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Men's Cross Country 2009: Largest freshmen class in recent history promises to augment squad, but untried legs make season's outcome unsure

By Jonathan Myers     9/3/09 7:00pm

With a heady influx of young legs, no one really knows what to expect from this year's men's cross country squad. The Owls enter the 2009 season without three of the five runners that paced them to a fifth-place finish at the NCAA South Central Regional last November. However, the roster boasts eight true freshmen, all of whom are capable of cracking the top seven runners but whose talent, for the time being, remain unknown. Leading the Owls this year are seniors Scott Zivick and Simon Bucknell and sophomore Michael Trejo, all of whom were among the top six runners last year, and the first two of whom now have three years' experience under their belts.

Head Coach Jon Warren (Jones '88) said he expects the team's leaders to provide support and guidance to the younger members of the squad, a sentiment that redshirt freshman Gabe Cuadra agrees with.

"Simon and Scott definitely set the tone for us," Cuadra said. "Since we're replacing so many guys, our expectations are to run as a pack and just see where that lands us," Cuadra said.

In addition to Cuadra, redshirt freshmen Matt Carey and James Llamas as well as sophomore Greg King and junior John Buck will be vying for one of the top seven spots on the team. Warren was pleased with the efforts the new faces put in over the summer in order to prepare themselves for the season.

"We have three redshirt freshmen in James, Matt and Gabe, who all had either very good to outstanding summers, so there's a level of expectation for them," Warren said.

With eight true freshmen matriculating to Rice this year, there are questions as to how some of them will adapt to the humid climate, especially Anthony Lauriello, Zach Casias and Alex Weinheimer, who are all from mountainous climates.

Warren said he hopes this adjustment will be minimal.

"We want to make sure their transition from that climate to the humidity and climate here goes well," Warren said. "Anthony [from Albuquerque, N.M.] is used to the heat, but Alex [from Boulder, Colo.] has been running in the middle of the day during the summer to get acclimated to the heat."

Temperature aside, Warren stated that he was eagerly anticipating the freshmen's transition to running a 10,000 meter race, something that would largely determine the potential makeup and depth of the team.

"How good are we going to be? We don't know, since we have a lot of unknowns," Warren said. "But the good news is that we don't have to have all of those unknowns come through, just a couple of them."

Once again, Rice will rely on "running as a pack," the time-honored tradition employed by cross country teams across the nation. Cuadra said he expected that the team would also need to use their brains as well as their legs to finish well in races.

"We're going to have to run smarter than everyone else, since we're not bringing in a bunch of state champions like the University of Arkansas does," Cuadra said, alluding to the Razorbacks' eight champions. "We have to put in the work now and then run smart."

The Owls will need their smarts starting today, as they make the short trip across town to race in the Johnny Morriss Invitational, hosted by the University of Houston, where they finished second last year. Following the race today, the Owls will enjoy the short week after Labor Day before gearing up to host the 34th Rice Invitational on Sept. 19, which was cancelled last year due to the landfall of Hurricane Ike. This meet features the "yahoo" race, a Rice tradition in which the opening race is for fans, all of whom shout "yahoo" at the sound of the starting gun.

Rice will again take a week off from running in a meet before they travel north to Stillwater, Okla., for the Cowboy Jamboree on Oct. 3. Unlike all of the other races they will run this year, which are run on surfaces such as soccer and intramural fields, the course at Oklahoma State University will feature all the natural tests and travails typical of a proverbial cross country course. In order to prepare the team for new terrain, Warren has incorporated trips to Buffalo Bayou in order to get the team used to long hills.

"At Buffalo Bayou, you can actually do a great hills and off-balance terrain workout there for preparation," Warren said.

The topography won't be the only thing that will be challenging at the Cowboy Jamboree. Rice will also get its first glimpse of teams such as the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Oklahoma State and Arkansas. Cuadra said he was excited by the fact that the Owls will get a variety in competition with the addition of this meet.

"We'll be able to see the University of Houston and Sam Houston State University this Friday and at [the] Rice [Invitational], but we'll be able to see how we stack up against some of the better teams in our region at Oklahoma State," Cuadra said. "Oklahoma State will be our run to see where we're actually at in terms of looking forward to the regional meet."

After the Cowboy Jamboree, the Owls will have a quick turnaround, running in the Houston Baptist University Invitational just six days later on Oct. 9, which will be their final preparation before the Conference USA Championship. The C-USA Championship will be held in The Woodlands, Texas, just a short trip up I-45 and officially hosted by Houston. In total, this means the Owls will run four of their first five meets within 45 minutes of campus, helping to lower the fatigue associated with long hours on the road.

This extra energy could help Rice stare down the conference's stiffest competition, which will come from the University of Tulsa and the University of Texas-El Paso, as well as improved teams from Marshall University and East Carolina University. Tulsa returns several members of the team that finished 13th at the NCAA National Championship last November and third at NCAA Midwest Regional meet, including junior All-American John Beattie. UTEP had five outstanding runners last year, but like the Owls, is attempting to balance questions about newcomers this fall.

Warren gave his realistic outlook on the Owls' chances within their conference.

"Tulsa's coming into the year thinking top 10, if not top 5, in the nation, so I'm not sure we'll be able to compete with them for the conference title," Warren said. "As for UTEP, I have no idea how they'll do -they're a bit more unknown as to where they could finish. ECU's put a lot more money into their program and Marshall did well last year as well. We've consistently been third, so we could be second, fourth, or fifth, although finishing fourth or fifth would certainly be a disappointment.

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