The California cross country teams look to raise everyone's expectations for the program in 2002.
Both Golden Bear squads struggled last season but have the talent to perform at a higher level this year. The women are coming off a ninth-place Pac-10 finish, while the men were eighth. The Cal men also took 11th at the NCAA West Regional.
In 2002, the difference is that both teams return several veteran runners and together boast one of the most talented group of freshmen to come to Berkeley in many years.
The bar has been set high for the men's team, which has its eyes on the program's first NCAA championships team berth in the program's history.
"The freshmen bring a lot of talent, competitiveness and enthusiasm to our men's team," said Tony Sandoval, who enters his 21st year at the helm of the Cal women's program and 11th for the men's. "There are no set spots, while in the past you could pretty much pick who was going to be our No. 1 person from the beginning of the season to the end. When your talent is a blend of experience and youth, you can become a team that will surprise some people."
Senior Martin Conrad and juniors Girmay Guangul and Carlos Carballo stand out among the Bears' veterans. Conrad posted three Top 20 showings in 2001, while Carballo is the Bears' leading returning runner from last year's cross country NCAA West Regional (56th) and Pac-10 championships (35th).
After redshirting the 2002 track and field season due to ongoing knee and hamstring injuries, Guangul appears healthy heading into the 2002 cross country season. He looks to return to his freshman year form when he competed as an individual at the NCAA championships.
Freshmen Giliat Ghebray and Kevin Davis highlight the Bears' newcomers. Both have outstanding cross country and track and field credentials and have the potential to be among the team's leaders this year.
Two other freshmen - Abadir Barre and Eric Roberts - also could have an immediate impact. Barre is described by Sandoval as a diamond in the rough, and Roberts was known for his consistency throughout high school.
The Bear women are young and don't have as much depth as the men, but they have the talent to vault past several teams in the Pac-10 this season. The team features two seniors, eight sophomores and seven freshmen.
"We're going to have four very solid runners," said Sandoval. "Each year, we get better and more competitive from where we were a couple of years ago. We hope to make a move in the Pac-10. We're a little short-handed, but we are bridging the gap."
Sophomores Lindsey Maclise and Abby Parker benefited from the experience they gained as freshmen. Maclise clocked the best finish (55th) on this year's team at the 2001 Pac-10 championships and scored in the 1500m at the 2002 conference track and field meet by placing eighth. Parker recorded a Pac-10 qualifying time in the 3000m steeplechase last season and holds the school's freshman record (10:59.31) in that event.
Freshman Bridget Duffy, a Berkeley product, comes to Cal with numerous accomplishments, including winning two state cross country titles at St. Mary's High School. She also competed in the 1500m at the 2002 U.S. Junior Track and Field Championships.
"Bridget is a tough runner and very consistent," said Sandoval. "In terms of an athlete who has been proficient at distance running, we have to look back a long way to find an in-coming freshman at Cal with this type of cross country experience."
Freshman Maja Ruznic also is tabbed as one of the team's frontrunners this year. She redshirted last season for developmental purposes but will be counted on to contribute on a weekly basis this year.
The Bears' fifth spot could be filled by a variety of individuals, including senior Lache Bailey and sophomore Katie White. Bailey was primarily an 800m runner last year. However, she has shown in practice that she can handle longer distances. White was on the cusp of the top five in 2001 and could move up this year.
Besides Duffy, it remains to be seen how much the other freshmen will challenge for positions in the lineup this season. Sandoval feels a surprise freshman could emerge and that Mary Faia, Sophia Marquez and Stephanie Byrne are likely candidates.
The Bears kick off the season with the Berkeley Invitational Sept. 7, which serves as good preparation for when they host the 2003 Pac-10 Cross Country Championships. Another highlight of this year's schedule includes a trip to the Indiana State Invitational Oct. 5 - a meet that gives both Cal squads the opportunity to post inter-regional victories and thereby improve their chances of receiving at-large bids to the NCAA championships on Nov. 25.
If Cal's freshmen gel quickly with the veterans, expectations for the Bears will continue to rise each year.