(Left to right) Bruk Assefa, Zuleima Bernal, Benji Preciado and Paxton Cota pose for a portrait in Cox Stadium at SF State on Oct. 21 before a practice run. They're the top ranked runners from SF State going in to the CCAA Championships on Oct. 26. Photo by Mike Hendrickson / Xpress

(Left to right) Bruk Assefa, Zuleima Bernal, Benji Preciado and Paxton Cota pose for a portrait in Cox Stadium at SF State on Oct. 21 before a practice run. They’re the top ranked runners from SF State going in to the CCAA Championships on Oct. 26. Photo by Mike Hendrickson / Xpress

The SF State cross-country teams will kick off their post season Oct. 26 at the California Collegiate Athletic Association championship meet in Chico, Calif. It is the first of three pit stops on the Gators’ trek back to the NCAA Division II national championship, where the men finished 22nd as a team last year.

Chico State, winner of both the men’s and women’s 2012 CCAA titles, will be hosting the conference meet and have established Bidwell Park’s Hooker Oak Recreation Area as this year’s official championship course. The Hooker Oak terrain, which is mostly woodsy picnic area, could prove to be beneficial to SF State.

“We are not familiar with the course but have heard it’s relatively flat,” said head coach Tom Lyons. The lack of rolling hills might help the Gators — who have been racing on challenging inclines all season — run some of their fastest times yet.

SF State will need to run those top times on Saturday if they plan to contend with the CCAA teams currently ranked above them in the NCAA West Region’s top ten: Chico State, Cal Poly Pomona, UC San Diego and Humboldt State on the men’s side; and Chico State, Cal State Stanislaus, UC San Diego and Humboldt State on the women’s side. The SF State women and men are ranked eighth and ninth respectively, but hope to move up a spot or two after this weekend.

“Chico has been on top forever in the men’s race,” Lyons said, regarding the Gators’ biggest opponents. “We’ll have a good battle with them, UCSD, Pomona and Humboldt. You can add Stanislaus to that group for the women.”

Bruk Assefa and Benji Preciado will most likely lead the charge for the SF State men’s team, supported by a solid pack of Ryan Woods, Logan Smith and Ryan Chio. They will face off against returning champion and three-time All-American Chico State runner Isaac Chavez and his teammate, Alfonso Cisneros, last year’s runner-up. Assefa finished third behind the Wildcat duo in 2012 by a mere fraction of a second.

“I was with the lead pack with 800 meters to go and started to pull away with the leader,” Assefa said, recalling last year’s close race. “When we hit the track, (Chavez) gapped me, and I came to the finish line with the other two runners (Cisneros and Austin Huff, of Humboldt State). I leaned in and got third.”

SF State will also face closely-matched rival Humboldt State Saturday. The Lumberjacks narrowly beat the Gators at their home meet Oct. 11. and are ranked right above SF State in the West Region.

The women finished ninth in the NCAA West Region meet last year, failing to qualify for nationals. But the Gator squad has nine upperclassmen this season, led by Zuleima Bernal, Paxton Cota and Alicia Trujillo, who are ready to take the team to the next level.

“I’m excited for our team to get out there and compete,” Trujillo said. “Last year’s conference meet was not our best performance due to a lot of various injuries and illnesses. This year we are all looking strong going in to this meet and we have had some really great workouts this past week or so to help prepare us.”

In the SF State women’s path stands Chico State, a nationally ranked team led by All-American Sara Mikesell, last year’s third place individual finisher. The Wildcats have been consistent over the years, winning the last five CCAA meets and routinely making trips to nationals. In addition to the returning champions, the Gators will be up against Cal State Stanislaus, an experienced team of fifth-year seniors and viable contenders for the conference title.

The CCAA championship meet will begin at 9 a.m this Saturday, Oct. 25. The Gators will hit the road again to Spokane, Wash. Nov. 9 for the NCAA West Region Championship meet, where the Gators will race for a chance at nationals. The Gators’ place in the West Region meet is not determined by the CCAA meet results.

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Treya Winfield

Treya Winfield