Winning the Pac-10 will be no small task

If 2008 was any indication, the 2009 USC women’s cross country team should enjoy quite the season in the next few months.

Despite only having one runner on scholarship last year, the USC women’s cross country team competed valiantly in the loaded Pac-10 conference and performed strongly at both the conference championships and NCAA regionals.

In form · Zsofia Erdelyi, one of the Women of Troy’s top returning runners this season, qualified for the NCAA championships last year. -  Photo courtesy of USC Sports Information

In form · Zsofia Erdelyi, one of the Women of Troy’s top returning runners this season, qualified for the NCAA championships last year. - Photo courtesy of USC Sports Information

“We’re coming off a year where I would have to say we overachieved and definitely exceeded my expectations,” said coach Tom Walsh. “We do have the toughest conference in the country, but I’m proud of the way we’ve progressed over the last few years.”

Led by junior standout Zsofia Erdelyi, who last year qualified for the NCAA championships as an individual, and senior team captain Bridget Helgerson, the Women of Troy figure to be right in the thick of the Pac-10 competition again this year.

“We bring back five of our top seven runners from last year,” Walsh said. “We’re trying to equal or better what we did last year and be in the middle of the pack of the Pac-10, which is no slouch.”

“We definitely want to improve on last year,” said Erdelyi, who added that her personal goal is a return to nationals.

Walsh’s praise for the strength of the Pac-10 conference is no understatement. Perennial powerhouses Oregon and Washington figure to be two of the top teams in the country, with Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State all expected to field exceptionally strong squads as well. Facing such daunting competition, Walsh continues to set strong goals that remain rooted in reality.

“Washington and Oregon are a notch above everyone else,” Walsh said. “But we can still compete. And we always want to beat our rival UCLA. That gauntlet competition between the two schools is important. We really want to beat them and do well in the Pac-10.”

To accomplish that, the Women of Troy will have to overcome several injuries, and get key contributions from new faces on the team. Several veteran runners, including Erdelyi, will not compete at this Saturday’s Cal State Fullerton Invitational, although Walsh hopes that this will actually benefit the team later.

“It’s still early in the season and some of our top runners who are going to have a longer season won’t participate at this meet because we hope to have them going through the middle of November,” Walsh said. “On the upside, it’s a good chance to see where all the newcomers are at.”

Those newcomers include freshman Kelly Owen from Palos Verdes and redshirt sophomore Shea Wickland, who as a track and field runner finished third in the 5,000-meter run at the UCLA dual meet in May.

“It’s definitely exciting to come here and immediately be in the middle of such a competitive conference.” Owen said. “I really want to contribute and help this team go deep in the Pac-10.”

Where exactly USC ends up in the Pac-10 hierarchy will be determined by a schedule that includes a return to the Stanford Invitational on Sept. 26 and the Women of Troy’s first chance to host the Pac-10 Championships since 1999.

“We’re excited to host,” Walsh said of the championships, which will be held Oct. 30 at Skylinks Golf Course in Long Beach. “The girls really want to do well because they know that there will be people coming to the race and they want to show well in front of the USC fans.”

Although several exciting races lie ahead, for now Walsh is focused on the task at hand.

“We’re just eager to get to the first meet and see where we’re at,” he said. “Everyone’s come back in really good shape, but there’s always room to improve.”