Updated: Feb 1, 2019
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There may not be a team in the entire nation with a history of success in the mid-distances like Penn State. Sure, certain teams like Virginia Tech and Ole Miss have had great success over the past few years, but Penn State has consistently been the best for as long as I can remember.
Just think back to some of the superstars that have come out of this program in the past decade. Whether it was Casimir Loxsom, Robby Creese, Brannon Kidder, or Isaiah Harris, the Nittany Lions have dominated the middle distances like no other.
Yet, much like Wetmore and his Colorado squad, the men entering this program aren't scrubs. They are high-level athletes capable of being the best, not just in the BIG 10, but in the entire NCAA.
As we look through Penn State's 2018 recruits, it is arguably their best year ever (in the distance events). Collectively, the Nittany Lions were able to recruit six different guys with personal bests of 1:52 or better in the half-mile. There's a reason why Penn State is the self-proclaimed "800U".
However, it wasn't just the 800 that improved. PSU was able to address other areas in their distance squad which is a key reason why they are ranked in our top five.
Our discussion should begin with the Northport brothers, Elijah and Isaiah Claiborne. Some have argued that they are the best high school brother duo ever when you look at their entire body of work. Elijah has a heavier focus on the mid-distance events with strong personal bests of 1:52 and 4:10. Meanwhile, Isaiah Claiborne will give the Nittany Lions some help in the longer distances with a monster 3200 PR of 8:58. Of course, Isaiah can do more than that. His incredible range has also given him personal bests of 1:51 and 4:10. He may be the most dynamic recruit Penn State has ever had.
Together, this duo will give Happy Valley a mean 1-2 punch with the capability to run more than just the 800 (like Creese and Kidder). Penn State has had great success with twins on their team in the past like the Dawson brothers and McGowan brothers (who are also Northport alum). I don't see why that would change with the Claiborne's.
Let's briefly jump out of New York and transition to the in-state recruits. Isaac Davis from Jersey Shore Area (yes, that is in Pennsylvania) is a solid, underrated piece who could provide some scoring for the Nittany Lions in the longer distances. The cross country specialist has run with the smaller schools in AA, a state division that typically doesn't have the depth that AAA has. However, some of the best talent at the top of AA are not push-overs by any means and they haven't been for quite some time. That's why it's important to not undermine the 9th, 3rd, and 1st place finishes Davis has had at State Championships over the past three years. The PA distance star was undefeated in his senior year of cross country through states. He's incredibly consistent and a reliable guy who will almost definitely score points for this squad in the future. After all, he does have 64 wins in his high school career...
Staying in the state of Pennsylvania we have Hudson Delisle, a mid-distance specialist that has been one of the best in the state since his junior year. During the 2017 track seasons, Delisle was an absolute monster. Not only did he run a personal best of 1:52 that year, but he was one of the very few who was capable of challenging the eventual indoor national record holder Josh Hoey. Unfortunately, an injury during his senior season was a bit of a set back for Delisle. When he's at full strength and completely healthy, he is just as good as anyone in this recruiting class.
As we jump back out of Pennsylvania, we find ourselves with a lethal group of recruits in Malual Mu, Ben Bulkeley, Chris Hughes, and Drew Maher. Mu and Maher have completely dominated the state of New Jersey over the past few years while Bulkeley and Hughes have been battling the Claiborne's In New York.
Ben Bulkeley is a two-time state champ and seven-time national qualifier who has a personal best of 1:50 in the 800, but also has a PR of 2:26 in the 1000 meters. Bulkeley and Isiah Claiborne both have personal bests of 2:26, a time that some of the better mid-distance collegians never hit. Granted, the 1000 meters isn't run all that often in college, but it is a great indication of fitness. A time like that shows just how dangerous Bulkeley will be in the future. It's scary to think about his potential in a program like PSU.
Much like Isaac Davis, Chris Hughes is a long-distance stud capable of helping out the blue and white in the longer distances. Not only does Hughes have strong PR's of 9:16 and 15:17, but he also owns a New York state title. His speciality in the endurance events could be a big help when trying to fill the gap left by Tim McGowan's eligibility expiring.
Malual Mu will be another top-tier addition to the Nittany Lions who is well respected on the track. The Trenton Central high schooler brings a little bit of everything to the table. He has PR's 1:51 and 4:14, has 32 career wins, three national championship appearances, and some solid range in the longer distances with a 15:48 PR. It's not uncommon for the PSU middle distance group to enter their athletes in everything from the 400 to the mile. That could favor Mu who seems capable of running well in whatever he's put in.
The final name to mention is Drew Maher. The New Jersey native with mind-boggling PR's could have an instant impact on a roster that is incredibly deep. Not only does he have personal bests of 1:49 and 4:08, but his experience at some of the nation's biggest meets also brings a lot of value. He was 6th at the Adidas Boost Boston Games and 3rd at Penn Relays, both with a 4:11 finish. Not only that, but his five appearances at New Balance Nationals yielded four All-American appearances.
Much like Syracuse's focus on the longer distances, these recruits perfectly match the team philosophy and strengths of Penn State. The Nittany Lions will continue to be recognized as a mid-distance powerhouse over the next few years once these younger guys develop. However, Coach Gondak's squad will also receive some help in cross country and the longer distances thanks to Isaiah Claiborne and Isaac Davis.
There's still work to be done and nothing is ever guaranteed. Still, the level of success we could see from this group is exciting. They have already displayed electrifying finishes in high school and there is nothing to say that they won't continue that in the future. In my mind, State College just got a whole lot better...