The University of Arizona men's cross country team is in the enviable position of having four of its top five runners from last season's NCAA Championships back for the 2000 season. This coming from a team that won the Pacific-10 Conference team title last year.
Not only do the Wildcats return senior David Lopez and juniors Mike Cramer, Tom Prindiville and Steve Smith to the team this year, but two other letterwinners from last season and three talented incoming freshmen give head coach Dave Murray another fantastic team.
"We are returning a lot of very good and experienced people this year," said Murray, who is in his 34th season at the helm of the Arizona program. "We lost a few people, but we definitely have some new, young guys who are going to replace them and help us with our depth."
The Wildcats did lose last year's No. 1 runner throughout most of the season, Micheil Jones, who completed his eligibility. Jones won the first three races of last year and went on to finish second at the Pac-10 Championships and third at the NCAA West Regional. However, he did not run as well at the NCAA Championships, where he was the team's No. 6 runner.
Lopez, who has been a solid No. 2 runner the past two seasons, is expected to step up and fill the No. 1 spot this year. In 1999, Lopez finished as the Wildcats' No. 2 runner in each of the first six races and later was the team's top finisher at the NCAA Championships.
Lopez finished fifth at the Pac-10 Championships, helping lead the Wildcats to the team title and then finished 12th at the NCAA West Regional and was 55th at the NCAA Championships.
"We are looking at David to be the person who replaces Micheil," Murray said. "David has a lot more talent both on the track and in cross country than he has shown so far, and I think he is really going to show that this year now that he is the (No. 1) guy."
With two years of NCAA Championship and Division I cross country experience under his belt, Smith will be another key runner for the Wildcats this year. He was the team's No. 3 finisher most of the season, and was the No. 2 finisher, 71st overall, at the NCAA Championships.
"Steve is a very hard worker, and he is getting better as he matures," Murray said. "He is a smarter runner now, and he has a lot more experience to go with his dedication and work ethic."
When it comes to work ethic, there are not many who have a stronger one than Cramer. Once a walk-on to the program and someone to fill out the roster, he has now developed into one of the better distance runners in the conference. He spent most of last season as the No. 4 runner, and stepped up his running to another level on the track.
Cramer ran 29:46.16 in the 10,000m at the Stanford Invitaitonal, an NCAA provisional qualifying time and one of the better ones in the Pac-10 Conference. This season, he is expected to be one of the front runners in the Wildcats' lineup.
"Mike Cramer is really our inspirational leader," Murray said. "Everything that he does is through hard work, inspiration and guts. He is definitely our emotional and inspirational leader out there."
Prindiville, a 1,500m runner by trade, provided solid depth for the UA cross country team last season. He ran the best race of his career at one of the best times possible, finishing 11th at the Pac-10 Championships as the team's No. 5 runner, helping the Wildcats claim the conference crown.
"Tom kind of goes up and down at different times during the season," Murray said. "He was simply fantastic at the Pac-10 Championships, and we are going to need those kind of key performances again from him." Two more letterwinners from last year's team, senior Rick Weis and sophomore Wade Juntunen, will also help the Wildcats depth-wise in 2000. Weis and Juntunen both had their best finishes at the Aztec Invitational, finishing 13th and 23rd, respectively.
Four incoming freshmen will also provide the Wildcats with plenty of depth this year, as well as strong legs for the future.
Matt McInvale, Mike Howard, Andrew Carlson and Kevin Engelhardt will all be in the mix for a spot in Arizona's lineup as the season wears on.
The Wildcats, as always, will face some of the nation's best team and individual talent in the Pac-10 Conference and the NCAA West Regional. Arizona will leave the West, however, for most of its "tune-up" meets.
Arizona opens its season at the Purdue Invitational, followed by trips to the Roy Griak Invitational in Minneapolis, the NCAA Pre-Meet in Ames, Iowa, and the Notre Dame Invitational in South Bend, Ind.
After that, the Wildcats will face the likes of Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State to name a few at the Pac-10 Championships and NCAA West Regional. Then, the Wildcats will take on the best of the best at the NCAA Championships, hosted in 2000 by Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
"I have always said that we come from the toughest region in the nation," Murray said. "This year, I think that we are going to be very competitive in it, just like we were last year. If things fall right, I think that we will have another good shot at the conference and regional titles. After that, we'll see."
