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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cross Country

Hilly Philly will host Cougars for championship


In his final conference meet with the Cougars, Brian Barraza looks to finally get the men over the hump and win a title. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Hills make a cross-country course difficult, and lots of hills await the Cougars when they arrive in Philadelphia on Saturday.

The Temple Owls will host 10 men’s teams at the American Athletic Conference Championship Meet this weekend. After underperforming last year, the Cougars have improved their roster to the point where they believe they can vie for a title. Redshirt senior Brian Barraza said at the start of the season that he felt they could accomplish anything. Not much has changed.

“Every meet, every practice, every workout run that we go into, we go into knowing this is the work that’s going to get us better,” Barraza said. “This is the work that’s going to get us to the line in shape to be in a position to do something.”

The Cougars have gotten close to a title twice before, placing third in 2014 and 2015. But in 2016, two of their top runners redshirted and the squad was mostly composed of underclassmen, and the team struggled. Despite then-sophomore G.J. Reyna’s breakout season, the team placed only eighth out of nine teams at conference.

But this year, the squad has a new look. Reyna and Barraza each have a meet-win to his name — Reyna at the Rice Invitational and Barraza at the Texas A&M Invitational. Plus, Barraza placed 10th at Pre-Nationals on Oct. 14 against 300 of the nation’s top runners.

Overall, the team has been consistent with its performances at every meet. Barraza and Reyna have led the pack every time, and redshirt seniors Gabe Lara, Matthew Parmley and Christopher Wallace have done well to round out the group.

“We have a lot of experience on this team, and we hope that they can show up and compete to the best of their ability,” said head coach Steve Magness. “If they put it all together on the same day, they can come away with a trophy at conference, but it’s going to take a full team effort.”

Teams to watch

The team on everyone’s radar going into conference is the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa’s rotation of international distance runners has won the championship in back-to-back seasons. Last year, Tulsa had four runners place in the top five, and three of those runners returned.

The Golden Hurricane will compete for its third consecutive title.

The UConn Huskies and Temple Owls are also expected to perform well. But the Wichita State Shockers, who were only added to the AAC this season, are an intriguing team to watch. Last year, the Shockers placed second in the Missouri Valley Conference and have retained much of the talent from that squad. They could easily surprise many people in the conference.

Last chance for championship

Saturday’s meet will mark Barraza’s the final conference race as a Cougar. Since he arrived in 2013, he has been one of the top runners in the country and has provided a spark to the men’s squad in every race. The one challenge he has not overcome is winning a conference title.

If Barraza leads the Cougars to a title in one of his final races, then it will be clear that he is one of the best runners to ever come through Houston. Luckily, he will not have to do it alone. Reyna is the clear successor to Barraza’s spot as the top runner on the squad, and with their other teammates behind them, there is no doubt they will leave everything on the course.

“Win or lose, if everybody just puts it out there and fights the way we’ve been fighting over the season, I don’t think we can be really disappointed with that,” Reyna said. “Meets like Pre-Nats, I thought there was a lot to take from as far as guys putting it on the line when they weren’t all 100 percent. As long as that happens Saturday, I think we’ll be alright.”

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