By Lev Rourke
PORTLAND – Two obscure college freshmen, one wearing a WINONA shirt, the other an all-black NEW ZEALAND shirt, finished 1-2 in the season-opening West Coast Preview college cross country meet on a hot Friday afternoon Sept. 11 at Pier Park, not far from the campus of the University of Portland, the host school for this tidy event.
Neither runner is from Winona – a town in Minnesota – or New Zealand, but they were running Unattached so resorted to creative uniforming while the rest of their U of P teammates ran in their traditional purple-and-white. UP, a cross country national power, rested most of its top-line runners. As a result, Gonzaga won the 8k men’s meet, 36-39, over Willamette, while the UP second-tier women beat the Zags, 29-32, at 6k.
“The athletes we ran today did a really nice job in hot conditions,” said Ian Solof, Portland’s women’s coach. It was an unseasonable 96 degrees, but after all, it is summer.
For Gonzaga, which is trying to make a mark in the sport after years of obscurity, the meet was a solid beginning, as Coach Pat Tyson begins his second season at the Spokane school, a medium-sized Catholic college just like its Portland counterpart.
“We ran well,” Tyson said. “We showed we have some solid veterans, but some of the younger runners also showed they belong at this level.”
In the women’s race here, Gonzaga finished 2-5-7-8-10, led by Molly Funk, a senior from Denver, who lost to Lyndy Davis of UP by 12 seconds.
“Molly has a chance to qualify for NCAA Regionals,” Tyson said. “What we really would like to do is get qualify a full team to Regionals. To do that, we have to finish in the top 2 at conference.” Gonzaga is a member of the West Coast Conference, as is Portland. The Portland men have won that conference title a remarkable 30 years in succession, under the direction of the redoubtable Rob Conner.
In the men’s race, Portland’s top official finisher was Shane Geiger, a redshirt freshman from Camas, who finished 5th. “Shane’s running is better than last year,” Conner said. “His hard work over the summer is paying off.” Geiger is the son of Sherry Geiger, who as Sherry Crang was a high-school star distance runner at Hudson’s Bay 30 years ago. “Shane was hurt last year. He’s running much better now,” said Sherry, who was on hand for Friday’s race along with her husband and youngest son.
In this season kickoff, UP did not use its aces – Dana Morgan for the women, and Alfred Kipchumba, Tommy Betterbed and Lars Erik Malde for the men. Malde is a 19-year-old newcomer from Hafrsjord, Norway, who finished 16th in last year’s Under-20 European cross country championships.
In their absence, the freshmen Joash Osoro and Trevor Dunbar ran unattached, preserving the possibility that they will redshirt. Osoro wore a WINONA shirt, no doubt on loan from a teammate, Scott Olberding, 9th in this race and a graduate of Winona H.S. He moved easily through the pack halfway through to win comfortably in 25:30.8, 18 seconds ahead of his teammate Dunbar.
Dunbar, wearing a New Zealand shirt, in fact hails from Kodiak, Alaska. Dunbar, a highly recruited prep, ran 4:06 for the mile in high school. He has been suffering from tendinitis and as a result may be held out this fall. On Friday, he ran at Osoro’s heels much of the way but could not stay with him in the late going, though he did finish 23 seconds in front of Geiger in his college debut.
Osoro is from Kenya, but he attended high school in North Dakota, where he was two-time state cross country champion for St. Mary’s H.S. of Bismarck.
The Gonzaga men placed first, led by Brad Withers, a senior from Woodinville, Wash., who finished 3rd behind Osoro and Dunbar. Gonzaga’s other four scorers were freshmen. “We’re building our program,” said Tyson, who was a legendary high school coach in Spokane before joining the college ranks. “A lot of kids have heard about the school because of our success in basketball, and they show up and walk on.”
Later in the season, the Zags will be no match for the Pilots, who have become a national powerhouse. Last year Portland was 7th in the NCAA Div. I championships. In a month they’ll see where they stand by running at the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Eugene, where they’ll see how they stack up against hometown Oregon, the reigning national champions. “What do you think?” Conner speculated about this year’s Ducks squad, which has lost stars Galen Rupp and Shadrack Kiptoo Biwott. “Are they vulnerable?”