Just minutes before Colorado football coach Mike MacIntyre hit the podium for his weekly press conference earlier this week, cross country coach Mark Wetmore and two-time Pac-12 Conference champion Dani Jones took center stage to discuss the NCAA cross country championships.
MacIntyre, bringing a portrait of a snow-covered buffalo from his office, explained how the buffalo is the only animal that will walk headfirst through a snowstorm, using the metaphor to allay concerns about his job security heading into Saturday's home finale against Utah.
While the framed décor was meant as a symbol of MacIntyre's defiance, it also was a fitting representation of what Wetmore's Buffaloes may have to endure in their pursuit of a national championship this weekend. When the Jones-led CU women's team takes aim at the program's first title since 2004, they may do so in conditions not too unlike those in MacIntyre's portrait.
"(Jones) will be a strong contender this weekend, and our women's team will be a very strong contender," Wetmore said. "Our men's team will go in ranked eighth hoping to move up a little bit. The weather conditions are forecast to be useful for our purposes. Kind of wintery, I think. We're ready to go. Everybody is pretty healthy and we're excited."
The CU women's team has fallen just short of the national title the past three seasons, finishing second in 2015 and third the past two years with Jones leading the way. Jones, who in late October became the first CU runner to win back-to-back conference titles in 16 years, placed 10th at nationals last year and 22nd as a freshman in 2016.
Both of those championship races were held in Louisville. Saturday will mark the first time the NCAA final has been held in Madison since 1978, and the Buffs are in the enviable position of having competed at the course twice earlier this season — at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational in September and the annual Pre-Nationals in October.
Jones finished fourth at the Nuttycombe but did not compete at Pre-Nationals.
"It's unique and it has its own challenges," Jones said. "There's small hills. But I think our biggest challenge will be the conditions. Probably in the upper 20s, 50-mile an hour winds, humid cold. Which I think plays to our advantage just because we're going up against teams that live in dry, desert-y climates.
"Living in Colorado, we get our share of bad conditions. Wind and cold. I'm an Arizona girl so I get kind of teased for that, but I think our team does well managing conditions and staying calm despite whatever Wisconsin is going to throw our way."
The CU men's team received an at-large bid to extend its streak of 27 NCAA championship appearances, the longest streak in the nation. After winning back-to-back titles the Buffs have finished second, sixth and eighth in the three years since. Joe Klecker is coming off a second consecutive regional championship, but after his regional title last year he endured a subpar showing at nationals, finishing 67th.
Backing his second regional crown with a strong run Saturday would be a huge boost to the Buffs.
"Joe won the regionals a year ago. Did not have a brilliant race at the nationals," Wetmore said. "He's a year older. Another few thousand miles of running under his belt. A little more experienced. Looked pretty controlled last week. I think he'll have a better nationals than he did a year ago."
The six-kilometer women's final starts at 9:45 a.m. MT Saturday morning with the 10-kilometer men's final to follow at 10:45 a.m.