For the USC women’s cross country team, the most important day of the season thus far has arrived. On Saturday, the Women of Troy will compete in the Stanford Invitational, the race that coach Tom Walsh has pointed to multiple times as the crux of the cross country campaign.
“This is our first big test of the year,” Walsh said. “The first two meets [at Fullerton and Irvine] were just to see where we were at.”
The main reason that Saturday will be a test for USC is the presence of several top-notch programs. Host Stanford is ranked No. 5 in the nation entering the invitational, and teams from UC Davis, Loyola Marymount and Sacramento State all represent regionally ranked teams from the West.
“At Stanford it’s a much higher-level meet,” Walsh said. “In addition to great teams from California we’ll see a lot of great out-of-state girls who can really run. It’s a good chance for our girls to test themselves out.”
Walsh also noted that with the rise in competition comes the need for USC to rise to the challenge.
“I expect for the level at which we race to be much higher than it was the past two races,” he said. “Much higher.”
Part of that expectation stems from the return of standout junior Zsofia Erdelyi, who missed USC’s first two races with a foot injury. Erdelyi, who last year qualified for the NCAA Championships, adds star power to a consistently strong USC squad in need of a top-five quality runner.
“[Zsofia’s return] will be very positive because she’s the heart and soul of our team,” Walsh said. “Obviously she won’t be at 100 percent for this meet, but she’s so talented that she could be as high as fifth or sixth in this race and it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Walsh’s confidence would appear to be well placed. The course that the Women of Troy will run Saturday is the same course that Erdelyi ran last year to finish in the top 10 in regionals and qualify for nationals.
Erdelyi isn’t the only runner whom Walsh expects to make a comeback on Saturday. Team captain Bridget Helgerson, who had what Walsh called a “poor” race at Irvine two weeks ago, is looking to restore her status as one of USC’s top three runners.
“Last week was definitely a wake-up call for Bridget,” Walsh said. “She’s lucky she got her bad race out of the way. It’s really motivated her to train better and work hard during these past two weeks. I’m expecting her to bounce back.”
Walsh expects the two-week race layoff to benefit not just Helgerson, but the entire team.
“When you have a meet on Saturday, you don’t push as hard at the end of the week because you want the girls’ legs to be fresh. So this week off allowed us to do some intense training. I’m excited to see where we’re at,” Walsh said.
USC will see exactly where it is at when the gun goes off at 11 a.m. in Palo Alto on Saturday.