Soccer players pass the ball between one another until they get a solid shot on goal. A quarterback spirals the football down the field to a receiver sprinting toward the end zone. Volleyball players bump and set the ball between them before a fierce spike over the net.

All of these sports and others involve teammates interacting and working together to reach a specific goal. Though it is less obvious, Gonzaga’s cross-country teams are the same. There may be no ball to keep them in harmony, but they still need a mentality in order to be successful.

“We’re like really, really connected as a team,” sophomore James Mwaura said of the men’s team.

The men encourage each other when energy is low. They go on runs together in the offseason. They support each other on particularly rough days. The freshmen look up to the upperclassmen. 

On the course or off, they are a team.

“One of our goals is to be a good pack team,” said Pat Tyson, director of cross-country and track and field. “We’re running for the team; we’re not running as an individual.”

Though the group as a whole is the top priority, there are a few runners who stand out on the men’s team. 

Redshirt junior Peter Hogan and redshirt sophomore Yacine Guermali are two of the team’s top athletes and will likely suit up for GU at the NCAA West Regional meet in November. Mwaura is another top returner and finished 10th at the NCAA West Regional in 2018.

Since the singular scores of the top-five runners contribute to the overall team score, there are some gaps that need to be filled. Hogan, Guermali and Mwaura may have led the show last year, but this season is expected to bring several more athletes who are just as talented as they are.

“You got to have a supporting cast,” Tyson said. 

Those who emerge could come from the slew of talented freshmen, a returner whose skill has improved over the summer or a redshirt who finds the chance to prove himself. 

Some of the athletes with the potential to step up are redshirt juniors Jake Perrin, freshmen Myles Bach and Evan Bates and senior Stefan Bradley. But nothing will be certain until the season begins and training is underway.

With the ultimate goal of qualifying for the NCAA Championships on Nov. 23, the team is preparing for a lengthy and challenging season of competition. It is part of the strongest region in the nation, facing off against highly ranked teams like University of Portland (No. 6 in the country) and BYU (No. 2). 

The GU women’s cross-country team faces its share of challenges as well. This season, it involves running courses not previously traversed against unfamiliar opponents. 

Despite this, head coach Jake Stewart is taking an optimistic approach to the season.

“We’re going to see teams that we don’t normally see, so we can definitely go into it just kinda focusing on us, not comparing ourselves to anybody,” Stewart said.

Though he spent the entire year as head coach, Stewart initially arrived at GU only days before the start of the fall season last summer. He was playing catch-up for those first few months. 

By now, he is accustomed to the change and is familiar with the team, which can ultimately accelerate the development of his athletes.

Stocked with many talented women on the roster, the team is optimistic that it will improve from last year. Not only does it have a formidable group of incoming freshmen, but six of its seven runners from the 2018 NCAA West Regional meet are returning this fall. 

The returners include Lauren Bourgeois, Claire Gillett, Katherine Gustafson, Ally Legard, Caroline McCarthy and Aimee Piercy. The Zags also gain Claire Manley, who redshirted last fall, and graduate transfer Natasha Bernal.

Considering most of the top athletes remain from last year, their bond stays strong. Like the men’s team, it’s a close group of athletes. Some of them lived in Spokane over the summer to train together.

“Very organically, these women want to spend time around each other,” Stewart said. “They want to be around their teammates.”

GU placed 24th out of 36 teams at last year’s NCAA West Regionals. This season’s group should bring significant improvement. As for the men’s team, it finished ninth out of 29 teams.

Both teams will lace up for the first time on Saturday in Cheney at the Clash of the Inland Northwest, hosted by Eastern Washington University.

“Every year we’ve gotten better,” Tyson said. “If you saw a graph or a stock market that was always on the rise, on the rise, on the rise, that is Gonzaga XC.”

Samantha DiMaio is a staff writer. 

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