Updated: Jan 13
Could Alabama be the first team not centered around its distance squad to win NCAA's in a while? Are five elite runners and extremely limited depth enough to carry an entire team to the podium? Will the Crimson Tide be the first team since the 1999 Razorbacks to win a cross country title and an outdoor track title in the same year?
These were some of the wild questions that were swirling around Alabama’s cross country team as they entered the 2018 season.
It is crazy to remember that this time last year, one of the most interesting stories was the Alabama cross country team and its chances at a national title. After qualifying for Nationals the year before, it looked like Bama was headed towards a podium finish. Returning were the Alabama Tri and two newly recruited Kenyans - Noel Rotich and Octopias Ndiwa - who were supposed to fill out the rest of the top five and lead the Crimson Tide to the promised land.
Coach Dan Waters went all-in on his five Kenyans to make a run at a podium finish while also being competitive during the track season. Unfortunately, the 2018 cross country season didn’t exactly pan out the way that Alabama had hoped it would. Only one member of the Alabama Tri, Alfred Chelanga, raced last fall as the team struggled with injuries throughout the entire year. New members of the team (Rotich and Ndiwa) did not finish a single race last fall while Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen were both (officially) shut down after Nuttycombe. Alabama didn’t perform poorly – they just had some awful luck, and their season shows just how quickly things can change in our sport.
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Normally, we would go through each team’s season and review the highlights, but with Alabama there isn’t much to take away from their 2018 season. Instead, breakout seasons should be highlighted. Although injuries dampened expectations, it wasn’t a total loss of a season, seeing that Chelanga did qualify individually for Nationals, and Alabama was able to develop some of their younger guys.
One runner in particular who took a step forward – and someone who could be essential to the team – is James Brinyark. The junior ran the race of his life to finish 29th at the South Regional Championships and went on to set new personal bests during the indoor track season. For a shallow Alabama lineup, it is important for them to find another person who can help them build out a solid top five.
Like last year, Alabama will be bringing in fresh talent who will hopefully help them shore up their depth issues. Eliud Kipsang is the prize recruit who has the potential to make an impact on this team. With personal bests of 1:48, 3:43, and 8:20 (3k) - all of which were run at altitude but are true times and are not converted - Kipsang clearly brings value to the table.
However, despite his talent, it seems clear that Kipsang is more of a middle distance runner much like Octopias Ndiwa. Does that mean he can't be a scorer for the team? No. But should we expect to see him at the same level as Kigen and Kiprop or even Noel Rotich? Truthfully, it's tough to say. The uncertainty with him is part of what makes Alabama such a difficult team to rank.
Another fresh face who will help Alabama reenter the national picture is former NAU runner Elliot Gindi. While the former Lumberjack admittedly struggled a bit at NAU (at least on the track), he has performed well in some cross country races. Most notably, he ran 24:47 in the Nuttycombe "B" race to finish 5th last fall. It will be fascinating to see how Gindi performs when he is racing more often and training outside of Flagstaff.
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Of course, some familiar faces will be leading Alabama. Gilbert Kigen returns to the grass after an exceptional indoor and outdoor season which him our preseason #2 runner. The All-American finished runner-up in the 10k a few months ago and will look to pick up where he left off in 2017. It is easy to forget (since it was two years ago), but Kigen finished 4th at the 2017 National Championships behind Justyn Knight and the NAU dominant duo of Day and Baxter.
The last remaining member of the Alabama Tri had a solid indoor season, but we didn’t see much of him outdoors. Kiprop’s health is the biggest x-factor for the Crimson Tide. If he isn’t close to 100%, Alabama is at risk of not qualifying for Nationals. However, if he is back to his 2017 form (which is what we are assuming), then there is a good chance he leads Bama back to NCAA's.
If there is anyone who has a chance at filling in Chelanga’s third spot of the Crimson Tri, it is Noel Rotich. Despite having struggled with injuries in the fall, Rotich bounced back in the spring to run 14:03. The steeplechaser struggled in his main event, but he could give Alabama a bridge between the top two and the rest of their lineup. He isn't expected to make up for the scoring potency of Chelanga, but he'll likely be a solid #3.
With the incoming additions, Alabama has improved their chances at qualifying for Nationals greatly, but how well they do at Nationals depends on how their new signees do this year. With a strong front group, it will be the backend of the lineup that decides Alabama’s finish – which makes them incredibly hard to evaluate.
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If Kipsang, Gindi, and Brinyark run well, then this is a team that could have top 10 aspirations, but that is a big ask. Kiprop and Kigen running well will raise their floor, but raising the ceiling is up to everyone else.
Obviously, keeping everyone healthy is the main goal after last year’s tough season, but this year’s Crimson Tide should be shooting for one of their highest finishes at Nationals in a while. While Kigen and Kiprop will be getting all the headlines, the most interesting part of Alabama’s season will be monitoring the progress of everyone behind them.
In what is shaping up to be a much improved South region – with teams such as MTSU and Florida State receiving an infusion of talent into the top of their lineups – the Crimson Tide will need to score points early and often to ensure their place at Nationals. With the best cross country duo in the country, Nationals is where Alabama could shine.