T-Birds look to defy rankings in cross country opener

Amelie de Fenoyl

VANCOUVER – The UBC Thunderbirds cross country teams have made their presence known at past season openers at the Sundodger Invitational in Seattle, and in 2014, that goal will remain the same. The No. 3-ranked women and the No. 6-ranked men will travel to Lincoln Park on Saturday and begin their quest towards November’s NAIA Championships in Lawrence, Kan., where the women’s squad successfully defended their title last season.

Despite its two straight national championships, the UBC women’s team enters the race third in the weekly NAIA rankings, although the team received the most first-place votes (12), with Biola (Calif.) currently occupying top spot. On the men’s side, Oklahoma City sits in the top spot as the defending NAIA champions, garnering all 21 first-place votes.

The women return five of its seven scorers from last season’s national championship as the likes of Maria Bernard and Amélie de Fenoyl open up their final cross country season with the Thunderbirds. The 10-athlete travelling squad this weekend features a number of newcomers as well.

The men will have nearly double the entrants, with 17 athletes set to toe the line, including the top T-Bird at last year’s NAIA meet in Will Cliff as well as fellow NAIA qualifiers Bilal Shamsi, Jack Williams, Michael Bourgeois and Matt Galea. Overall, the men return six of seven from the 2013 NAIA Cross Country Championships, where the team finished in eighth spot.

The 2012 NAIA 5,000-metre race-walk champion and 2013 FISU bronze medalist Ben Thorne brings his talent to the cross country course, making his fall debut for the Thunderbirds. Kelowna native John Gay and Jeff Groh of Hummelstown, Pa., will make their Thunderbirds’ debuts this weekend and will vie for a top-five spot in order to contribute to the overall team standings come Saturday. The men will be without second-year runner Jesse Hooton, who represented Canada over the summer at the IAAF World Junior Championships, due to injury

Ahead of this weekend’s Sundodger Invitational, the men have historically held their own against its competition from south of the border, finishing no worse than third since 2010, including a win in 2012 and runner-up finish in 2013. The women have fared equally well, winning in 2011 and again in 2013.

The competition takes place at Lincoln Park, a historically fast course, and is a mixture of grass, dirt, light gravel, and wood chips. The women’s 6-kilometre open race kicks off the morning at 9 a.m. while the men’s 8-km follows immediately at 9:40 a.m.