18. UTEP Miners
Coach: Paul Ereng
Notable Departures: Evans Kiprono, Cosmas Boit, Emmanuel Korir
Notable Additions: TBD
Projected Scoring Five:
Jonah Koech (JR) [TSR#22], Antony Kosgei (JR), Michael Saruni (SO), Daniel Cheruiyot (SR), TBD
This will likely be the most debated team ranking of our entire top 25. Why? Because at the moment, UTEP's roster only lists five men. The catch? One of those men, Emmanuel Korir, just went pro, leaving the Miners with just four eligible athletes. So how on earth can this team be ranked 18th in the nation for 2017?
It's important to remember that before the start of the 2016 cross country season, UTEP's roster only listed five individuals. Coach Ereng knew that five men wouldn't be enough to sustain a competitive program and was able to get two late additions to his squad (Korir and Saruni). Because a lot of his recruits are foreigners, the athletes typically must go through a rigorous process to establish temporary residence in the US. That's why the roster may not be updated until later on in the season.
The roster numbers are obviously a concern, but the same could be said about the 2016 season where the Miners established themselves as one of the top teams in the nation.
After sweeping the Texas Tech Open and Lori Fitzgerald Invite, the first challenge of 2016 would take place at the Notre Dame Invite. Despite a strong and deep field, the Miners walked away with a runner-up team finish. Jonah Koech and Antony Kosgei gave UTEP a killer 1-2 punch by placing 5th and 7th overall. The next three would place 18, 28, and 41 for a team score of 99 points. Only Ole Miss had a better score with a total of 83 points.
The next stop would be Pre-Nationals and the result wouldn't be as strong. The Miners lack of depth was exposed in a larger field and they saw the results in the team score. Despite their top three placing 9th, 10th, and 32nd, their next two would place 72nd and 141st. UTEP would leave Terre Haute with a 6th place team finish and no Kolas points...
Luckily, the transition to the postseason would favor UTEP. The 7-man squad entered the Conference USA Championships which held a hungry Middle Tennessee State team looking to pull off the upset. That, of course, did not happen as UTEP put together a surprising display of pack running and took the team title, 24 to 36.
The Miners continued their postseason run at the Mountain Region Championships where they placed 5th overall. Luckily, Southern Utah would finish 6th and push the Miners (as well as BYU and CSU) into Nationals.
NCAA's would be the real test as to whether or not UTEP's depth could back up the performances of their top guys. Unfortunately, that wouldn't matter as not a single UTEP athlete had a good day with their top five placing 98, 109, 110, 191, and 199 (all in team scoring). UTEP would finish 29th in the team standings.
Yes, the concern with UTEP is obvious. They lack depth and that can definitely hurt this team when someone has an off day. Pre-Nats was only proof of that theory. However, a heavy portion of this team will be another year older and they only lose one of their top five scorers from 2016. While we may not know exactly who that 5th scorer is, we can also bet on the idea that Coach Ereng will find talented Kenyans to fill those roster spots. Don't forget that this is a team that placed 2nd at Notre Dame ahead of accomplished programs like Washington State, NC State, Southern Utah, Eastern Kentucky, Illinois, and many more. Talent like that doesn't just disappear...
There are plenty of arguments to make against this ranking, but UTEP is still on the younger side and has plenty more to prove. Koech and Kosgei are an underrated top two, Saruni is a reliable 3rd scorer, and Cheruiyot brings consistency with his senior status. At least through four men, this squad is very good.
Admittedly, the success of this team will depend on which freshmen they recruit, but with the connections that Paul Ereng has, I'm willing to bet UTEP will be just fine in 2017.