Underclassmen hope to step up for Oregon at Bill Dellinger Invitational

Posted by David Lieberman on Thursday, Sep. 29 at 2:28 pm.

The Oregon men’s and women’s cross country teams will compete in their first marquee meet of the year this Saturday in Springfield at the sixth-annual Bill Dellinger Invitational. Both the No. 8 men and No. 17 women will face serious competition as they look to kick off 2011 on a positive note.

Luke Puskedra will lead a group of Oregon men that is inexperienced but bursting with potential. The team lost several key seniors due to graduation last year, including All-Americans A.J. Acosta, Matthew Centrowitz and Danny Mercado.

To fill their absence, a long list of underclassmen will be looking to join Puskedra — who finished third at the NCAA Championships in 2010 — at the top of the Oregon lineup. Sophomores Ben DeJarnette and Parker Stinson participated in the conference, regional and national meets for the Ducks in 2010 and are expected to take on a bigger role.

“A lot of work goes on in July and August back home, or in Eugene, but I think you’re always looking forward to the chance to lace up the spikes, put on the jersey and compete with your teammates and see what we can do,” DeJarnette said. “Obviously it’s September, so there’s still a lot of work to do. But if we compete hard, be tough, go out and work as a team, I think those are the process goals that will lead us to success at the end of the season.”

Fellow sophomores Brian Shrader and Mac Fleet also have past experience in conference meets and appear ready to fill the void. But the most heralded runner among the younger Oregon contingent may not take the course this Saturday for the Ducks.

True freshman Lukas Verzbicas, the nation’s top prep runner in 2010, is itching to run in Oregon’s only home meet this season. But head coach Vin Lananna isn’t so certain that the 18-year-old will get a chance to participate.

“He’s dying to race this weekend,” Lananna said to The Register-Guard. “I just don’t know if it makes sense or not. We have to be very careful and conscientious on when we open up our guys.”

Verzbicas — who set a high school record in the two miles and became just the fifth runner all-time to break the four-minute barrier in the mile as a prep — isn’t the only runner for the Ducks being treated with kid gloves. With Hayward Field hosting the inaugural Pac-12 outdoor track and field championships in addition to the Olympic Trials this spring, Lananna is treading carefully with his most prized competitors for both the women and men.

“Lukas is very motivated to do really well at the highest level. He’s in good shape, but I want to make sure we don’t exploit that,” Lananna said to The Register-Guard. “We want to make sure that he can last all season.”

On the women’s side, Lananna will keep close tabs on 10-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion Jordan Hasay, who will make a run at Olympic qualification in the spring.

Hasay will headline a squad that’s also looking to replace key contributors from 2010 that were lost to graduation, including six-time All-American Alex Kosinski and two-time Pac-10 champion Zoe Buckman.

Sophomore Lanie Thompson will join with seniors Bronwyn Crossman and Claire Michel and junior Anne Kesselring in trying to fill in for the veteran leaders. Thompson, who finished 16th at last year’s Pac-10 meet, feels like the women have several less-heralded runners ready to emerge in 2011.

“Last year I was a redshirt freshman, so just totally oblivious to how college cross country racing goes,” Thompson said. “We have a pretty solid pack right now and kind of like the guys’ side, we have a lot of unknowns. On any given day, anyone from number two to number eight could be intertwined, which I think is great because we have a lot of depth.”

The No. 2 Wisconsin men, as well as three defending conference champions, highlight the competition for the Ducks. The Dellinger Invitational will take place at the Springfield Country Club, with the women’s 5,000-meter race at 10:30 a.m., followed by the men’s 8,000-meter race at 11:15 a.m.