Cross-Country will have plenty of new faces hitting the course at the start of the season with one athlete on the men’s side and three athletes on the women’s side returning to competition.

A number of athletes on the current roster redshirted last year, meaning they trained with the team last season, but did not compete at races. From a preparation standpoint, the lack of returning competitors will affect preparation for the new season, according to Associate Head Coach of Cross-Country and Track, Wes Ashford.

“These guys are familiar with what we’ve been doing so we have a good nucleus of athletes that are familiar with our philosophy and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Ashford said. “They’ll be there to provide the guidance and the leadership to the new incomers.”

Cross Country enters this season with only four athletes returning to competition. (David Wilson | The Poly Post)

The team’s first practice of the new season began at 7 a.m. on Aug. 15, but a break would not be the best way to describe the athletes’ summer.

The individual athletes are expected to work on there own to build up their fitness levels. The coaches remind the athletes of what is expected of them before the team breaks for summer, but Ashford said the athletes “know what they’re supposed to do.”

The building of fitness continues once the team begins practicing for the first time together. Because the most important races of the cross-country season do not come until late November and early December, it is a slow build throughout the year toward hitting peak performance.

Ashford tabbed Nov. 17, the day of NCAA West Region Championships, as the time the team should be at its best. Two weeks after regionals is the NCAA Division II National Championships, held this year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“We just basically continue building and just work on the quality aspect, the different paces that we have set up so that when they get into a race they are familiar with the pace and they’re comfortable with what’s happening around them,” Ashford said.

The women’s team is looking to make it three straight trips to nationals this year. Senior Anahi Betart missed out on the first of the team’s back-to-back trips to nationals due to injury and out to make sure this team does not end the streak.

“We just got to step it up as a group to be able to accomplish what we’ve done in the past two years,” Betart said. “I don’t want to break the seal where we start up again that people don’t go to nationals.”

When Betart arrived at Cal Poly Pomona, she was “nervous” about how she would fit in with a program that was as she described as more intense than her cross-country team at Walnut High School.

Now entering her final year, she aims to be a role model for the rest of the team. Betart has always tried to have a leadership role on the team, and now that some of the team leaders from years gone by have moved on, it’s her turn to take up that role.

“Now I’m hoping I can be that for them, but at the same time have them not see me as the top person, I want them to be up there with me,” Betart said.

For the first time, the team spent the first week of practice having team dinners in the evenings to go along with team meetings during the day.

The team will be also going to Big Bear after the first race of the season to spend more time together.

On the men’s side, only then senior Ruben Dominguez qualified for nationals and only sophomore Jeremiah Suzara is a returning competitor from last season. After a full season at the collegiate level, Suzara learned that it’s what happens away from practice that makes the difference.

“Everybody comes here to run, but what separates the good runners from the regular runners is doing the outside stuff that the coaches aren’t telling you to do,” Suzara said.

Junior Israel Cardona transferred from El Camino College last year but redshirted his first year at Cal Poly Pomona.

Moving from a junior college to a Division II program Cardona described the difference being in the heightened sense of “urgency” at CPP compared to El Camino College.

Cross-country teams need every individual to be successful. Each athlete’s finish in a race goes toward a team’s point total and the lower the score the better. The key to having a cohesive unit according to Ashford is understanding the different styles runners bring to a race.

“Team members need to be comfortable and understand what their teammates are and how they race and have a trust in them,” Ashford said. “The guy that goes out fast has to trust that the guy that goes out slow is going to do his part.”

For Ashford, the teams are his main focus and while nationals are a goal, they’re not the only top one.

“Our goal is to be in top five,” Ashford said. “But we have to get there first.”

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