Bearcat Cross Country Runners Set to Open Season

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University men's and women's cross country teams enter the 2009 season with a group of talented athletes. Willamette has won seven consecutive Northwest Conference women's titles and the men's team has won seven NWC championships in the past eight years.

Even so, following the graduation of senior women's runners Maddie Coffman and Jena Winger, plus men's runner Josh Clough, the Bearcats aren't the favorites to win NWC titles this season. That doesn't mean the Bearcats aren't among the top teams in the NWC, or that Willamette isn't primed to make a strong push for the women to repeat and the men to regain the title.

Ironically, it's not primarily his team's running skills that have Head Coach Matt McGuirk excited about the season, which starts on Friday, Sept. 11 at the Pier Park Invitational, hosted by the University of Portland. McGuirk is even more impressed with the teamwork exhibited by his runners.

"I just like the team," McGuirk said. "I like the attitude and the energy. Combine that with any amount of talent and it should be a very good year."

The Pier Park Invitational is scheduled to get underway at 4 p.m. (PDT). A good contingent of Willamette's runners will compete at the event. The entire WU squad is slated to run at the Willamette Grass Course Meet a week from Friday on Sept. 18 (5 p.m. at Bush's Pasture Park).

"It's our second week of practice," McGuirk noted. "Everybody came in ready to go. They're really looking forward to putting on their uniforms and getting into some races in the next few weeks."

McGuirk said that he was pleased with the commitment of the team to work hard in practice and to prepare for the season. Members of the team have provided leadership not only at practice, but throughout the week.

"The leadership is off the course," McGuirk said. "They're leading that way."

With the men's and women's teams ready for competition and everyone working toward common goals, McGuirk is happy with his team's early progress as they work toward the NWC Championship and postseason meets.

'It's the first time in a long time that we're not the favorite on one or both sides (in the NWC)," McGuirk said. "I like where we're at."

The men's team returns several experienced runners. Heading the list is senior Kyle Kotaich (Florence, OR/Siuslaw HS). Kotaich placed eighth at the NWC Championships in 2008 to earn Second Team All-NWC honors. Also claiming Second Team All-NWC recognition were junior Ryan McLaughlin (Milwaukie, OR/Milwaukie HS), who placed ninth, and sophomore Leo Castillo (Parkdale, OR/Hood River Valley HS), who took 13th at the NWC Meet as a freshman last year.

"We have almost everybody back on the men's side," McGuirk commented. "They're at a different level now. They're very focused and driven and very much on the same page. You could mention about 12 men (as contending for the top seven). It's going to be a good challenge."

On the women's team, returning runners with championship experience are Tina Patel (Jr., Bend, OR/Summit HS), who finished ninth at the NWC Meet last fall to earn Second Team All-NWC honors, and Kimber Mattox (Fr., Bend, OR/Bend HS/Cornell University), who placed sixth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2009 NCAA Track and Field Championships. Mattox will compete in cross country and soccer this fall, joining the cross country runners for the second half of the season while competing throughout the schedule in soccer.

Hannah Vietmeier (Sr., Shoreline, WA/Shorewood HS) also returns with significant experience. Sarah McSweney (So., Petaluma, CA/Casa Grande HS), who missed much of last season, provided additional quality depth.

"And we have a nice group of freshmen that we're excited about," McGuirk said. "I think when we get all of the pieces put together, we'll have a pretty good team."

As the season gets underway, Whitworth appears to be the favorite in the West Region of NCAA Division III on the men's side, as the Pirates return their top five runners. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Occidental are also listed among the top teams in the West. On the women's side, Whitman returns its top runners, while Whitworth and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps have solid mixes of returning and new runners.

The Bearcats also expect to be among the leaders at the NWC and West Regional levels. Willamette has won six West Region men's titles since 2002 and has claimed five West Region women's titles since 2003.

Leo Castillo took 13th at the NWC Championships as a freshman in 2008.

Leo Castillo took 13th at the NWC Championships as a freshman in 2008.