ASHLAND — The loss of an NAIA champion is not expected to hinder the Southern Oregon men’s cross country team’s command of the Cascade Conference in 2014, and a group of returners on the rise has the Raider women on track to continue their ascent.
Those were the messages insinuated by the CCC preseason coaches’ polls, released Thursday by the league office. The Raider men were the unanimous choice to stay on top, and the Raider women were picked second behind Northwest Christian, which received all but one first-place vote.
Despite graduating Eric Avila, the school’s first national champion in the sport since 1978, SOU’s men are sufficiently equipped to defend their title.
Senior Eric Ghelfi is the only returning All-American, having finished 20th at the NAIA Championships, but Jared Hixon was 36th, and a 1,500-meter All-American in track, Kevin Jorgensen, was 78th and became an 800-meter All-American in the spring. Zach Boyd-Helm and Trevor Lynn are All-Americans on the track, too, and came up big at the CCC Cross Country Championships last fall.
It was there that nine of the first 15 finishers were Raiders, pushing the team to its sixth straight conference title. SOU subsequently placed second at the NAIA meet, marking its fourth consecutive season in the top three.
Second in the men’s poll was Eastern Oregon, the last team to win a title before SOU began its run.
SOU coach Grier Gatlin’s stockpile of depth is catching up on the women’s side, too. A year removed from a sixth-place finish at the CCC meet, the Raiders claimed third in 2013.
Hoping to build on appearances at the NAIA Championships, Rebecca Lupescu and Summer Cano — who placed 69th and 81st, respectively — will lead the Raiders. Cano battled injuries after pacing all small-college finishers at last year’s Stanford Invitational and should start the season healthy, while Lupescu finished the spring strong with a runner-up showing in the CCC Championships 5,000-meter race.
The Raiders will also rely on the help of Jessie Rozario and Aspen Abbott, who were Nos. 21 and 31 at last year’s CCC meet, along with a few key newcomers.
Northwest Christian has never won the title but was second last year. College of Idaho, which is the defending champ and No. 3 in the poll, had the top four runners at the CCC Championships but lost three of them.
SOU’s season starts on Sept. 13 in Arcata, Calif., at the Humboldt State Invitational.