Updated: Jan 13
Following the publication of this article, TSR was informed that James West was granted an additional year of eligibility. He is expected to compete for the Ducks this fall.
The men of Oregon are one of the most exciting and most interesting teams in the nation coming into the 2019 cross country season. Despite losing veterans like James West and Blake Haney, the Oregon men have been able to reload with a handful of strong talents. In 2019, they may end up as one of the deepest groups in the nation...
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The summer of 2018 was a tumultuous one for the Oregon Ducks. Distance coaches Andy and Maurica Powell left Eugene to oversee the Washington Huskies and with them joined a handful of their top talents. Standout miler Mick Stanovsek opted to take his talents to Seattle, while top distance ace Tanner Anderson also traveled north to join his coach. With Brodey Hasty and the Hoey brothers deciding to go elsewhere, the Oregon roster admittedly looked thin.
Yet, despite the departures, the Oregon men were still determined to put together a respectable season with Coach Ben Thomas now at the helm.
The Ducks opened up their season with a pair of rust-busters at the Oregon Preview and Dellinger Invite. With both Cooper Teare and Reed Brown racing unattached, there were questions as to whether or not we would see them during the regular season. Regardless, we still got to see encouraging performances from Jackson Mestler and a handful of others.
It wouldn't be until the Pre-Nats Cardinal race that we saw the Ducks field a full lineup which included Cooper Teare and Reed Brown.
The team's top finisher was then-senior James West who emerged in 17th place overall. Freshman Charlie Hunter wasn't far behind in 24th while the final three scorers of Teare, Haney, and Mestler placed 37-38-39.
Overall, it was a strong and formidable top five that didn't necessarily hold an weaknesses or a flawed final scorer. However, the lack of a true low-stick scoring presence was what pushed Oregon to a 4th place team finish behind NAU, Stanford, and Colorado.
Fast forward to the PAC-12 Championships and the results were what most fans expected. Stanford pulled ahead to take the team title while Washington and Colorado overwhelmed the rest of the conference with significant low-stick firepower. The Ducks held off a pair of respectable teams in Washington State and UCLA to finish 4th overall.
Cooper Teare stepped up and had what might be the best race of his cross country career, placing 6th overall. The combo of Jackson Mestler and Charlie Hunter finished 12th and 16th, respectively. Meanwhile, the backend of the lineup once again put three men in a pack with West, Thomet, and Brown finishing 30-31-32.
Just like Pre-Nats, it was a performance void of any glaring flaws, but additional firepower and a lesser gap between the team's #3 and #4 needed to be the priorities for the postseason.
As we jump to the regional meet, Oregon had a near scare, finishing 5th overall and only beating out UCLA by one point. While it's difficult to say for sure, it is very possible that if the Ducks had relinquished that one point lead to UCLA, they wouldn't have qualified for NCAA's.
Luckily, Oregon was able to rebound at the national meet where they rediscovered their composure by utilizing strong and reliable scorers to earn them a 15th place finish. Cooper Teare struggled a bit, dropping to 94th overall, but the team had enough scoring options between Mestler, Haney, Yearian, and West to give the Ducks a finish of 59-67-76-93-112.
Once again, their performance wasn't bad, it just wasn't exciting.
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It's incredible what can happen in a year. West and Haney are now gone, Cooper Teare became one of the best 5k runners in the nation this past spring, Noah Affolder transferred into the program, and the Ducks landed (arguably) the best cross country recruit in the nation in Cole Hocker.
From an overall structure standpoint, this team isn't too different from the squad that we saw last fall. Yet, at the same time, it's completely rejuvenated with young, exciting, high-potential talents who will have the opportunity to make this Oregon team uniquely special.
I think we have to start with Cooper Teare, the clear leader and star of this program. Admittedly, there has been plenty of debate among the TSR contributors - as well as the TSR readers - about where Teare ranks among the nation's elite distance runners. This past winter and spring, he was an absolute stud on the track, running personal bests of 3:59 (mile), 7:50 (3k), and 13:32 (5k). A 4th place All-American finish in the 3000 meters during indoors legitimatized Teare as one of the nation's best.
