Updated: Jan 13
One of the biggest storylines during last year’s cross country season was Morgan McDonald’s rise to the top and the possibility of him winning a national title on his home course. After being extremely competitive in the NCAA for years - with a few redshirt seasons mixed into his resume - the NCAA cross country crown was McDonald’s to take. Athletes like Grant Fisher and Edwin Kurgat gave him a run for his money, but McDonald ended up winning it all in Madison. When picturing the Wisconsin program, McDonald’s name was likely the first to come into anyone’s mind.
Of course, McDonald has since exhausted his eligibility and has signed a professional contract with Under Armour. Even so, the Wisconsin team has a stable of talented runners and a new crop of young Badgers coming in to fill the ranks. After an 8th place finish at last year’s NCAA Championships, Mick Byrne’s crew will be looking to rise up again in an effort to dominate the BIG 10, the Great Lakes region, and even the NCAA.
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Last fall, Wisconsin raced rather sparingly, and we can likely expect them to follow a similar schedule in 2019. They opened things up at the Badger Classic in mid-September, beating out Marquette and Arkansas in a three-way battle. Star frontmen Morgan McDonald and Oliver Hoare sat this one out as Olin Hacker took the individual win to lead the Badgers to a 1st place team finish.
Two weeks later, the Badgers stayed on home turf for the Nuttycombe Invitational. Despite taking 2nd to a loaded Northern Arizona team that would go on to win their third consecutive national title, Wisconsin beat out strong, established programs like Portland and Iowa State.
It was at this point that Wisconsin became part of the national title conversation. Taking down the perennially powerful Portland Pilots was a good indicator that the team was ready to be part of the podium conversation.
Morgan McDonald's individual win greatly helped the team score. Oliver Hoare's 15th place showed us that he was very much a legitimate low-stick for the Badgers. To make things even better, Olin Hacker had a standout race, placing 19th overall while then-junior Ben Eidenschink finished 33rd. Wisconsin clearly had one of the best top four's of the meet, but a 75th place finish from their #5 was a scoring gap that would eventually need to be addressed.
Fast forward two more weeks and the men of Wisconsin were back at it in Madison, this time in the Cardinal race at Pre-Nats. In an effort to prepare for the postseason, Coach Byrne rested most of their studs. As a result, true freshman Shuaib Aljabaly led the team with a respectable 46th place finish which eventually resulted in a 13th place finish for the team. While it wasn't necessarily a remarkable performance on paper, it gave the Wisconsin coaching staff a better idea of what kind of talent their overall depth held.
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For their first away race of the season, Wisconsin headed to the University of Nebraska for the BIG 10 Championships. It was there that McDonald, Hoare, and Ben Eidenschink took spots 1-2-4 which eventually gave the Badgers only 38 points, 50 better than 2nd place Purdue. Putting all five scorers in the top 20 made for a dominant victory and created great momentum heading into the regional meet.
At the Great Lakes Regional Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, Wisconsin unleashed another potent scoring punch. Hacker, Hoare, and McDonald took places 5-6-7 which were eventually followed up by Eidenschink and Aljabaly in 15th and 16th. No other team could match this depth which left the Badgers punching their ticket to NCAA's with relative ease.
The National Championship came with lots of great storylines, one of which was Morgan McDonald finally getting his title - not to mention doing it in front of a home crowd. Oliver Hoare finished 17th overall, showcasing his range and adding yet another All-American honor to the other end of the distance spectrum. With Hacker placing 56th, it was clear that Wisconsin was going to finish among the top teams in the nation. However, finishes of 104th and 120th from their final two scorers ultimately kept Wisconsin off the podium with an 8th place finish.
Morgan McDonald went on to win three NCAA titles on the track (3k and 5k indoors, 5k outdoors) to cap off a successful year for the program. With Hoare, Hacker, and other experienced athletes returning to the lineup this fall, Wisconsin will be shooting for another top 10 spot when they toe the line in Terre Haute this November.
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The good news for the Badgers in 2019 is that five of their top seven from last year will be returning. McDonald and Tyson Miehe have graduated, leaving behind a solid core of returners. The BIG 10 and Great Lakes titles will still be in reach for Mick Byrne's group, although losing an elite superstar like McDonald will give them far less cushion.
The Badgers have an exciting group of recruits coming in who have the potential to make an immediate impact this fall. Leading the way is Jackson Sharp of Australia who has run 3:46 for 1500 meters, 8:14 for 3000 meters, and 14:25 for 5000 meters. Sharp will be a true freshman and these times stack up against the top recruits from the United States.
Joining Sharp will be Jack Meijer of Great Britain who comes in with personal bests of 3:54 for 1500 and 8:27 for 3k. Sharp and Meijer will be joined by two Wisconsin natives: David Vannucchi and Rowen Ellenburg. Both have run 9:17 for 3200 meters and have run 4:16 and 4:11 in the mile, respectively.
This solid recruiting class will help this team build depth in order to improve their scoring stability. In addition to what should be an immensely improved backend, Oliver Hoare is currently ranked #11 in our individual rankings. Having a low-stick like him will keep Wisconsin in contention for those aforementioned conference and regional titles. His 3:37 speed over 1500 meters makes him one of the fastest milers in the NCAA - not an accolade you want the guy next to you to have with 400 meters to go. Olin Hacker also earned a spot in our XC Top 50 at #49. Having another possible All-American will be huge for the Badgers.
Between Eidenschink and Aljabaly, it's clear that the top five of this lineup will bring valuable experience while also providing consistent, reliable scoring.
At the same time, it will be extremely difficult to replace the consistent 1st place finishes that we saw from McDonald. Although the depth and scoring options will arguably be more plentiful than what we saw from Wisconsin in 2018, McDonald's replacement will theoretically add roughly 30 additional points (at least) per race when you look at their new projected top five.
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With a combination of powerful returners and fast newcomers, Wisconsin should be in a great position to solidify themselves as a top 10 contending team once again. Veterans like Hoare and Hacker will need to step up and drive down the score like they did last fall, especially with McDonald no longer around. Others such as Eidenschink, Aljabaly, the new recruits, and maybe even Seth Hirsch will become important factors in forming a tight pack to lower the team’s time spread.
The big question will be whether or not Wisconsin can find a third All-American candidate to join Hoare and Hacker. This could be the difference maker for the Badgers this fall as they will face increasingly stronger competition in the postseason.
At the end of the day, Mick Byrne is one of the most experienced and most accomplished coaches in the NCAA. Don't be surprised if the Wisconsin men defend their conference and regional titles this fall...