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Duck women play catch-up.

Byline: Curtis Anderson The Register-Guard

Five years have passed since the Oregon women's cross country team last qualified for the NCAA championships.

The Ducks would like to put an end to that streak this fall.

However, Vin Lananna, the UO director of track and field and cross country, understands better than most that it takes time and patience to develop young runners into a national-caliber squad.

Oregon does return a few experienced runners in senior Dana Buchanan, junior Sarah Pearson and sophomores Zoe Nelson and Rebekah Noble, but with sophomore Katie Leary still plagued by injury, the Ducks will need several incoming freshmen to step up and be solid contributors this year.

If the youngsters can do that, the 30th-ranked Ducks just might be able to sneak into the national picture.

`My expectations for the women's team is for them to be a viable candidate to qualify for the NCAAs,' Lananna said. `We haven't done that for a long time. I'd like to get them back to the NCAA meet and be better at the Pac-10s. We were third last year, so we'll see if we can move up or match that finish.'

The first order of business is getting everybody healthy.

Leary, Oregon's top runner at the Pac-10 meet last year, is questionable at this point, while a trio of highly touted freshmen - Nicole Blood, Keara Sammons and Bria Wetsch - all arrived at Oregon with nagging injuries.

Blood is sidelined with a sore back, Wetsch has a toe problem and the Ducks are awaiting MRI results for Sammons, who had an injured foot when she won her first college race at the Pier Park Preview on Sept. 8.

Lananna doesn't expect any of those freshmen to run at the inaugural Bill Dellinger Invitational on Pre's Trail at Alton Baker Park on Friday. The 6,000-meter women's race starts at 5:20 p.m., followed by the men's 8,000-meter race at 6 p.m.

`We're just getting them up and going, so they're probably not ready to race,' he said. `We'll be a little light on the women's side.'

Among those who will compete is Buchanan, the lone senior on the team who will be making her season debut. She placed third in the 3,000 steeplechase at the Canadian national championships in August.

`I feel like I'm more fit than I was at this point last year,' said Buchanan, who hails from Beachburg, Ontario. `Coach has talked to me about being a leader this year and setting my bar pretty high. ... It's been kind of fun being the oldest one on the team. Our freshman class is great, and they all have good heads on their shoulders, so it's not a big task to take them under your wing.'

Buchanan came on strong toward the end of last season and was Oregon's top finisher at the West Regionals.

Nelson was the Ducks' No. 2 runner at the Pac-10 and West Regional meets last year, while Pearson, the former South Eugene standout, placed among Oregon's top four finishers in all five meets.

Noble will be brought along slowly. The Spokane native became the first freshman to capture an NCAA title at 800 meters this past June, and she extended her track season into August by claiming the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Beijing.

Noble competed in two cross country meets last year, and will likely wait until the Pre-NCAA Invitational (Oct. 15) or the Pac-10 meet (Oct. 29) in Tucson, Ariz., to compete this fall.

`Among the returners, everybody is in good shape,' Lananna said.

One UO freshman who has already made her mark is Elmira's Lauren Zaludek, who opened up with a sixth-place finish at the Pier Park Preview.

`Lauren has done a good job,' Lananna said. `We'll wait on the other freshmen. They will definitely emerge this season, but the question is when. ... We want to lay the foundation for a really strong team, and when you bring in freshmen, you have to be patient and let them develop. This is step one in a process.'

The Ducks can't afford to wait too long.

They need to pad their competitive resume during the early season meets in order to have a chance at an at-large berth from the West Region. Top-ranked Stanford and No. 9 Arizona State are firmly entrenched ahead of the Ducks, while No. 21 Washington is also gunning for a national slot.

`I see the West Region as a four-way battle for two spots,' Lananna said. `Hopefully, we will have built up enough brownie points on the front end to be selected as an at-large team if we get third or fourth.'
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Title Annotation:Sports; Oregon has talented young runners in its pursuit of its first NCAA meet in five years
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 27, 2006
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