BURLINGTON, Ont. – The top runners in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) will converge on Centennial Park in Etobicoke, Ont. Sunday as the University of Toronto Varsity Blues host the 2016 OUA Cross Country Championships.
The women's 6km race will start at 11:00 a.m., with the men's 10km race set to start at noon.
Since 2005, the Guelph Gryphons men's and women's team have won every OUA cross country banner and would have to be the favourites once again heading into Sunday's races. The Gryphons women's team is the defending CIS champions and is the top team in the country, while their counterparts on the men's side are ranked No. 2 in the latest U Sports Top 10 rankings.
Leading the charge Sunday for the Gryphons women will be fifth-year standout Katrina Allison (Vancouver, BC). Last year Allison finished 6th overall at the OUA championship after finishing 5th in 2014. A week later at the CIS championship, the Vancouver, BC native turned in all-Canadian calibre performance, placing 6th overall.
After a strong fourth-place finish a season ago, another Gryphons podium threat is Katelyn Ayers (Orillia, Ont.). Like Allison, Ayers picked up a top 10 finish at the CIS championship last year, crossing the finish line in 8th place as the Guelph women's team captured their 11th consecutive national title.
Reigning OUA Rookie of the Year Danielle Jossinet (Cobourg, Ont.), Cheryse Mitton (Kitchener, Ont.) and Sophia Watts (Halifax, NS) all placed in the top 15 at last year's OUA championship and are back in the mix once again this season as the Gryphons women look to hoist the Queen's University Cup for the 17th time in program history.
The Queen's Gaels are the last team other than the Gryphons to win the OUA banner, capturing the title back in the 2003 season. Coming off a second place finish a season ago, the Gaels enter Sunday as likely the biggest threat to Guelph's aspirations of a repeat.
After a third place finish in 2014 and a second place showing a season ago, if the trend continues Julie-Anne Staehli (Lucknow, Ont.) could find herself on the top step come Sunday afternoon. With the defending champion, Gabriela Stafford, not competing this year, Staehli has to be considered one of the favourites to win the race.
If the Gaels are to knock off the top ranked Gryphons, they'll also need a strong race from Claire Sumner (Calgary, Alta.). After a 35th place finish at the 2016 FISU Cross Country Championships in Cassino, Italy, Sumner had a strong regular season for the Gaels, including a win a couple weeks ago at the Queen's Invitational.
One wildcard this weekend and a legitimate podium contender has to be University of Toronto Varsity Blues rookie phenom Lucia Stafford (Toronto, Ont.). Lucia, sister to 2016 Olympian and 2015 OUA individual champion Gabriela, has taken the conference by storm in her first season and has helped the Blues to a No. 3 national ranking. Stafford is more than familiar with the Centennial Park course as earlier this season at the University of Toronto Open she dominated the competition on her way to a first place showing, crossing the finish line 41 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
Madeline Kelly (Pembroke, Ont.) and Charlotte Dunlap (Ottawa, Ont.), who transferred from Queen's to study physical therapy, will be the veteran leaders of a Blues squad that is eyeing a podium finish. Kelly finished 9th at the 2015 OUA Championship, while Dunlap placed 13th for the silver medal winning Gaels.
Another individual podium contender is the defending OUA and CIS bronze medalist Stefanie Smith (London, Ont.) of the Windsor Lancers. Earlier this year at the Bradley Invitational in Peoria, IL, Smith captured the women's 6km with a time of 21:30.7 as the Lancers women's team placed season overall in the White Race. Like Sumner, Smith represented Canada at the 2016 FISU Cross Country Championships.
On the men's side, the Gryphons have won the H.R. Little Cup, which was first awarded in 1912, in each of the past 11 seasons and 15 times overall. With the graduation of several key veterans, in just his second year it will be up to Benjamin Workman (Kingston, Ont.) to lead Guelph to their 12th straight title. Workman was named OUA Rookie of the Year a season ago after finishing 12th overall in a time of 31:25.9.
The Gryphons reign almost came to an end last year as only a single point separated them and the second place Windsor Lancers. In his fifth and final season with the hometown Lancers, Corey Bellemore (Windsor, Ont.) would like nothing more than to deliver Windsor their first OUA title since they went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004. Last year, Bellemore finished 7th overall, while teammate Shawn Master (Sarnia, Ont.) finished 17th.
With the graduation of the top two finishers from last year's OUA championship, you can't blame Lakehead Thunderwolves' Kevin Tree (Tottenham, Ont.) if he's envisioned himself standing on the top step of the podium on Sunday. Tree won bronze in 2015 and after a strong regular season is a serious gold medal contender this year. The defending CIS silver medalist finished 1st in both the Griak and Blugold Invitationals.
University of Toronto Varsity Blues Sacha Smart (Toronto, Ont.) is looking to turn a first place finish at the University of Toronto Open earlier this season into a top 10 finish this weekend. Smart finished 20th at the 2015 championship and will look to lead a young group of Blues.
Another couple runners to keep an eye on Sunday would be McMaster Marauders Connor Darlington (Whitby, Ont.) and Western Mustangs Chis Balestrini (London, Ont.), who finished 8th and 11th, respectively, at last year's OUA championship.
Following the completion of the men's race, the awards ceremony will take place close to the finish line where OUA championship medals will be presented to the top male and female teams along with the top 3 finishers in each gender. OUA all-star awards are determined based on order with first-team all-stars placing 1st through 7th, followed by second-team all-stars 8th through 14th.