Updated: Jan 13
Southern Utah wasn't supposed to be good in 2018.
They weren't supposed to have a legitimate low-stick.
They weren't supposed to qualify for NCAA's.
They weren't supposed to be relevant on the national stage.
But Southern Utah very clearly did not care what we thought they were "supposed" to be. Instead, they shattered expectations, putting together a competitive squad despite redshirting their top two low-sticks from the 2017 cross country season.
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The 2018 season was expected to be a rocky one for the Thunderbirds who were preparing for a couple of months where both Kasey Knevelbaard and Josh Collins were going to be sidelined. When you pair that news with the graduation of other supporting scorers from the 2017 season, it was realistic to think that Southern Utah wasn't going to be a major player last fall.
That, however, couldn't have been more wrong.
After cruising through a rust-buster meet at the UCR Invite, Southern Utah toed the line for one of the biggest regular season meets of the year: the Nuttycombe Invite. That's where SUU let the rest of the NCAA know that they were still the real deal.
Both Christian Ricketts and Aidan Reed had breakout races, throwing down strong finishes of 21st place and 27th place, respectively. All of the sudden, the Thunderbirds had two respectable low-sticks that were able to handle the overwhelming field of talent in Madison, Wisconsin. Southern Utah's #3 man, Nate Osterstock, worked his way up to a 51st place finish to give SUU a strong top three.
However, the second half of the lineup presented issues. With the final two scorers placing 115th and 128th, the scoring potency from Southern Utah's first few scorers was diluted. Regardless, it was still enough for the Thunderbirds to put together a 10th place finish over established programs like Eastern Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, and Oklahoma State (among others).
Yet, despite the major success of their first major invite, Southern Utah's Pre-Nats Cardinal race left something to be desired.
Aidan Reed proved that his Nuttycombe race was no fluke with a monster 13th place finish in a field loaded with firepower while Christian Ricketts held his own in 29th place. Nate Osterstock once again provided stability in the middle lineup (finishing 43rd), but their depth proved to be an issue once again with the final two scorers placing 87th and 142nd.
Southern Utah earned yet another 10th place finish at Pre-Nats, but in a race that had notably lesser depth in comparison to Nuttycombe, the performance was arguably less impressive.
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Concerns continued into the postseason at the BIG Sky Championships when Weber State stunned the Thunderbirds for the 2nd place position. In a smaller field where low-sticks had a lesser impact, the Wildcats showed why having a strong time spread was extremely valuable.
Luckily for Southern Utah, their dwindling momentum didn't follow them into the Mountain Regional Championships where they comfortably secured a qualifying bid to Nationals.
To say that their performance at Nationals was bad would be incorrect. But to suggest that they had a good performance would also be misleading. The Southern Utah men finished their 2018 cross country season with a 21st place finish at NCAA's, led by Aidan Reed's 51st place result. Nate Osterstock was the only other top 100 finisher that SUU had (he placed 99th).
The rest of the team earned finishes of 135th (Newcomb), 165th (Ricketts), and 192nd (Kennell) to round out their scoring five. Clearly, the Thunderbird's backend underwhelmed once again, but when you put their overall season in perspective, it was hard to be disappointed with a team that was't even supposed to qualify for the national meet.
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2019 will be an interesting year for Southern Utah, mainly because there are a number of moving parts to consider. This fall, the T-birds will be retain their most important scorers from 2018 (Reed, Ricketts, and Osterstock). They will also return rising senior Sean Newcomb.
However, the already weak second half of Southern Utah's varsity seven is no more after losing George Espino, Liam Kennell, and Koy Moore to expiring eligibility. The team didn't have a ton of options last year when it came to depth, and that could be even more of an issue later this fall.
Of course, we can't ignore the fact that SUU is expected to return Josh Collins, a 2017 scorer who could most likely mimic the production that we saw from teammate Christian Ricketts last fall. On paper, that gives Southern Utah an extremely underrated top four with a hopefully-good-enough #5.
The main problem, however, is not the departure of Kasey Knevelbaard or the severely lacking depth. Instead, it's the inconsistencies that we've seen from Collins over the past year. The Thunderbird veteran had an underwhelming year on the track, leaving us with questions about his health.
Nonetheless, a healthy Josh Collins means that Southern Utah becomes notably better than they were last year. Their top four - for the most part - is very consistent, especially Nate Osterstock who may be one of the most underrated supporting scorers that the Mountain region has to offer.
There are legitimate questions and concerns with Southern Utah, but their history of success, ability to of overcome adversity, high-ceiling for improvement, and quietly strong consistency makes them a team worth rooting for this fall.