24. Michigan State Spartans
Coach: Walt Drenth
Notable Departures: Sherod Hardt, Nick Soter
Projected Scoring Five:
Ryan Robinson (JR) [TSR#49], Jesse Hersha (SO), Clark Ruiz (Rs. SR), Morgan Beadlescomb (SO), Matthew Thomas (Rs. SO)
One of the most consistent teams in the NCAA are the MSU Spartans. Every year, this team is able to produce some very solid depth and put together a slew of strong performances. In 2017, they will be much more experienced and just as strong through seven runners (or more) despite losing two key individuals in Hardt and Soter.
2016 was a great season for the Spartans and many of their performances did not get the recognition they deserved. Let's begin at the Roy Griak Invite, where the Spartans fielded 10 men, five of whom were underclassmen. It would have been easy for the youth of this team to collapse under the pressure of such a big invitational, but MSU did quite well with their younger guys. Sophomore Ryan Robinson had a breakout performance by placing 4th overall and was followed by Sherod Hardt who finished in 15th. The rest of the squad held their own by placing 38th, 50th, and 58th for a 5th place team finish. It may not have been a perfect season opener, but it was still good enough to beat out programs like UCLA, Colorado State, and Southern Utah.
Michigan State later toed the line at the Wisconsin Invite without Ryan Robinson. The result was...ugly.
Sherod Hardt placed a respectable 39th overall, but the final four scorers ranged anywhere from 82nd to 111th, too far back to keep their team score competitive with an 18th place team finish.
The next stop was BIG 10's where the Spartans would have to face very strong programs like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. But like any great team, MSU built off of their struggles at the Wisconsin Invite and surpassed expectations. Aggressive front-running tactics from freshman Jesse Hersha helped the Spartans hold the top five spots at the mile marker. It also helped that Ryan Robinson was back in the lineup. Although those top five spots wouldn't hold, Michigan State still held on for a score of 66 points...three points away from upsetting the Badgers. The Spartans also cruised past rivals like Michigan and Indiana.
The Green & White repeated their performance at the Great Lakes Regional Championships with another runner-up finish to Wisconsin. However, this result meant so much more. Despite having all five of their scorers in the top 30, the real hero was redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas, their 6th man who broke the tie breaker against Indiana to take the 2nd automatic qualifying spot to NCAA's. Had Thomas not run as well as he did, MSU may not have gone to Nationals.
At the finals stage of the 2016 season (Nationals), the Spartans looked to extend of their post-season magic. Unfortunately, that didn't happen as their performance was strikingly similar to their race at the Wisconsin Invite. Sherod Hardt had a great day and became an All-American by placing 21st, but the inexperience of the squad finally caught up with them as they finished in spots 96, 105, 135, and 147. The Spartans ended their season by placing 20th overall.
I really like Michigan State and the guys they return this year. Ryan Robinson will be a solid low-stick and will most likely be complimented by a very gutsy runner in Jesse Hersha who simply needs to mature as a runner before he becomes another ace for this team. Morgan Beadlescomb is another rising sophomore who gave the Spartans some points last year. He will thrive in 2017 with a year of experience now under his belt.
Potential scorers like Clark Ruiz and Max Benoit will bring experience and consistency to a team that is still relatively young. It's also exciting to think that Ruiz just ran 28:52 for a 10k on the track this past spring. He may be at a different tier of fitness compared to 2016...
Other support pieces like Justine Kiprotich, Matthew Thomas, and Daniel Sims have proven that they can contribute to this MSU squad during the cross country season. While they do provide insurance and consistency, they also add a bit more of a veteran presence as all three of those names have been with the team for three years now.
Of course, like any other university, this team isn't without their flaws. The loss of Sherod Hardt means that there is no more guarantee of a consistent low-stick (although I do have a lot of faith in Ryan Robinson and Jesse Hersha). Additionally, Nick Soter was another consistent scorer who will not be easy to replace from an experience perspective. The Spartans may be another year older, but they are still a young group overall.
The men from East Lansing will be strong opponents in 2017. They may have lost their ace Sherord Hardt, but their BIG 10 rivals have also lost crucial pieces to their teams as well. Wisconsin will most likely be the favorites to win the conference and regional titles again, but the Spartans are still very much in the title conversation and could easily be the favorites by late October / early November.