Cowboy XC

After winning the Big 12 Championship and the Midwest Regional, the Cowboy cross-country team is striving to win a national title. (OSU Athletics)

Through four seasons in Oklahoma State’s men’s cross-country program, Isai Rodriguez, of Ringwood, has experienced a shift in the team dynamic.

Early in Rodriguez’s career, the Cowboys didn’t always click as a unit, he said. Team members scattered into different groups instead of spending time as one, and individual goals sometimes detracted from the big picture.

As a senior leader, Rodriguez doesn’t have to worry about this anymore.

The Cowboys have strengthened their team bonds, and meet results have reflected their growth. After winning the Big 12 Championships and the Midwest Regional, OSU is striving for a national title.

“I know I can trust these guys,” Rodriguez said. “I know I can feed off these guys.”

This energy matters more than ever as the Cowboys and Cowgirls are preparing to compete in the 2021 NCAA Cross Country Championships on Saturday in Tallahassee, Florida. The women will run at 9:20 a.m., and the men will follow at 10:10. Both races are broadcast on ESPNU.

For the No. 3 Cowboys, a championship is well within reach.

“If the guys just run the way they’ve ran all year and each guy matches his best performance of the year, we’re a really good team,” coach Dave Smith said. “That’s what we can control.”

With a less experienced roster than the Cowboys have, the No. 6 Cowgirls might not be ready for a championship yet, but they are a team on the rise. Senior Molly Born, along with juniors Gabby Hentemann and Taylor Roe, earned All-Region honors after the women finished second as a team in the Midwest Regional. Before that, the Cowgirls claimed a Big 12 title.

Similarly to the men, the women are relying on improved team chemistry to propel themselves through the postseason.

“I think it’s just our attitude change,” Roe said. “For us, it’s just having a lot of girls. We’re just more deep than we were last year, and I think we’re just really working well together and pushing everyone forward.”

Smith said he expects the Cowgirls to place somewhere from fourth to 15th, though the goal is to reach the upper end of that range. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are one of several frontrunners.

Smith said he thinks No. 4 Notre Dame is the best team because of its depth. No. 1 Northern Arizona has more roster limitations but is a strong contender, Smith added.

As the Cowboys strive to separate themselves from the competition, depth is an asset for them, too. The men had seven All-Region honorees: Ryan Smeeton, Alex Maier, Victor Shitsama, Shea Foster, Rory Leonard, Ryan Schoppe and Rodriguez.

This level of winning as a team is something Rodriguez regarded as impossible during his freshman year, but the Cowboys have returned to prominence. If they claim the national title, it will be their first since 2012.

For Rodriguez, it’s a chance to live a longtime dream.

“We just need to run the race that we know we’re capable of,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody is looking good. We all know that we can do it. It’s now just about running our race and executing on a big stage.”

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