It was a tale of two races at the 36th Justin F. Cooper Memorial Rice Invitiational, one in which expectations of a first-place finish were met and another in which unexpected results were produced.
For the first race, the women's cross country team was led by stalwart seniors Allison Pye and Becky Wade, who each looked as if they fully intended on returning to the NCAA National Meet this November. Taking home the gold medal was Wade, who finished the four-kilometer race in 13:41 and ran as if she had not missed last season at all. Pye was equally impressive, crossing the finish line in third place with a time of 13:58. Sophomore Farrah Madanay was fifth, finishing in 14:22. Head Coach Jim Bevan beamed as he spoke about his veteran runners' performances.
"Becky was outstanding in her first race at 100 percent in almost two years," Bevan said. "She ran a smart race, and moved up and then away to take the race. Pye gives us a great one-two punch ... Madanay has made herself into a first-class runner on a great team."
Rounding out the scoring effort were two freshmen, Sasha Schoch in 20th place and Allie Schaich, just five seconds behind her in 23rd place.
While Rice's top finish was impressive, it was not without qualification. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi was second with 54 points, just two off of Rice's total of 52. Bevan spoke to the level of talent present at the meet.
"This was the most competitive Rice Invite in eight to 10 years," Bevan said. "We were happy to pull out a tight victory and my respect goes out to the way our ladies finished. They finished strong and moved up over the last mile."
Finishing up Rice's lineup were sophomore Lindsay Miller, who was just four seconds behind Schaich, along with juniors Heather Olson and Marie Walsh and sophomore Johanna Ohm.
With a victory already chalked up, the Owls will head to run in the Islander Splash today, hosted by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, where Rice will look to defeat the Islanders for the second week in a row.
As for last Friday's final race, the men's team did not fare as well, with the Owls coming in third place with 70 points, three behind Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and 34 behind Lamar University, which won the Rice Invitational after coming in second to Rice last year. While senior Michael Trejo and juniors Gabe Cuadra and Matt Carey were expected to fill in at least three of the top four spots on the team, it was sophomore John Cavallo who somewhat stole the show. Cavallo, who, despite a strong performance in his first year as an Owl last year, was still not expected to be the top runner for Rice in any meet this year.
But Friday changed that perception quickly, as Cavallo stayed near the front of the pack the entire race, finishing in eighth as the first Owl to cross the finish line in the five-and-a-half kilometer race with a time of 17:08. Junior James Llamas ran a time of 17:21 to take 12th place, an improvement of 32 seconds over his time last year. Following Llamas were Trejo, Cuadra and sophomore Alex Weinheimer, all who finished in the top 30 overall. Junior Matt Carey followed five seconds behind Weinheimer, while a trio of sophomores including Wyatt Doop, Travis Roberts and Anthony Urbanelli finished up the Rice effort. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi's Patrick Kimeli took home first place by running the race in a time of 16:52.
Head Coach Jon Warren (Jones '88) had positive things to say about the team's efforts despite the third-place finish.
"I liked the team's performance, but I was a little surprised in the order of our finish," Warren said. "Our practices had not shown that [freshman] Will [Firth], James and John being ahead of Gabe, Matt, and Michael. It would have been nice have the latter three where I thought they could be and have Cavallo and Llamas finish where they did."
Although he was running as an unattached runner, the aforementioned Firth was one of the biggest stories for the Rice racers this week, finishing in 19th place overall, virtually tied with Trejo. Mirroring Cavallo's freshman year performance in the Rice Invitational, in which he finished second on the team, Firth appears to have solidified himself as one of a few freshmen that could be key contributors to the Rice effort. Fellow freshman Meron Fessahaie finished 24th, three seconds faster than Weinheimer, meaning that if Fessahaie and Firth had been running in Rice jerseys, the Owls' total would have been 80 instead of 88.
Compared to last year, the Owls had five runners in the top 15 overall finishers, while this year they only had two, although the Islanders did not run in the 2010 race. Still, the team's corps of top runners realizes it must have better quality races if Rice wishes to take the next step and become Conference USA Champions. That next step toward a conference championship can be taken at the Grass Routes Run Festival next Friday in Austin.