WACO – A berth into the NCAA Championships is up for grabs for the nationally-ranked Texas A&M women’s cross country team this Friday as the Aggies compete in the South Central region meet hosted by Baylor at the Cottonwood Creek golf course.
The A&M women, currently tied for 28th in the USTFCCCA National Coaches poll, enter the meet ranked No. 2 in the South Central region behind Arkansas, who ranks No. 3 nationally. The Aggie men enter the South Central meet ranked No. 5 in the region.
Action begins at 10 a.m. for the men’s race, which covers a distance of 10,000 meters, while the women’s 6,000-meter race begins at 11:15 a.m. The Cottonwood Creek golf course is located at 5201 Bagby Avenue off of New Road in Waco. Parking is available at the adjacent Waco ISD football stadium.
“We are looking forward to our trip up to Waco,” Texas A&M assistant coach Wendel McRaven. “We have good memories from the last time we ran the regional meet up there and the folks at Baylor do a nice job of hosting meets. The course at Cottonwood is a fair course with plenty of room. A good place for a regional met.”
The top two teams in the men’s and women’s competition in each of the nine region sites claim automatic berths into the NCAA Championship field. After the 18 teams earning automatic berths are determined, the rest of the 31 team field is selected by at-large berths based on region finish along with season performances.
In the past it’s been very rare for a South Central third place team to receive an at-large selection into the NCAA Championships. The A&M women finished third in 2012 with a score of 140 points behind Arkansas (44) and Texas (68). In 2011 the Aggies were also third with 90 points behind Arkansas (49) and Texas (69).
The last time an A&M women’s team qualified for the NCAA Championships was in 2000 and the Aggies went on to place 18th in the national meet.
Following Arkansas and Texas A&M in the women’s region rankings are SMU, Texas, UTSA, Baylor and Lamar. SMU won the American Athletic Conference title while Texas and Baylor were separated by two points (121-123) in placing fourth and fifth in the Big 12 meet. UTSA tied for first place in Conference USA while Lamar won the Southland Conference.
Texas A&M’s national ranking followed a stellar performance during the SEC Championships, where the team finished second to record its highest finish in the history of the Aggie women’s cross country program. The 123 points scored by A&M had them trailing Arkansas (32) while finishing ahead of Kentucky (134), Florida (150), Vanderbilt (161), Alabama (174), Missouri (178) and Tennessee (179).
“On the women’s side we just need to continue to do what we have been doing and continue the progression that we have seen over the last four to six weeks,” McRaven said. “We’re getting better every time out and there is no sign of that letting up. We have traditionally run our best race of the season at the regional meet and our women have a lot of confidence heading into this weekend.”
Hillary Montgomery, competing in her third region meet, leads an Aggie women’s team that has five runners who competed in the South Central meet last season. Montgomery placed eighth in the SEC Championships a couple of weeks ago and also led A&M during large invitational meets held in Louisville and Wisconsin.
“We have worked so hard this season, every single practice we work on closing in our pack,” stated Montgomery. “Every meet we’ve had little lessons we learn from. Our goal for the next meet is just to do a little better than we did in the previous meet. We’ve been unified and strong, pumping each other up. It’s just been an amazing team.”
As a freshman in the region meet Montgomery ran 21:36.1 on the Cottonwood Creek course, finishing as the third A&M runner and 20th overall. During her sophomore campaign a year ago, Montgomery placed 19th in 21:37.7 on a more challenging Arkansas course as the top Aggie finisher.
The four other A&M runners who competed in last year’s region meet include Gabby Salazar (24th), Grace Fletcher (31st), Sophie Blake (53rd) and Amanda Jenkins (55th) as they comprised places 2-4-6-7 among the Aggie squad.
An added spark to this year’s team has been the addition of freshmen Karis Jochen and Katie Willard. Jochen has been the second A&M finisher behind Montgomery at Louisville and the SEC meet, where she was the second best freshman finisher in placing 13th overall, while Willard has been the sixth Aggie runner at Louisville and in the SEC meet.
“Everything is looking good for us heading into the region meet,” said Jochen. “I don’t think we’ve had a meet yet where we have truly shown what we can do. We haven’t had a meet yet where every single girl has had their best race. I think that meet is coming for us and when we do we will surprise people even more.”
Montgomery and Jochen aided one another in the SEC meet. Each runner feed off the fact that a teammate was nearby as they were part of the lead pack through the early stages of the race and then later in the race when the Aggies strong finish had them passing other runners on the way to the finish line.
“That helped so much,” noted Montgomery. “I started to hurt really bad early on in the race and almost started to drop back. Just having Karis right next to me really helped me to keep going. Since I run with her in practice I knew I could keep running with her in the race. That was just a huge blessing to have her right there.”
Jochen added: “Hillary definitely helped me mentally throughout the entire race. Having her up there with me and seeing her right there just gave me confidence that I could run with that group. Having a teammate there just made things easier.”
Last season the A&M men finished third with 93 points in the South Central region behind Texas (38) and Arkansas (53). The Aggies qualified a pair of individuals to the NCAA meet with seniors Henry Lelei and James Hodges. The top four individuals not associated with teams advancing to the NCAA Championship also qualify for the national meet.
“For the men this is a great opportunity to continue some of the momentum we started to see at the SEC meet,” stated McRaven. “We may be a young team, but it is a talented, competitive group and we are ready to run well. This is an opportunity for our team to set the tone for the future. We tend to run well at the regional meet so I fully expect this to be our best team race of the year.”
Isaac Spencer, who has led the Aggie men this season, is a candidate to advance individually to the NCAA Championship this season. Recently he placed 14th at the SEC Championships.
Last year Spencer was the fourth A&M finisher (31:35.8) and 26th overall in the region meet. As a freshman in 2011, when the Aggie men placed second in team scoring, Spencer was the sixth A&M finisher on the Waco course (31:39.6) and placed 24th overall.
Also making a return to the South Central meet for the Aggies is Micah Dettmer, who was the fifth A&M runner and placed 37th overall.
A crew of freshman will have their debut region performance for the Aggies. This group includes Cameron Villarreal, Xavier Jimenez, Ryan Teel and Austin Wells. Villarreal was the second best freshman finisher at the SEC Championships and Jimenez joined him on the SEC All-Freshman team.