2. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
Coach: Mike Smith
Notable Departures: Futsum Zienasellassie, Nathan Weitz
Notable Additions: Luis Grijalva, Soren Knudsen,
Elliot Gindi, Joseph Benson, Joey DeFeo, Jack Shea
Projected Scoring Five:
Matthew Baxter (Rs. SR) [TSR#5], Tyler Day (JR) [TSR#14],
Cory Glines (Rs. SR) [TSR#27], Andy Trouard (Rs. SR) [TSR#46], Geordie Beamish (Rs. JR)
1. Syracuse Orangemen
Coach: Chris Fox
Notable Departures: Joel Hubbard, Adam Visokay
Notable Additions: Noah Affolder, Nathan Henderson, Steve Schulz
Projected Scoring Five:
Justyn Knight (SR) [TSR#1], Colin Bennie (SR) [TSR#7],
Philo Germano (Rs. SR) [TSR#28], Iliass Aouani (JR), Aidan Tooker (SO)
For many, it's a difficult decision to make. Who takes the #1 spot? Should it be the defending champions? Or the squad who returns more of their 2016 lineup? The argument could truly go either way as both teams hold experienced veterans with firepower that no other team in the NCAA can match.
NAU's 2016 story is pretty straightforward. From day one, they were absolutely dominant. They took wins at Wisconsin, BIG Sky, Mountain Region Championships, and NCAA's all by comfortable margins. In fact, no team even scared the Lumberjacks at any meet. They were simply too good. By season's end, Northern Arizona earned the first national title in school history and sent their beloved coach riding off into the sunset as a champion. It was a season where the Lumberjacks saw nothing but success.
Syracuse's 2016 was a little bit different. They entered the season with high expectations after pulling off a huge upset in 2015 to win the national title over Colorado. Unfortunately, their 2016 season got off to a slow start as they lost to BYU at Panorama Farms and finished 4th at Wisconsin. Neither were necessarily bad performances, but even Coach Fox emphasized that they needed to be better in the postseason.
Sure enough, the Orangemen rebounded when it mattered the most with wins at ACC's and the Northeast Region Championships. They would put themselves in position to win the title, but came up short with a 3rd place finish.
There's not much else to say about these teams simply because we all know their story, we all know what they are capable of, and we all know that they could become the next NCAA champion at the end of this season. However, let's make things interesting and compare each team's top five...
SYRACUSE VS NORTHERN ARIZONA
Knight vs Baxter
There doesn't seem to be much of an argument that Knight is one of the best runners in the NCAA after pulling off the unthinkable and defeating Cheserek at NCAA's last fall. Although he is favored to win the gold, Baxter's consistency and willingness to race hard from the gun makes him the perfect low-stick to keep the gap between him and Knight at a minimum.
Bennie vs Day
During their two meetings in 2016, Bennie got the best of Day both times. Bennie finished 14th at Wisconsin and 17th at NCAA's while Day finished 17th at Wisconsin and 23rd at NCAA's. Syracuse has the edge at the #2 spot, but Day's 13:49 5k during indoors shows that he's only getting better.
Germano vs Glines
Both of these guys are experienced individuals who have been key scorers on their respective teams for two years now. In 2016, Glines had the better season overall by finishing 20th at Wisconsin and 6th at the Mountain Region Championships. However, it's safe to say that Germano is the better runner when it comes to NCAA's with finishes of 39th (2015) and 49th (2016). Glines placed 84th at last year's NCAA championships.
Glines could be the reason NAU pulls ahead in the regular season, but Germano may (once again) be the reason Syracuse comes out on top in November.
Aouani vs Trouard
The 4th scoring spot is a very much like Germano vs Glines. Aouani had a respectable season leading up to NCAA's with a 12th place finish at Panorama Farms, 6th place finish at ACC's, and 7th place finish at the Northeast Region Championships. However, Aouani struggled at big meets like Wisconsin and NCAA's with finishes of 86th and 128th respectively.
On the flip side, Trouard did very well at Wisconsin and NCAA's with finishes of 44th and 37th respectively. Then again, he failed to place inside the top 30 at the Mountain Region Championships.
Trouard may have the edge at the 4th spot, but with Aouani now in his 2nd year with the Orangemen, he'll be acclimated to the training environment and competition that he is set to face.
Tooker vs Beamish
The 5th position is the "make-or-break" spot for both teams as they will have to rely on relatively newer guys to help their team in the scoring. Beamish got great experience throughout 2016 with varsity appearances at Wisconsin and NCAA's. He did well for his age, but he needs to improve if NAU is going to repeat as champions. Luckily, personal bests of 3:41 and 13:53 this past spring show that the New Zealand native has taken his game to the next level.
As for Tooker, he doesn't have the experience that Beamish has with only result at the Wisconsin Invite (where he finished 122nd overall). However, a breakout spring track season led to the Syracuse freshman running a personal best of 8:39 in the steeplechase. Rarely do you ever hear about freshmen running that well in the steeplechase...and rarely do you hear about strong steeplechasers running poorly during cross country. I expect a big breakout season for the rising Syracuse sophomore this fall.
The 2017 battle between NAU and Syracuse could be decided by which of their 5th men has the bigger breakout season. Beamish has the edge with his experience, but the upside with Tooker is far too much to dismiss.
Trying to decide who has better depth is a bit out of the question at this point. Both teams have experienced individuals who have built their fitness to a level where neither team is going to have issues if someone in their top five has a bad day. For Syracuse, guys like Kevin James and Griffin Molino have shown that they can be reliable support pieces. For NAU, guys like Harvey Nelson, Blaise Ferro, and Peter Lomong have all shown that they have what it takes to find a spot in Northern Arizona's lineup.
At the same time, we can't just ignore the recruits that either side has. Incoming Orangemen Noah Affolder and Nathan Henderson are two sub-15 minute 5k runners who took the Pennsylvania high school scene by storm last year. However, NAU's Luis Grijalva and Soren Knudsen lead one of the most underrated recruiting classes of 2017 that consists of four other talented individuals.
There really isn't a major concern that either team needs to address. Both teams have the firepower, support scorers, depth, and experience to win another NCAA XC title. If there are any areas of concern, I certainly couldn't find them.
If I were to rewrite this article favoring NAU, I feel very confident that I could write a convincing piece for why they should be #1. Yet, I had to give it to Syracuse simply because they have the better low-sticks (for now) and because they are at the peak of their maturity from a running perspective with years of championship experience that the Lumberjacks simply don't have.
Of course, there could be a team not named Syracuse or NAU that ends up winning it all in November. Could it be anyone outside of the Top 10? What about the Top 25? Obviously, no one really knows, but that's what makes it exciting.
Get your popcorn ready, ladies and gentlemen. The show is about to start...