Arizona has been so achingly close to winning an NCAA cross country championship that you can feel its pain.
In 1986, on its home turf, El Conquistador Country Club, Arizona’s Aaron Ramirez won it all, followed a few yards later by UA teammate Matt Guisto, third overall.
As they crossed the finish line, Ramirez and Guisto looked back, expecting to see teammates Chris Morgan and Jeff Cannada in the lead pack, a mad dash for an NCAA title.
Morgan had broken a rib, elbowed innocently by an opponent. Cannada got sick. Neither finished the race. Arizona was a shocking sixth.
“That’s the year we probably should’ve won it,” remembers Hall of Fame Arizona coach Dave Murray. “But I can say that a number of times.”
The Wildcats were second in 1984, third in 1994. As recently as 2012, Arizona had two of the men’s top three finishers, Lawi Lalang and Stephen Sambu, and still couldn’t win it.
“You can look back at our women’s team and, oh boy, we were close,” says Murray. “I’m not sure people understand how difficult it is to have five top runners at the same time.”
Arizona’s women’s team finished sixth a year ago and, blessed by the nation’s top distance runner, Amy Skieresz, were similarly sixth in both 1995 and 1996.
Skieresz was so dominant in the ’96 NCAA finals, held at Dell Urich Golf Course, that she won by 16 seconds. When she crossed the finish line she turned to look for help. The next Wildcat, Virginia Camacho, would be 53rd.
“It’s hard,” says Murray. “You’ve gotta have five good ones, no less.”
Saturday is Arizona’s Next Best Chance to win the NCAA cross country title, possibly its best chance ever. Coach James Li’s women’s team has the Big Four, a starting lineup unmatched since 1980 when twins Joan and Joy Hanson led the Wildcats to a No. 2 finish.
At the recent NCAA regionals, Arizona’s Elvin Kibet, Kayla Beattie, Maria Larsson and Nicci Corbin all finished in the top 12.
“With four girls in the top 12, it’s really hard to lose,” says Li.
But when the No. 2-ranked and undefeated Wildcats arrived in Terre Haute, Ind., on Wednesday, its final preparation for Saturday’s race, the question wasn’t about Arizona’s Big Four but whether it will able to find a fast No. 5.
Providence was No. 1 in the final regular- season poll, and the diligent staff at Track and Field News handicapped the Friars’ chances much like those of the Wildcats. “Providence is saddled with doubts about its fifth runner,” the magazine wrote.
A year ago, sixth overall, Arizona’s finishes ranged from Kibet’s No. 19 to Amanda Russell’s No. 129.
In Terre Haute, Li will use sophomore Hanna Peterson as the likely No. 5 runner, although junior Stephanie Bulder has been similarly productive this year. Peterson was 32nd when Arizona won the Pac-12 championship; Bulder was 43rd.
“The margin for error is very slim,” says Li. “Our fifth runner has to close the gap.”
Fifth runners have decided virtually ever NCAA championship this century. Only the 2003 Stanford team, whose No. 5 runner finished 92nd, has overcome anything worse than a No. 5 runner lower than No. 78.
Just getting five runners inside the top 100 is usually enough for a top-four finish, which is the NCAA cross country equivalent of the Final Four, a finish that is rewarded by a coveted trophy. Coaches call it “the wood.”
This UA team has the look of a team that should be in-the-wood, but race day conditions are often so unpredictable, slippery, wet and cold, that the team with the five most talented runners doesn’t necessarily win.
“We ran one NCAA finals meet with a 25 below zero wind-chill,” Murray remembers. “When you get unfavorable weather, it’s up for grabs.”
Saturday’s race-time forecast in Terre Haute is about 30 degrees and cloudy.
In 2001, Murray took a strong team to the nationals. Arizona’s star runner, Tara Chaplin won the individual title, and the other four Wildcats were all inside the top 100. Erin Doherty was fifth, in 85th place.
Alas, on that day BYU produced one of the epic runs in NCAA cross country history. The Cougars finished 5, 7, 9, 20 and 21. Arizona got its “wood” but the Cougars scored a scant 62 points, the lowest in the NCAA finals this century.
On Saturday, with Kibet as the only senior in its rotation, Arizona hopes to go from a Big Four to a Fab Five. Winning a national championship requires nothing less.