By Doug Drabik, Athletic Communications
OAKLAND - Diligent in building a championship culture.
That is the 2014 California men’s and women’s cross country program’s motto as they begin training for the upcoming season.
“It’s the mindset we have,” said California Director of Track & Field & Head Cross Country Coach Tony Sandoval, who has coached at Cal for more than three decades. “We get up at 6 a.m. to practice now with one goal in mind. There is a whole variety of things that we are doing now to underscore to this team there isn’t an in-between. We know what it will take to win a championship and how to prepare to put you in position to achieve your goals.”
The 2014 squad has been training on its own throughout the summer and began workouts with the coaches this week, running in the early morning around the area. Thursday, the Golden Bears had a morning workout near campus and spent the afternoon at picturesque Tilden Park, utilizing the many trails the terrain has to offer.
While the Bears have been preparing for months, the season officially gets underway on Saturday (Aug. 30) at the University of San Francisco Invitational at Golden Gate Park just across the Bay from campus.
Saturday’s meet is one of five in the Bay Area this season, including the Stanford Invitational (Sept. 27), Bronco Invitational in Santa Clara (Oct. 18), the Pac-12 Championship in Oakland (Oct. 31) and the NCAA Regionals at Stanford (Nov. 14).
Both the men’s and women’s rosters return almost everyone from last season, however, the squads are young with freshmen and sophomores fighting to be part of the lineup.
Led by senior All-American Kelsey Santisteban, the women are eyeing a strong season. Tempering the enthusiasm somewhat however, Santisteban, the highest finishing Golden Bear in school history with a 10th-place finish at last season’s NCAA Championships, suffered a stress fracture in her foot during the NCAA Track & Field Championship and will miss at least the beginning portion of the season. She could be sidelined for an extended period.
“We are hoping that Kelsey comes back, but we have to plan as if she is not going to be there,” Sandoval said. “If she comes back, she is a tremendous addition to our lineup.”
Santisteban won three meets last season, also placing third at the Pac-12s and fifth at the NCAA Regionals. If healthy, she will provide a major boost later in the season.
“We have a very good, young group,” Sandoval said. “If you look at the breakdown, we basically are a freshman-sophomore team. We have a small amount of upperclassmen with experience, but they can’t do it by themselves. We need our experienced runners to lead the way. Our upperclassmen are coming off strong track & field seasons and we hope that continues this fall.”
The Bears also welcome a talented group of newcomers, highlighted by Bethan Knights out of Irvine. She broke the national record in the two-mile with a time of 9:53.3 in June.
“We have a number of freshmen we expect to be in our top-seven right off the bat,” Sandoval said. “On paper, Bethan can be just as good as Kelsey, but she is a freshman and has to adjust to collegiate running.”
The Roy Griak Invitational in Saint Paul, Minn. on Sept. 27 will provide a strong early-season test for the Bears. The Pac-12 is once again one of the top conferences in women’s cross country with Oregon (2), Stanford (4) and Colorado (8) each ranked in the top-10 in the pre-season national poll.
On the men’s side, the Bears return the majority of their roster from last season, including a strong group of veterans in their top-seven. Despite the graduation of standout J.P. Slater from last year’s squad, Cal welcomes back the nucleus of Thomas Joyce, Leland Later, Jordan Locklear and Chris Walden. Joyce, Later and Locklear competed in six meets last season, including the Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Regionals. Walden returns to the lineup after missing all but one meet last season with an injury.
“We don’t have a superstar, but we have a lot of depth on the roster,” Sandoval said. “We have four guys within 10 yards of each other. We have more depth than we have had in the past.
“Thomas Joyce went to nationals in the 1,500 in the spring and with the right kind of preparation, he could be our No. 1. Chris Walden is in his fourth year and returns with a lot of experience. John Lawson, who didn’t enroll at Cal until January, qualified for the NCAAs in the 5,000 as a freshman and should be a factor at the top of the lineup. Leland Later is very fit and very talented and has the potential to be a top runner for us.”
The Pac-12 boasts three of the top-five teams in the pre-season national poll, including defending NCAA Champion Colorado (1), Oregon (3) and Stanford (5).
The commitment to being diligent in building a championship culture has been well received throughout the program. While still early in the season, the student-athletes have bonded and are focused on the team goal.
“We want both the men and the women to qualify as a team,” Sandoval said. “Last year was a breakout year for our indoor squad, winning our first conference championship. We did it as a team. We want to repeat that this fall.”
The season is here, but don’t tell this group of Golden Bears. They have been working hard all summer long on their own preparing for the competition ahead this fall.
“Great runners meet in the off-season,” Sandoval stated, keeping with the theme of building a championship culture in Berkeley.
All the hard work put in now can be rewarded on Nov. 22 at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.