to junior season. They’ve always been the elite runners, and I was up there with them.”
Davidson credits his breakout season to increased efficiency in his workouts, a newfound commitment to core workouts and an upgraded dedication to the team that went along with his role as a co-captain.
He helped Cal Poly to a second-place overall team finish at the NCAA West Regional Preview, where the women were also second, led by sophomore Mary Jo Wright (9th in 17:08), freshman Ashley Windsor (14th, 17:13) and senior Colorado transfer Diana George (18th, 17:20).
Without Hollander, the Mustangs placed only behind UCLA and ahead of all other Big West competition, and figure to be one of the favorites for a second straight conference title with or without the All-American sophomore.
“It’ll be a chance for that,” Conover said, “and certainly UC Davis and UC Santa
Barbara field good teams. We can’t take anything for granted and nothing is given, but I like the way the ladies are running. I think they’re in a good spot headed into it.”