15. Washington State Cougars
Coach: Wayne Phipps
Notable Departures: John Whelan
Notable Additions: Luke Schilter, Ado Amir, Matthew Watkins
Projected Scoring Five:
Michael Williams (SR) [TSR#29], Sam Levora (SR), Chandler Teigen (JR), Nathan Wadhwani (JR), Nathan Tadesse (JR)
There may not be a team in the NCAA that is more underappreciated than the Washington State Cougars. Coach Wayne Phipps has created a program of never-ending depth while also developing national caliber athletes to lead his team. 2016 was a great season for the Cougars and we should only expect more success in 2017.
Washington State’s 2016 season began at the SunDodger Invite, a race that essentially came down to Washington State and the University of Washington. Although the Huskies were able to get Colby Gilbert the win, the Cougars simply had too much depth as their pack running overwhelmed Washington with finishes of 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 (in the team scoring). What was even crazier was that low-stick John Whelan ran unattached and wasn’t even calculated in the team score despite finishing 4th overall. It was a great start to WSU’s season.
The next challenge took place at Notre Dame where Washington State’s pack became a bit more spread out. Whelan and Williams did an outstanding job up front by placing 8th and 16th overall while Sam Levora followed in a respectable 36th place finish. Their 4th scorer, Nathan Wadhwani, finished strong as well in 48th place overall.
Unfortunately, their final scorer would fall behind with a finish of 81st overall. WSU finished 7th in the team standings with 189 points. 4th place Providence was only seven points away.
Although the Cougars had some 5th man troubles, it became clear that this team was a legitimate threat to their NCAA counterparts. If they could manage to tighten their pack and improve their 5th scoring spot, then they could easily upset some of the biggest names in the country.
The Wisconsin Invite was the next test to see if WSU could keep their scoring five together and contend with some of the best. Fortunately, the result was much stronger than at Notre Dame as Williams and Whelan once again did their job by placing 15th and 23rd overall.
Approximately 30 seconds behind Williams and Whelan were Chandler Teigen and Sam Levora who placed a respectable 67th and 68th overall. However, that 5th man continued to be a weak spot with a finish of 110th overall.
Still, the Cougars thrived and finished with a strong 9th place overall ahead of Colorado State, Wisconsin, and other top-tier programs.
The Cougars were beginning to find their groove as they entered the postseason, which was a good thing when you consider that they were in one of the most competitive conferences in the nation: the PAC 12.
Obviously, the PAC 12 field was significantly smaller than the Wisconsin Invite with only nine teams competing. The smaller field ended up hurt the effectiveness of Washington State’s pack as they faltered to 5th overall behind Colorado, Stanford, UCLA, and Oregon.
Their result at PAC 12’s would be very similar to their West Region Championship finish as Washington State once again placed 5th overall. However, this time they had closed the gap between Oregon as they finished only 21 points behind compared to the 36 point differential at PAC 12’s.
The larger sized fields were clearly benefitting the Cougars which was a good sign as they arrived at Nationals. Sure enough, the Cougars had their best race of the season. Michael Williams threw down a huge All-American performance and led the way for his teammates with finishes of 24, 49, 90, 91, and 116 (in the team scoring). Washington State would place 14th overall, only seven points off of 12th place Oklahoma State.
It was hard to imagine that a team that placed 7th at Notre Dame and barely got into Nationals placed 14th at NCAA’s and were only two points behind Portland.
There were plenty of breakout teams in 2016, but one of the more notable squads had to be Washington State. Williams and Whelan turned into true low-sticks while Sam Levora and Chandler Teigen proved to be reliable scorers at the 3 and 4 spots. Yes, the 5th man spot did show some weakness at times, but it never held the Cougars back from staying competitive.
Washington State may have been a bit of a surprise in 2016, but no one will overlook them in 2017 as they return six of their top seven from last year. The only loss from that top seven comes from low-stick John Whelan who gave the Cougars a nice 1-2 punch when paired with Michael Williams.
Although the loss of Whelan will hurt, the Cougars are now another year older and have experience on their side. Their scoring five will most likely not have any underclassmen, and if they do, it will probably be Justin Janke, a rising sophomore who ran under 9 minutes for the two mile while in high school.
Michael Williams, although a tad inconsistent, has proven that he can compete with the best in the nation and will continue to provide his WSU teammates with a comfortable low score to rally around. Meanwhile, Levora and Teigen are two guys who work together very well. They rarely gave the Cougars a bad performance in 2016.
Nathan Wadhwani, the projected 4th scorer, was in and out of WSU’s top five throughout 2016. Like Williams, he’ll need to improve his consistency as well as close the gap between him, Levora, and Teigen. Luckily, that seems like a very realistic goal that he can achieve.
The 5th man is where things become a little tricky as there was always constant movement at the back end of Washington State’s pack throughout last year. At the moment, Nathan Tadesse and Paul Ryan seem to be the likely candidates to take the 5th spot as well as Justin Janke. Whoever takes over the 5th spot doesn’t need to be a superstar, but they do need to show some improvement and stay consistent. If they can accomplish that, then Washington State could pull off some major upsets throughout the season.
I am a big fan of teams that are deeper than just their five scorers. Washington State is one of those teams as it seems like anyone could step up to take on a new role. I am hoping that they can find another low-stick to compliment Williams at the front, but that won’t be the deciding factor as to whether or not this team can prosper in 2017. Simply put, if the Cougars can build on what they did last year, then their conference and regional rivals shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable.