Oct. 25, 2012
The Montana cross country teams will be in Flagstaff, Ariz., this weekend for the Big Sky Conference championships. The races will be held Saturday morning at Flagstaff's Buffalo Park.
The men's eight-kilometer race begins at 11 a.m. (MT). The women's five-kilometer race starts at noon (MT).
Live coverage: Northern Arizona will be providing in-race updates through its Twitter account (@NAUAthletics). Final results will be posted to NAUAthletics.com shortly after the conclusion of each race.
Montana will be racing the same five athletes it has for its previous four races this fall: Senior Bobbi Furrer, sophomores Allie Parks, Autumn Taniguchi and Carly Wilczynski and redshirt freshman Mariah Meyer.
It is a group that is mostly inexperienced racing cross country at the championship level. Parks, Taniguchi and Wilczynski all raced at Pocatello, Idaho, last fall, but that is the extent of the group's history.
Parks finished 12th overall as a freshman on Montana's fifth-place team. Wilczynski was 28th, Taniguchi 56th.
Because of injuries to junior Keli Dennehy and freshmen Sarah Hastings and Lauryn Wate, three athletes expected to solidify Montana's top five, the Grizzlies have been shorthanded all fall and won't be a threat to challenge the top teams Saturday.
But goals are still achievable, particularly for Parks and Wilczynski, who both could run their way into the top 10.
"I don't think either one of them has shown what they are capable of (this season)," UM coach Courtney Babcock said. "We've talked about finishing top 10 at conference all year, and that is something that is very feasible for both of them."
Weber State, which has finished in the top three in the team standings at every Big Sky Conference meet since 1999, is the heavy favorite. The Wildcats, who are led by Amber Henry and Sarah Callister, are ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Mountain Region and 16th nationally.
"If Weber was coming from sea level (and racing at Flagstaff's 7,000 feet), I would say somebody might be able to touch them," Babcock said, "but they are just so strong and so deep. I don't know that anybody is going to be able to upset them."
The other ranked teams within the region are Southern Utah (fifth), Northern Arizona (ninth) and Montana State (15th).
"We don't really have a team placement in mind," Babcock said. "We're small in number, but the girls know we still have a decent team. We have a team goal in mind, but with only five women and no room for error, everybody has to have a good day."
Montana's order of finish has not varied at four races this fall, which started at the Carroll Early Bird Open on Sept. 7 and most recently included the Inland Empire Classic at Lewiston, Idaho.
Wilczynski has led the team four times, followed by Parks, Taniguchi, Meyer and Furrer. Wilczynski had top-10 finishes at both Carroll's (second) and Lewis-Clark State's (10th) meets.
The UM men have the opposite outlook of the Montana women. No Griz is likely to crack the top 10, but the team has the depth to surprise some of the favored teams who might be assuming Montana won't be a factor.
Eight athletes will be racing, and they are even more inexperienced at the Big Sky meet than the Griz women: juniors Caleb Deitz and Jordan Collison, sophomore David Norris, redshirt freshman Mark Messmer and freshmen Matt Barker, Colby Henderson, Julian Jalani and Reid Longley.
Only Collison and Norris, with one Big Sky championship each, have competed at the conference meet previously. Both raced last year at Pocatello on Montana's fourth-place team. Norris was 31st, Collison 35th.
When asked if she thought this team could be a surprise, Babcock said, "That's the exact word we used (as a team) on Monday. We think we're capable of surprising some people, because we haven't had a day yet when everybody is on."
The teams Montana will be looking to surprise are all ranked in the top 15 in the latest Mountain Region poll. Northern Arizona is fourth, Montana State eighth, Weber State 10th and Southern Utah 11th.
"Those teams will all be tough," Babcock said. "I think top five should happen, but top three is our goal. That could happen under the right circumstances and with everybody running well.
"It's a tough conference this year, so the top 10 is going to be tough to crack, but if we can get a couple of guys up front and still keep our pack really tight, we'll be in good shape."
Pointing to Montana's depth is that five different runners have finished in the top three for Montana at its first four races this fall.
Deitz, in his first season after transferring from Carroll, has been the most consistent. He's led the team three times and finished second once. Collison led the Grizzlies at the Montana Invitational.
Norris, Messmer and Barker have also all been in Montana's top three this fall.
The obvious factor that will affect Saturday's race is that Flagstaff is located at 7,000 feet elevation. "Obviously if you get to train at 7,000 feet you're going to have an advantage over teams that are coming from sea level," Babcock said.
"We've been trying to mimic (running at elevation) as much as we can. We've done a couple of runs at Snow Bowl and a couple of workouts up Pattee Canyon. We'll know what it feels like to be that high and how to adjust our pace.
"You don't want to go out too hard. At that elevation it's just too hard to recover (within the race) if you redline too early, so we'll try to be a little more conservative."
Upcoming: Montana will compete at the NCAA Mountain Regional at Fort Collins, Colo., on Friday, Nov. 9. The races will be held at the Collindale Golf Course. The women's six-kilometer race will start at noon, the men's 10-kilometer race at 1 p.m.
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