TERRE HAUTE —
The Pre-Nationals Invitational has changed but some of the top programs remain the same.
Oklahoma State, winners of three of the last four men’s NCAA cross country championships, is ranked No. 1 in the land and ready to race Saturday.
The No. 2 Colorado Buffaloes are also prepared to roam the LaVern Gibson Championship Course as 52 men’s teams will race the 8,000-meter course at the same time. It’s a change in format from when two balanced-out fields of each gender would comprise the four-race day.
It accomplishes the same goal as a NCAA Championship warm-up of sorts.
“The practical aspect of the Pre-Nationals is that we get to learn about the course,” said Colorado coach Mark Wetmore, who knows the course well having won NCAA titles in 2006 and 2004.
But those teams have long since graduated and getting this year’s runners more comfortable on the site of next month’s NCAA Championships is an excellent opportunity.
“Almost every team has new varsity members and they need to get a lay of the land, so to speak,” Wetmore said. “Also, it is the biggest meet of the year, bigger than the NCAA’s. It is an opportunity to experience that, which can be disconcerting for the new people.”
On the women’s side, defending national champion Oregon is No. 4 in the coaches’ poll, and the Ducks will a chance to test themselves against three other Top 10 squads in a 51-team field.
Coach Karen Harvey of No. 2 Florida State is hoping her Seminoles prove themselves worthy of that recognition. It’s a big weekend for many teams around the nation, with the adidas Invitational at Wisconsin featuring 16 women’s teams ranked in the top 30.
Sophomore Colleen Quigley and Hanna Walker, a junior transfer from Great Britain, led the Seminoles to a team title in Indiana just three weeks ago at Notre Dame.
“We have some horses that can run with some of the best in the NCAA. But prenationals is not our sole focus,” Harvey said. “They are fit but not as fit as they will be at ACC’s and NCAA’s. This race will prove to be a very tough test and maybe a race we get the feedback we need to finish the season with a bang.”
The adidas meet at Wisconsin includes No. 1 Providence, No. 3 Arizona, No. 4 Washington and many other quality teams.
“It appears there is a good amount of talent for both meets. Pretty equal I think on the women’s side,” Harvey said. “We chose Terre Haute because I believe it’s a good idea to have a test on the national championship course.”
Georgetown women’s coach Michael Smith agrees.
“The logistics of a big meet. The size of the field, those are important things to practice before nationals,” Smith said.”
Also, the size of the field provides plenty of chance to defeat potential NCAA automatic qualifiers — a way to earn points toward an at-large berth to the championship. The size of the field will also provide quite a spectacle and a challenge for the runners to navigate even with the wide front straightaway at the Gibson Course.
“Yes the race is massive. Praying everyone stays on their feet and it's a smooth first 1km,” Harvey said. “This will be supreme test for all teams to be calm and focused in chaos.”
The No. 5 Hoya ladies are hoping to show what a solid pack can do in a large race.
“We don’t necessarily have what you call a low stick, but we have is incredible depth from our first through seven runners,” Smith said. “We may have trouble beating some team’s No. 1s, but we’ll be putting lots of people between their 2-5. We have a deep squad and most importantly for us is keeping people healthy. We’ve been able to train and compete and line up our best seven this weekend. That’ll be our goal for the weekend. It’s a great field, it’s just a loaded field. Great teams, great individuals, great athletes.”
ISU men’s coach John McNichols is excited for the race as the Sycamores get warmed up as hosts for the NCAAs for the 10th time in the past 13 years.
McNichols also has sophomore John Mascari leading a young team against elite competition. Mascari was one of the top freshman in the NCAA Championships in 2012 at Louisville.
“It’s going to be a really cool experience, 52 teams is a lot more than I’ve ever ran against,” Mascari said. “And it’s the course I’ve run on since sixth grade. There will be plenty of hometown people there rooting us on. I finished 34th in Pre-Nats last year. I’m more fit than last year. I’m just going to go out there with the front pack and hopefully something good will come out of it.”
The Sycamore women, coached by John Gartland, will also compete on their home course Saturday.
McNichols is excited to have the high-caliber events back in Terre Haute. The course is in great shape.
“The rain these last few weeks has made a huge difference in greening it up. It’s in as good a shape as it’s been,” McNichols said.
Dave Patterson of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is also excited to have the national running community in town.
“This is our last year of the Division I meets that we’re guaranteed,” Patterson said. “We want to show well. We’ve got a four-year bid cycle that we’ve all weighed in on. We want to reiterate all the positives we’ve done for the sport and consequently what the sport’s done for our community. Pre-Nationals leading to a Saturday nationals, that’s what’s exciting.”