As summer turns to fall and the leaves start to fall to the ground, something magical happens to local golf courses around the nation. They are transformed into cross-country courses where the NCAA’s best runners duel for individual and team glory. Weber State University will host the Mountain Region Championships at Schneiter’s Golf Course tomorrow.
On the men’s side, the fans who flock to the course will be graced with the presence of one of the dominant cross-country runners of the past year. Kennedy Kithuka from Texas Tech University hasn’t lost a cross-country race since joining the Red Raiders from South Plains College. He won the meet last year, and could very well run away from the field straight from the gun again this year. He is the favorite heading into the meet, and rumors are that he is going to try and break the course record at the National Championships in Terre Haute.
Following Kithuka, the reigning NCAA steeplechase champion, Anthony Rotich, will look to see what damage he can do after capturing the Conference USA title a few weeks back. If one of those two men don’t win, it would be a huge surprise, but there are other runners who have the potential to pull the upset: Futsum Zienasellassie of Northern Arizona University, Jason Witt of Brigham Young University and a contingent of runners from Colorado.
The team battle will be one for the ages, as three of the top five teams will be battling it out on the course. No. 1-ranked Colorado brings a lot to the table. Coach Mark Wetmore already had an experienced group returning from last year s squad. But now throw in Utah native and top recruit Ben Saarel, who has run well so far this year, and the team has one of the strongest top five in the nation.
They have the making of a team that can dethrone Oklahoma State, but they must first take care of business here. Not far behind is Northern Arizona, which is ranked No. 2 and which many consider the best team in the nation. The boys from Flagstaff, as with Colorado, have the makings of dethroning OSU as they return their top five from last year’s meet. With one more year of training at elevation and experience, this team seems ready to defend their title.
BYU rounds out the top five in the national rankings, but they won’t be content with taking third place here. One would tend to wonder, just how good would with this team be with should-be-senior Jared Ward? The Cougars will get that chance, as Ward was recently reinstated by the NCAA on Thursday. Ward ran the Chicago Marathon this fall and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials, as he was ruled ineligible for running a race after his LDS mission. Ward, Jason Witt and Tylor Thatcher hope to lead the Cougars to an upset. It will take a whole team effort to bring down the Buffaloes and Lumberjacks, but the Cougars have shown in the past that they should not be overlooked, especially with the late addition of Ward.
On the women’s side of things, the race only returns three of the top 10 finishers from last year. Weber State’s own Amber Henry, who took third last year, would be an overwhelming favorite, but has been battling injuries this fall after a long summer of racing. But she ran at the Big Sky Championships, placing 10th.
The women’s race is wide open, but Olympian and Utah native Shayla Kipp has the talent to bring home the trophy, as she improves every week. Like Henry, she is coming off a long summer of racing and might be finding her stride at the right moment. Her teammate Carrie Verdon placed seventh last year as a freshman, and is coming off a 10th-place finish a few weeks ago at Pac-12s.
Some other notable runners who could contend and run away with the title are Summer Harper of Weber State, Charlotte Arter of New Mexico and Natalie Shields of BYU.
The team race will likely come down to a two-team battle, as eighth-ranked New Mexico will try to hold off the 10th-ranked Buffs of Colorado. The Lobos are coming off winning the Mountain West title and a sixth-place finish at the highly competitive Wisconsin Adidas Invitational.
Meanwhile, the Buffs come off a seventh-place finish at pre-nats, only finishing six points behind No. 1 University of Arizona at Pac-12s. It seems that the fifth runner may be the difference in deciding who walks away with the title.
But the Wildcats of Weber State should not be overlooked on their home course, as they have yet to run their full squad because of various injuries. Also, their freshmen have continued to progress, and how Harper and Hailey Ricks race could play a role in if they can retain the title.