25. Kentucky Wildcats
Coach: Edrick Floreal
Notable Departures: Mick Iacofano, Gabe Harm
Notable Additions: Matthew Mortimer,
Projected Scoring Five:
Jacob Thomson (Rs. SR) [TSR#37], Ben Young (JR), Brennan Fields (SO), Daniel Southard (SR), Kendall Muhammad (JR)
Let's be honest. Kentucky wasn't a team you were expecting to make our Top 25. Historically, they've been known for their sprinters/hurdlers...not their distance running. They run in a relatively weak region (as well as conference) and they just lost a key contributor in Mick Iacofano. However, the pieces they do return are very underrated and are just beginning to mature into legitimate threats on the XC course.
Let's rewind to the 2016 cross country season and begin at the Kentucky Bluegrass Invite, one of the first serious invitationals of the Wildcats fall campaign. The early season invite was a great opportunity for the blue and white to take down solid teams like Eastern Kentucky and Illinois...but that didn't happen. The Wildcats settled for 3rd overall as they were simply overwhelmed by the depth of their counterparts and the youth of their final few scorers.
But like most things, they got better with time. Kentucky finished runner-up at the Texas A&M Invite (losing only to the Aggies) and would go on to defeat a very strong Georgia squad to take the win at the Alabama Crimson Classic. The key to their growing success could be found in their younger individuals who had improved their point scoring in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th positions.
Eventually the postseason arrived and Kentucky was faced with the task of battling elite-level programs like Arkansas and Ole Miss at SEC's. While they may not have defeated either of those teams, they did place 3rd and defeat Georgia by 36 more points than they did at the Crimson Classic, a clear sign of improvement.
The Wildcats ended their season at the Southeast Regional Championships with a 5th place finish overall while also defeating respectable programs like Virginia Tech, Campbell, and William & Mary in the process.
There were some great performances in 2016, but there is a lot more to like about this squad in 2017. They return a strong team leader in Jacob Thomson who will be complimented by an exciting, up-and-coming runner in Ben Young. The Thomson-Young duo is shaping up to be a very good pairing that will hopefully pull other individuals like Brennan Fields and Kendall Muhammad to the next level. Those two, along with a few others, now have significant experience under their belts and should only improve as the season progresses.
The departure of Mick Iacofano as well as Gabe Harm is a tough loss from a leadership and experience perspective. However, the depth of this team goes much deeper than just five guys and they should still be well equipped for success under the direction of seniors like Jacob Thomson and Daniel Southard.
My only reservation about this team is their race selection. Where are they going to earn Kolas points at? Some have argued that Alabama is a team that could make it to NCAA's with an automatic qualifier this year, but could Kentucky really beat them in the two times that they are expected to meet? If they do, would it be enough?
Regardless of where Kentucky chooses to run, there is no doubt that they are a good squad. They have a mix of youth and experience, low-sticks, depth, and signs of consistency/improvement. For me, that's good enough to put the Wildcats at #25.