3. Arkansas Razorbacks
Coach: Chris Bucknam
Notable Departures: Frankline Tonui, Kyle Hosting
Notable Additions: Matthew Young, Hayden Dressel, Ryan Murphy,
Projected Scoring Five:
Alex George (SR) [TSR#4], Jack Bruce (SR) [TSR#13],
Andrew Ronoh (JR) [TSR#48], Cameron Griffith (JR), Christian Heymsfield (Rs. SR)
I'll be honest, I went back and forth between Arkansas and Stanford when trying to figure out who should get the #3 spot in our rankings. It was a difficult decision to make, but on paper, Arkansas returns a better squad. The firepower they have up front along with a stable group throughout the rest of their roster makes this team a safe pick for our top three.
2016 was a big season for Arkansas and I had high expectations for them throughout the fall. The first meet of their season took place at the Battle In Beantown where the Razorbacks decided to not run a few of their key runners such as Jack Bruce, Andrew Ronoh, and Austen Dalquist. As a result, Arkansas finished 3rd overall behind Dartmouth and Providence (despite Alex George taking the win individually).
It wouldn't be until the Chile Pepper XC Festival that we saw Arkansas' full lineup. Once there, Alex George and Frankline Tonui would place 2nd and 3rd overall behind Missouri Southern athlete (and now Alabama runner) Vincent Kiprop to lead their team to a score of 32 points. Sure enough, the Razorbacks would comfortably walk away from this meet with a win.
14 days after the Chile Pepper Festival was Pre-Nats, a meet that Arkansas was capable of winning. When the gun went off, the Razorbacks showed that they were running with a purpose. Frankline Tonui had a breakout race by finishing 2nd overall while Jack Bruce and Alex George finished 12th and 14th respectively.
Austen Dalquist and Kyle Hosting would round out the scoring with finishes of 29th and 53rd. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be enough as Oregon proved to be too deep of a squad with a team score of 85 points, 25 better than Arkansas. Still, the Razorbacks could smile to themselves knowing that they had yet to run Andrew Ronoh, their JUCO transfer who was set to be the difference maker later in the season.
Fast forward to SEC's and the matchups weren't getting any easier as Ole Miss looked to pull off the upset over Arkansas and take the conference crown. Of course, Coach Bucknam's team had other ideas as they shut down the Rebels to defend their conference title with a score of 25 points. Once again, Alex Georgia led the Razorbacks with an individual victory.
The South Central Region Championships was actually a bit less of a challenge as Arkansas handily beat Texas to take the win and secure themselves a spot to Nationals.
As they entered NCAA's, there was a lot to be excited about. Alex George was securing wins, Frankline Tonui and Jack Bruce were giving the Razorbacks low-stick value, and Andrew Ronoh was running consistently well throughout the postseason. Was Arkansas a lock for the podium?
The answer to that was an unfortunate no. The Razorbacks still put together a tremendous performance as George and Bruce placed 12th and 16th in the team scoring while Cameron Griffith was 36th. However, the performances of Andrew Ronoh and Frankline Tonui were a bit off the mark which forced the men from Fayetteville to finish 5th overall, 10 points behind 4th place Mississippi.
While I'm sure it was a heart-breaking finish, this squad positioned themselves incredibly well for another title/podium run in 2017.
Alex George and Jack Bruce may be the most underrated duo in the NCAA. They have proven to be incredibly clutch in the postseason and will return as experienced low-sticks that can help mentor four talented incoming freshmen.
Andrew Ronoh is another key scorer who has shown that he can have a significant scoring role with this team. His performances at SEC's and the South Central Region Championships were strong, although his execution at NCAA's was a bit lack-luster. Maybe that's because I imagined he would finish the season as an All-American. Yet, regardless of his finish at Nationals, another year with this Arkansas program should be tremendously beneficial to Ronoh who spent last fall adjusting to a different style of training and a new level of competition.
At the 4th spot is Cameron Griffith, a very solid scorer that ran well throughout the 2016 season. Griffith was one of the pleasant surprises of last year's NCAA Championships after placing 48th individually and acting as Arkansas' 3rd scorer for the day. He has yet to place inside the top 10 of any meet, but his consistency and improvement indicates that he has a bright future ahead of him.
Like many other teams we've ranked so far, Arkansas' 5th man is up in air as either Austen Dalquist or Christian Heymsfield (who redshirted in 2016) could take it by season's end. These two are excellent support pieces with great experience under their belt.
The great thing about these two is that they are essentially interchangeable. Heymsfield's 2015 performances and Dalquist's 2016 performances are very similar and that is a comforting sign if you're a program trying to solidify your depth.
Of course, all great teams like Arkansas are deeper than just five guys. Other impact runners like Aidan Swain and Kyle Levermore are talented individuals with the potential to breakout and have an impact on this squad. I'll be watching their performances to see how they progress throughout 2017.
At this point in the article, I typically point out a concern or a weak area of the team. However, if we're being honest, I don't really see any achilles heel. Sure, the loss of Frankline Tonui isn't easy to overcome, but the Razorbacks showed at Nationals that they could still thrive and prosper without Tonui being a low-stick. In fact, the only reason this team isn't ranked higher is simply because I like the experience and front-runners of #1 and #2 better.
I may have said it earlier in our rankings, but this time it surely does apply. There may not be a team in the NCAA that is more complete than the Razorbacks. With experience, consistency, low-sticks, depth, and a successful legacy on their side, Chris Bucknam's team could get back on the podium and maybe even win the NCAA title for the first time since 2000.