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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Cross Country

Top runners return with sights on Tulsa


Brian Barraza will look to lead his team to new heights after a redshirt year allowed him to focus on training. | File Photo/The Cougar

The Cougar men’s cross country team took a gamble in 2016 when they redshirted senior Brian Barraza and junior Blake Contreras.

The pair were the Cougars’ top two returning runners from conference, and without them, the team fell from third to eighth at the conference meet.

But in doing so they allowed both athletes to focus on training and staying fit, building for the future, while also preserving a year of eligibility. It also allowed Head Coach Steve Magness to see who on the roster was ready to contribute and who needed a redshirt year.

The answer was sophomore G.J. Reyna. In Barraza’s absence, Reyna was the top runner for the men at every meet, including the AAC Conference Championships, where his time (25:38.6) placed him in the top 25. Now as Reyna pairs with the likes of Barraza and Contreras, the Cougars should have high hopes for this season. 

“Brian, Blake, and G.J. have all proved that they can compete at the highest level,” Magness said. “My hope is that they feed off each other to bring the team to another level. We have a lot of experience on this team. We bring in Chris Wallace, who was a redshirt transfer for us last year, and Gabe Lara, who had a breakout track season. So I really feel good about our upperclassmen leadership.”

Against the wind

Tulsa has won the AAC cross country championship in each of the last three seasons. For the Cougars, who have never placed higher than third, the Golden Hurricane presents a true and present obstacle to their championship hopes.

The Golden Hurricane remains the top team in the conference, and they will return three of its top five runners from the conference meet. The Cougars will not get to run against Tulsa until the conference championships in Philadelphia on Oct. 28. But when they do, they will need to get at least two of their runners in the top 5.

Multiple top five places will guarantee the Cougars a championship. If they place in the top 10, they are only guaranteed a podium place.

Barraza is the only runner to accomplish such a feat, placing fourth at the 2014 and 2015 conference meets.

After a strong indoor track & field season that saw him earn First Team All-American status in the 3000m, the first Cougar to do so, Barraza redshirted his senior outdoor season.

After nothing but training since March, Barraza should be well-rested. He will also have a head start on his season after running for USA Team at the 29th Summer Universiade in Taipei in late August. 

“(Redshirting) allowed him to grow and develop as a runner,” Magness said. “It was a strategic risk, but it allowed him to do things like compete at the U.S. outdoor championships. So he got experience racing not only the best collegiate guys, but the best professionals in the country. It gave him a glimpse of what it’s like to compete on that stage, and I think that experience will be vital as he ascends up the collegiate ranks.”

The comeback trail

Contreras had a strong freshman season in 2014. Then he was the second best runner for the Cougars, behind Barraza, and placed eleventh at the conference meet. Contreras missed out on a top 10 finish by 1 second.  

But in his sophomore year, Contreras took a step back. At the conference meet he only managed to place in the top 30.

Whether his poor performance or a nagging injury was to blame for being reshirted, Contreras has spent an entire year focusing on training, never running an event more than 1500m.

Changing of the guard

The woman’s team has another issue: Replacing its top two runners from the last three seasons. Selena Sierra and Maddie Brown both graduated in May 2017, leaving gaps on the roster. The talent is there; it all comes down to athletes taking the next step.

The positives are that junior Meredith Sorensen and senior Ebony White will be returning after redshirting last year. Plus, redshirt sophomore Jahnavi Schneider and juniors Emely Morgado and Jennifer Dunlap all had strong seasons on the track — most of all Schneider, who ran a personal best 16:57.67s in the 5K and ran the anchor leg for the Distance Medley team that won bronze at the Indoor Conference Championships.

“We have athletes who’ve been putting in up to 90 miles per week in the heat and humidity of Texas,” Magness said. “I’ve seen them out in the parks and gotten good reports back. If we can gel as a team this group of young ladies can do some big things.”

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