22. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Coach: Eric Houle
Notable Departures: N/A
Notable Additions: Travis Feeny, Clayton Adams
Projected Scoring Five:
Mike Tate (Rs. SR) [TSR#39], Kasey Knevelbaard (JR), Josh Collins (JR), Matthew Wright (Rs. SR), Aidan Reed (SO)
There aren't many programs that can stay as relevant as Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds are always at the top of the NCAA and have been for the past few years. Their mix of depth, production of low-sticks, and consistently solid coaching has (historically) kept this group competitive and that will certainly be the case this fall.
In order to understand why SUU will be so good in 2017, we need to understand where they were last year. We can start with their Roy Griak performance which held a very large field of teams. For many underclassmen, that can be a difficult meet to navigate. Luckily for the Thunderbirds, their underclassmen thrived under pressure as Kasey Knevelbaard and Aidan Reed placed 9th and 10th overall to lead the way. Matthew Wright was the team's third scorer in 27th place.
Unfortunately, the 4th and 5th men struggled as they placed 89th and 90th in the team scoring. To put that gap in perspective, if the scoring was done for just the first three men, Southern Utah would have placed 3rd overall. But after their 5th man crossed the line, they had to settle for 8th overall in the team standings.
Although the weakness of their bottom scorers was a cause for concern, there was still plenty of time to develop and improve.
The next stop would be Notre Dame as the Thunderbirds sought to build on their Roy Griak performance. Sure enough, impressive pack running and a tighter time-spread proved to be the difference maker as they placed 5th overall ahead of accomplished programs like Washington State, California, Air Force, Bradley, and NC State. Kasey Knevelbaard once again led the way with a 12th place finish and was followed by his teammates who finished 37, 45, 46, and 47.
It would have been easy for Roy Griak and Notre Dame to be the only big meets Southern Utah ran at before the start of championship season, but the Wisconsin Invite proved to be too good to pass up.
Individually, there wasn't a lot that stood out about the Thunderbirds at this meet. However, they did have another solid day as a team with a 12th place finish overall. Their top four finishers ranged anywhere from 45th to 76th, but their 5th man proved to be the only blemish with a 114th place finish. Still, the meet was a productive one. Little did Southern Utah know, they would leave Wisconsin with four crucial Kolas points.
The next phase of their fall campaign would be the post-season which started at BIG Sky's where they settled for a runner-up finish to NAU.
The more unpredictable meet would be the Mountain Region Championships. Surprisingly, the Thunderbirds struggled as they placed 6th overall. Ironically, their low-stick throughout the entire season (Kasey Knevelbaard) was the 5th man that hurt the team time-spread.
Yet, even with the lack-luster performance, Southern Utah still had enough Kolas points to push in the three other "At-Large" teams ahead of them to Nationals.
You would expect the Thunderbirds to rebound at Nationals, right? Unfortunately, not.
Josh Collins emerged as the team's top scorer by placing 61st overall. The rest of the team had a difficult showing as the next four scorers placed 156, 168, 180, and 203. Southern Utah would place 27th overall and end their season knowing that they had plenty more to give.
There's a lot to take away from the 2016 season, but the biggest thing that stands out to me is that Kasey Knevelbaard has proven that he can be a legitimate low-stick. His performances on the track this past spring were impressive and caught the attention of people around the nation, but his races during cross country are arguably just as strong. It's also very possible that he continues to build on that fitness and matures as a runner.
And let's not forget, this is a team that returns their entire top seven from the 2016 season. Guys like Josh Collins and Aidan Reed can now say that they have experience competing at NCAA's which should benefit them at the larger invites. Sure, they'll need to improve their consistency, but that's expected by simply being another year older.
The same could be said about Matthew Wright who needs to improve his consistency, but is still incredibly valuable to this Southern Utah program.
Of course, we can't just leave out the fact that Mike Tate returns to the squad in 2017. After redshirting the 2016 cross country season, Mike Tate had a breakout spring track season where he ran a 5k personal best of 13:34. He had some very respectable and consistent performances during the 2015 cross country season, but his results on the track were what really peaked my interest. Track performances don't always relate to cross country, but there is certainly a lot to like about Tate in 2017.
How can you dislike this Southern Utah team? They have two front runners in Tate and Knevelbaard, return everyone from the 2016 season, and have shown that they can still stay competitive if someone has an off day.
Of course, like all teams in the NCAA, Southern Utah isn't perfect. Struggles in their championship meets and inconsistency throughout the 2016 season has left me cautious as to where this team should be ranked. At the same time, it's not a guarantee that Mike Tate will be the super-star that he was on the track (although to be fair, it's more probable than not). Because of the speculation and uncertainties, the Thunderbirds will have to settle as the 22nd team in our rankings.
With that in mind, don't let the imperfections of this squad make you think that they won't be competitive. SUU can only go up from here with a never ending pool of talent to pick and choose from. I feel bad for any team in the Mountain region that was hoping to make it to Nationals in 2017. The T-birds are not making that task any easier this year.