The Cal Poly men’s cross country team is poised to continue its dominance of the Big West Conference and get back to the NCAA Championships.
The Mustangs women are trying to get to the point where they can be considered a perennial contender just like their male counterparts. And the gap between the two programs could be getting narrower.
“That’s certainly the goal, just getting over that hump,” said Cal Poly head coach Mark Conover, whose teams open the season with a dual meet at UC Santa Barbara on Saturday. “We’ve had the personnel the last few years to get that done, but some circumstances had added a glitch to that, whether it be injury or illness or whatnot.
“We’ll get over that hump. This year’s group certainly has that ability.”
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After a one-year hiccup where they were unseated as the conference champion and left out of the NCAA field, the men won their 11th Big West team title in 2011 and pulled a couple of upsets in a peak performance to finish third overall at the NCAA West Regional.
Their 28th-place finish at the national championship meet was a disappointment, but after watching a streak of seven straight conference titles end in 2010, it was still a triumphant return just to make the program’s seventh appearance overall in the NCAA Championships.
“It was great,” Conover said, “how they rebounded last year, and I think like anybody in any sport, you win or lose, but it can all be positive, you an take something from losses and apply it to the next year.
“They didn’t like what happened, and hats off to them because that same group came back last year and not only won the conference but made it back to the starting line at nationals.”
It’s not the same group this year, but many key contributors return. Senior David Cardona (fourth at the Big West Championships in 2011) now becomes the top runner. Junior Chris Frias and sophomore Mitch Moriarty represent the past two Big West freshmen of the year. Juniors Sean Davidson and Blake Ahrold have big-meet experience.
That’s not including senior Derek Thomas, who is coming off a standout track season.
The women finished fourth in the Big West last season, a step back from their second-place effort from the previous year, but the Mustangs did place ninth at the NCAA West Regional and sent two individuals to the national championships.
Though Leanne Fogg graduated, the Cal Poly women feature an intriguing mix of returners and newcomers.
Meghan Breadmore was the female Big West Freshman of the Year after a fourth-place finish at the conference meet and placed 146th at the NCAA Championships.
Senior Vanessa Hancock was lost to injury during the last cross country season but returns healthy this year after making the 2012 NCAA Track and Field West Regional, where she was less than a second away from qualifying for the national championships in the 1,500 meters.
The Mustangs’ incoming freshmen are certainly accustomed to success and have the pedigree to continue to elevate the program.
Canadian Ashley Windsor was the British Columbia provincial cross country champion and also won the 800 and 3,000 in the provincial track championships.
Freshman Laura Hollander of Huntington Beach Marina High won her division and placed second overall at the CIF State Cross Country Championships.
Freshmen Mary Jo Wright of Elko (Nev.) High and Mary Hillis of Lincoln Southwest (Neb.) High are multi-year champions of their respective states.
Conover said the program mainly recruits California, but he is fond of the out-of-state athletes who seek him out as well.
“People find Cal Poly maybe even moreso than the coaches go out and find them,” Conover said. “I always view that as a positive because that means they’re really tuned it to Cal Poly, and if they come here, they’ll put in the effort needed.”