Two weeks ago, it looked like the Cal Poly men’s cross country championship streak was ending this year.
Winners of seven straight Big West Conference team titles and 10 overall, the Mustangs were battling youth and inexperience and a continuing injury to former conference individual champion Daniel Gonia.
Both UC Davis and UC Riverside loomed above Cal Poly in the West Region rankings, but that wasn’t changing the way Mustangs head coach Mark Conover was approaching the weeks leading up to Saturday’s Big West Cross Country Championships.
“The outlook’s always the same,” Conover said. “Don’t take anything as a given, and I know schools think it’s a given that this year’s the year they can break our streak.”
Two weeks ago, Mustangs senior Carl Dargitz, the lone upperclassman in a lineup populated by youngsters, had a career performance at the pre-national meet in Indiana, where the men combined to finish their 8,000-meter race in 16th place.
The Cal Poly women, shooting for their first Big West championship since taking back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001, were 15th at pre-nationals in their 6,000-meter race.
Led by sophomore Kayleigh Tyerman, who helped the team to a third-place finish in the Big West last season, the Mustangs women come into the conference meet ranked No. 12 in the West Region behind No. 11 Long Beach State and No. 8 UC Santa Barbara.
But it was the Mustangs’ men who really upped their stock in Indiana.
Cal Poly went into the meet ranked No. 12 in the West Region and unranked nationally. Both UC Davis and UC Riverside, the host of the Big West Championships, were more highly regarded.
Then — led by Dargitz’s 49th-place finish in 24:34 — the Mustangs finished pre-nationals ahead of Butler, which had just dropped out of the national top 25 the week prior, and Arizona State, which was also receiving votes in the national poll, and the West region saw a shakeup.
Cal Poly jumped from 12th to fifth, leapfrogging No. 10 UC Riverside and landing one spot behind No. 6 UC Davis.
Now, it’s not so certain that the Mustangs’ streak is going to end.
“I think it gives them a lot of confidence,” Conover said, and they’re clearly showing that they’re getting better as the season goes along, especially with a young group. This is the youngest team I’ve put on the line at the conference meet.”
Prior to the start of the season, Conover was cautiously optimistic that Gonia would be able to return for his senior season.
After winning the individual conference title in 2008, Gonia missed all of last year with injury.
Though the door is open for him to apply for a medical redshirt and possibly return next season, Gonia has not been able to return.
The rest of the lineup — Michael Johnson, Ryan Cosens, Sean Davidson, Blake Ahrold and Chris Frias — are all freshman or sophomores.
The Mustangs still might not be the favorites, but just because they’ve won so many titles in a row, it doesn’t mean they were all easy, Conover said.
“We’ve had these types of battles before at conference,” Conover said.
“The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. So, bring it on.”
Hasay is a favorite at the Pac-10 meet
Former Mission Prep standout Jordan Hasay and the Oregon women’s cross country team — top-ranked in the West Region and No. 2 nationally — race in the Pac-10 Cross Country Championships Saturday in Seattle.
Hasay, a sophomore who finished third in this race and was named conference newcomer of the year last season, is the top returning runner and is looking to break up a back-to-back title streak for Washington and bring home the Ducks’ first conference team title since 1995.
Teamed with former prep rival Alex Kosinski, Hasay is coming off a victory in the Bill Dellinger Invitational on Oct. 16.