WALLA WALLA - Whitman's cross country teams face their first test at the annual season-opening Whitman Invitational Saturday at Fort Walla Walla Park.
The men's 6,000 meters is set for a 10:30 a.m. start and the women's 4,000 follows at about 11:15 a.m.
Whitworth University, one of three Northwest Conference schools entered in the invitational, is favored in both races.
The Pirate women, who edged their Whitman counterparts for last fall's NWC title, return four of their top five runners. The Missionaries, meanwhile, return two of their top six.
The Whitworth men, who were the runner-ups at the 2009 NWC championships, welcome back seven of their top nine runners. Whitman, which was fourth in the conference finals, have five of their top 10 back in the fold.
Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound, the NWC's two schools from the Tacoma area, will also have runners on hand Saturday.
The Pacific Lutheran women and men placed sixth and seventh, respectively, at last year's championships. Puget Sound was sixth in the men's race and seventh in women's event.
Based on early workouts, Whitworth freshman Spencer Corwin and sophomore Cory Rand might be the top threats for the Whitman men Saturday. Corwin and Rand finished one-two in last Saturday's 3,000-meter team time trial.
After placing 28th at last year's Whitman Invitational, Rand moved to the front of the Missionary pack for the rest of his freshman season. He placed 11th at the conference championships, earning a spot on the All-NWC Second Team.
Whitman's three senior captains - Sam Hennessey, Daniel Luecke and John Callow - are also looking for strong showings on Saturday.
Hennessey ran his best Whitman Invitational time last year in placing 17th, although he finished higher in the field as a sophomore (12th) and freshman (10th).
Luecke finished 18th at last year's invitational, trimming a full minute off his freshman time. Callow had his best previous performance as a sophomore when he placed 34th.
Other Whitman men with a Whitman Invitational track record are junior Brendan Boyer, who was 41st last fall while dropping his previous time by more than a minute, and sophomore Whitney Griggs, who was 45th a year ago.
The Missionary women's roster boasts 30 runners, several of whom have run in one or more previous Whitman Invitational meets.
Sophomore Emilie Gilbert led the way last year, placing eighth. Others in the top 20 in that race were senior Kristen Ballinger (16th), sophomore Katri Gilbert (17th) and junior Sara Levy (19th).
Emilie Gilbert won the Whitman women's team time trial last Saturday. Ballinger, who was second in the time trial after an illness-plagued summer, ran to an eighth-place showing at the Whitman Invitational in 2008.
Jennifer Farley, a junior who placed 22nd at last year's invitational, may miss Saturday's race because of injury.
Others who ran well for Whitman in last fall's race were junior Christine Kiely (28th), sophomore Lori Mendelsohn (31st), sophomore Shannon McCarty (33rd), junior Kira Peterson (36th), sophomore Claire Baron (37th), and sophomore Lauren Davis (39th).