By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Oklahoma State cross country coach Dave Smith has to be one heck of a chess player with the amount of strategy he uses coaching the Cowboy program to three national titles in the past four years.
It’s not simply a “go run” approach for the OSU men’s cross country team, which heads into Friday’s NCAA Midwest Regional race in Ames, Iowa, as the reigning NCAA champions. Smith has been preparing for these last two weeks of the season since the end of last year’s cross country season.
Smith and the Cowboys have foregone the prestige of rankings and focus on the end result. There has been no need to win regular season races with OSU’s top runners, instead allowing them to ease through the season and be fresh for the final push.
“We tried to limit how many times the guys have run so far,” Smith said. “... We’ve kind of had three phases to our season, and the guys racing heavy now in November didn’t do much racing in October.”
There’s reasoning for everything Smith decides for his nationally recognized program.
With the national championships being run in Terre Haute, Ind., just eight days after the regional meet, preserving runners for a rough eight-day stretch was more important.
And Smith learned his lesson last year about using secondary runners to reach the NCAA Championships. Oklahoma State sat several of its key contributors at last year’s regional meet, and advanced to the national meet by a mere two points. Smith plans to go with all five of his top runners.
“It’s tricky. It’s a delicate balance. Last year, we tried to balance it too hard, and it nearly cost us,” Smith said. “You have to be careful. You need to get the job done, qualify for nationals and do it with as little exertion as possible and try to save something in the tank.”
While Oklahoma State is expected to qualify for the Nov. 23 championship race, the reigning Division I champions are actually heading into the final leg of the season as underdogs. OSU held the top ranking for much of the year before slipping to third — thanks to not running it’s top runners at times — and now sit behind top-ranked Colorado and second-ranked Northern Arizona, who OSU beat head-to-head at the Cowboy Jamboree.
“It’s kind of nice, because now we just go in there and run our race and don’t have that pressure (of the No. 1 ranking),” OSU senior Shadrack Kipchirchir said. “We know how deep our team is, so we’ll go out there and keep doing what we’ve been doing. We know how good our team is and we’re going out there to win.”
On the women’s side, qualifying for a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA National Championships will be a tall task. The Cowgirls will be without the services of one of the country’s top distance runners, Natalja Piliusina, who won an NCAA championship in the spring in the 1,500-meters.
Instead, Oklahoma State will rely on the sudden surge from sophomore Kaela Edwards. The Highlands Ranch, Colo., native came on strong late in the Big 12 Conference championship race to finish as OSU’s third runner and push the Lady Pokes to a third-place team finish.
“Kaela amazes me. Everything she has done so far blows my mind, especially considering how little she has raced,” Smith said. “... She is very tough mentally and competitive. She doesn’t see anything that should limit her performance. She is gaining confidence and learning how to race. She will only continue to get better.”