The Southern Oregon University men's cross country team has won five straight Cascade Conference championships and held steady as the No. 2 team in the NAIA all season.
Still, Raiders head coach Grier Gatlin thinks highly enough of the competition to be as unsure of what's going to unfold as ever at Saturday's CCC Championships in Caldwell, Idaho. The men's 8,000-meter race is slated for an 11:15 a.m. start at Brothers Park.
The women's 5,000-meter race will begin at 10:30 a.m. After second-ranked College of Idaho, which is the five-time defending conference champ and the favorite to repeat again, there is just as much up in the air for that one.
Automatic bids to the 28-team NAIA Championships in Lawrence, Kan., will be awarded to the team champions, but the best shot for the SOU women to qualify is with an at-large bid. To obtain one of those, the Raiders will likely need to move up in the rankings by getting within striking distance of College of Idaho and ninth-ranked Northwest Christian. SOU dropped out of the Top 25 poll last week but is on the immediate outside at No. 26.
"We're definitely ready to go," Gatlin said. "This is really only the second meet of the year where we've had everybody there and healthy. The conference is extremely competitive, but we'll be relaxed and let the chips fall where they may."
The Raiders were sixth last year and advanced one individual to nationals.
To get an individual at-large bid, one must be a top-five racer among individuals on teams not going to nationals and at least in the top-15 of all runners.
Junior Summer Cano has paced SOU all season, turning in her best time (22 minutes, 9 seconds) at the Stanford Invitational, and senior Alexandra Rudd will try to improve on her 16th-place showing at the CCC championships a year ago. They'll be joined by Rebecca Lupescu, Jessie Rozario, Aspen Abbott, Kattarina Korpela, Luisa Westley and Tanya Jones.
The Raider men were runaway winners in 2012 before taking second at nationals, but Gatlin doesn't envision that happening again with a much-improved Eastern Oregon team in the mix. The Mountaineers were fourth in the CCC last year and have worked themselves all the way up to No. 8 in the country this season, led by senior Isaac Updike.
"(EOU coach) Ben Welch hasn't won multiple championships and had a ton of all-Americans for no reason," Gatlin said. "They're running very, very well and it's going to be a highly-competitive meet. No one's handing us a trophy when we get out of the van."
Oregon Tech, College of Idaho and Northwest Christian — all of which received votes in the latest Top 25 poll — should also be in the mix up top. Updike and Tech's Paul Adams are likely to have the best shot at challenging SOU junior Eric Avila, who has won his last two races and was twice the NAIA's runner of the week.
Attempting to repeat as all-conference performers for the Raiders are Tyler VanDyke and Jared Hixon. Hector Aleman, Eric Ghelfi, Zach Boyd-Helm, Kevin Jorgensen, Matt Battaglia, Cary Dunagan and Trevor Lynn will also have the opportunity to build on their strong seasons.
"Our depth should be our strength as it usually is," Gatlin said. "Hopefully in the end that'll help us out, but we're going to have to really work hard."
The Southern Oregon University wrestling team's main Black squad was as dominant as usual Thursday night, defeating the Red team 77-6 in the 45th annual Black & Red Intrasquad at Bob Riehm Arena.
Black got wins by fall out of Tanner Canaday (141 pounds), Woong Kim (141), Brandon Montague (149), Rhett Breed (157) and top-ranked Brock Gutches (174). Johnathon Gay, ranked 13th in the NAIA at 141 pounds, wrestled twice and won both by decision.
The matches followed a format of two minutes in the first round and one minute each in the second and third.
Jacob Stigall claimed the only challenge match of the evening, winning by a 3-1 decision against Thomas Gowing. Stigall, a redshirt-freshman, got some distance from Gowing with a takedown near the end of the second round and held on.
Red's wins came from Lucas Randall and Garrett Urrutia, both by decision.
Southern Oregon, the eighth-ranked team in the NAIA, begins its season in earnest on Saturday with a 7 p.m. home dual against 13th-ranked Menlo (Calif.).