12. Iona Gaels
Coach: Ricardo Santos
Notable Departures: Kieran Clements
Notable Additions: Jordan Brannan, Graham Baird
Projected Scoring Five:
Gilbert Kirui (SR) [TSR#25], Chartt Miller (Rs. SR) [TSR#26],
Johannes Motschmann (SR), Liam Dee (JR), Jac Hopkins (JR)
For years now, big-name schools like Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, and Wisconsin have dominated the powerhouse program discussion. Their constant success and strong legacies have made them the focal point of NCAA distance running.
Yet, one team that typically doesn't get the love it deserves is Iona. Despite their small school status, the Gaels have created a legacy of their own with a mix of effective recruiting and a development of depth. In 2017, there is no reason that this team can't continue to find success.
The Gaels began their 2016 cross country season at the Paul Short Invite where they would have to battle with a dangerous Georgetown squad to claim the team title. However, despite the firepower other teams in the field held, Iona routed the competition and walked away with a team score of 34 points, 81 points better than the 2nd place Hoyas. The best part in all of this was that the Gaels didn't even run their ace Chartt Miller! It was arguably the best season opener of any team in the NCAA.
The Wisconsin Invite was the next stop on their 2016 schedule and the competition there would be a bit more intense than what they found at Paul Short. Still, the Gaels were up to the challenge as Kieran Clements and Gilbert Kirui put together a monster performance where they finished 7th and 12th overall. Johannes Motschmann and Liam Dee would follow with 47th and 66th place finishes. However, the one weak area came at the 5th man spot as Andrew Tario fell to 108th overall. Nonetheless, Iona would end up finishing a very impressive 5th place in the team standings as they defeated rising programs like UCLA, Portland, and Iowa State. You also have to consider that they didn't run Chartt Miller either...
Championship season eventually approached and the Gaels were ready to handle business. After an easy sweep of their conference meet (where Chartt Miller returned to action), Iona stepped into the Northeast Regional Championships which held the 2015 NCAA champions (Syracuse). Although they would end up in 2nd overall, the goal was to cement themselves in a top two spot and comfortably qualify for Nationals. Sure enough, the Gaels did just that.
Their final test of the season would take place at the NCAA Championships, a meet that has historically not always been friendly to Iona's postseason aspirations of making the team podium. Luckily, Chartt Miller was back on the squad and would most likely give the Gaels a boost from their finish at Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, the race didn't play out exactly as expected. Not a single Iona individual finished the day as an All-American and it seemed like Chartt Miller still had some rust to shake off from his late season start. Iona's finishes in the team scoring would be 34 (Clements), 50 (Miller), 68 (Kirui), 74 (Motschmann), and 93 (Dee) which was good enough for a 10th place finish in the team standings.
While it may not have been a perfect race, 10th place was still a very solid and respectable finish. Iona was also one of only 8 teams that had all five of their scorers in the top 100.
With 2016 behind them and the 2017 season ahead, the Gaels are looking strong as they return all but one individual from last year (Kieran Clements). Chartt Miller and Gilbert Kirui will look to lead a hungry Iona team that is ready to prove that they can fight for a spot on the podium.
The great thing about Iona is that although they lose Clements, they have plenty of experience of racing without an ace. Chartt Miller was absent for the entire 2016 regular season and they still performed incredibly well. With a strong 1-2 punch up front, Iona is plenty fine on firepower and low-sticks.
The following scorers don't change that much either as Johannaes Motschmann and Liam Dee seem to be talented individuals who continue to learn and grow. In fact, Liam Dee just became a sub-four minute miler this past winter and also tagged on personal bests of 8:02 in the 3k and 14:04 in the 5k. While track times may not always translate to success during cross country, his performances is enough indication that he'll enter 2017 in great fitness.
Admittedly, this duo will need to be a bit more consistent while also being able to close the gap between their finishes in the big meets like Wisconsin and NCAA's. Sometimes, that just comes with being another year older.
Like so many other teams, the 5th spot is a bit of a question mark as there are multiple individuals who could step up to have a role with this team. Jac Hopkins, Andrew Tario, and Brandon Allen are all guys that made appearances in Iona's top five last year. If I had to choose, I'm taking Hopkins who worked his way into the starting seven during 2016 and is now an upperclassman with a lot more room to grow.
Outside of those seven individuals, this team is still incredibly deep. Two incoming recruits, Jordan Brannan and Graham Baird, are cross country stars in their own right. While in high school, Brannan ran under 15 minutes for the 5k and also became an All-American on the track. As for Baird, he represented Canada at the Junior World Cross Country Championships where he finished 7th overall.
The weapons on this team are endless which should give the Gaels some comfort knowing that they have support at the back end of their top seven.
It's tough to keep this team out of the top 10, but their inconsistency at NCAA's and the loss of Kieran Clements is just a bit too much for me to consider otherwise. That said, I am more than willing to move the Gaels into the top 10 if they can duplicate their 2016 results. With two established aces, a crowd of experienced depth, and a legacy to uphold, Iona is not a team to underestimate in 2017.