Updated: Jan 13
Consistent. Solid. Reliable. Competitive.
Those are some of the words that first came to mind when I began to think about NC State's program as a whole.
Admittedly, it was tough to place them at only #21 in our rankings. Just like #22 Iona, the Wolfpack had a less-than-ideal regular season, but thrived when it came to championship racing. It is very possible that the Wolfpack will eventually prove to us that they are (once again) capable of being a top 15 team.
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The fall of 2018 started off slowly for the Wolfpack men. Their first meet of the year would take place at the Nuttycombe Invite which held a field of elite top-tier teams. Ian Shanklin led the scoring with a 47th place finish while Elijah Moskowitz and Gavin Gaynor finished 54th and 76th, respectively. However, the gap between those three and their bottom two is what ultimately cost the Wolfpack a better finish with placements of 137th and 144th.
The end result was NC State finishing 16th overall in the team standings.
Although the Wolfpack likely didn't run as well as they wanted to, they could at least take solace in the fact that they had a solid and reliable top three. The team would look to rebound at the Pre-Nats White race in hopes that they could rework their bottom two.
But that race? Well, frankly, it just wasn't good.
In what was arguably the weaker of the two races, the NC State men simply struggled. Shanklin once again led the squad with a 55th place finish while Gaynor placed 76th (again). However, this would be the first time that sophomores Joe Bistritz and Edwin Rutto were injected into the varsity lineup. They finished 95th and 100th, respectively while Moskowitz rounded out the top five with by finishing 102nd.
NC State walked away with a 14th place finish behind teams that they should have easily defeated. For a program that had been so historically great, their regular season performances were extremely underwhelming.
But then the postseason began...and that all changed.
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The ACC Championships was highlighted by Notre Dame and Syracuse, but no one was expecting NC State to finish 3rd over a Virginia team that had just won the Penn State Open. Shanklin led the way for the Wolfpack once again with his 7th place finish being (without question) the best race of his season up and to that point.
But the major improvements didn't stop with Shanklin. Rutto grabbed a 14th place finish and was closely followed by Moskowitz and Gaynor in 17th and 18th place, respectively. Bistritz closed out the top five by finishing 29th.
It was an incredibly encouraging performance, but could NC State replicate that performance at the Southeast Regional Championships? In retrospect, they would have scoffed at such a suggestion.
The Wolfpack men dominated at their regional meet, going 11-12-15-21-24, upsetting Eastern Kentucky, and easily clinching an automatic berth to the National Championships. Coach Geiger's squad suddenly looked like a whole a new group in the postseason.
That momentum only continued at NCAA's. Shanklin continued to lead the team with a 54th place finish to give NC State some scoring potency while the rest of the top five stayed true to their Wolfpack name. Their next four finishers would place 88th, 89th, 96th, and 98th, giving NC State a four second time spread through their last four scorers and a 26 second time spread through their entire top five.
NC State would end the season with a stunning 11th place finish at Nationals.
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After all of that, it feels almost disrespectful to place NC State at #21, especially when you realize that they return four of their top five from last year. They have a rising star in Ian Shankin and a promising core of supporting scorers. So what gives?
Their 2018 postseason was magical, but their regular season was truthfully pretty ugly. We completely understand that the entire point of a college cross country season is to compete well when it matters the most and running well at Nationals clearly matters a ton. But poor performances at meets like Nuttycombe and Pre-Nats cannot be ignored.
Luckily, the top four of this group - Shanklin, Gaynor, Rutto and Bistritz - have all shown that they can be solid scorers and that they all have tremendous growth potential. Their experience on the national stage is extremely valuable and they can even run together in packs (which is great from a scoring stability standpoint). When you add in Dayton transfer JP Flavin (28:58 for 10k), then you begin you begin to realize that this team has a legitimate top five despite some inconsistencies.
However, losing both Moskowitz and Sheehan from last year's lineup is going to hurt as it will leave NC State with very little depth. The drop-off was from their #5 runner to their #6 runner last year was significant and it won't be much better with these veterans now out of the equation. If someone has a bad day or falls off pace, then their score could skyrocket.
That may sound like a worst-case scenario, but I feel like those are fair criticisms.
Regardless, the men of NC State are clearly a stable group of scorers who have shown us that, on the right day, they can compete with the best of the best that the nation has to offer (even without an All-American). If Ian Shanklin emerges as the high-level contender that so many people think he can be, then NC State could potentially rally around the idea that they have their next Sam Parsons, Graham Crawford, Ryan Hill, etc. If that happens, they will get a noticeable bump in our rankings.
This is a historically great team that has shown us time and time again why they deserve to be considered among the best distance groups in the ACC. That narrative, in all likelihood, won't be changing in 2019...