James Li rode shotgun in an Arctic Cat on Friday afternoon at the Dell Urich Golf Course, armed not with a firearm but with a camera.
For 16 minutes, one of the world’s leading distance running coaches looked over his shoulder and about all he could see was UA freshman Maria Larsson, who seemed to be gaining on the Arctic Cat.
Finally, near the finish line of the Dave Murray Invitational, Li hopped out, focused his camera and recorded what could become a familiar sight: an Arizona Wildcat winning a cross country race.
“I don’t want to get too excited,” he said. “But we could be scary; a really good team.”
In an athletic context, Li doesn’t often say things like that — “scary”— even though he coaches Bernard Lagat, America’s most prominent distance runner of the last decade, and UA junior Lawi Lalang, who is a seven-time NCAA champion.
But Li knows, and so do the nation’s other heavyweights, including Pac-12 powers Oregon and Stanford. Arizona is loaded.
The UA’s distance running coach has now put into action what is likely the top recruiting class in NCAA cross country: Sweden’s Larsson and Iowa transfer Kayla Beattie. It is a twosome that has blended into key pieces from a UA team that finished sixth in the NCAAs a year ago.
Larsson and Beattie are the distance-running equivalent of the Arizona basketball freshman duo of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And maybe then some.
The cross country season doesn’t begin with any seriousness until Arizona goes to Minnesota this weekend, and then, in October, to Wisconsin. UA senior Elvin Kibet, who was No. 3 in the wickedly difficult Pac-12 women’s finals a year ago, has yet to race, and yet the Wildcats have won both of their September competitions with considerable ease.
Beattie won her inaugural Arizona race, in Flagstaff. No shock there; she is one of five girls in high school history to break 10 minutes in the 3,200 meters.
And on Friday, at the UA’s only home meet of the year, Larsson won by almost eight seconds over teammate Nicci Corbin.
“I know we will do really well, our best season ever,” said Larsson, who painted a block A on her cheek. “I think nationals are going to be great.”
Larsson can’t possibly be versed on the UA’s distance running history — she has been on campus for less than two months — but because she entered Arizona with a steeplechase time that is 14 seconds better than anyone in school history, she carries considerable clout.
“I had a lot of options,” Larsson said about her recruiting journey from Billdal, Sweden, to Tucson, “But I chose Arizona and I’m very glad I did.”
This isn’t the first time the Wildcats have been in the conversation for a national championship. They were second in the nation as far back as 1980 and fourth in 2001. They were sixth last season and in back-to-back years in 1995-96, when Amy Skieresz won an individual NCAA championship.
And although Li coached Arizona to second-place Pac-12 finishes in 2010 and 2012 — winning the Pac-12 is almost as difficult as winning the NCAA — this team has a reasonably good shot to win the school’s first league championship ever.
But that’s six weeks away; between now and then the fivesome of Kibet, Beattie, Larsson, Corbin and either Hanna Peterson, Stephanie Bulder or possibly Molly Callahan will be tested by the nation’s best.
“Through four girls, we’re probably as good as anyone in the country,” said Li. “What we need is a solid fifth runner. We were sixth (in the NCAA) last season but this year’s team should be better.”
Li’s recruiting network is intriguing.
He established a connection with Larsson’s club coaches in Gothenburg, Sweden, when UA assistant coach Craig Carter was in Europe recruiting shot-putters and discus throwers.
Larsson signed a letter of intent before she visited Tucson. She made the initial contact with an email to the Arizona coaching staff.
Beattie, who holds six high school distance running records in Illinois, visited campus after sitting out the winter/spring semester at Iowa, searching for a different environment to train in and to work toward a probable career in medicine; she is a 4.0 student.
On Friday, after Arizona won easily without Kibet and Beattie in the lineup, Li watched as Larsson was congratulated by, among others, four-time Olympic distance runner Abdi Abdirahman, a 1998 Arizona All-American.
“Maria and Kayla did their research; we have a good reputation,” said Li. “Having someone like Bernard Lagat, coaching someone like Lawi Lalang, really helps.”
And now the reputation grows.