Andy Powell didn’t think the team was going to be in this position. After a series of injuries to start the season and a humbling opener against Boise State, the new Washington men’s cross-country coach figured the season was a wash.
“We just didn’t look very good,” Powell said. “We weren’t in very good shape, and I actually considered calling it a season and redshirting a lot of our guys, maybe try to have a big year next year because I just didn't know how good we could be.”
In a summer that had already been full of transition, ankle sprains to senior transfer Tanner Anderson and sophomore Talon Hull, achilles injuries for senior Fred Huxham and sophomore Gavin Parpart, and junior transfer Mick Stanovsek still recovering from his European racing season, meant five of the Huskies’ top-eight athletes were barely even running at the end of August.
“I probably had zero expectations if I’m being totally honest,” assistant coach Chris Kwiatkowski said. “I knew that the school had a bunch of talented kids, and Coach Powell brought up two of the best runners in the country from Oregon, so I knew there were pieces, but expectation-wise, I had no idea.”
Then, things started to change. Hard work by the training staff helped the runners get healthy, more rigorous stretching was required before and after practice, a consistent weight lifting program was added, and the team began to find some rhythm. Meanwhile, the athletes and coaches started getting to know each other and began to develop a new culture in the program.
“The biggest [factor in the turnaround] is that we have such a good team dynamic right now,” Powell said. “Everyone’s just fully bought in. Everyone’s showing up to practice early; everyone’s leaving late. That’s a good sign. When I show up at 7:30 a.m., we have practice at 8 a.m., most of the team is already there, preparing for practice, hanging out, enjoying each other’s company. It’s a pretty cool thing.”
The hard work also began to turn into tangible results. A jump up to No. 7 in the nation is the highest the men’s program has been ranked over the past two decades, and the team has placed runner-up in each of its last three races: The Battle in Beantown, pre-nationals, and the Pac-12 championships respectively.
“When you haven’t seen the team run, don’t know the personalities, and have no idea where even to train, it’s hard to guess how we were going to do. I was really more ignorant than anything,” Kwiatkowski said.
Led by the three-headed monster of Anderson, Hull, and sophomore Tibebu Proctor who have placed top-15 in each of those runner-up performances, the Huskies head to the NCAA West Regional in Sacramento, Calif. where they will try to qualify for the national championships.
Both the men and the No. 17 women’s team will face tough competition in what Powell considers “the toughest region.” The men’s field contains No. 4 Portland, No. 5 Stanford, and No. 9 Boise State, meaning with the addition of Washington, the race will have four of the top-10 programs in the country. And that’s not counting No. 11 Oregon, No. 22 Washington State, No. 24 UCLA, and No. 28 Gonzaga.
The women’s race features No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Boise State, and No. 6 Stanford as the teams ranked in front of Washington. No. 19 Portland will also race, while UCLA, Oregon State, and Cal Poly all recieved votes.
As a quick refresher, each of the top-two teams from the nine regionals automatically qualify for nationals. Anyone outside those spots must hope for one of the 13 at-large bids.
The races, 6K for the women and 10K for the men, will take place Friday, Nov. 9 at Haggin Oaks Golf Course in Sacramento, Calif. The women’s race starts at 11 a.m., with the men’s to follow an hour later.
Reach reporter Andy Yamashita at email@example.com. Twitter: @ANYamashita