Courtesy: Spencer Farrin (Pullman, Wash.)
|Vandal men out to prove|
MOSCOW, Idaho – University of Idaho men’s cross country enters Saturday’s Western Athletic Conference Cross Country Championship as likely the youngest group in the field.
Idaho director of track and field/cross country Wayne Phipps said he hopes the team’s combination of raw talent and energy will be enough to propel the team – historically, the most successful program in Idaho athletics history with 11 total crowns – to their first conference title in nearly 50 years.
Senior Barry Britt, a third-year Vandal senior who has competed at the sport’s highest level, said it’s about time for two dubious streaks in Idaho cross country to end. The WAC’s top returning finisher and runner-up from a year ago said he would love to become the first Vandal man since Vic Dyrgall in 1941 to win an individual crown, but ultimately, he’s focused on the team aspect.
“I’m going to try to go as low as possible for the team,” Britt said. “I need to get up front and try to be one, two or three. Obviously, I want to win, but I just want to finish as well as I can for that team score.”
Earlier this week, the WAC coaches voted Idaho’s men fourth in the Pre-Championship Poll, behind Utah State, New Mexico State and Seattle University.
Despite having a strong history over All-American and conference champion distance runners on the track, Idaho hasn’t won a men’s team title in cross country since the 1965 Big Sky Championships and hasn’t had an individual champion in 71 years – but that doesn’t mean the team hasn’t come close.
Since joining the WAC in the 2005 cross country season, Idaho’s men have finished runners-up twice and have taken third two more times in the team races. Likewise, the Vandals have earned a pair of individual runner-up finishes and another two third-place tallies since joining the league.
Britt said that he and fellow senior captain Jeff Osborn are well aware of the stakes – both in ancient and recent history – and that they’ve both been eager to share that message with the remainder of the team, which consists of one sophomore, two redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen.
“When you look at the numbers, the last title wasn’t in the modern era, so it is kind of a monkey on our back,” Britt said. “Being here for three seasons, I’d really like to get that, for myself, my teammates and for coach Phipps.”
Phipps said that one important factor with the younger runners is that they all came from successful high school programs and that they bring along the confidence associated with that history. Add in the fact that eight of the top 13 runners from last year’s WAC meet graduated and you have a group eager to fill plenty of vacant spaces in the standings.
Freshman Santos Vargas headlines that group of young runners after finishing among the top high school runners in the United States in several distance events last season as a high school senior. He’s been Idaho’s second or third finisher in each meet this season and Phipps said he thinks Vargas has the ability to challenge in the WAC’s lead group.
“Santos is a guy who has seen nothing but success in his running career and I think he fully expects to be one of the top runners in the conference and to be the top freshman,” Phipps said. “Those are goals he’s set for himself and I see no reason why he can’t accomplish that.”
Sophomore Cayle Turpen, redshirt freshman Colton Hastings and true freshman Will Austin-Cray have been among Idaho’s scoring group throughout the season, and while the top of lineup is certainly important, the close meets often come down to where a team’s fourth and fifth finishers cross the line.
Phipps said that because of how many runners graduated last season, as well as the new WAC schools that joined the fray this year, he expects the men’s race to be as wide open as it’s been in recent history.
“The men’s team title is very open right now – it could probably go to five different schools, depending on who has a good race that day,” Phipps said. “The men’s individual race is the same way. You’ve got Barry, plus Utah State and Seattle U guys who are running at a really high level right now and the new schools bring a little bit of an unknown element.”
There’s also the important factor that in cross country, “you only get one shot,” as Phipps said.
“There is no preliminary round, you don’t have the ability to come back tomorrow and run another race,” Phipps said. “As history has shown, anything can happen in these races.”
One key the men’s team has in its favor entering this year’s meet is the momentum gained during the 2012 indoor and outdoor track and field seasons. Phipps said the Vandal men weren’t favored in those meets either, but took care of all the little things and won both titles.
Another key lesson especially learned at the 2012 WAC Indoor Track and Field Championships was the importance of every single point. Hastings, an unseeded true freshman who finished sixth and stole one point in the men’s mile run indoors, was part of a collection of Vandal athletes who snuck up a spot here and there to give Idaho the slim edge it needed to bump Utah State for the team title at that meet.
“Everyone in the race is important,” Hastings said. “You don’t know who’s going to finish where, and a lot of times it comes down to just out-kicking somebody or being in the right place at the right time. You never know how you can help, and it’s always good to be able to steal a point or two.”
Phipps said the final result is going to come down to the team’s ability to put together one strong team effort at the right time, and that his group goes into the meet with the attitude that a strong result is there for the taking.
“From a talent standpoint, this team has what it takes to win a conference championship,” Phipps said. “We haven’t all been on the same page on the same day, and it’s going to take that sort of effort – every one of our five running well on that day – to win.”
The men’s 8,000-meter race starts at 7 a.m. (PT) in Lincoln Parish Park at Ruston, La.