Members of the UCSC Men’s cross country team practice wind sprints on the East Field at the end of practice on Oct. 17, 2011. Photo by Toby Silverman.

2011 is bound to be a year to remember, as it marks the inaugural first season of men’s cross country at UC Santa Cruz. Led by head coach Aaron Jacobsen, the new kids on the block could establish a legacy at a university where school sports have not always been the focal point.

Due to a lack of funding, UCSC men’s water polo was cut in 2009, putting UCSC athletics beneath NCAA’s minimum NCAA requirement that all Division III schools have at least 10 sports teams. After a 2010 waiver allowing UCSC sports to continue, UCSC athletic director Linda Spradley made the decision to add men’s cross country.

“Men’s cross country was by far the most sensible option for our school,” Spradley said. “It helps us financially by saving us the trouble of hiring a new coach, building a new sports facility, and having a team too large in size. Not just that, but with cross country our athletes have a chance to compete for a national championship, something that other sports cannot boast about.”

Despite the team’s inexperience, Jacobsen is optimistic about the first season.

“While this is our first year as a team, these boys have a strong background, whether it’s from competing at the high school or club level,” Jacobsen said. “Any time you step up to college competition, there’s a definite learning process, though. We’re making adjustments and are going to keep getting better.”

Sophomore Eddie Strnad said Jacobsen has been a great coach so far, preparing them in the best ways possible.

“Aaron has been a smart coach,” Strnad said. “He runs us hard and pushes our limits, but also keeps us from burning out. There’s a good balance.”

Incoming players have noticed the change from high school to college, especially the jump in competition distance, from three miles to five.

“It might not seem like that much further on paper, but those extra two miles really make a difference,” sophomore Matt Thiede said.

The men’s cross country team began their season in style. At a recent invitational in Salem, Ore., the Slugs outperformed Lewis & Clark College, which currently sits as No. 9 in the West Region.

Jacobsen said this was a major milestone for the UCSC men’s cross country team. Having finally had the chance to compete against their rivals, they were able to gain the confidence they needed to build a great first season.

“The guys are figuring it out and getting more and more comfortable with the competition,” Jacobsen said.

Strnad said the rookie squad has soaked up the experience and has had a blast along the way.

“My favorite part of this year has been traveling with the guys, hitting the road in the big van and staying in hotels,” Strnad said. “The trips are what bring us together as a team.”

So far, UCSC men’s cross country has had a meteoric rise, shooting up to No. 8 out of 26 teams in the West Region. The Slugs remain hungry, though — practicing hard, putting in countless miles — and are slowly edging towards their hopeful destination: a National Championship. They will be nearing the climax of their season at the NCAA DIII West Regional in Claremont, Calif., on Nov. 12 and the NCAA DIII Championships in Oshkosh, Wis. on Nov. 19. To prepare themselves for these competitions, the team is out running on the track every morning of the week, except Fridays.

Should the Slugs finish as one of the top three teams at Regionals on Nov. 12, they will compete for the grand prize at the NCAA DIII Championships on Nov. 19.

Sophomore team member Thiede is excited about the rest of the season for men’s cross country.

“If everyone stays fresh and ready and competes as they should when the time comes, we have a great shot.”