Updated: Jan 13
There were a handful of pleasantly surprising teams during the 2018 cross country season.
Southern Utah shattered expectations despite redshirting their top returners from 2017.
The Bradley Braves came out of nowhere at the Midwest Regional Championships to secure a spot to Nationals.
Both Notre Dame and Wyoming went from being very average programs to top national contenders.
But the one team that may have been overshadowed by the major successes of the national qualifying squads was the Gonzaga Bulldogs. A unique program that had a fun mix of youth, respectable depth, and an underdog mentality slowly worked their way into the national conversation during 2018.
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Our story should begin with James Mwaura, the star high schooler who was known for his relentless strength and raw talent during his time at Tacoma Lincoln High School. His commitment to Gonzaga was a surprising one, but it gave the Bulldogs a young star to rally around for the 2018 season.
After an early-season rust-busting 5k, the Zags toed the line for their first 8k of the season at the Cougar XC Classic. The competition wasn't necessarily competitive, but Mwaura didn't care. In the first collegiate 8k of his college career, the true freshman threw down a monster time of 23:54, causing a few attentive fans to take notice.
Still, it was a favorable course and the rest of the Gonzaga squad wasn't exactly challenged by any means. That, however, would change in the Pre-Nats Cardinal race where they faced a handful of overwhelming talent.
The race was dominated by the Northern Arizona men as well as numerous powerhouse programs such as Stanford, Colorado, and Oregon. Naturally, the race was packed with top-tier talent, and while everyone was watching the top of the results, Gonzaga quietly put together a 9th place finish which put them ahead of established teams like Southern Utah, Michigan, and NC State.
Mwaura was the leading Zag that day, finishing 40th overall while senior Kyle Thompson and sophomore Peter Hogan finished 49th and 60th, respectively. The scoring was rounded out by Bennett Gagnon and then-freshman Yacine Guermali in 77th and 82nd.
The performance was far from perfect. Furman, another team that was also on the fringe of national qualifying, still finished in front of Gonzaga and the teams that were more likely to give the Bulldogs Kolas points were a few spots ahead.
Regardless, this was a great performance for Gonzaga. In the grand scheme of things, they didn't have a superstar at their low-stick position, but they made up for it with respectable depth that never really showed any vulnerability or signs of weakness. There were gaps in their top five, but none that warranted red flags.
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The problem, however, is that the rest of their season would yield very few opportunities to score Kolas points. The West Coast Conference Championships forced Gonzaga to toe the line next to BYU and Portland - two powerhouse squads that were simply way out of Gonzaga's reach. Teams like San Francisco and Santa Clara were respectable, but they weren't going to give the Zags any real issues (nor would they produce any Kolas points).
As expected, Gonzaga finished 3rd overall, placing six men in the top 30, three in the top 20, and one (Mwaura, 9th) in the top 10. Their attention then shifted to the regional meet...
Despite a respectable performance at Pre-Nats, the Gonzaga men were going to need to pull off a monster performance at the West Regional Championships to earn a spot to NCAA's. Unfortunately, their inexperience and lack of firepower caught up with them. Despite having three in the top 40 (Mwaura, Guermali, and Hogan), it was the final two scorers who couldn't cover the gap, finishing 78th and 80th overall.
The end of last fall may have been bittersweet, but if the 2018 season told us anything, it's that 2019 is going to the Year of the Zags.
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When you look at last year's lineup, Kyle Thompson is the only one who is set to graduate. Everyone else from their top seven at the regional meet is expected to return. And the best part? They will only add more talent.
After redshirting the 2018 cross country season, veteran Jake Perrin finally appears to be healthy after nearly matching his personal best of 8:09 (3k) this past winter while also running 14:13 and 30:17 this past spring.
Perrin isn't expected to be a lethal low-stick or some shocking, surprise scorer. However, he does bring consistency, experience, and stability to a lineup that is still getting through the learning curve.
When adding Perrin next to Bennett Gagnon - along with Ciaran O'Leary and Andrew Clusserath who occasionally made appearance in the Bulldog's varsity lineup last fall - the backend of the Gonzaga lineup looks relatively stable.
The frontend, however, is far less conventional.
James Mwaura is clearly the best distance runner on this team, but unlike low-sticks such as Edwin Kurgat or the Alabama duo, any improvements Mwaura makes will likely be reflected in the scoring. Finishing 39th at Pre-Nats is a result that could be significantly improved. The potential upside for Mwaura - and what that upside could mean on the team score - means so much more than some people realize.
The same goes for Yacine Guermali who showed tremendous progression and improvement throughout 2018. With enough development and understanding of the collegiate circuit, he could also end up as a potential low-stick for Gonzaga this fall. He may be young, but he can produce consistent results.
Then there is Peter Hogan who is no longer considered an underclassmen. He is a steady option for the #3 spot. He isn't expected to be a low-stick for Gonzaga, but Hogan is plenty good enough to fill the middle portion of that scoring five. Plus, he's only entering the second half of his college eligibility. Much like Mwaura and Guermali, his potential is very exciting.
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Overall, there are too many positives about this team to completely write them off. A group that held their own last year essentially loses no one when adding in Jake Perrin. They have respectable depth, exciting young scorers, experience, and no glaring weakness.
It's hard to dislike a team with as high a ceiling as Gonzaga. Admittedly, they will need to improve as a collective group if they want to make it to NCAA's this fall. That, however, is very much within the realm of possibility for them this fall.
We like to shake things up every year with a unique sleeper pick, and the Zags certainly fall into the category. They could be the most interesting team in the country over the next few months...