5. Furman Paladins
Coach: Robert Gary
Notable Departures: Austin Sprague, Matt Lange
Notable Additions: Daniel Bernal, Trenton Mandato
Projected Scoring Five:
Aaron Templeton (Rs. JR), Tanner Hinkle (Rs. SR), Troy Reeder (Rs. SR),
Frank Lara (SR), Josh Brickell (Rs. SR)
In 2013, Robert Gary entered the Furman program with the goal of replicating the same success he had during his 16 years with Ohio State. Of course, the scenario was now drastically different. Furman is a small school of approximately 3000 students who reside in the SoCon (Southern Conference). Furman didn't have the Power Five or big name appeal that Ohio State did and it certainly didn't get the recruits that the Buckeyes were receiving...until 2013.
During Gary's four years with Furman, the Paladins have been on fire with many labelling them as the biggest up-and-coming program in the NCAA. Their influx of talent has drastically improved while their performances are beginning to match those of powerhouse programs. Could 2017 be the year that it all comes together?
Much like Alabama, Furman's 2016 story is drastically different from what we can expect from them this fall. After redshirting five of their seven runners from their 2015 lineup (which placed 13th at NCAA's that year), the Paladins turned to Frank Lara and Josh Brickell to lead them through the 2016 season. At first, it was a tough adjustment as the men from Greenville, South Carolina finished 14th at Roy Griak and 11th at Pre-Nats. Yet, after cruising through their conference championships, Furman unleashed a monster performance at the Southeast Regional Championships to place 3rd overall behind NC State and UVA.
Of course, there was more to that 3rd place finish. UVA only defeated Furman by one point to take the final automatic qualifier to NCAA's. If any individual in Furman's top five had placed one spot better, Furman would have tied UVA and won on a 6th man tie-breaker to qualify for Nationals and kick the Cavaliers out of qualifying.
Although the Paladins didn't make it Nationals as a team, we have to keep in mind that this squad was one spot away from pulling off the biggest upset of 2016 without four of their five scorers from 2015 NCAA championships. I don't know if I could confidently name any team in the NCAA that could accomplish what Robert Gary's crew did in that regional meet.
At this point, some of you may be asking why those individuals from NCAA's were redshirted for the 2016 season. For programs like Northern Arizona, the answer seems rather obvious.
Earlier this summer, The Stride Report published an article titled Trust The Process which detailed how NAU redshirted a heavy portion of the top runners in 2015 and how that eventually led to a much stronger and more experienced squad in 2016. That team, of course, wound up winning the NCAA team title.
In 2017, Furman's plan is almost no different than NAU's as they bring back experienced and consistent talent like Tanner Hinkle, Aaron Templeton, and Troy Reeder to the scoring five with another year of hard training and improvement on their resume. With the return of these three individuals, 2016 leaders like Lara and Brickell will no longer be the lone Paladins leading the team scoring. This fall, we could see some of the best pack running and time-spreads that the NCAA has ever seen out of any squad. They flexed their depth and pack-mentality in 2015 and I can only imagine that they've made significant progress in the two years since then. In fact, their performances on the track this past spring were very impressive. Just take a look at some of their accomplishments from the 2017 outdoor track season below...
- Troy Reeder: 3:44 (1500) / 8:38 (3kSt.) (All-American)
- Tanner Hinkle: 14:04 (5k) / 29:15 (10k) (School Record)
- Josh Brickell: 29:24 (10k)
- Frank Lara: 14:05 (5k) / 29:32 (10k) (NCAA Qualifier)
- Ryan Adams: 3:42 (1500) (NCAA Qualifier)
- Mason Coppi: 14:10 (5k)
In case you couldn't tell, Furman's depth is just as strong as any other top 10 team. Ryan Adams and Mason Coppi are young talents and great guys to have on the roster, even if they are projected to be outside of the top five. They'll give the Paladins a sense of security and insurance should someone have an off day. Then again, this is Furman we're talking about, a team that is considered to be (at least in my mind) one of the most consistent programs in the nation.
Yet, maybe the biggest x-factor of this group is Daniel Bernal, an incoming freshman who was widely considered one of the top high school recruits of 2017. With personal bests of 8:54 and 14:29, we could see this young man have a huge role on this Furman team as they fight for the highest spot on the podium.
It's tough to dislike the Paladins this year, especially when you see all of the guys they return and compare the scenario to NAU's national championship team. However, the lack of an established low-stick is a bit concerning. In cross country, we've always been told that you need a tight pack and low time-spread to be an effective team. And so far, that has absolutely been the case for Furman. Yet, it's the guys listed in our Top 50 who separate teams and push them to the next level. With so many different moving parts and a regrouping of the 2015 squad, I would be surprised if they weren't able to develop a legitimate ace by the end of this season. Still, until that individual emerges, I have to keep at the Paladins at 5th in our rankings.
Is the Furman team perfect? No, not quite, but no team ever is. Just because Furman doesn't have a Grant Fisher or Justyn Knight on their squad, doesn't mean that they should be dismissed or underestimated. This team is very much the real deal.
In 2017 the Paladins will show all of their critics that a small school from South Carolina can contend with the big dogs of the NCAA.