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ONLINE
27-OCT-00

Cross country to defend WAC titles
by Jason Gershman
thresher editorial staff

in focus: cross country

Most recently: The women's team finished second on the strength of placing five runners in the top 25 and the men's team finished seventh in the Texas A&M University Invitational Oct. 14. Senior John Jura was named WAC Runner of the Week for his 10th place finish in a field of over 120 runners.
Up next: Both teams look to defend their Western Athletic Conference titles at the WAC championship meet tomorrow in Tulsa, Okla.

If the men's or women's cross country teams repeat as Western Athletic Conference champions tomorrow, their team photos could be placed in Webster's next to the phrase "overcoming adversity."

The teams head into tomorrow's WAC championship meet in Tulsa, Okla., after riding an emotional roller coaster over the last month. The reason? Both teams have lost their top runners due to injury and illness.

But while repeating as titlists will be decidedly more challenging now, both teams believe the goal is still within reach.

Women's team looks to freshmen
The women's team began the season with two team victories that featured one-two individual finishes for junior Katie Waite and freshman Shannon Murto. But Waite has been sidelined since then by a medical condition not fully diagnosed until last week and will miss the remainder of the season.

The key to the Owls' success this weekend is the performance of the three freshmen runners. After finishing second to Waite in the first two races of the year, Murto has led the Owls to the finish line in every race. Freshmen Whitney McAlpine and Magdalena Sandoval have also finished in the top five among Rice runners in nearly every race this season.

"I'm just working on running my race and helping the team," Murto said. "I haven't even thought about myself at all. I'm more worried about the team winning the conference championship."

The Owls received some good news last week when they learned sophomore Liza Ruckman will be back this weekend after suffering a mysterious injury that sidelined her for the first half of October.

"This is the Liza Ruckman that ran so well for us last year," head coach Jim Bevan said. "She'll finally be at 100 percent for the first time in two months."

As for the competition the Owls face tomorrow, Texas Christian University is the highest-ranked WAC school at No. 26 in the nation. TCU finished second to the Owls at last year's WAC meet and will be looking for revenge.

"I would hate to see TCU beat us," Waite said. "It's going to be tough. I know UTEP was tough last year, but TCU is our main rival. We hate them and they don't like us either. The team just needs to keep on doing what they're doing and they'll do awesome. I've never seen three freshmen come in and do so well as our freshmen have done this year."

Men have hope in wide-open meet
The men's team has been cursed with injuries this season. Senior Lachlan McArthur, who led the team to the WAC title and a berth in the NCAA Championships last season, has not run since the season opening Rice Invitational and will miss the rest of the year with a hip injury.

McArthur is joined on the sidelines by senior Justin Burrow, sophomore Tom Ring and freshman Sean O'Brian, all of whom will miss the remainder of the season due to injury. Despite these setbacks, the Owls feel they can pull off the upset tomorrow.

"If they run solid, we have a chance," head coach Jon Warren said. "I don't think we have to run out of our minds. This is a wide open conference. If our guys end up on the right side of the pack, we'll be in great shape. If they're on the wrong side of the pack, we're going to be way back."

Leading the way for the Owls will be senior John Jura. Jura was named the WAC Runner of the Week after his performance at the Texas A&M meet two weeks ago. He has paced the Owls at every race this season and is hoping to lead his team to another WAC title.

"My goals for this weekend are to run a personal record and for the team to run the best that it can," Jura said. "We're excited to see the product of our team in the face of adversity.

"Personally, I'd definitely like to finish in the top five. Winning would be tough because TCU has two transfers this season who are ranked among the top 20 runners in the country."

The only other healthy veteran runners for the Owls are sophomore Keith Pierce and senior Scott Palmer. This weekend will be an emotional one for Palmer, who missed last year's championship season due to illness.

"This weekend is going to be special because I've grown up around this team and they've been my training partners for the past four or five years," Palmer said. "We're going to need all five runners to run at their best."

A key to the weekend will be the performance of two new runners, redshirt freshman Tim Oberg and sophomore transfer Jeremy LaBuff, who have been asked to step up their performance to run in the top five for the Owls. While they performed well at the Lehigh Invitational two races back, they struggled at Texas A&M.

The Owls have relied on depth in their past successes and hope the new runners can help provide it.

"We're not completely out of the picture," Warren said. "John Jura should be in the front pack battling for the lead. TCU has those two nationally-ranked runners, but we can beat them as a team on depth. That's how we'll beat anybody. SMU and UTEP are the main two teams to beat. In my opinion, the field is wide open. Everybody looks okay, but nobody looks great."

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