On Saturday, both the men’s and women’s cross country teams will race at the NCAA Championships at the Apalachee Regional Park located in Tallahassee, Florida. 31 teams and 38 individual qualifiers on both the women’s and men’s sides will toe the starting line; the women will race at 7:20 a.m. PT and the men will start at 8 a.m. PT.
The Stanford women won the regional championship behind fifth-year Julia Heymach’s somewhat surprising victory. The race was surprising given that she’d never finished higher than fourth in a cross country race in her collegiate career. She does, however, have a knack for big performances in high-stakes races: she won the Pac-12 championship 5,000 meter race last season in her first time racing the event, and placed sixth at the 2021 Olympic Trials 1,500 meter final, shattering the Stanford record by more than four seconds. So, maybe her breakout performance at regionals wasn’t all that surprising.
“Coach [J.J.] Clark is great at prepping us to peak at the right time of the season,” Heymach said. “Putting less pressure on each performance and just being excited about my overall progression has definitely helped me out a ton going into post-season races.”
Behind Heymach at regionals were sophomore Zofia Dudek, sophomore Lucy Jenks and sixth-year Christina Aragon, all among the top nine finishers. All three of those runners as well as Heymach ran season-best times in the 6K and seem to be peaking at just the right time. Rounding out Stanford’s top five runners was freshman Audrey Suarez, who lowered her season best by more than 30 seconds at regionals.
Heymach and Aragon’s extensive racing experience will balance out the relative inexperience of the two sophomores and one freshman in Dudek, Jenks and Suarez. Defending champion BYU will be racing, though they were an at-large selection and not an automatic qualifier from regionals. Other teams like NC State that have spent much of the season near the top of the USTFCCCA rankings will also be part of a loaded field.
In her last NCAA cross country championship, Heymach said she’s hoping to finish higher than she did last year (where she placed 13th) and the team is aiming for a top-four finish that would land them on the podium.
“Racing in championship meets last year gave me confidence that I’ll carry into NCAAs,” she said. “I did some 5ks on the track for the first time, and even though I still see myself as more of an 800/1500 runner, racing a 6k for cross country doesn’t seem like quite as much of a stretch as it used to be.”
While the women will be racing the 6k, the Stanford men, led by junior Charles Hicks, will be gearing up for their 10k race. The men’s team won the regional championship to earn an automatic qualifying bid to the championships and also gave Stanford its 10th regional sweep in history, and first since 2016.
Hicks comes into Saturday’s race with an impressive season resume: he took second at the FSU Open in mid-September, third at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational — one of the most competitive races in the regular season, nonetheless — won the Pac-12 Championships and took second at regionals last weekend as Kieran Lamb from Washington edged him out 29:28.5 to 29:29.5 for the victory.
The field for this year’s men is deep and it will be incredibly difficult but not impossible for Hicks to pull out a surprise victory. BYU’s Conner Mantz is the favorite to win; the senior out of Smithfield, Utah is undefeated this season and is the reigning individual champion. Iowa State star Wesley Kiptoo has the best chance to give Mantz a run for his money, winning five of seven races this season (the only two he lost were against Mantz) and came within one second of beating Mantz earlier in the year.
The Stanford men are ranked seventh by the USTFCCCA coming into the race; Northern Arizona is ranked No. 1, Mantz’s BYU team is ranked second and Kiptoo’s Cyclones are one spot above Stanford in sixth. The Cardinal won the regional title on strong performances from their No. 5 and No. 6 runners, senior Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau and fifth-year DJ Principe, respectively, who edged out Washinton’s No. 4 and No. 5 runners. All seven of the Cardinal’s runners will need to turn in lifetime-best races to give Stanford a shot at the podium and trophy.
The races will be livestreamed on ESPN U and the ESPN app starting at 7 a.m. PT.