Maggie Montoya took seventh at last year’s Big 12 cross country meet, but has her eyes on first place this season.

The last time Baylor produced an individual Big 12 champion in cross country, Maggie Montoya was still dragging around stuffed animals as a 3-year-old.

It’s been a while. Montoya, 20, represents Baylor’s best shot at a conference championship since Sherri Smith won gold in 1998, according to head coach Todd Harbour.

“Maggie, right now, on paper, she’s got a shot at winning it,” Harbour said. “She’s probably got a better shot than Rachel (Johnson) did last year. In our conference, when you had the likes of Sally Kipyego and Emma Coburn and Jenny Barringer, Erin Bedell, Lisa Cole and some of those guys, it’s tough to win a Big 12 title in cross. So, I told Maggie, we’ve got to try to seize this moment.”

Montoya will start her pursuit of that elusive crown when the Big 12 Cross Country Championships get underway Saturday at the Oklahoma State Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Okla. The action commences with the men’s 8,000-meter race at 10 a.m., followed by the women’s 6K at 11 a.m.

Last year, Johnson put together one of the top distance-running seasons in Baylor history, including a third-place finish at the Big 12 cross country meet. But she has graduated, and has passed the baton to a worthy heir in Montoya. The junior from Rogers, Ark., finished seventh at last year’s Big 12 meet and has hit the best stride of her college career.

Last week at the ultra-competitive Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, Montoya ran to an 11th-place showing with a career-best time of 19:56, beating Iowa State’s top two runners Crystal Nelson and Bethanie Brown in the process.

So, does Harbour’s challenge make her nervous?

“It’s pressure, but pressure is good,” Montoya said. “It makes you do things that you don’t previously think you’re capable of. I think it’s really exciting to be at that point and hopefully have that opportunity. So, I’m excited about it. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also thrilling.”

Montoya’s chief challenger for individual gold will likely be Kansas’ Sharon Lokedi, a freshman from Kenya who ran 20:08.3 at the NCAA Pre-Nationals and finished fourth.

In the team race, Iowa State looks to be a formidable force and one that will be tough to supplant on the women’s side. After the Cyclones, a glut of teams should compete for second, including Baylor. The Bears will also use Peyton Thomas, Alex Davis, Madie Zimmerman, Ann-Marie Dunlap, Katie Grovatt, Aubree Miller, Leila Rohde and Chelsea Orr in addition to Montoya.

Harbour called Thomas “the story of the cross country season.” A junior from Roswell, Ga., Thomas was typically Baylor’s No. 6 or 7 runner last season, but has improved dramatically this fall and has emerged as the Bears’ No. 2 runner behind Montoya.

“She’s running like Maggie was last year,” Harbour said. “And Maggie is running where Rachel was at, so we basically have the same 1-2 punch that we did last year.”

On the men’s side, Baylor is shooting for a top-four finish with a team that senior J.R. Hardy dubbed “the best we’ve had in the four years I’ve been here.” The Bears’ best-ever finish at the Big 12 meet was a fourth-place showing in 2001.

“This year we kind of have the motto of belief,” Hardy said. “I feel like in past years we haven’t quite felt like we’ve been where we needed to. We’ve really been focusing on finishing the season on the highest note that we can.”

What Baylor assistant coach Jon Capron appreciates about this team is that they’ve constantly pushed themselves to do more, to run faster. Capron said that the Bears are never really satisfied — and that has fueled some strong performances.

“I’ve got guys who are finishing workouts and going, ‘Wow, I’m still not where I need to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Guys, even these (seniors) couldn’t do that two years ago.’ There’s been a bit of a shift, and it’s one that we like and it’s one to make matter,” Capron said. “It’s happened. We need to make sure it gets us something now, and that’s what is going on this weekend.”

Sophomore Eric Anderson has paced the Bears in all four races in which he’s competed this season, and should contend for all-conference honors. That designation is reserved for the top 15 runners. Complicating Baylor’s hopes for a strong team finish is the absence of junior Jordan West, who will miss Saturday’s meet with a stress fracture.

But the return of Matt Galvin from injury could help make up for West. Capron called Galvin, a senior from Highland Park, the “wild card” for the Bears.

“He’s a tough hombre,” Capron said. “If his body will let him, he’ll do it.”

Anderson and Galvin will be complemented by Kyle Scanlan, Chris McElroy, Matt League, Matt Parham, Seth Brown, Henry Huff and Sean McCullough.

Last year, Baylor’s women placed sixth and the men were sixth at the Big 12 meet.

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