Updated: Jan 13
Indiana has consistently been a strong, respectable program in the NCAA for years now. The Hoosiers have established a consistent presence in the upper-half of a relatively loaded BIG 10 conference while also showing off incredible range and depth on the track. This past spring, they sent at least one representative to Nationals in every contested middle and long distance event (800, 1500, 5k, 10k, steeplechase).
But what makes this year's Indiana team better than all of the others is addition of elite firepower, the expected rise of young stars, and the back end scoring stability of their top five. When you put those pieces of the puzzle together, Indiana becomes increasingly more difficult to stop.
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Let's begin our discussion by rewinding to the 2018 cross country season.
Last fall, the Hoosiers kicked off their season by toeing the line for the Iona Paddy Doyle Invite. In a field that held some underrated individual talents from Liberty, Columbia, and Iona, it was Indiana who walked away with the team win. Their 3-10-12-14-16 finish was led by Kyle Mau was who flanked by a plethora of young freshmen talent, including star recruit Dustin Horter. It was a nice start to their season, but it was only a test-run for the major challenges that lied ahead.
It wasn't until the Nuttycombe Invite that fans began to have a greater understanding of what this team was going to look like in 2018. Kyle Mau led the way once again, posting a strong 24th place finish in what was a surprisingly strong result for someone who we initially tagged as more of a track runner than a cross country runner.
Mau was followed by freshman Dustin Horter who finished 73rd overall while then-junior Bryce Millar finished close behind him in 81st place. Freshman Arjun Jha and senior Kyle Burks rounded out the top five with finishes of 102nd and 134th, respectively. Freshman Reese Jordan finished as the team's #6 runner in 138th.
Overall, it was a strong performance, especially for a team that was so incredibly young and inexperienced. However, what was really impressive was seeing Indiana finish 14th overall in the team standings without their star long distance ace in Ben Veatch. Not having Veatch tacked on roughly 100 additional points to the Hoosiers' score.
When you take everything into consideration, it was hard to be disappointed with their final result.
Indiana eventually returned to Wisconsin for the Pre-Nats White race which held numerous team who would go on qualify for the national meet in November. In that race, Mau established himself as a legitimate low-stick by placing 16th overall. However, the rest of the lineup faltered. Despite all staying together in a somewhat decent pack, their finishes of 51-66-76-89 were simply not good enough to put the Hoosiers ahead of teams like Purdue, Air Force, and Notre Dame (amongst others).
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As Indiana entered the BIG 10 Championships, they would find themselves in a rematch with a number of teams they either just finished ahead of at Nuttycombe (Michigan) or just finished behind at Pre-Nats (Purdue). Ironically, those results would mirror the overall order at their conference meet. Mau secured a clutch 7th place finish while Horter had one of the better races of his career by finishing 14th overall. With their final three finishing 24-26-37, the Hoosiers were able to fend off Michigan for 3rd, but the Purdue Boilermakers pulled away for silver.
Fast forward to the Great Lakes Regional Championships and their result wasn't too encouraging. Indiana finished 5th overall, but in a race that was simply meant to earn a national qualifier, they did that without a problem.
At the NCAA Championships, the Indiana men gave us the same kind of performance that we had seen from them all season: solid, but lacking of excitement.
Mau secured a respectable 49th place finish, but the rest of the lineup was simply too inexperienced to keep that gap at a minimum. The foursome of Horter, Michalski, Jha, and Millar rounded out the final scoring positions with finishes of 129-130-133-136, respectively. In the team scoring, that still put all five of their scorers inside the top 110 spots. The Hoosiers ended the season with an 18th place finish at the national meet.
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So where do we stand with the Indiana men as we enter the 2019 cross country season? Why do we have them ranked #7 in the nation? Did they bring in some superstar transfer? Did they have an elite-level recruit? What exactly makes them stand out?
The answer can be found in a name who was already on the Indiana roster last fall.
I am, of course, referring to Ben Veatch.
The Indiana distance superstar is arguably just as good, if not better, than Kyle Mau when it comes to the longer distances. However, the IU coaching staff opted to redshirt their low-stick ace last fall in what was a brilliantly calculated move to prepare for an all-in 2019 season where they would have one of their best varsity squads of the millennia.
Veatch being added back into the lineup immediately pushes this group into the upper-echelon of cross country teams in the NCAA. After running personal bests of 13:40 and 28:57 this past spring, Veatch will add some serious firepower to a team that could use the help in a loaded BIG 10 conference.
Back in 2017, he earned back-to-back 4th place finishes at his conference and regional meets. He was also 28th at the Nuttycombe Invite that year during a time when Nuttycombe was arguably at it's peak in terms of overall competition.
Simply put, Veatch will drastically change the way that we view Indiana as a national contender.
However, the 1-2 punch of Veatch and Mau will not be the only thing that keeps this team competitive. The middle of this lineup will lean on young, promising talents who had very strong and quietly underrated freshman year's.
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Dustin Horter was the team's clear #2 runner back in 2018. It took some time for him to adjust to the high level of competition, but a freshman placing 14th at the BIG 10 Championships is wildly impressive. After running 3:44 for 1500 meters this past spring, it's clear that his fitness is trending in the right direction. We would not at all be surprised to see him progress to a level similar to what we saw from Mau last fall.
However, the one rising sophomore who often goes unnoticed is Arjun Jha who had a pivotal role in Indiana's lineup last year as their #5 scorer. Admittedly, there were some gaps between him and the other half of the lineup, but he still held his own and contributed his fair share of the scoring.
But what really makes us excited about Jha is not what we did during the fall...it's what he did this past spring. Despite running unattached as a redshirt freshman, Jha went to Stanford and dropped an impressive 5k PR of 13:56. That is a huge result for someone who was only 37th at the BIG 10 Championships last fall.
We expect both Horter and Jha to make massive leaps (in terms of scoring) for Indiana this fall. The former high school superstars have clearly shown that they can not only handle the collegiate environment, but they can also thrive in it. After promising first year results, we fully expect this duo to be notably better than where they were at last year.
The final scoring spot will likely be closed out by veteran Bryce Millar who has been a staple scorer in this program for years now. The Indiana fifth year has slowly, but surely improved his cross country fitness ever since he first stepped foot into Bloomington, Indiana. His 24th place finish at BIG 10's or 81st place finish at Nuttycombe aren't jaw-dropping by any means, but those are performances that provide great stability from a scoring standpoint. It's also never a bad thing that your #5 runner has PR's of 13:59 and 29:28...
After those five, the depth admittedly begins to drop off quite a bit. However, Reese Jordan is key names to watch for the Hoosiers this fall. As a redshirt freshman, Jordan often acted as the team's #6 runner last year and (for the most part) was relatively consistent. He's another name that we can think can take it to the next level this fall thanks to his first-year experience and natural development. After running 8:18 and 14:31 this past winter, that seems like a reasonable assumption.
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This team reminds me a lot of last year's Wisconsin squad which prospered by having two superstar low-sticks and a handful of promising young talents. On paper, this Indiana team looks awfully similar.
Of course, none of this projected success is guaranteed. Horter and Jha have to actually translate their success on the track to the grass while Indiana's overall depth needs to improve. Some of those lineup aspects may not come together until midway through the season, but they are reasonable expectations.
If everything goes according to plan, the Indiana Hoosiers could end up with a BIG 10 title come October...and maybe even a spot on the podium come November.