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Taking Stock: How Arizona cross country is looking under coach James Li

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arizona-wildcats-cross-country-stock-report-evaluation-program-2019-james-li-pac-12 Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It may seem like college sports are always going on, but July is the one month of the year when no Arizona Wildcats teams are in action. Yep, we’re as sad about that as you are.

Before you know it, the 2019-20 seasons will be under way for Arizona’s 19 men’s and women’s sports. But in the meantime, now is the perfect opportunity to assess how each of these programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks we’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now (as well as looking into the near future).

Next up: James Li’s men’s and women’s cross country squads

How it looked before

As a sport that tends to get more notoriety for individual accolades than team ones, cross country has more or less operated in the shadows at Arizona except for when a single runner stands out from the pack. This was the case in the decades prior to Li getting hired in 2003, with five of the Wildcats’ six individual NCAA champions coming before he arrived from Washington State.

Where things stand now

Arizona didn’t have a particularly good year in 2018, with neither the men’s or women’s team qualifying for nationals, but eight individuals ran in the NCAA West Regional with junior Carlos Villarreal taking second in the men’s race and senior Addi Zerrenner finishing 17th on the women’s side to advance to the NCAA championships.

Villarreal was 78th at the NCAAs while Zerrenner was 68th.

While the performance numbers of late don’t jump off the page, the same can’t be said for what Li’s athletes have done in the classroom. In 2018-19 the men’s team had a 3.52 GPA, with Villarreal earning USTFCCCA Cross Country All-Academic status and the women’s squad pulling in a 3.40 GPA. All told, seven Wildcats made the Pac-12’s all-academic team, including Travis Thorne and Hannah Whetzel garnering first-team honors.

One big question

Can Arizona contend for a conference title? Li guided the Wildcats to the Pac-12 women’s championship in 2013 but since then neither squad has come close to such a feat. Most years Arizona has finished in the bottom half of the league, the lack of strong runners outside the top two or three doing it in.