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Cross-country nationals delayed, but still in sight for No. 8-ranked Portland men

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ATHLETICS - A redshirt junior from Fresno, California, Evert Silva is one of the top returning runners for the Portland Pilots.For college cross country teams, mid-November is traditionally championship time. For the Portland Pilots, more often than not, that means competing at the NCAA Division I nationals.

Of course, there is nothing traditional about 2020. Coach Rob Conner and his runners have had to shift gears multiple times as restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have changed.

The target now is March 15, the date the NCAA has slated the 2020-21 Division 1 Cross Country Championships to happen in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Pilots were ranked No. 8 in October by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association national poll.

Conner said he has seen "Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and contingency plans all go poof" because of changing COVID-19 restrictions.

The Pilots currently are training as a team Monday through Thursday, with no coaching on Fridays or over the weekend. Many of the runners are in town, but not international students.

Plans to hold a series of time trials among the team were scuttled when one athlete was exposed to someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus. None of the Pilots became ill, but there was a mandatory 10-day break from team activities.

"That gave them an example of how easily they can be exposed to the virus and have everything shut down," Conner said.

In late October, the team did hold one time trial. And the results convinced Conner this group could be as special as he hoped.

The Pilots graduated their top three runners from the team that placed 10th at the 2019 nationals, but the Pilots should be one of the top teams in the West Coast Conference and again challenge for a high finish at nationals.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ATHLETICS - Riley Osen from Winfield, Kansas, weathered cold conditions to help Portland place 10th at the 2019 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships at Terra Haute, Indiana.Evert Silva, Riley Osen and Reuben Kiprono, the fourth, fifth and sixth runners for the Pilots at nationals last season, were All-West Region runners as the Pilots won their third consecutive regional championship.

Justin Hazel, is a redshirt sophomore who was an alternate for the Pilots at nationals, is pushing for a bigger role.

Conner added what he calls the best recruiting class in his three decades at Portland.

Incoming runners who might contribute right away at Portland include Stan Niesten, Cathal Doyle, Chris Morzenti and Matt Strangio.

Niesten, from the Netherlands, comes to Portland as a graduate student with speed on par with top WCC runners. Doyle, a junior, is a member of Ireland's national team. Morzenti is a junior transfer who placed 111th last season for UCLA. Strangio was a two-time California Division I state cross country champion at Jesuit High in Sacramento and has looked ready to contribute as a freshman.

Over the summer, a group of Pilots spent time training together in Flagstaff, Arizona. Some trained on their own. None took it easy.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ATHLETICS - Redshirt senior Reuben Kiprono is one of three current Pilots who were All-West Region performers in 2019.The international students plus Morzenti are still at home, but Conner says all know what they need to do between now and arriving on campus in January. The Pilots who have been in town will head home at Thanksgiving and return for the start of winter term in January.

"It puts a little wrinkle into things when your team is away from you for two months," Conner said.

But, pointing to the way his runners handled training at home in spring and summer, Conner is confident his runners won't lose ground over the holidays.

"The team is so competitive that anybody who thinks they can take it easy is going to not have a spot," Conner said.

Not that any of these Pilots are likely to slack.

Rob Conner"The team is highly motivated," Conner said. "They constantly encourage and push each other."

Qualifying for the national championships will be different. There won't be the usual regional championships. Instead, a committee will select 31 teams to compete at nationals, a process that likely will be determined by conference championship meets.

The WCC cross country championships are scheduled to be held in late February and hosted by Saint Mary's. Conner hopes his runners can get one warmup meet in before that, but understands it might not happen.

Being in the same conference with defending national champion BYU means winning an automatic bid could be a challenge. But that strong competition and Portland's legacy should put the Pilots in good position to be included in the national championship competition.

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