4. Stanford Cardinal
Coach: Chris Miltenberg
Notable Departures: Sean McGorty, Garrett Sweatt
Notable Additions: DJ Principe, Callum Bolger, Connor Lane, Michael Vernau
Projected Scoring Five:
Grant Fisher (JR) [TSR#2], Thomas Ratcliffe (SO), Jack Keelan (Rs. SR),
Sam Wharton (Rs. SR), Steven Fahy (Rs. JR)
So it turns out that Stanford's actual team name is the Cardinal. Not Cardinals. That's not really important in the grand scheme of this article, but I thought I might as well throw it out there to clarify that that isn't a typo. Anyways...
What is there to say about Stanford that hasn't already been said? For years, the Cardinal have seemingly done everything well within their program. Whether it be establishing low sticks, building their depth, or grabbing the top recruits in the nation, Stanford is always ranked among the best.
In 2017, the respect they've earned certainly won't fade as a new era of young talent seeks to sustain Stanford's reputation of excellence.
Like most cross country seasons at Stanford, the 2016 season was an interesting one that kept fans and spectators unsure of what the Cardinal planned to do with their roster. The biggest uncertainty came from Thomas Ratcliffe who showed a lot of promise at the Stanford XC Invite by earning a win in his first cross country race ever. However, the idea of redshirting Ratcliffe and preserving his eligibility was very much in play for Coach Milt who is known for his unusual racing schedules and conservative long-term approach.
After an early season rust-buster at the Stanford Invite and a controlled effort at San Francisco, the Cardinal entered Wisconsin looking to show off their "A" level squad. The results were encouraging as Grant Fisher and Sean McGorty finished 4th and 6th overall to lead the Cardinal in scoring. The trio of Sweatt, Keelan, and Wharton rounded out the top five with very respectable finishes of 32, 35, and 41. Stanford would place 2nd in the team standings with 118 points while NAU was the only team to finish ahead of them. And Thomas Ratcliffe? There was still no sign of him...
Stanford's performance at Wisconsin was exciting and it put the Cardinal in position to take the PAC 12 title. Unfortunately for them, Colorado had other plans as they pulled off the upset and forced Stanford to settle for 2nd overall despite their finishes of 2nd, 7th, 8th, 14th, and 16th. However, that 8th place finish was taken by no other than Thomas Ratcliffe. Not too shabby for his second cross country race ever...
Coach Milt and his squad shook off the PAC 12 defeat and entered the West Region Championships determined to take care of business. Sure enough, Stanford did just that by placing five in the top 25 (without Ratcliffe) and defeating Portland by 15 points to take the regional crown. It was a nice victory to rebuild their confidence, but the final task ahead was what truly mattered.
At NCAA's, Fisher, McGorty, and Ratcliffe all toed the line together for only the second time all season. With a lethal top three and an experienced group behind them, it was very possible that Stanford could walk away with the national title. That said, NAU was simply too good and when the scores were tallied, that seemed to be the case. The Lumberjacks held off a slew of impressive performances from Stanford to take the title. Still, the Cardinal ran incredibly well with Grant Fisher placing 5th overall while McGorty finished 24th. In the team scoring, Stanford took spots 4, 19, 32, 45, and 58 to earn runner-up honors and fend off a hard-charging Syracuse squad that finished 3rd.
Yet, there was one glaring miss that not many people noticed. Stanford only had six runners cross the line and Thomas Ratcliffe wasn't one of them. Why was that?
It turns out that Ratcliffe had pulled out and finished the day as a DNF. Although we don't know why he didn't finish, it is probably safe to assume that if Ratcliffe performed like he did all season, then Stanford could have been the national champions. It just goes to show how important depth can be to even the best squads in the NCAA...
Nonetheless, 2016 was an outstanding season from Stanford and this fall should be equally as exciting. Grant Fisher is a favorite to win the national XC title, Ratcliffe is no longer a secret weapon that Stanford needs to hide, and both Keelan and Wharton are using their final year of eligibility for one last title run.
Up front, it's rather obvious that Grant Fisher will be leading this team. However, Thomas Ratcliffe will most likely be flanking him throughout the entire season. With another year of experience behind Ratcliffe, he should be able to get through the big races and give the Cardinal another low-stick at every meet they compete in. In retrospect, Ratcliffe probably got robbed of a Top 50 spot in our individual rankings. He is a legit contender and someone to watch out for.
Behind Fisher and Ratcliffe are Jack Keelan and Sam Wharton, two experienced Stanford studs that have been crucial scorers on this squad for years now. Not only are they a consistent and proven duo capable of contending with the low-sticks of other programs, but they bring some much needed experience to a team that is set to have nine true underclassmen on their roster. Also, keep in mind that Sam Wharton is scary good in the postseason. He has finished 39th and 41st in two of his three NCAA Championship appearances.
At the fifth scoring spot, I like Steven Fahy who found a scoring role with this team last season. He finished 16th at PAC 12's and was Stanford's #4 at NCAA's last year. It also helps that he owns a personal best of 8:46 in the steeplechase, a nice positive that I like to see out of cross country runners.
Outside of that top five are plenty other individuals on this roster who could easily take that 5th spot. Blair Hurlock, Alex Ostberg, and Will Lauer are just a few of the names who are capable of having a role on this squad. Oh, and did I mention that Stanford may have the best American recruiting class ever? There is almost always at least one star freshman who breaks out in his first year of competition and with the accolades that this incoming group has, I wouldn't be surprised if there was more than one breakout star this fall. First it was Sean McGorty, then it was Sam Wharton, then it was Grant Fisher, and finally Thomas Ratcliffe. I imagine that trend will continue in 2017.
Of course, let's not pretend that Stanford didn't lose some crucial scorers. Sean McGorty and Garrett Sweatt are both out of eligibility and can no longer contribute to this Stanford program. That is a tough blow for the Cardinal who leaned on the low-stick scoring of McGorty as well as the consistency and experience that Sweatt brought to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th scoring spots throughout his career. Trying to replace the value of those two is a daunting task that may not be able to happen over just one season. Then again, I've been wrong about something like that before.
Sure, they may have lost two established leaders, but the Cardinal is still very much in the team title conversation. Admittedly, they'll need a few names to step up and stay healthy in order for that to happen. However, if there is one thing that I've learned about Stanford over my years of following the sport, it's to never underestimate what they are capable of. This roster is stocked with firepower that will perform when called upon.
Who knows? Maybe Grant Fisher will walk away with two gold medals in November...