Over 400 runners, more than 30 teams, and just 2 teams guaranteed a spot in the finals.
The men and women of the UCLA cross country team competed Friday at the NCAA West Regionals in Seattle with their sights set on the national championship.
After the meet, however, only the men are likely to be running in Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 18.
Despite the absence of junior Robert Brandt, the men’s team placed fifth out of 30 teams from the West region, making a strong final push for an at-large bid to the NCAA finals. Meanwhile, the women’s team ran its last race of the 2017 season, placing 12th.
Brandt led the way for the Bruins in the Pac-12 championship last month, finishing 6th overall to help the team to a third-place finish.
However, once Brandt felt a tweak in his quad muscle earlier in the week, assistant coach Devin Elizondo decided to keep him on the sidelines in Washington.
“It was a calculated risk and a bit of a gamble,” Elizondo said of the decision. “But ultimately I thought it was best for his health and best for him as a student-athlete to rest. … He’s a guy that really has high hopes at finishing well up in the national meet, and so we wanted make sure to give him that opportunity.”
This strategy reflects what has been UCLA’s true focus all season – the championship race.
“We’ve looked at this entire season as stepping stones and learning experiences to take us toward the end of the season,” Elizondo said. “To be able to be in (Louisville, Kentucky,) with our singlets on and our spikes tied up has been the goal, and each race and each experience has led to there.”
With the battle cry of “one more week for Rob,” the No. 10 Bruins stuck with the front pack out of the gates, with five runners placing in the top 40.
Sophomore Garrett Reynolds finished the 10k race in 29:50.7 and placed 14th overall, leading the team. Redshirt senior Daniel De La Torre was the next Bruin to cross the finish line, clocking in at 30:13.6 and 33rd place overall.
Redshirt sophomore Colin Burke, redshirt junior Jackson Marshall and redshirt senior Myles Smith took up the final three spots of the top 40, all finishing within a second of each other.
Reynolds was impressed by the way the team as a whole performed in Brandt’s absence.
“Everyone stepped up across the board. Every single person had a great performance,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, having (Brandt) helps. But we believed we could still do it without him. And he knew we had his back, just like he had ours. We could still get this taken care of, and we did.”
While only the top-two finishing teams – Portland and Washington – guaranteed spots in the national championship, UCLA has accumulated enough points throughout the season that both Elizondo and Reynolds are confident they will earn one of 13 at-large bids.
For the women’s team, which entered the day ranked eighth in the West and looking to upset No. 7 Arizona to try for a championship bid, a 12th-place finish was a somewhat disappointing end to a promising season.
Assistant coach Jennifer DeRego believes it could also be a learning experience moving forward for the young team.
“There’s always a level of disappointment when you feel like you don’t beat expectations,” DeRego said. “These girls want it. They’re realizing what it takes to get there, and it takes a lot of hard work. It’ll happen.”
The women suffered an early blow when freshman Erika Adler was spiked in the shin and ran injured for the remainder of the race. However, DeRego was proud of the way that Adler’s teammates stuck by her, pushing her forward.
“The women implemented the plan of pack running the best I’ve seen all year,” DeRego said. “Adler garnered strength and help from her front-runner teammates to lead her to a strong finish.”
Adler finished in 60th place, behind sophomores Cassandra Durgy and Claire Markey, who placed 51st and 56th respectively. Redshirt sophomore Jackie Garner, who placed 85th, and freshman Christina Rice at 92nd rounded out the top five for the Bruins.
Although this season has come to an end, DeRego is already looking to the future.
“They’re laying the foundation for the next three or four years, and that’s what I’m excited for,” DeRego said. “It’s a season of growth, a season of change. And it’s about being resilient moving forward.”