The last team not named Northern Arizona to win the NCAA team title began its reign last year with top 10 aspirations. And truthfully, why shouldn’t they have had high expectations? Even with the loss of Justyn Knight and Colin Bennie, the Orange were returning Aidan Tooker, Noah Affolder, and Iliass Aouani – all of whom were prospective All-Americans.
Unfortunately for the Syracuse men, the season wasn’t what many anticipated. Aouani wasn't the contributor many thought he could be, and Affolder dealt with health problems towards the end of the fall. While there were certainly bright moments, the end of the season was a tough pill to swallow for a team who had won a national title three years prior. How Syracuse bounces back from their solid, but less-than-ideal 2018 season will tell us a lot about the program and what the future will hold for the men in orange.
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It is ironic that the season had a frustrating end because the start looked very promising. In TSR’s preseason rankings, Syracuse earned the #12 spot back in 2018, and even that ranking seemed low after their strong start. At the Battle of Beantown, the Orange put five runners in the top 13 and absolutely dominated a field that held top programs such as Washington and Ole Miss. Tooker and Affolder led the squad with a pair of top five finishes while the depth behind them looked like some of the best scorers in the country.
Syracuse’s next challenge was at Pre-Nationals in the White race where they would once again face a strong Washington team, along with other national contenders (i.e. BYU). As a sign of things to come for both squads, Syracuse ran respectably to earn a 3rd place finish, but were crushed by the Huskies who avenged their early season loss to the Orange. The bright spot was the performance by Tooker who had the race of his life to finish runner-up in between a pack of BYU runners. Other lineup options such as Simon Smith and Joe Dragon had solid races finishing 56th and 59th, respectively.
The ACC Championships provided yet another surprising result as the Notre Dame team that Syracuse had beaten a few weeks earlier upset the Orange to bring home the ACC title. Syracuse didn’t run poorly – the Irish just ran better. Tooker struggled to replicate his previous race, but there were plenty of others who stepped up. Dragon finished one spot behind Tooker to earn a 9th place run while Kevin James ran well to finish 12th. ACC's also showed that Syracuse had plenty of depth that should help them in the future. Underclassmen Nathan Henderson and Dominic Hockenbury produced top 25 finishes while junior Simon Smith placed 26th. While it was disappointing not to win, the future of the team appeared to take some steps forward.
Optimism for the present and the future continued at the Northeast Regional Championships where Syracuse dominated. Tooker, Dragon, and Hockenbury finish 6th, 7th, and 8th, while Smith came in right behind in 17th.
The young squad was headed to Nationals where there was hope that they could match their 13th place finish from last year. It was not to be. Dragon earned the only top 100 finish as he was the 90th runner to cross the line while the rest of the team struggled mightily. As the dust settled, they finished the season as the 26th best team in the country.
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When news came out that Noah Affolder was headed west and transferring to Oregon, the future of Syracuse cross country seemed a bit unclear. However, this past track season proved that the ACC runner-ups will continue to be competitive for years to come. Tooker ran sub-4 indoors in the mile and earned a PR in the 5k with his 13:48 before his season ended early with an injury. The rest of the squad ran lifetime bests in the 5k from Dragon at 14:05 to Smith at 14:16. James, Dragon, and Hockenbury also all ran under 30 minutes in the 10k. These improvements - paired with solid performances from freshman Matthew Scrape, Noah Beveridge, and Michael Phillips - show that Syracuse will have plenty of depth this fall.
To replace Affolder and Aouani, the Orange are bringing in two solid freshmen who could not only bolster the team's depth, but add high-potential firepower to their lineup. The first, Kevin Robertson, hails from Ottawa, Canada and brings with him some significant foot-speed. With PR's of 3:41 in the 1500 and 9:00 in the steeple, he looks like he will fit in perfectly next to Tooker. The second, Alex Comerford, is a 9:01 3200 runner who finished 8th in the New Balance Indoor Nationals 5k with a time of 15:07. Both of these youngsters, Robertson specifically, are nice additions as the team continues to build back towards a podium finish.
The key for this year - as it is for many - is internal growth. For the past few years, Syracuse has recruited some of the best young talents in the United States and Canada. Some of their top recruits haven't been unleashed into collegiate competition yet and have instead been redshirted while slowly refining their fitness. Guys like Thomas Witkowicz and Nathan Lawler were two superstar recruits who saw little to no action during the 2018-2019 academic calendar. They could be extremely valuable x-factors when all is said and done.
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For the Orange to earn this #17 ranking and exceed it, they will need big improvements from the backend of their lineup and more consistency from their top two of Tooker and Dragon. The Orange have so many solid runners that a few should take a step forward – and with a top low-stick, this is a team that might surprise people. After a national meet where everything went wrong, this year’s Syracuse team - with all their depth - will be one of the most consistent, if not dominant, teams in the country.
One last point. Another aspect that we may have underrated in Syracuse’s "down" season was the loss of Coach Chris Fox who left to coach Justyn Knight professionally and Reebok TC. New coach Brien Bell was Fox’s right hand man as they built the Syracuse powerhouse, so the transition appeared seamless. Of course, just with any change, there is a chance for new issues to bubble up.
Based off of their performances last season, it may seem safe to suggest that the Orange peaked a bit early. That is something that will likely be addressed this fall as Bell further crafts his plan and vision of what Syracuse cross country can be. After a year one test run, Bell will have a much better idea of how he wants to approach 2019 and beyond.
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In the grand scheme of things, it seems almost absurd to think that Syracuse won't be a competitive team this fall. Tooker is a better low-stick than most people realize while both Joe Dragon and Kevin James are underrated veteran supporting scorers who have showed flashes of brilliance at meets like Beantown and ACC's. The team has incredible depth and room to grow in the second half of their lineup.
In other words, the options are endless.
The inconsistencies, admittedly, are a legitimate concern and their frontend firepower isn't quite at the same level as other teams in our Top 20. Still, the overwhelming talent throughout this Syracuse roster will make them a major threat to reclaim the ACC title in 2019.