Updated: Jan 13
In the fall of 2018, fans were treated to numerous surprises when it came to team performances. NC State wasn't expected to have the dramatic turnaround that they did halfway through last fall. Notre Dame wasn't expected to upset Syracuse for the ACC title with a relatively inexperienced group. Colorado State wasn't expected to replicate their 9th place finish at NCAA's after losing a handful of top scorers.
Frankly, there were a lot of teams who did unexpected things.
But what may have been the biggest surprise was seeing the Wyoming men come out of nowhere to emerge as one of the best squads in the country. However, in retrospect, the signs were all there. They had returned a heavy portion of their crew from 2017, they made notable improvements during the 2018 spring track season, and they even added an elite-caliber low-stick to their roster in Paul Roberts.
On paper, it wasn't a flashy team, but as we saw last season, they didn't need to be.
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After a rust-buster at the Wyoming Invite, the Cowboys were off to South Bend, Indiana to test themselves against a handful of teams who would eventually prove to be some of the best in the nation. At the Notre Dame Invite, it was clear that the BYU men were simply too strong to be stopped, but the Wyoming men held their own against Notre Dame and Furman to earn a 2nd place finish.
Paul Roberts emerged as the 3rd place finisher in a field that consisted of top-tier individual talents while Christopher Henry had a strong race of his own, finishing 8th overall. Harry Ewing and Daniel Hintz placed 20th and 27th, respectively, while Jerald Taylor finished 47th overall. It was a strong showing from the team's top scorers, but unless the backend of their lineup improved, this was likely not a team that would make it far on the national stage.
But just when you thought that you knew what kind of talent Wyoming had, they came out of nowhere at the Pre-Nationals Cardinal race to pull off what was arguably the most surprising performance of the weekend. The Cowboys were led by Paul Roberts who finished an incredible 12th place overall while the middle portion of their lineup kept a tight pack inside the top 50.
The combination of Henry, Ewing, and Hintz finished 30th, 36th, and 45th, respectively to give Wyoming a lineup that contended with some of the top programs in the nation. However, a 72nd place finish from their final scorer is ultimately what held Wyoming back from contending with the Oregon Ducks.
Regardless, a massive 5th place team finish from the Cowboys was enough to beat out a surprisingly strong Colorado State team (who would end up finishing 9th at NCAA's) as well as an up-and-coming Ole Miss squad. In a field that was stacked with powerhouse programs, the men from Laramie, Wyoming were one of the few teams who could keep up the necessary scoring potency needed to compete with the best of the best.
Yet, despite the incredible performance at Pre-Nats, the Wyoming men quickly came back down to Earth at the Mountain West Championships. Last fall, the Mountain West was arguably the third best conference in the country. Headlined by Boise State, Air Force, and Colorado State, the Wyoming men had their work cut out for them.
Even with Paul Roberts securing the individual title, the always-reliable supporting scorers of Wyoming's lineup didn't have the same impact as they did at Pre-Nats. Although the Cowboys finished 1-9-11-20, their #5 dropped to 39th which forced Coach Dahlberg's team to settle for a 4th place finish. The Cowboys were well within striking distance of both Colorado State and Air Force through four scorers, but they simply weren't able to close the gap in the second half of the scoring.
After regrouping at the Mountain Regional Championships - where the main goal was simply to qualify for NCAA's - the Wyoming men shifted their focus to the course at Madison, Wisconsin where they were aiming to prove that their Pre-Nats performance wasn't just a one-time fluke.
Sure enough, they proved just that.
Wyoming stunned the nation by putting together a 12th place team finish to close out what was arguably the best season of cross country in program history. Roberts locked down a 20th place individual finish while three other scorers ended the meet inside the top 100 for team scoring (52-85-92). Their final scorer still wasn't in an ideal position (finishing 126th in the team scoring), but a reliable middle portion was enough to put the Cowboys ahead of numerous top-tier programs.
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When you reflect on Wyoming's 2018 cross country season, it is hard not to be impressed. Their combination of a key low-stick and extremely reliable supporting scorers was wildly impressive for a team that hasn't really been a threat on the national stage until last year.
The good news for the Cowboys is that they return their entire top four from last fall. The foursome of Roberts, Henry, Ewing, and Hintz will all be seniors this year with championship experience. Although they will no longer be underdogs, we can expect this team to replicate their performances from last fall. All four of these men showed incredible consistency and they never faltered regardless of the stage they were on.
While it's often a nice luxury to integrate younger talent into your lineup, a group of veterans are far more reliable, especially when they've not only competed on the national stage, but have succeeded there as well.
However, we simply can't ignore the gap after their #4 scorer. The Cowboy's final scorer from last year (Michael Downey) has graduated, leaving the Wyoming men with a significant gap that needs to be addressed. The team does return rising junior Jerald Taylor who truthfully wasn't far behind Downey in most of the meets they ran in last year, but Taylor will still need to make major improvements. After a spring track season where he ran personal bests in the 1500, 5k, and 10k, it's safe to say that he'll continue to progress this fall, but by how much is the real question.
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That said, there are a few others who could play a role in Wyoming's lineup if everything goes right. Kentucky transfer Tom Moulai is entering the program after a very mild first year with the Wildcats. The New Zealand native has a personal best of 8:31 for 3000 meters which he ran back in 2017. If he can recreate his fitness and build upon the promising results that we saw from him two years, then there is a good chance that he may earn a spot in Wyoming's top seven in the coming months.
Then there is incoming freshman Josh Rodgers, a distance specialist who boasts a three-mile PR of 14:36. He will likely need to refine his fitness before having any notable role on this Wyoming team, but he could be an option if he shows promise and isn't redshirted.
The lineup options and overall depth for Wyoming are admittedly very limited and that could eventually come back to hurt the team in the postseason. However, with Coach Scott Dahlberg now entering his third year with the program, it is clear that he knows how to coach and turn around a program. In just two years, Dahlberg was able to transform a mediocre Mountain West squad into one of the best teams in the NCAA. With so many top names returning this fall, it's exciting to think about what he could do in year three...
Although the second half of the lineup will be a concern, the progress that we saw from both Christopher Henry and Harry Ewing this past spring was encouraging to say the least. Henry ran 29:24 for 10,000 meters while Ewing dropped an impressive time of 8:42 for the 3000 meter steeplechase. It is very possible that one of these men, if they stay healthy, could give Wyoming yet another top-tier low-stick next to Paul Roberts this fall.
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In a year where many of the nation's top programs picked up big-name transfers or brought in superstar recruits, it is Wyoming who will quietly build upon what they had from last fall.
And honestly, that may be just as good...