Redshirt junior Riley Osen used to have iconic long blonde hair that flowed down to his ribs. During races, his hair would be wrapped up in a bun, bouncing up and down like a big, blonde ball as he ran to All-American and All-WCC honors in 2018. He’d donned the mane the entire time he’s been on The Bluff.
But on Wednesday, Osen said goodbye to most of it, and it didn’t take much for him to do it.
“We’re in our house the other day and some of our friends were like ‘What do we have to do to get you to cut your hair?’” Osen said. “And I’m like ‘Just give me an appointment and pay for it.’ And they did.”
His hair could symbolize two things. You could look at Osen cutting his hair as a symbol for the start of the new cross country season, a fresh cut for a fresh fall. You could also see it as a symbol of loss, a metaphor for the Pilots losing five of their top seven runners from last season.
Portland finds themselves adjusting to the five runners they lost, who helped them earn a second and third place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2017 and 2018 respectively. But the Pilots don’t feel like they’re rebuilding as much as they’re reloading, gearing up for another run at the national title.
Last year was special, but it left a sour taste in their mouths. Third in the nation is nothing to scoff at, but when there is an overwhelming feeling that you can win, it stings to see that chance slip away. The team saw it as a uniquely unlucky day.
“It was one of those things where we didn’t have our best day,” redshirt senior Caleb Webb said, who actually lost his shoe during the race. “It was kind of like, I wonder what could have happened if we would have ran well. We had a shot at winning that day.”
“Watching about halfway through the race, we kind of knew we weren’t going to win that day,” said Osen, who was an alternate at nationals. “But then immediately after the race I saw we still gave everything we had and even on a bad day we’re third, which is such a testament to how good of a team it was.”
They aren’t considered a top three squad like last year, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful. The preseason U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association National Poll (USTFCCCA) has them ranked sixth in the nation while the regional poll has them second in the West.
The Pilots graduated some key runners, including Nick Hauger and Logan Orndorff. Hauger was the West Regional individual title winner and a top 25 runner in the nation most of the season. Ordorff was one of the top seven from last season and was the first Pilot to break four minutes in the mile.
“You don’t replace guys like that both on the course and in the locker room,” Webb said. “They’re special guys, special leaders, and they’re unique. You can’t just expect a guy to become the new Nick Hauger overnight.”
They’re younger, but they’re motivated, as Webb described it. Conner compared it to 2015, the year after he led the team to their first podium finish. They lost five of their top seven that year as well. That team failed to qualify for Nationals.
“We had 10 straight trips to Nationals then all of a sudden we didn’t make it,” Conner said. “We’re on top of the world and then we didn’t make it.”
Missing out only made them want it more. In 2016, with the help of hungry runners like Hauger and Orndorff, the Pilots fought their way back into Nationals and finished 13th. Then they finished second in 2017. Then third in 2018.
This year’s squad is a lot like 2015, except Conner feels this team is more talented.
“We return a much deeper team than we did in ‘14 and ‘15,” Conner said. “We’re not in that position unless everybody runs bad or gets injured or something.”
Right now, there’s some uncertainty about who the top guys are. Osen and Webb are two runners who contributed big last year, and they return senior Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse, who was the top runner. But that leaves at least four other spots up for grabs.
“It’s easier when you have an established pecking order on the team to begin a season,” Conner said. “At this point we’re still trying to determine the pecking order which has created more randomness or chaos at practice.”
Conner admitted it’s unnerving to not have that firmly established, but he’s still optimistic about this group. Candidates for those top spots have emerged, but who eventually secures those spots remains to be seen. Conner mentioned several runners who could factor in, including sophomore Justin Hazell, redshirt junior Reuben Kiprono and redshirt sophomore Evert Silva.
“I’m one that believes in organic processes, and I’ve equated it to the tall trees in the forest,” Conner said. “Eventually they fall over and that allows some sunlight to get down to the bottom where there’s that little guy waiting to grow. So we’re going to wait and see who emerges.”
More than anything, Webb and Osen see 2019 as an opportunity to create their own legacy, one that isn’t defined by those who graduated this past spring.
“Those older guys that graduated, that was kind of their baby,” Osen said about making the podium these past two years. “Now, for me personally and I know for Evert (Silva) and Justin (Hazell), we’ve never ran at nationals in cross country. What we can do with cross country for the next couple years is our thing.”
They’ve had the chance to start that campaign this past Friday at the Linfield Harrier Classic in McMinnville, Oregon, taking first as a team seeing all six runners finish in the top ten. Their next race will take place on Sept. 7 at the Portland State University Viking Rust Buster in Portland.
Despite the losses, cross country still looks poised for a successful year. And who knows, maybe Osen’s new hairdo can save some time and get them back on the podium.
“I feel a lot lighter,” Osen said with a laugh. “Hopefully shaved off some time, you know?”
Kyle Garcia is the Sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at email@example.com.