Updated: Jan 13
I’m not sure how we keep letting this happen, but it seems like every year we (the collective running audience) get surprised by Coach Mark Wetmore and the Colorado Buffaloes. After a strong, but not outstanding, 2018 regular season, Colorado somehow managed to end up on the podium. Despite not finishing above 3rd place in any race before Nationals, there were only three teams better than them at the end of the season.
We know that Coach Wetmore prepares his team to peak at Nationals, and yet, we underrate them going into NCAA's because of their regular season.
Have we learned our lesson?
No, clearly not.
This year, the Buffaloes will start off in our rankings at #11 and will probably drop a few places over the next few months as they make us look foolish when they outperform their ranking once again at Nationals. Even with the loss of seniors Ryan Forsyth and Ethan Gonzales, this is a team who could end up replicating their podium performance thanks to (what should be) yet another potent top three.
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In 2018, Colorado’s top four was as good as anyone’s when everyone arrived at Madison, but it took a year of strong running and continual growth for that fact to come to fruition.
At their first big meet of the season, the Nuttycombe Invitational, Colorado snagged an 8th place finish which may have left some fans wanting more. However, what many fans began to realize as they scoured the results was that Coach Wetmore’s squad was without their ace, Joe Klecker. In his place was John Dressel and Eduardo Herrera who stepped up to record 11th and 18th place finishes, respectively. Colorado senior Ryan Forsyth gave the team yet another strong scoring presence up front in 34th place.
However, their final two varsity scorers ended up finishing 84th and 140th overall. That pair of results hindered the Buffs from moving past numerous top-tier programs. Even so, the hopeful return of Klecker later in the season was expected to significantly make up for those back end scoring gaps.
A few weeks later, the Buffaloes were back in Madison, Wisconsin where they picked up an impressive 3rd place finish, this time with Klecker back in the lineup. Running in the Cardinal race, Klecker led the way with a 5th place result while Forsyth Dressel crossed the line in 10th and 16th, respectively. Herrera had a bit of an off day, but still finished in 31st. Ethan Gonzales closed out the scoring with a respectable 50th place finish.
With both Northern Arizona and Stanford pulling of ahead of Colorado in the team standings (by significant margins), it would have been easy to focus on one area of Colorado's lineup and determine that the team was singularly faulty in one area. However, that was simply not the case. Colorado was beaten in all five scoring positions by both NAU and Stanford. If the Buffs wanted to contend with these elite superstar teams, they needed everyone to be better.
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It was a familiar scene at the PAC-12 Championships where Klecker again earned a 5th place finish. This week, though, Dressel and Herrera ran even better to give Colorado a much stronger top of the lineup. When you add in Forsyth, Coach Wetmore's group had put four men in the top 20. And yet, the Buffaloes were unable to beat neither Stanford nor Washington while barely holding off Oregon. This was due to their final scorer finishing 44th overall (41st in the team standings) which ultimately pushed them out of an upset opportunity.
At this point, it seemed fair to say that the Buffaloes were a top 10 team in the country. But top five? Well, in the minds of many, that seemed to be a stretch.
In their last race before Nationals, the Buffaloes scored yet another 3rd place finish at the Mountain Regional Championships. Their goal, however, was likely to focus on earning a national qualifier (which they did). The Buffaloes were headed back to Madison for the third time this year, but this time it was for the National Championships.
As mentioned earlier, NCAA's is where Coach Wetmore’s men went to work. Colorado put together the best top three of anyone in the country with Klecker finishing 8th, Dressel 9th, and Forsyth 11th. With Herrera finishing just outside of All-American status in 43rd, the Buffaloes had the best top four of anyone in the country besides the national champions (NAU). Admittedly, their #5 scorer finishing 147th overall is what pushed Colorado out of contention for a top spot with NAU and BYU. Even so, the fact the men from Boulder were able to put together a 4th place podium finish was incredible in it's own right.
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As we look into 2019, we can't ignore the fact that Colorado’s depth looks even more worrisome than it was last year. The Buffaloes return five of their top seven, but only three of their five scorers. Forsyth was a major component of Colorado's wicked scoring potency while Gonzales did enough at the #5 position to get the team through a heavily-contested regular season and postseason.
Don’t worry Boulder residents, their top three is so good that they should still be flirting with a top 10 ranking and/or finish at Nationals. Klecker looks to be one of the favorites to win the individual national title this year after a fantastic indoor season where he looked like one of the best runners in the country (possibly outside of Fisher and McDonald). Dressel and Herrera are both ranked in TSR’s Preseason Top 50 and both had very solid track seasons this past spring. Between the three of them, they should be able to keep their combined score under 60 points this year.
To finish inside the top 10 at Nationals last year, it required a team to score no more than 342 points. If the top three score 60 points (so think finishes of 10th, 20th, and 30th), then that leaves Colorado’s final two scorers over 280 points to work with.
Last fall, Paxton Smith and Gus Newcomb (the final two runners in last year's varsity lineup) nearly recorded 320 points at the national meet. The Buffaloes will have some work to do, but they are already close to that 280 point threshold even without any improvement.
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In order to finish higher than 10th at NCAA's, Colorado will depend on the improvement of everyone outside of their top three. Like Alabama, the Buffaloes floor is set by their top three. It would be very difficult for Colorado to finish/earn a ranking outside of the top 15 if their top three run as well as they are expected to. Their ceiling, however, will be completely decided by whoever steps in to fill the #4 and #5 spots.
Newcomb and Smith could certainly fill those roles, especially if they improve after the valuable experience they gained from last year. Yet, even with their experience, the Buffs have a few other runners who could sneak into a scoring position this fall.
First up is Gabe Fendel. The Indiana native was part of Colorado’s 2018 recruiting class that was ranked 7th in the country. He arrived at Boulder with fantastic high school PR's and prolific postseason cross country success. While he didn’t race last fall, he did run well in the spring, setting personal bests in the 1500 (3:45) and 5k (14:28). Fendel is a big-time talent who could take a big step forward for Colorado this fall and put the team closer to the podium.
This year’s freshmen class will also provide Coach Wetmore with more depth. Incoming recruits Hunter Appleton and Noah Hibbard will have key opportunities to contribute this fall. Hibbard has the best credentials on the grass with his 26th place finish at Footlocker. With PR's of 4:07 and 9:21, he also has some impressive track times. As for Appleton, he has run 9:01 and 15:10 on the track and looks to be another long-distance stud for Colorado. How quickly both of these guys can turn into varsity runners could determine how high the Buffaloes finish this year.
And what about Austin Vancil or Kashon Harrison? They are two of the better recruits that the Buffs have brought in as of late. Vancil owns a 9:09 personal best for 3200 meters and was the 6th place finisher at NXN last fall. As for Harrison, the two-time New Mexico XC state champion has run a personal best of 8:55 for 3200 meters. He too could be absolute stud with enough development. Both of these men could be immediate contributors for Colorado this fall.
Of course, all of that depends on whether or not Wetmore wants to redshirt his newest crop talent (which could very easily be a reality in the next few months).
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The concerns with Colorado are valid. They don’t have many scoring options after the top three and their team in general seems a little thin. An injury or a bad race to any of their top three would be a disaster. And yet, the potency of the trio makes this team very incredibly strong.
At the end of the day, where you rank the Buffaloes depends on your confidence in Coach Wetmore developing the back end of his lineup. With multiple national titles under his belt, count me in as someone who believes he will get his team to surpass expectations and earn another top 10 finish come November.