For UC Irvine’s cross-country runners, the annual conference meet used to be about as stressful as sunbathing. They showed up. They jogged a couple of miles. And the hardest part of the day was carrying the trophy out to the van.
The Irvine women’s team has won all five conference championships and the men have won three in a row and four of the past six. Last year, the women had five runners finish in the top seven positions and the men grabbed seven of the top nine.
But both Anteater squads will be wearing their game faces Saturday during the Big West Conference championships at UC Santa Barbara. Fresno State figures to give Irvine a run for the money. In a meet at Stanford Oct. 1, the Anteater men narrowly defeated Fresno, but the Bulldog women edged Irvine by 5 points.
Coach Vince O’Boyle admittedly might have redshirted one too many women runners this season after the Anteaters finished eighth in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships last year. Irvine is left with only one star in junior transfer Brigid Stirling.
“I truly think this group is as good as any we’ve had here,” O’Boyle said, “but they haven’t raced up to their potential yet. We’re talking about some very young people (the top seven include three freshmen and two sophomores) with very little experience.”
The men’s team is loaded with experience, but lacks the dominant runners who have run away from the pack and paced Irvine to past glories. Six of O’Boyle’s top seven runners this season were on the team that finished 14th in the NCAA championships last year.
“The guys realize they’re good, and I think we’re in good shape if we run like we’re capable of,” said O’Boyle, who has been named both the conference men’s and women’s coach of the year the past 3 seasons. "(Pete) Vicencio has a chance to win the conference, but we don’t have the really big names.”
O’Boyle came up with a few names--all derogatory--after the men finished eighth and the women 10th in the Cal Poly Pomona Invitational Oct. 22.
“Actually, I didn’t completely go off,” he said, managing a smile. “I was so surprised, though. They had trained well. We usually race well up there. I still haven’t figured out what happened.
“But we’ve done a lot of work--both physically and mentally--since then and I think we’re ready.”
Some would argue that cross-country is really not a team sport and the strategy of Saturday’s races should be a classic display of the dichotomy involved.
The Irvine women’s race against Fresno figures to come down to seven one-on-one confrontations.
“Everyone knows exactly who they have to beat,” O’Boyle said.
The course, a narrow, twisting run around a lagoon on the UCSB campus, figures to make the women’s race that much more exciting. Sure-footedness might be as important as fleet-footedness.
The key to a victory for the Anteater men, however, will hinge on their ability to run as a pack . . . as much of a pack as the mostly single-file course will allow, anyway.
“The guys need to pull together and keep their eyes on where the red (Fresno State) jerseys are,” O’Boyle said.
Bill Mulligan, who has never been known as Mr. Flexible, is “99% sure” he will go against his instincts and allow sophomore guard Justin Anderson to redshirt this year.
“Unless someone goes down with an injury in the next couple of weeks, I guess I’ll let him,” Mulligan said. “It’s something he really wants. He thinks it’ll make him a much better player.
“And I don’t think he’ll be a very good one this season if I force him to play.”
Mulligan was leaning toward redshirting 6-foot 6-inch freshman forward Elgin Rogers from Horace Mann High School in Gary, Ind., but Rogers might have put that notion to rest in one afternoon last week.
“I think we may have changed our minds on that,” Mulligan said after watching Rogers score more than 30 points in a scrimmage.
Former Anteater standout Wayne Engelstad has been impressive recently playing for the Denver Nuggets. Apparently, though, Denver Coach Doug Moe wasn’t aware of Engelstad’s exploits at Irvine. “Wayne scored 16 points the other day and in the airport after the game, Moe put his arm around him and said, ‘Where’d you go to school, son?’ ” Coach Bill Mulligan said, rolling his eyes. . . . Dylan Rigdon, the Mater Dei High School guard who orally committed to Irvine Tuesday night, might have ended up at an Eastern college if he hadn’t gone to Pittsburgh for a basketball camp this summer. “When we (Mater Dei’s team) went back there last year, I really liked the old campuses and all the snow,” Rigdon said. “But it was 100 degrees and 98% humidity for that camp in Pittsburgh and we were playing outside. I’ve never been in that environment before. I almost died. I went back there at 165 (pounds) and came back at 152. That’s when I decided to stay close to home.” . . . Rigdon’s teammate at Mater Dei, Mike Morris, visited Irvine last weekend. . . . Single-game basketball tickets go on sale to the public at the Bren Center and all Ticketron locations Monday. The Anteaters play host to UCLA on Dec. 28 and Nevada Las Vegas on Feb. 4.