By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
In the 21-year history of the Big 12, the Baylor men's cross country team has never finished higher than fourth and has posted just two top-five finishes.
This year, it's not just a goal for the Bears, it's the expectation.
"Honestly, we're not trying to catch up to teams anymore," said fifth-year senior Jordan West, "we're trying to be the team people are trying to catch up to. In years past, we'd always set Kansas or Texas Tech as our goal, but this year our goal is to be the team that teams are trying to catch. I think that's why we're excited about Saturday, because we're finally in a position where we can get top four at a conference meet, which hasn't happened since 2001."
The Big 12 Cross Country Championship will be held Saturday at Old Settler's Park in Round Rock, with the men's 8,000-meter race starting at 9 a.m., followed by the women's 6K at 10.
Baylor has a veteran men's team that returns its top three scoring runners from last year's Big 12 Championships, where the Bears finished a distant seventh and didn't have a runner in the top 30.
Assistant head coach Jon Capron, who works with the men's team, said it's been a "conformational change of mindset, day in and day out," where the Bears aren't trying to stick with other teams or "do as well as we can, we're going to dish it out a little bit."
"That comes from having a little bit of success," Capron said of the Bears, who won the Bear Twilight and Ken Garland Invitational meets, placed 19th at Notre Dame and 26th at the Pre-Nationals.
"The fun part about conference is I've got 10 people to throw at the top five. So, you can kind of have a few people go for it so much and, if they go down in flames, then I've got people to cover, hopefully."
Sophomore Devin Meyrer has been the Bears' top runner in each of the last three meets, and freshman TJ Sugg has been a scoring runner in every meet. Rounding out the lineup are junior Sean McCullough, sophomore Seth Brown and freshmen Connor Laktasic and Jeremy Meadows.
"There's kind of a couple teams at the top that have stretched themselves out a little bit," Capron said, referring to 10th-ranked Oklahoma State, No. 23 Iowa State and 24th-ranked Texas. "It's going to be hard for us to do that, but I told the guys, `Our goal is to be right there. If any of them stumble, then let's go.' We're going to have to run really well to be up with them, but I think if we run to our capacity we should be in that 4-5 slot pretty easily."
Expected to contend for the team title last year, the Baylor women had three top-15 individual finishes, but had one of their top runners fall out at the 4K mark and finished a disappointing fifth.
But a few months later, coach Todd Harbour's distance crew played a huge role in the school's first-ever conference title at the Big 12 Indoor Track & Field Championships.
"I think there's four of us in our top seven (on the cross country team) that were part of that Big 12 championship," said junior Lindsey Bradley, who posted top-20 finishes at the Notre Dame and Wisconsin meets this fall, "so we know how that feels and we know what it takes as a team and individually to make that happen. That was the most special feeling in the whole world to win a championship as a team. I think all of us are hungry for that and want to experience it again."
Harbour thought about redshirting Bradley and building up for the next two years, but she gives the women the best chance of making it back to the NCAA Championships. Bradley and sophomore Anna West are returning All-Big 12 runners after finishing fifth and 15th, respectively, at last year's meet.
"They're the type that can go top three at the Big 12 meet," Harbour said of Bradley and West. "That's why we've just got to be good in the back, we don't have to be great, because you're only scoring three (more) girls, if you get two low ones like that. That's why if we get to the NCAA meet, we've got a chance to go from not even being ranked to being a top-20 team. Those two have the potential to go pretty low."
Sophomore Gabrielle Satterlee and freshman Brooke Gilmore have gone 3-4 for the women all year, but the problem is finding that fifth scoring runner. At the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Bradley finished more than three minutes and 206 spots ahead of the fifth runner.
"Your hope is to have about a one-minute spread between your 1 and 5. Three minutes, that's horrendous," Harbour said.
After that meet, freshman Sarah Antrich came to Harbour and said, "Coach, I'm ready. I want to do this."
"She was pretty close to Brooke in high school, and Brooke's been one of our top runners all year," Harbour said. "(Freshman) Maddie Johnston was our fifth at Notre Dame and ran a big PR. (Sophomore) Alison Andrews-Paul, the New Zealand girl, she probably has the most upside of all those girls. If she puts it together, she could run a big race. We've just got to have one of those girls that steps up."
"Having a Big 12 meet under my best, I know how it feels and what to expect," said Bradley, who transferred from Washington last year. "Especially since it wasn't necessarily the result we wanted last year, it gives me a little extra drive. I know how it feels and I know what I'm capable of and I know all the competition. I just think we're all ready for a great race."
WACO, Texas -- The championship season begins this weekend as Baylor cross country travels to Round Rock to race at the Big 12 Championship, held Saturday, Oct. 28 at Old Settler's Park.
The men's 8,000-meter race will begin at 9 a.m. CT, followed by the women's 6,000-meter race at 10 a.m. CT. Both races with full coverage are available to subscribers at FloTrack.org.
The conference field includes ranked opponents in No. 10 Oklahoma State (men), No. 23 Iowa State (men & women) and No. 24 Texas (men).
"Right now, we've been as good as we've been on the women's side," head coach Todd Harbour said. "At conference, you know where you're at. You know who you're competing against. They've just got to do what they've done in workouts. We should be ready to go."
Bradley and West have served as scoring runners and the top two finishers for the Bears in each race they've competed in this season. Joining them as scoring runners in at least three races this season are Gabby Satterlee, Brooke Gilmore and Madelaine Johnston.
Freshman Sarah Antrich will run in her first race this season.
Still in the hunt for the team's first Big 12 cross country title, the women's squad looks to surpass its highest conference finish since 2008 where the team finished second.
Ranked second in the South Central Region, the Baylor women have 25 All-Big 12 finishes from 13 individuals. Bradley and West look to become the ninth and 10th runners to earn All-Big 12 honors at least twice in their careers.
On the men's side, the Bears look to post a new conference finish after finishing seventh a season ago. BU had a conference-high finish of fourth in 2001.
"If we run to our capacity, then we should be in that fourth and fifth place slot pretty easily," assistant head coach Jon Capron said. "We're pushing now. It's not `let's catch up' or `let's do as well as we can.' We're going to dish it out a little bit. That comes from having a little bit of success and the upperclassmen."
Leading the pack, sophomore Devin Meyrer has finished as a scoring runner in every race he's competed in this season and served as the top runner for the Bears each time.
The Bears have three All-Big 12 performers but look to secure their first since 2004 (Bo Price).
For updates on Baylor's cross country team, follow @BaylorTrack on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.