9. Oregon Ducks
Coach: Andy Powell
Notable Departures: Edward Cheserek, Jake Leingang, Tim Gorman
Notable Additions: Reed Brown, Cooper Teare, Connor Clark, James West
Projected Scoring Five:
Matthew Maton (JR) [TSR#17], Tanner Anderson (JR), James West (Rs. SR), Sam Prakel (Rs. SR), Reed Brown (FR)
Isn't it weird? Not seeing Edward Cheserek on Oregon's roster? The King has ingrained himself with the identity of Oregon distance running maybe just as much as Steve Prefontaine and the void he has left is certainly a big one. With Cheserek out of NCAA eligibility, fans of the sport have begun to ask themselves a very simple question..."Now what?"
Although losing the best distance runner in the NCAA is difficult to overcome, the Ducks are still poised to be a very strong and challenging squad in 2017. After all, this is Oregon we're talking about. How could they not be competitive?
After shaking off the summer rust at the Bill Dellinger Invite, the men of Oregon began their 2016 season at the Washington Invite to face off against programs like Colorado State and Washington. Despite strong competition from Colorado State, the Ducks handled the meet well and walked away with the win, 13 points ahead of CSU. Edward Cheserek was unsurprisingly the victor while Prakel, Maton, and Anderson placed 3rd, 4th and 6th. Blake Haney would round out the top five with a 12 place finish overall.
The Washington Invite was a good start to the season, but Pre-Nats would only get harder as powerhouse programs like Arkansas, Colorado, and Michigan waited to battle the Ducks. Even so, Oregon navigated the Pre-Nats field rather well. Cheserek did his job by grabbing the win while Matthew Maton had a breakout performance by finishing 4th overall. Tanner Anderson, Levi Thomet, and Sam Prakel rounded out Oregon's top five with finishes of 18th, 26th, and 36th.
That should've been the end of the meet, but faulty equipment at the finish line failed to pick up Levi Thomet's 26th place finish. Instead, Prakel was awarded the 4th scoring spot and Oregon's 6th man, who placed 151st, was erroneously assigned as Oregon's 5th scorer. That technical failure allowed Arkansas to initially win the team title.
Naturally, the score was corrected and the Ducks walked away with a team title score of 85 points, 25 points better than runner-up Arkansas. Although the equipment failure was a simple mistake, it did leave a few people questioning Oregon's depth. Were the Ducks vulnerable to an upset?
Two weeks after Pre-Nats marked the beginning of the postseason where the competition at PAC 12's would only get more difficult for Oregon. Colorado pulled off a shocking upset to take the conference crown while Stanford settled for second. The third place team was also a surprise as UCLA comfortably pulled ahead of Oregon with all five of their scorers in the top 20 while the Ducks finished a disappointing 4th place overall. Despite Cheserek taking the individual title, Maton and Anderson had off days that their teammates simply couldn't make up for. Oregon's final four scorers placed 13th, 22nd, 28th, and 30th.
It was a similar scene at the West Regional Championships as Oregon once again placed 4th overall behind Stanford, Portland, and UCLA. Cheserek and Maton both had monster races by taking the top two spots in the race. Unfortunately, no other Duck finished in the top 30 as the next three scorers finished 32nd, 42nd, and 45th. Luckily, Oregon still had plenty of Kolas points to get into NCAA's.
Up until NCAA's, it had been a rough postseason for the Ducks who were beginning to see the impact their youth was having on their depth. That, however, didn't phase the Ducks on the big stage as they put together one of their better performances of the season. Even though Cheserek didn't win the individual title, he still placed 2nd in the team scoring while Matthew Maton was 23rd and became an All-American. The final three scorers finished 54th, 82nd, and 121st in the team scoring to give the Ducks 282 points and a 9th place finish overall.
It was certainly an up and down season for the Ducks in 2016, but the good sign is that 2017 has the potential to be better, even without Cheserek. With four major additions, established low-sticks, experienced veterans, and a deep pack, this squad looks nearly unstoppable.
Let's start with Matthew Maton who will most likely take over Cheserek's low-stick role this upcoming fall. He had some monster performances last year and it looks like he'll be "the guy" with the King now gone. There may not be a better replacement for Cheserek than his protege.
Stepping into Maton's spot from last year will be Tanner Anderson who has shown plenty of progression and growth over the past year. He has learned how to race and compete with other talented individuals around the NCAA and was even able to qualify for Nationals this past spring in the 10k. Don't underestimate the low-stick he could become in October and November.
Behind those two is where things get interesting. Andy Powell and the coaching staff did an excellent job of preparing for Cheserek's departure by bringing in some elite recruits, two freshmen and two transfers. The two transfers who will be key are James West and Connor Clark.
West, an English native, boasts personal bests of 3:39, 7:58, and 14:04. His cross country fitness may be unknown, but it's clear that this is a prospective ace that will be welcomed by a team who needs to make up for the loss of Cheserek.
As for Connor Clark, the Dartmouth transfer seems to be following in the steps of Tim Gorman, a former teammate of his who finished who went on to have a successful 2016-2017 campaign as a graduate student at Oregon. Having run at the NCAA Championships in 2016 as well as owning personal bests of 8:09 and 14:10, Clark will bring some much needed experience to Oregon's depth that is still very young.
Speaking of experience, one of the more seasoned veterans on his this squad is Sam Prakel. The rising redshirt senior had a great start to his 2016 season and continued to be a reliable 4th and 5th man during Pre-Nats and the rest of the postseason. He'll need to find some consistency in the later portion of the season, but for a guy who just ran a personal best mile of 3:55 earlier this summer, I think that's more than possible.
Like many other programs, the 5th scorer is up in the air, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Reed Brown and Cooper Teare may have been the two best recruits in the nation and the Ducks got both of them. The addition of them on this squad is a huge boost for Oregon's depth as well as their future success. With college-level times and accomplishments, I would be shocked if neither of these individuals had a scoring role on this squad during their freshman year. Yes, they're that good.
Others like Blake Haney, Travis Neuman, Levi Thomet, Austin Tamagno, Bryan Fernandez, and many more will give Oregon an arsenal of top-tier distance talents to choose from at any point in the season. Their mix of youth and experience is what makes this group so dangerous.
Although there is a lot to like about the Oregon Ducks, there are a few minor imperfections. The loss of Edward Cheserek can not be overlooked and even with the addition of five-star recruits and transfers, his absence will be very noticeable. At the same time, no one is exactly sure how well James West and Connor Clark will adjust to a new environment and training program that is hundreds of miles away from home. Because of that uncertainty, I have to keep the Ducks at #9, but I will happily better their spot throughout the season.
Oregon is bound for success in 2017. Part of that is because of their impressive roster and the other part is simply because of their legacy. For a team that has made Nationals 10 out of the past 11 years, I'm not ready to start betting against them now. If everything goes right this fall (which it usually does for Oregon) the Ducks could find themselves on the podium once again.