2000 University of Arizona Women's Cross Country Outlook
Injuries and depth problems slowed the University of Arizona women's cross country team last year, as three of its top seven runners were not able to run in the last three meets of the season. The Wildcats still qualified for the NCAA Championships for the second straight year, placing 27th at the meet in Bloomington, Ind.
Injuries did not slow Tara Chaplin, who was the team's No. 1 runner in 1999 as a sophomore, as she solidified her spot as one of the top runners in the Pacific-10 Conference and the NCAA.
The 5-foot-1 native of Montpelier, Vt., won Arizona's first two meets of the season, the Asics/UCI Invitational and the Aztec Invitational. Later she placed seventh at the Pac-10 meet, 12th at the NCAA West Regional and was 33rd at the NCAA Championships. Chaplin continued her success during the track and field season, placing fifth in the 5,000m at the NCAA Indoor Championships and 12th in both the 10,000m and 5,000m at the NCAA Outdoor Championhips.
Now a junior, the three-time All-American will spend her second season as the Wildcat women's No. 1 runner and team leader.
"Tara is no question the leader and top runner for us again this year," said Dave Murray, Arizona director of track and field/head cross country coach. "She is the type of runner that on any given day with the right conditions, she could be an NCAA champion. She has been in enough big races that she has the experience to contend for top honors at the Pac-10, region and national levels."
Chaplin is joined in 2000 by a quality group of runners that will bolster the Wildcats with plenty of depth and experience, as well as youthful legs.
Senior Katrin Engelen has displayed marked improvement both in cross country and on the track, last year running the No. 6 10,000m time in school history, 34:37.65, at the Stanford Invitational. Her time qualified her for the NCAA Championships, where she finished 18th in the event.
Engelen was a solid runner for the Arizona cross country squad as a junior, finishing as the fourth Wildcat across the line at the NCAA meet. This season, Engelen will be one of the team's top three runners, especially as the race distances move up to 6,000 meters.
"Katrin has gotten better each year that she has been here, and she developed a lot more last year," Murray said. "I think that she is developing into the kind of runner we thought she was going to be, based on what she did last year in qualifying for the NCAA Championships in the 10,000 meters."
Perhaps the biggest improvement on last season's team came from then-sophomore Erin Doherty. The former Arizona prep star showed she is very capable of running well at the conference and national level in the cross country arena.
Doherty was the Wildcats' No. 2 finisher in the final three races of the season - the Pac-10 Championships, the NCAA West Regional and the NCAA Championships. Doherty also finished fifth in the 1,500m on the track at the 2000 Pac-10 Track and Field Championships, running a PR of 4:26.51, more than seven seconds better than her previous best.
"Erin really came on at the end of last year and was a very good runner for us," Murray said. "During her freshman year, she just was kind of out there running. Now, she runs like she has a lot of confidence and her ability is beginning to show."
Two other veterans will also add depth and experience to the Wildcats' lineup. Junior Jennifer Burris and sophomores Kimberly Bates and Mandee Ash were the No. 4, 5 and 6 runners, respectively, on last year's team, and will compete for those spots again this season.
"Jennifer Burris is capable of running a lot better than she has in the past, and I think that she will have more confidence this year because she has been in the big meets and has a lot of experience," Murray said. "
The Wildcats also have added several new faces to the team that will add depth and possibly compete for spots in the top five.
Sophomore Nicole Gurnicz transferred to Arizona from Boise State where she was the Broncos' No. 2 runner last season and the Big West Conference runner-up in the 5,000m. She is expected to be a vital part of the Wildcats' lineup.
Gurnicz's Boise State teammate Abby Peters also transferred to Arizona, however she will not compete until 2001 because of an NCAA transfer rule. Peters ran at Eastern Oregon her freshman season and then moved on to Boise State, so she used up her "free" transfer. Peters is expected to be a force for the Wildcats, as she was the Big West cross country, 3,000m and 5,000m champion.
Harisimran Khalsa, a transfer from Dartmouth, will add depth to the Wildcats' squad, as will two incoming freshmen, Beth Hoge and Andrea Schwartz. Cara Cline, one of the track and field team's best 800m runners, ran cross country as a freshman in 1998 and will help the team this season, too.