Updated: Jan 13
The further we dive into our rankings, the tougher it is to differentiate why one team is better than the other. At this point, all of these programs have superstar low-sticks, strong supporting scorers, high-potential athletes, and (most of the time) respectable depth.
Much like recently ranked Wyoming (TSR#13), the Purdue men had a breakout 2018 cross country season where they asserted themselves as legitimate national contenders. They too had all the signs of a promising squad entering the fall of 2018 and they made sure to deliver on those expectations.
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The Purdue men began their season at the John McNichols Invite, putting together a 1-2-5-7-9 showing in an effort to shake off the summer rust and prepare for the larger challenges that lied ahead of them.
It wasn't until the Nuttycombe Invite that this team was given their first major test of the season, and by no means was it going to be easy. With most of the nation's top programs in the field, Purdue needed to have a statement race if they wanted to standout and make a name for themselves...which is exactly what happened.
The Boilermakers were led by star low-stick Jaret Carpenter who put together a 16th place finish against some of the nation's best individual talents. 16 spots later, he was followed by then-sophomore Curt Eckstein who grabbed a 32nd place finish to give Purdue a strong 1-2 punch. Meanwhile, Utah State transfer Brody Smith held his own, finishing 50th overall. He was followed by Theo Burgwald who placed 87th.
Despite the encouraging results from their first four finishers, Purdue showed vulnerability at the backend of their lineup with their #5 runner finishing 142nd overall (their #6 placed 145th).
However, even with the gap between their #4 and #5, the Purdue men were still able to put together a 9th place team finish to pull ahead of a very good Eastern Kentucky squad, as well as BIG 10 conference rivals Indiana and Michigan (among others).
After such a stunning performance, it was fair to suggest that the Purdue men could potentially battle for a top five spot in the Pre-Nats White race which held a number of teams that were of a similar caliber. However, the Boilermakers weren't quite able to make the same splash at Pre-Nats that they did at Nuttycombe.
Jaret Carpenter still gave the Purdue men an ace to lean on with a 9th place finish, while Smith and Eckstein rallied to finish 28th and 31st, respectively. As far their top three scorers were concerned, the Boilermakers were in a very good position.
Unfortunately, the gap between them and their next two varsity runners was relatively large. Finishes of 80th and 86th rounded out the scoring for Purdue and forced them to settle for a 7th place finish, three points behind Air Force (although they did finish ahead of Indiana).
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After a decent, but underwhelming race at Pre-Nats, the Purdue men shifted their focus to the BIG 10 Championships, arguably one of the toughest conferences in the nation in 2018. The Wisconsin men, admittedly, were out of reach thanks to their elite low-sticks. However, Coach Oliver's crew was still very much ahead of a deep field that included Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State who were eager to have statement races of their own.
However, the Purdue men learned from their Pre-Nats race and silenced any thoughts of an upset, essentially making the BIG 10 Championships a race for 3rd.
Carpenter finished 5th while Eckstein had the best race of his career, finishing 9th overall. Brody Smith earned a top 20 finish, placing 17th while freshman Bailey McIntire and senior Jake Hanawalt both finished inside the top 30 (placing 27th and 30th, respectively).
Purdue would finish 2nd, comfortably beating out 3rd place Indiana by 20 points. Overall, it was an outstanding result for the Boilermakers who showed that, on the right day, they could put together a complete top five.
The team would eventually move on to the Great Lakes Regional Championship which ended with Carpenter taking home the individual title while Eckstein placed 8th. However, finishes of 27th, 41st, and 44th weren't exactly ideal. Purdue dropped to 4th place overall, but still finished ahead of Indiana and easily secured an at-large bid to Nationals. As long as that was accomplished, it would still be considered a successful day for the men in black and gold.
However, that regional performance may have been a sign of things to come.
The National Championships were simply a struggle for the Purdue men. No one finished inside the top 100 (individually) and only two scorers finished inside the top 200. Their final spot in the team standings was 29th place.
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If I'm being honest, it's almost better that the Purdue men finished 29th at the national meet instead of 19th or 20th. No one will look back at their performance and begin to wonder if that was really the best Purdue could do. When you look at their 2018 season as a whole, it's clear that the Boilermakers were much, much better than that.
As we look ahead to 2019, there is a lot to be excited about. Just like the Wyoming men, this team returns their entire top four. Jaret Carpenter will continue to be a major threat up front while both Curt Eckstein and Brody Smith will build off of encouraging performances from last fall.
Eckstein, who ran 13:51 and 29:40 this past spring, has shown us instances where he could be a true low-stick (i.e. BIG 10's and regionals). However, he'll need to consistently produce those kind of results on a far more consistent basis.
The same goes for Brody Smith who seemingly found his groove last fall. Although he never really had one true standout race, the rising junior did run 8:47 for the steeplechase this past spring. It's clear that he has enough raw talent to have a breakout season in 2019.
After those three, there is far less certainty. 2018 varsity scorer Jake Hanawalt no longer has eligibility, leaving an empty spot in Purdue's top five and some questions as to who will fill that position. However, this roster has plenty of respectable depth that should be able to compensate for the scoring loss.
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Rising redshirt sophomore Bailey McIntire returns to the squad after a strong 2018 cross country season. Towards the end of last fall, specifically at the BIG 10 Championships, McIntire became the team's reliable #4 scorer despite his youth. With a year of experience under his belt, we can expect him to make significant jumps in his fitness this fall. After running 14:16 for 5000 meters this past spring, McIntire seems like the perfect option at the #4 spot.
The #5 spot is up for grabs, but there are a handful of men who have shown that they can step up and be key contributors. Theo Burgwald occasionally found himself at the #5 position last fall while rising sophomore Kyle Griffith, another candidate who sometimes found himself in a scoring position last fall, should make improvements as well. The same goes for fellow teammate Tyler Bowling who ran 14:28 this past spring.
Although their recruiting class may not be as flashy as a few other programs, guys like Ryan Ruppert (9:07 3200) and Ian Shaw (9:09 3200) could also add to one of the more underrated teams in the nation when it comes to depth.
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There is a lot of potential with this group and we only see them getting better. For the most part, their top three last year was extremely consistent and that's an underrated strength to have as a team.
We often sing the praises of up-and-coming coaches like Scott Dahlberg (Wyoming) and Sean Carlson (Notre Dame), but rarely do we give enough credit to John Oliver who - like Dahlberg - is also entering his third year of coaching after taking a mid-level BIG 10 team and making them national contenders.
They aren't perfect, but I would not sleep on the Boilermakers this fall...