Mark Wetmore understands the stranglehold his cross country programs have held on the top spot in the Pac-12 Conference since joining the league could be in jeopardy in 2017.
However, that doesn't mean the Buffaloes won't be in the mix once the NCAA championships roll around in late November. Such is the state of the rugged competition in the Pac-12.
Wetmore, set to begin his 23rd season as the leader of CU's cross country programs, expects a loaded field within the conference this fall. The Buffs have won all six men's conference titles since joining the league in 2011, while the women have the past two and three overall.
"The Pac-12 is a killer conference," Wetmore said. "We could be third in men's race and third in the women's race at the Pac-12 (championship) and be in the top five in the NCAA. That's how competitive it is. I think on the women's side, three teams in the Pac-12 will be ranked in the top five in the NCAA by the end of the season."
Both squads lost their lead runners from a year ago, but once again the Buffs expect to reload and resume their place among the elite programs in the nation. And, also like last year, expect the women's team to slightly outpace the men's team in 2017.
The CU women's team will be led by Dani Jones, who is coming off a strong outdoor track season, and senior Kaitlyn Benner, a Monarch High alum who finished 26th at nationals last year after placing 16th as a sophomore.
The men will be set at the top of the lineup with junior John Dressel and sophomore Joe Klecker leading the way. Both those runners reached the top 35 at nationals, and they should have solid support in 2017 from senior Zach Perrin and junior Ryan Forsyth. After that, however, Wetmore said there will be healthy competition to see which runners ultimately fill out the Buffs' lineup by the time nationals arrive.
"The front two I have total confidence in, and Zach and Ryan, I need them to be there on the final day," Wetmore said. "And then I'm looking. Five score and seven run, and there's three spots. It's time for some young folks to move up. We had six or seven male freshmen last year that we redshirted and we never used them. They're back a year older, a year in the system, but as freshmen. Maybe a couple of them. That's my task, to fill in those other spots."
Wetmore marveled over the effort of CU alum Jenny Simpson at the IAAF World Championships earlier this month.
As he did last year when Simpson won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, Wetmore coached Simpson throughout a season that culminated in a silver medal in the 1,500-meter run. Given Simpson began competing internationally a decade ago, Wetmore lauded her remarkable longevity.
Wetmore also coached CU alum Emma Coburn to a bronze medal in the steeplechase at last year's Olympics, but this year she opted to have her fiancé, Joe Bosshard, coach her along the way to a gold-medal run at the world championships.
"Based on performances at that point in the season, Jenny entered the world championships ranked 14th in the world, and Emma ranked probably fifth or sixth," Wetmore said. "But they're used to that environment. They're used to the pressure, they're used to the media. They're both very motivated, hard-working athletes. And both had very dramatic, very courageous, thrilling races.
"Jenny was in a world championship in 2007. If you look at her opponents in 2007...they're long gone. That she's had 11 years on a world championship level, winning medals and setting records, is extremely unlikely. Those are two unique young women. I get a lot of credit for them. But honestly I'm lucky. They landed here. They're special. Coaches are thrilled to get one in a lifetime and I got two in a decade."
The Buffs kick off the season Sept. 1 at the Colorado State Invitational. As usual, though, CU's lead runners are not expected to compete...CU hosts the annual Rocky Mountain Shootout on Sept. 30.