Courtney Babcock coached the UM women to the 2010 Big Sky title
Oct. 27, 2011
The Montana cross country teams will compete at the 2011 Big Sky Conference championships Saturday at Pocatello, Idaho. The women's five-kilometer race starts at 10 a.m., the men's eight-kilometer race begins at 11 a.m. Both races will be held at ISU's Centennial Course.
The course: The Centennial Course has one dominant characteristic: There is not a flat section to be found. The main loop is 3,000 meters in length, with a shorter 2,000-meter section of the main course also in use.
The men will run two laps of the 3,000-meter loop, then a single time around the 2,000-meter loop. The women do one lap of the 3,000-meter loop and one of the 2,000-meter loop.
The race starts with a 1,000-meter downhill that loses 200 feet of elevation. The racers will climb nearly 300 feet over the next 1,700 meters, then drop back down to the starting line.
"The biggest thing about this race is that it's straight up and straight down the whole time, so it's hard to say how it's going to go for anybody," UM coach Courtney Babcock said.
"I think it really levels out the playing field a little bit."
Last year: The Montana women won their first conference title since 1984 last October at Cheney, Wash., placing their top five runners in the top 17 overall. Dennehy, who was fourth, and Payne, who was 12th, return from that quintet.
The Grizzlies have finished in the top three at five of the last six Big Sky races.
The men had an eighth-place finish last October. Reynolds was fifth for the second straight year, but no other Montana runner cracked the top 35. The team's No. 5 runner and final counter placed a distant 55th.
The Grizzlies have cracked the top three just twice since 1990.
The favorites: Northern Arizona is a heavy favorite on the men's side to win its fifth straight championship, which would be a Big Sky Conference record.
Diego Estrada was second at last year's race, Tim Freriks sixth, and Jordan Chipangama, who was fifth at nationals in 2009, is back to health after missing last year's race.
Weber State is the favorite on the women's side. Amber Henry was seventh last year, Taylor Thornley ninth and Kayla Blackford 13th, and that does not include Sarah Callister, one of the favorites to win the individual title, who missed last year's meet with a foot injury.
Women's outlook: The Grizzlies are talented enough to challenge for their second straight championship but also young and mostly inexperienced. Four of the team's eight athletes competing Saturday are freshmen and five of the eight have not competed at a conference meet.
Payne, who will be competing at her fourth Big Sky championship, is the most experienced. She was 30th as a freshman, seventh and All-Big Sky Conference as a sophomore and 12th a year ago.
Denneny, fourth and All-Big Sky last year, and Moore, 24th last October, will be competing at their second conference meet.
Why is Babcock so optimistic? Because of Wilczynski, Parks and Haas.
Dennehy has paced Montana at its three fall meets, and Wilczynski, Parks and Haas, in some order, have finished as the team's next three (at the last two meets - Haas missed the season-opening race at Montana State.)
The gap between Dennehy and Haas, the team's No. 4 runner, at Spokane two weeks ago was a mere 11 seconds.
The key for the team's fortunes Saturday will be getting either Payne or Moore into that lead pack. Payne, No. 5 at Spokane, was more than a minute behind Haas.
"If we can put all that together, we absolutely have a chance at winning conference," Babcock said. "We have two girls (in Payne and Moore) vying for that fifth spot. Kesslee has been consistently in the top 15 at conference, and Annie was top 25 last year, so they've proven themselves."
Men's outlook: The Grizzlies are trending in the right direction at the right time. After opening the season with two races that smacked of last year's results, the team had a breakout performance at Spokane.
And by breakout, we mean "everybody else closing the gap on Lynn Reynolds."
Reynolds finished more than 90 seconds ahead of his nearest teammate at the Montana State and Montana invitationals. At Spokane the Grizzlies' No. 5 runner was just 61 seconds behind Reynolds, the sort of gap that is essential Saturday if the team wants to realize its goal of surprising everyone and cracking the top three.
Reynolds covered the eight-kilometer course at Spokane, which was flat and fast, so the opposite of the Centennial Course, in 24:33. Collison went 25:18, Norris 25:22, Hardy 25:26 and Willis 25:34.
Williams, who was 46th at last year's Big Sky meet while running for Eastern Washington, was 39 seconds back of Willis in sixth, Anderson another 37 seconds behind Williams in seventh.
"We really had a big jump from our home meet to Spokane in terms being so close, and I think our best race is still to come, so top three is totally realistic," Babcock said.
"We think going top three is not only doable, it's what we should do. That's been our goal all year and something we're really focusing on and preparing for."
Like the women, the UM men are short on Big Sky championship experience. Reynolds has competed three times, finishing 12th as a freshman and fifth the last two years; Hardy, Weinman and Williams (for EWU) have competed just once, with no top-45 finishes among them.
Three of the athletes Babcock will be counting on to chase Reynolds will be first timers: Collison, Norris and Willis.
Norris and Willis, particularly, have impressed Babcock this fall because of their backgrounds. Norris was an 800-meter runner at Coeur d'Alene (Idaho) High, Willis a miler at Canyon (Calif.) High.
"Sam and David have come in and done a great job as freshmen stepping up to the 8k distance," Babcock said. "That can be a big jump for guys."
Looking ahead: Montana will compete Saturday, Nov. 12, at the NCAA Mountain Regional. The races will be held at the Cascade Golf Center at Orem, Utah.
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