At the same time, Teare hasn't always replicated that success on the cross country course. Despite strong performances like what we saw from him at the PAC-12 Championships last fall, consistency has not always been his strong suit. He was 34th in the Pre-Nats Cardinal race and 94th at NCAA's last fall. Those aren't necessarily bad performances, but they don't equate to the results that we saw from him on the track.
That said, there is no reason why Teare can't be the same elite superstar that we saw on the track come October and November. Every sign points to him being a top 10 finisher at NCAA's...now we just need to see it.
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Let's talk about Jackson Mestler, Oregon's typical #2 who may have been one of the most overlooked and underappreciated distance runners in the nation during the 2018-2019 academic calendar year. On a team that often saw the order of their top seven vary dramatically, it was the rising senior who brought incredible consistency and reliability to the top portion of Oregon's lineup last fall.
But Mestler did more than just act as a middle-lineup scorer. The Duck ace would go on to run personal bests of 3:59 (mile), 7:57 (3k), and 13:46 (5k) during the winter, as well as 8:44 (3kSt) in the spring. Do not sleep on the potential value Mestler could bring to the table. He could be an absolute stud for the Ducks this fall.
The rest of the lineup is scattered with a handful of solid talents who will never let the team score get out of control. Charlie Hunter, Reed Brown, Jack Yearian, and Levi Thomet all made appearances as a top five scorer for Oregon at least once during the 2018 cross country season. The men from Eugene may not have had the elite front-running presence that Stanford or Colorado did in 2018, but they were arguably the most stable team in the country - an aspect that won't be changing in 2019.
However, what really makes this group exciting is not their returners. Instead, it's their new additions.
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Noah Affolder has joined the Ducks after transferring from Syracuse. The former Orange runner was one of the best steeplechasers in the nation back in 2018 and often acted as a key scorer for 'Cuse last fall. Finishing 5th at the Battle of Beantown and 13th at ACC's tells us that Affolder can be a top five contributor for the Ducks this fall.
Despite a few inconsistent performances, it's important to remember that Affolder underwent surgery prior to NCAA's last cross country season. If the newest member of Oregon's roster can regain his fitness from last year, he could be a breakout star for his new team in 2019.
But Affolder won't be the only new addition who could help the Ducks this fall. Incoming freshman Cole Hocker was one of the best distance runners in the nation last fall after placing a close 2nd at Nike Cross Nationals before winning the Footlocker national title. With an 8:56 3200 PR, it's clear that the potential impact Hocker could have on this program is monumental. Of course, that's assuming that he isn't redshirted
Oh, wait, you thought we were done talking about new roster additions? Nope, not quite.
Graduate transfer Lucky Schreiner has also joined the program after a prosperous stint with the Columbia Lions. The former Ivy League distance runner owns a personal best of 14:08 for 5000 meters and was the conference champion in that same distance this past spring.
Admittedly, Schreiner's cross country results don't necessarily standout compared to some of his new teammates. Still, his 8th place finish at the 2017 Ivy League Championships shows us that he could at least provide even more depth for this program in 2019.
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I know, it's a lot to digest. There is so much talent on this roster that it is hard to keep track of them all. The great part about this team is that because of their depth, they will never have a poor performance and will (most likely) always be in the hunt for a top team finish.
At the same time, the potential success of this group relies on a handful of scenarios all coming together in a single season.
Oregon will succeed if...
Teare can be the superstar we know he can be
Affolder can regain his fitness and stay healthy
Hocker translates his high school success to the collegiate scene
Mestler carries his momentum of improvement into cross country
The backend of Oregon's lineup closes the gap between them and the top three
Three of those five things need to happen if Oregon wants to contend for a potential spot on the podium come November. But honestly, all five of those outcomes could very easily happen.
Two years ago, the men from Eugene were left with a depleted roster and uncertainty about what their future held. But now? They have one of the highest-potential programs in the country and the opportunity to show that they can be a top four team at Nationals.
And given their history, I wouldn't bet against that...