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Cross Country Seeks WCC Championship

Oct. 27, 2006

SAN BRUNO, Calif. - Gonzaga University's men's and women's cross country teams will set their sights on the West Coast Conference Championship on Saturday at Crystal Springs Golf Course in Belmont, Calif.

While most concede the University of Portland men a 28th straight WCC crown, the Bulldogs figure to be in the hunt for second place with a veteran team in place hoping to rebound from last year's fifth-place finish.

The women's race is a little more up in the air, with Santa Clara University perhaps gaining the edge based on recent performances. Gonzaga will send a young team in search of the title, five runners competing in their inaugural WCC Championship.

The Bulldog men have a wealth of experience, led by senior Joe Miller. He finished sixth last season after taking third as a sophomore in 2004. He finished 39th at last year's NCAA Far West Regional, quite an improvement off his 61st-place finish the previous season.

While Miller is the leader, he's got a solid corps of runners to make Gonzaga one of the teams looking to try to ruin Portland's long line of success but, more realistically, finish second.

Senior Gabe Hayden was 23rd a year ago, sophomore Colby Litzenberger was 28th and junior Ken Santman was 41st in this race a year ago. Poulin was 116th in the 2004 NCAA Regional and was sidelined with an injury last season. Senior Eric Mendoza was 134th in the '04 regional and redshirted last season.

"We are fit and are totally a different team from a year ago," head coach Kevin Swaim said of his men's squad. "We're healthier and this is as good a team as we've had."

That's quite a statement, considering the Bulldogs had a string of nine straight runner-up finishes to the Pilots and competed in nine straight NCAA Far West Regionals from 1987-95. After a 7-year hiatus from the regional scene the Bulldogs returned in 2003 and again in 2004. They hope to get back this year.

A lot of that hope hinges on Miller.

"Joe has had some good races, but he hasn't really made a statement yet this year," Swaim said. "We hope that statement comes this weekend."

Miller's most impressive outing was a fourth-place finish at the Notre Dame Invitational, one of the top meets in the country.

But it will take some strong performances down the line for the Bulldogs to experience team success, and Swaim thinks Litzenberger, Poulin, Hayden and Mendoza are up to the challenge. But he thinks it's the sixth and seventh runners who could make a difference.

"Our sixth and seventh runners are close to the top five. It's helpful to have strong sixth and seventh runners who can maybe crack the top five and make the difference in a race. I call them the spoiler," Swaim said.

Junior Ken Santman, who stepped in last season and finished 41st in the WCC Championship to help shore up an injury-depleted Bulldog squad, is one such runner. So is freshman Brett Withers.

"Those two have been our fifth through seventh runners most of the season," Swaim said. "Ken has shown he can be one of the top five, and Brett has had a strong freshman season."

Santa Clara is the only school to come close to defeating Portland's men. The 1985 Broncos had five runners in the top 10, but the Pilots had the top two finishers to defeat Santa Clara by the slimmest margin in WCC history, 11 points, 26-37.

While expectations aren't high on the women's side, Swaim thinks senior Nellie Ballou and Kara Rasmussen have been strong all season and have a genuine shot at earning All-WCC honors which go to the top 10 finishers.

"This team is what it is," Swaim said. "We have five runners in their first WCC experience and we look for them to cut their teeth."Swaim said the new 6K format favors Ballou, while Rasmussen has to show patience.

The women's race is going to 6K this season. The NCAA Championship has long been a 6K race and the move is to go nationally to 6K, according to Swaim.

"The trend nationally is to move the women's races to 6K," Swaim said. "I fought it for a few years in our conference and then voted for it for this year. The rationale is it gives them one more race at 6K prior to the NCAA Championship. However, the WCC men's race remains at 8K while the NCAA meet has always been 10K, so the rationale is thrown out the window on the men's side.

"Nellie thrives at the longer distance, so I think it's good for her. Kara just has to be patient, stay with the pack and then use her speed at the end," Swaim said of the strategy of his top two runners.

Ballou finished 16th last season and 30th in 2004 in the WCC meet, while Rasmussen was 30th last season and 21st in '04. Rasmussen, a junior in eligibility, has already decided to forego her senior year of eligibility next year as she will graduate in May.

Joining the upperclass duo of Ballou and Rasmussn are freshmen Emmylyn Bentley, Ashlee Commerree, Madeleine Gianotti and Lisbet Hansen, along with sophomore Martha Dobson who will also be running in her first WCC Championship.

Portland's women's teams have also dominated this event. The Pilots have won 16 of the last 21 women's championships the WCC has sponsored, including nine of the last 10. After finishing second in 2001, Portland reclaimed the women's title in 2002, with four runners finishing in the top 10. In 1995, Gonzaga placed four of the top seven runners to win the championship. Gonzaga sophomore Cheska Fairbanks set a course and championships record in 1996 in 17:26, Gonzaga's lone individual title.