Mountain West Cross Country Championships — Colorado Springs, Colo.
When/Where: Friday, Eisenhower Golf Course, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Men: 10 a.m. MT — eight kilometers
Women: 10:45 a.m. MT — six kilometers
Results: GoLobos.com, TheMW.com.
The Mountain West is experiencing a period of unprecedented parity with four nationally ranked men’s teams and two nationally ranked women’s teams.
But, the Lobos are still the team to beat.
The University of New Mexico's nationally ranked cross country teams are heading to the Mountain West Cross Country Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., this Friday as they look to extend their runs of consecutive titles. The No. 9 men will compete at 10 a.m. MT, and the No. 9 women at 10:45 a.m. MT.
After sweeping the last four conference championships, the Lobos will face one of their toughest tests in recent history. Both the Boise State men and women are nationally ranked, as are the Colorado State men and the Air Force men.
“I think this is the first time in a long time that I don’t feel like we’ve come in as the favorite,” New Mexico head coach Joe Franklin said. “... This will be the most challenging conference championship maybe in the history of the conference.”
Without a doubt, the balance among the teams in the league — both on the men’s and women’s side — is striking.
In the most recent U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) National Coaches' Poll, the Boise State men are ranked 20th, while the Bronco women are 25th. Colorado State’s men’s team is the 22nd-ranked team in the nation, just ahead of Air Force’s No. 28 men.
It’s a conflux of talent that the conference has never seen, which means the Lobos’ streak of titles — five straight on the women’s side and four in a row for the men — is going to be challenged.
“Sometimes in the past, we were able to train a little harder and kind of run through [the conference championships],” Franklin said. “This is absolutely not the case this year. This is amazing depth with teams that can all represent the Mountain West at the national championship.”
But, the Lobos still are considered to be the favorites for a five-peat.
In each of four coaches’ polls the conference released this year (which included a preseason poll, two midseason polls and a pre-championship poll), the UNM men and women were selected as the top teams in the MW.
The latest poll, a pre-championship ranking released Tuesday, saw the Lobo men gain five of the eight first-place votes and the women nine of the 11 first-place votes. Neither team in either the men’s or women’s poll earned more than two.
Nonetheless, New Mexico is focused on the race and not the predictions.
“It will be interesting,” Franklin said. “It will be an unbelievable race.”
For the men, Luke Caldwell will be the key to the men’s 8-kilometer race at the Eisenhower Golf Club.
The reigning MW individual titlist owns the top 8K time in the conference, as has earned the last two MW Athlete of the Week nods. He’s led the Lobos at six of the last seven meets at which he has competed, and could do it again Friday.
“He’s very fit, first of all,” Franklin said. “His fitness is not suspect at all.”
However, Caldwell has a stellar group of runners competing alongside, including four other All-Mountain West runners from 2012.
Adam Bitchell, Sean Stam, Patrick Zacharias and Elmar Engholm will all contend to duplicate their results from last year, where the men placed five runners in the top eight. Zacharias and Bitchell have alternated as the Lobos’ No. 2 and 3 runners so far this year, while Stam and Engholm have the capability to record high finishes, as well.
“Luckily, all of our guys are going in the right direction,” Franklin said.
Altogether, New Mexico has posted four of the top eight times at 8 kilometers this year, one more than Air Force, three more than Boise State and four more than Colorado State.
That bodes well for the Lobos, according to Franklin, since the top five finishers for each teams make up each teams’ score.
On the women’s side, posting the best five finishers is still the main story. But with Emma Bates, a potential national champion, running for Boise State, the Lobo women will be challenged.
“It’s going to be very close,” Franklin said. "I think you’ll have UNM, Boise and a smattering of other people."
Still, the women are in good position, as they come in with a stellar group of runners top-to-bottom. While Franklin notes it’s Bates’ race to lose, he’s confident in his women and the depth the team possesses.
Still, the trio has paced the women the last two meets, where the team placed second at Notre Dame and sixth at Wisconsin.
Behind them, the Lobos will showcase additional runners capable of all-conference results. Heleene Tambet and Nicole Roberts have scored for UNM the last two meets, and will be joined by Nicola Hood, Kirsten Follett, Tamara Armoush and Chloe Anderson in the women’s 6-kilometer race.
Overall, the women have posted eight of the conference’s 14 fastest 6K times, credentials that expect to lean heavily in New Mexico's favor come race time.
But, come race time, the Lobos will have to back up their credentials.
And in a conference with an unprecedented six ranked teams competing between the two races, that’s the key to another sweep.