Updated: Jul 19, 2018
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Coach Fox and Coach Bell had a plan. With the support of their Athletic Director and a generous scholarship budget, the Orange were able to slowly construct one of the best pure distance programs in the nation. The rise of Syracuse was impressive, but they were still a tier away from being true national contenders...until their 2014 recruiting class.
The 2014 recruiting class brought in the Big Three additions of Justyn Knight, Colin Bennie, and Philo Germano. Knight and Bennie would have an instant impact on an already stacked Syracuse roster. Meanwhile, Germano was quietly going to work, ready to become the best kept secret of the 2015 cross country season.
Fast forward to the 2015 National Championships. Syracuse has won the national title after defeating the favorites, Colorado. Knight and Bennie gave the Orange low-sticks to lean on while Germano had the race of his life to become an All-American and finish as the team's 4th scorer.
It's amazing what a handful of talented individuals can do for your squad. Had it not been for the 2014 recruits, Syracuse may not be considered the distance powerhouse we see them as today. More importantly, they may not have won that national title.
However, the time has come for that 2014 class to part ways with Syracuse now that their eligibility has come to an end. With so many big-name individuals exiting the program, the need for new talent and future scorers is at an all-time high. Luckily, the 2018 recruits look just as good as the 2014 additions...and maybe even better.
Let's start our conversation with the New York star who has been dominating his state over the past year. Nathan Lawler is a true long distance runner who is almost the perfect fit for this Syracuse team. His speed isn't quite as strong as some of the other recruits, but his personal best of 14:57 in the 5k makes him one of the best distance recruits in the nation. Yet, as fast as his personal bests are, his accomplishments are equally impressive. The Pittsford-Mendon high schooler was a two-time National Championship qualifier in cross country. He qualified for Nike Cross Nationals in 2016 (after placing 2nd in his region) and later qualified for Footlocker Nationals this past fall (2017).
However, what may make Lawler most valuable is his steeplechase experience. His personal best of 9:37 is incredibly strong for someone who is still so young. In fact, he's only run that event twice. Coach Fox has recently built a reputation of taking New York steeplechasers and turning them into national contenders. Just look at what he's done with Aidan Tooker and Noah Affolder. With Lawler on the squad, Syracuse is looking to create a steeplechase dynasty.
We can talk about Lawler all day, but when you talk about Lawler, you need to talk about his New York counterpart Silas Derfel. When you look at Derfel's profile, his times don't exactly jump off the page compared to his fellow recruits. However, it's Derfel's experience and exposure to National Championships that make him a key addition. The Ithaca native qualified for NXN in 2016 and finished 4th at his NXN regional race in 2017. That 4th place finish should have been enough for Derfel to qualify for Nike Cross Nationals. He would later go on to place 19th at the NXN Championships, enough to become an All-American. Derfel is a two-time national qualifier, a New York state champ, and an absolute stud during cross country. All of those qualities making him a strong fit for a 'Cuse program that is typically XC oriented.
There were only a handful on runners in the Northeast capable of competing with Lawler and Derfel throughout their high school careers. One of those runner was Thomas Witkowicz, the Ontario, Canada recruit who actually defeated both Lawler and Derfel at the McQuad Invite to take the win. With personal bests of 3:58 (1500) and 8:30 (3k), Witkowicz looks like one of the better recruits capable of becoming a scorer in both xc and track in his first year (with the proper development). Luckily, Syracuse has a phenomenal reputation for developing Canadian athletes like Justyn Knight. Witkowicz could very easily continue the success of Canadians at Syracuse.
As we move our conversation away from New York and Canada, we won't have to go far to find our next recruit, Noah Beveridge. As a Pennsylvania native, I have had the opportunity to watch this Butler high schooler race on multiple occasions. Although I may be biased, he is arguably the gutsiest runner I have seen in a long time. Only Kevin James, a rising Syracuse senior, has matched the race aggression that I have seen from Beveridge (which is a good thing).
The western Pennsylvanian compiled three different runner-up finishes at the state championships (one for each season) while earning strong PR's of 4:12, 9:07, and 15:13. Syracuse may be a program focused on the 3k, 5k, and 10k distances, but Beveridge can give them some help in the mile while also being a contributor elsewhere. He reminds me a lot of the former Syracuse miler Adam Palamar who ran 3:57 and became an All-American.
Coach Fox takes a lot of pride in the fact that a heavy portion of his roster comes within a five hour radius of the Syracuse campus. In a way, much of the Syracuse roster is filled with "home grown" talent. However, this 2018 class is a bit different when you consider that Matt Scrape is from Ohio and Michael Phillips is from Florida. Of course when you're a fast as these two, where you are from doesn't matter.
Matt Scrape has been one of the better high schoolers in the nation when it comes to the distance events. He has been one of the key leaders who has helped Ohio distance running gain relevance. Not just in the Midwest, but throughout the country. Having to consistently battle guys like Dustin Horter, Zach Kreft, and Chad Johnson (albeit in different classifications) forced Scrape to elevate his fitness and he did just that.
Between his 8:59 and 14:59, Scrape has proven that he is an elite long distance runner. His performances indicate that he could make a smooth transition to the longer distances at the collegiate level. It also helps that he has a 4:13 PR which is a nice display of speed and turnover for someone that isn't considered a mid-distance runner.
With 28 career wins, silver and bronze finishes at the Ohio XC State Championships, a 19th place finish at Footlocker Nationals this past year, and wicked fast times, you have to admit that Scrape is incredibly well-rounded.
As if Scrape's resume wasn't impressive enough, Michael Phillips will provide even more firepower to the Orange. The 16th place finisher at Footlocker Nationals has been one of the best distance runners in the state of Florida over the past few years. In fact, he's been one of the best runners in the nation. He took the title at the Adidas Boost Boston Games with a 4:08 and later finished 5th at Brooks PR with a HUGE personal best of 4:06 (ranked 7th in the nation). He also finished runner-up at the Great American Cross Country Festival with another electrifying time of 14:58. To cap it all off, he finished 2nd at the FSU Relays with an 8:54 which ranked him 11th in the nation.
On paper, Phillips is the most impressive addition. It's quite possible that Phillips finds himself in Syracuse's top seven at some point this fall. The only uncertainty I have is how the Floridian will be able to handle the chilling cold of central New York.
It's difficult to truly emphasize just how talented this group is. These five rising freshmen are full of raw potential and bring a unique level of fitness that will best be used on the Syracuse roster. Only time will tell how good these recruits end up being. However, if their accomplishments are any indication, then the dominance that we've seen from the Orange won't stop any time soon.
Who knows? Maybe another Syracuse national title is in the near future...