By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
The Oklahoma State men’s cross country team has crept its way into the top ranking in the country, but this weekend’s Big 12 Conference championship in Austin, Texas, will put that ranking — and a four-year stretch of conference titles — to the test.
“We’re in the toughest conference in the country — and it’s been that way since 2005,” OSU coach Dave Smith said. “We’ve got three teams ranked in the top 10 and five in the top 30 that will be competing at the Big 12 meet. ... I expect that it’s going to be a dog fight all the way around. I think it will not come easy.
“We’ve had an easy run of things for the last three or four years and I think that landscape has changed a little bit this year with Oklahoma and Texas both having really good teams.”
This weekend will also really be the first time the Cowboys, who have finished in the top two of the NCAA championships each of the last three years, will face some stiff competition in races this year. OSU has won both of its races — the Cowboy Jamboree and the Chile Pepper Invitational — but neither race included any other ranked teams from Division I.
“The hard thing about this season is just the way the schedule filled out, the men haven’t faced a top 30-ranked opponent yet,” Smith said. “And I think that makes the races a little more anticlimactic and we’ve been waiting for a race where you face a top 30 team and I think that comes in a big way this weekend with four other teams in the top 30 that we will be competing against. So we’re kind of getting baptized by fire this year.”
As for the Cowgirl team, its likely that they will be battling for a second-place finish at the best. OSU is ranked 27th in the country, behind fellow conference foes Texas (at 14th) and Iowa State, which is second in the nation.
“Iowa State is clearly the class of the league and we’re chasing them — and at the same time we’ve got Texas, who I think we are very evenly matched with, to battle with in order to move up to second in conference,” Smith said. “I think we finished second in the conference in quite some time (2005). So we have a chance to be second this year.”
Helping the Cowgirls will be the return of a healthy Natalja Piliusina, who ran in the Chile Pepper Invitational for the first time this season but was pulled midway through due to injury.
“She missed four or five days of running, but now she’s back healthy with no problems,” Smith said. “So it was a good decision and probably more prudent in the long run. If I didn’t think she was ready to go this weekend, we wouldn’t run her because the women have a little bumpier road to the national meet. They have a little more competition in the regional and we’ve got to really perform well there.
“So for the women, the regional takes on a lot more importance than it does for the men. And honestly, I think Iowa State is so far out in front of us that if we had a good day we might give them a scare. But if Natalja was iffy I wouldn’t run her because I would want her healthy for regionals.”