PROVO — Ah, the postseason.
It's the magical time of year when all the victories, streaks and milestones become essentially meaningless, when anything less than one's best means the season is over, no matter what the polls and records say.
It holds true even for the BYU cross country teams, who after capping another strong season with a dominating performance at last week's Mountain West Conference Championship — the women won their 18th conference title in a row, the men won their eighth in nine years — now start the "other season" at the NCAA Mountain Regional this Saturday in Provo at the East Bay Golf Course.
The Cougars will be one of 18 teams seeking a bid to the NCAA Championships on Nov. 21 in Terre Haute, Ind. The top two teams from Saturday's meet will advance automatically, while other teams that place high and have done well at other meets this year will earn an at-large qualification.
The Cougars have had a strong year, but men's coach Ed Eyestone said BYU would likely need to finish in at least fourth in order to advance.
"What I expect is a controlled run that advances us to the national meet," he said. "That's what we want. We want to get through and position ourselves well to make the best run we can at nationals."
NCAA scheduling puts runners and coaches in a difficult position. The national championship is held just nine days after the regional qualifiers, giving runners a short window to recover and prepare for the most important meet of the year.
Eyestone said the scheduling requires teams to carefully plan how they will run in the regional qualifier. The goal, he said, is to run well enough to advance — but also save enough for a strong performance at nationals.
"That's where the fine-tuning comes in," Eyestone said. "You have to motivate but not overmotivate; calculate but not overcalculate."
Women's coach Patrick Shane said the scheduling challenge allows teams to find out how good they really are.
"The rubber meets the road in the next two weeks," Shane said. "We've come to the defining point of the season — we either advance or we don't at this point. We're going to find out how good of a team we are."
The biggest challenge for both teams at Saturday's meet will be Colorado, the defending national champions in men's and women's cross country. Shane said the Buffaloes are tough but beatable.
"I think it will be close," he said. "I think it will be a good matchup of two talented teams — it will be a toss-up. It's going to come down to who can have five people get the job done on Saturday."
But the Cougars have advantages of their own. Not only are they hosting the event, but they have great team depth, which Shane said could be the deciding factor.
The women's team has had strong leadership this year from BYU-Hawaii transfer Chelsea Smith-McKell, a senior who has led the Cougars in four of the six races she has run and won two of them. Smith-McKell said the team has run well this season but has yet to peak.
"I think we haven't reached our potential," she said. "Everybody (on the team) is capable of an awesome performance — I've seen them do it in practice and in races. If everybody is running to their potential, we can take it."
Sophomore Heidi Magill missed the first half of the season but has come on strong since her return, edging out Smith-McKell in last week's MWC Championships. Veteran runners Breanne Sandberg and Ann Heiner have also improved over the season and turned in strong runs in recent meets, while surprising freshmen Amy Fowler and Jocelyn Gardner have provided a boost to the team's overall depth.
For the men, junior Josh Rohatinsky has provided stalwart leadership all season long. He led the Cougars in all four races in which he competed, winning three of them outright.
Rohatinsky said the narrow gap between regional and national meets is a difficult challenge, but the fact that everyone is in the same boat makes for a level playing field. He credited Eyestone for preparing the team well for the challenge.
"We have to taper at the end of the season, but I think a lot of teams do it too much," he said. "But (Eyestone) has helped us stay focused. Even though the end of season is near, he's helped us keep that intensity up."
The men's team has also benefited this year from its depth. Sophomores Dustin Bybee and Chandler Goodwin have provided a strong two-three punch behind Rohatinsky all season, while other runners, like Josh McAdams and Tyrel Jensen, have been steadily closing the gap.
Rohatinsky said the team's strategy on Saturday would be to just stick with the pack and let it pull runners along, so they place high enough to advance.
"The goal is to do as best as I can — but not kill myself," he said.
Runners and coaches alike stressed the need for a good home crowd at Saturday's match. Admission is free, and Smith-McKell said she hoped that would make for a strong and vocal crowd.
"With it being in Provo, the whole flipping town should be there," she said. "Crowd support is huge; if I have people there, they totally can give me energy that I can't get myself."
NCAA Cross Country Mountain Regionals
Saturday at Provo's East Bay Golf Course
Mens 10-kilometer race starts at 11 a.m.
Womens 6-kilometer race starts at noon