LOS ANGELES — One Occidental College cross country team enters the 2012 season with something to prove and the other with lofty expectations.
Based on how they fared last season, you'd assume its the NCAA West Region defending champion Oxy men's team that has something to live up to and that the women's team, which finished a very respectable fourth at the regional meet in 2011, could be running with a small chip on its shoulder. After all, the men return Cole Williams (San Francisco) and Colin Smith (Las Vegas), who were the fifth and seventh best freshmen at the NCAA Division III cross country championships last season, and the women lost perennial All-SCIAC performers; Sierra Walker, Anna Dalton and Eliza Dornbush to graduation.
But Oxy cross country coach Rob Bartlett and the USFTCCA preseason polls see it differently.
The Oxy women's team is No. 25 in the nation and No. 2 in the West, the men's team is No. 34 nationally and No. 4 regionally, and Bartlett says the women's team could be the team to watch.
The confidence in the women stems from three distance runners, who missed the 2011 cross country season for various reasons, returning to the team after having outstanding track and field seasons in the Spring. Last Fall, Marnie Kinnaird (Oak Park, Ill.) was recovering from an injury, and Tara Saxena (Palo Alto) and Deanna Dupuy (Newbury Park) were both studying abroad.
"Our women's team's ranking can be attributed to a handful of our distance runners that had great track and field seasons," said Bartlett, adding that Kinnaird, Dupuy, Saxena, and returning standout Megan Lang (Longmont, Colo.) are four of the best distance runners the school's ever had. Lang, Dupuy and Kinnaird are all ranked on Oxy's Top 10 list for the 5K and Saxena is the school's No. 2 all-time in the 3,000 meter steeplechase.
As a team, the Tigers could be among Oxy's best too.
"On paper, this is the best women's cross country team we've had in my time here," Bartlett said.
The men's ranking is almost a slight to a squad with several key runners coming back. But the big, ugly elephant in the room is how Oxy will fare without four-time SCIAC Champion Eric Kleinsasser, who graduated in May.
"The men's team is running to prove that we have more depth than just Eric Kleinsasser," Bartlett said.
Along with Smith and Williams, Luis Jochems (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Charlie Sauter (Oakland) also ran at the Championships in Winnecone, Wis. The sleeper for the men could be Shawn Dunn (Woodland Hills), who ran well at the beginning of last season before trailing off a bit toward the end of the year.
Both Oxy squads open up the season at the UC Irvine Invitational on Sept. 8.