Bears Will Need to Bring Best at NCAA Regionals

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After a season's worth of preparation, the No. 20 Cal cross country team will run its most important race of the season thus far, traveling to Stanford to compete in the NCAA West Regional this Saturday.

Coming off of strong showings at the Pac-10 Championships two weeks ago, the Bears will need their strongest performance of the season if they hope to qualify for the NCAA Championships next week in Terre Haute, Ind.

"We're pretty healthy," Cal coach Tony Sandoval said, using an adjective that has hardly described either squad this season. "We have had a good two weeks of practice and now we're well rested. We're psyched. We have no major maladies so we are going in excited."

The top two overall finishers this weekend receive automatic bids to the tournament, with the rest competing for one of 13 at-large spots in the field.

"Our region is the most difficult region," Sandoval said. "We could have as many as seven teams and as few as three qualify. We need to run the best we can. We can't control other teams or regions."

To say this region is the most difficult may be beyond an understatement. This weekend features seven ranked teams, three of which are ranked in the top five nationally-No. 1 Oregon, No. 3 Stanford and No. 4 Portland. The Cal men had their highest finish in team history at the event in 2007 with a fourth-place finish, leading the Bears to their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

Two of the three runners who anchored that historic run, seniors Yosef Ghebray and Mark Matusak, return to try to improve on last year's stellar performance.

Ghebray has two top-10 finishes (at the Stanford Invitational and the Pac-10 Championships), both of which are the top finishes and times for any Cal runner this season.

In a season marred by injuries for both the men and women, Matusak has been a model of health and consistency. The Torrance, Calif., native has finished in the top 20 in each of his three races this season and was the Bears' top finisher at the Pre-NCAA Meet.

Ghebray and Matusak are hungry for a second berth at Nationals and have tried to lead by performance and motivation.

"It is extremely important to get to Nationals again," Ghebray said "We have been advocating senior leadership everyday and that the team comes first. We have all the tools, we are on-par if not better than last year, we just need everybody to go good on the specific day. If we are all pumped up and ready to go on that day we will be ready for Nationals."

This season could best be described as a roller-coaster for the women's squad, but they still enter Saturday with high expectations.

"I would hope that we would finish better than last year." Sandoval said. "There is a possibility that we could get to Nationals if the stars align. If we beat some people that have been ranked, it's a long shot but it is certainly a possibility."

Because of season-ending injuries to their top two runners-Chelsea Reilly and Taylor Bryson-and a nagging asthma problem bothering their most experienced runner in Allison Greggor, the Cal women have not had the same top finisher in any race thus far in 2008.

The Bears are looking to Greggor and sophomore Rowena Tam to lead them this weekend, but one would be remiss in counting out a trio of surprising freshmen-Keena Kohl, Crystal Esparza and Debra Maier. Kohl was the top finisher at the Stanford Invitational and Maier was the second finisher at the Pac-10 Championships.

Without a standout on this year's squad, any of the seven competing runners could lead the way for the Cal women this Saturday.

The NCAA Regional meet kicks off Saturday at the Stanford Golf Course with the women's 6k race at 11 a.m., followed by the men's 10k at noon.

Tags: CAL CROSS COUNTRY, TONY SANDOVAL


Contact Gabriel Baumgaertner at gbaumgaer[email protected]



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