In its 18 sports, men’s and women’s combined, Arizona had won 22 Pac-12 championships this century. That’s how hard it is.
That’s 22 out of 234 total opportunities, or a bit less than a 10 percent success rate.
So when coach James Li’s women’s cross country team won its first-ever Pac-12 championship Saturday – the school had been 0 for 27 since it began official competition against league foes in 1986 – he knew what it meant.
“The margin for error is so small,’’ he told me Wednesday. “This conference is unbelievable. Usually if you finish even in the top half, you are a nationally-ranked team.’’
The No. 1 Wildcats had six times been second in conference women’s cross country.
Even the great Amy Skieresz, a three-time NCAA individual cross country champion in the 1990s, could not get her team over the hump and win the league title.
Li had an unusually emotional week. His top women’s runner, Elvin Kibet, who finished second overall Saturday, was chosen the Pac-12’s Women’s Cross Country Scholar Athlete of the Year on Friday.
Two days earlier, Li was forced to shut down the NCAA’s top men’s distance runner, junior Lawi Lalang, who will miss the rest of the season with a calf injury.
“It’s devastating for us, but we are not going to do anything to hurt Lawi’s career,” Li said. “His injury is relatively minor, but in running, when you have to give 100 percent every time, even a minor injury becomes big.’’
Lalang, who has won seven NCAA distance running titles, is unlikely to return for his senior cross country season in 2014.
“His value as a professional will be too great,’’ said Li. “He will in all probability turn pro next summer. It’s the right thing for him to do.’’
Kibet and Lalang are from the same area of Kenya and have a strong bond. When Lalang’s injury lingered, they talked.
“Lawi’s struggling a little bit now, but I told him, ‘You are the best runner and everybody knows it,’” Kibet said. “There’s no need for him to feel bad. The time will come that he is back on top.”