Updated: Jan 13
After a confusing up-and-down season, traditional powerhouse Oklahoma State will look to take a few steps forward in 2019. Although there were some inconsistencies, there were also some big bright spots that will make the Cowboys a team to fear in 2019.
Like Colorado and Portland, Oklahoma State enters this season with a very strong top three that only has room to get better. However, the backend will need to improve if they are to secure themselves a top 10 finish at NCAA's.
Thankfully, this team is full of experienced runners. The Cowboys lose only one senior from last year’s top seven (Luis Martinez), but he will leave a relatively large hole in the wake of his departure. Behind their top two, the senior was a consistent third finisher.
Luckily for Oklahoma State, they have one of the biggest breakout track stars from last spring on their roster who should be able to fill that role rather seamlessly. Ryan Smeeton’s race at Payton Jordan stunned the country as he ran 8:27 to beat a very strong steeplechase field and secure a World Championship qualifying time. He later went on to finish runner-up at NCAA's in the same event right behind Steven Fahy of Stanford.
For this Oklahoma State team to be competitive in the top 10, they will desperately need Smeeton to take a similarly giant step forward in cross country this year. But based on what we saw a few months ago, that seems very reasonable.
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Comparable to other top teams, the Cowboys debuted most of their top talent at the Nuttycombe Invitational last year. Ashenafi Hatte led the team with a huge 13th place run while Ryan Smeeton finished in 77th. Sukhi Khosla earned a 94th place finish while Jorge Perez and Alec Haines filled out the lineup by finishing 158th and 180th, respectively. Overall, the Pokes finished 15th in the standings, an underwhelming performance for a traditionally dominant team. It wasn't a result to get too worried about, but one that likely failed to meet most people’s expectations.
Next up was a trip to Texas to run in the Arturo Barrios Invitational where Oklahoma State raced to a 2nd place finish, losing only to Canadian program University of Guelph. Winning the race was Hatte, but in 2nd place was Isai Rodrgiuez who made his season debut and finished side-by-side with Hatte. Jorge Perez recorded a solid 14th place finish with Bryce Quigley and Khosla crossing the line in 35th and 41st. The race was a step in the right direction, especially with the emergence of Rodriguez, but depth was still a concern.
The BIG 12 Championships was set up to be a battle between Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Both programs were nationally ranked and had some of the best low-sticks in the country. In what was an overall encouraging performance, the Cowboys gave the Cyclones a run for their money by putting Rodriguez and Hatte right behind Iowa State’s Edwn Kurgat. However, the rest of the top five were simply unable to keep up with the Cyclones.
Perez and Haines finished respectably in 14th and 15th while Smeeton crossed the line a few spots later in 20th. When you consider that Iowa State was a top five team at the time, it was hard to be disappointed with their overall performance.
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Understandably, most people predicted the same result at the Midwest Regional Championships in Peoria, Illinois. Both Iowa State and Oklahoma State were head and shoulders above everyone else, and they supposed to be the only two teams to qualify for Nationals from their region.
Well, that assumption was wrong.
The Cowboys had a terrible race for their standards. Rodriguez and Hatte ran well, earning 2nd and 5th finishes, but the rest of the team struggled to hold their own. Haines finished 42nd while Smeeton was 61st. When the dust settled - and it took a while for that to happen - Bradley finished 2nd behind Iowa State while Tulsa ended up in 3rd. Oklahoma State was all the way back in 4th, but because they had more than enough Kolas points, they made it to the national meet and pushed Tulsa to Nationals in the process.
After regionals it was hard to gauge how good the Cowboys were. Did the team relax because they knew they would likely to make Nationals no matter what? Or were they actually struggling? We're inclined to say the former, but it's difficult to say for sure...
Regardless of what their regional goals were, the NCAA Championships were an entirely different story. Behind two monster performances from their two low-sticks, Oklahoma State bounced back better than any team had all season.
Isai Rodriguez had the race of his life to finish an astonishing 4th overall. After barely losing to Edwin Kurgat in the previous two races, he stayed right on his tail to finish a single spot behind him once again. Hatte gave the Cowboys yet another All-American finishing in 27th. Senior Luis Martinez ran a solid race of own by placing 66th, but the rest of the team admittedly struggled with finishes of 171-195-233-241
Despite the underwhelming depth, Oklahoma State still rallied behind their wildly impressive low-sticks and top-tier firepower to smash expectations and finish 13th place overall.
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The way Oklahoma State gets into the top 10 this year is by finding more capable scorers outside of their top three. As I mentioned in the Colorado article, it takes about 340 points to finish inside the top 10. With Hatte and Rodrgiuez only scoring 27 points between the two of them, there is plenty of cushion for the Cowboys to work with.
Smeeton, after his big outdoor season, is projected to be at least a top 60 guy (although he will likely be far better than that), so we can safely put him down for about 50 points. That gives Oklahoma State more than 260 points to work with between two scorers. That means their final two runners could each finish around 130th and the team could likely still secure a top 10 spot at NCAA's.
However, the difference between Colorado and Oklahoma State's varsity lineups is that, outside of their freshmen recruits, the Cowboys have a few more scoring options that we feel slightly more confident about.
Sure, with a little improvement, both Quigley and Haines should be able to reach that minimal scoring threshold needed for a top 10 finish. They had respectable performances at the BIG 12 Championships and should continue to progress throughout the fall of 2019.
However, the real name to watch will be JUCO transfer Felix Kosgei. The recruit from South Plains earned two 5th place finishes at the NJCCA XC Championships in 2016 and 2017 while running personal bests of 8:29 (3k) and 14:54 (5k). At the moment, he's not expected to be a superstar scorer, but based on Dave Smith's recent success with JUCO standouts (Hassan Abdi, Sylvester, Barus, Ashenafi Hatte, Josh Thompson, etc) it's hard not to think that Kosgei could be the next star in the making for this Oklahoma State squad.
Other candidates who could score for the Cowboys are Victor Shitsama and Sukhi Khosla. In his first track season this past spring, Shitsama ran 29:40 in the 10k which indicates that he will be a factor in the fall if he keeps improving. As for Khosla, he scored a few times for the Pokes in the fall of 2018, but didn’t run at Nationals. After running 14:18 this past spring, he is in good position to not miss out on NCAA's this year.
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I think it's fair to suggest that the Cowboys, in terms of depth, are in a far better position this summer than they were last year. However, their best chance at lowering their team score comes from this year’s recruiting class.
The one incoming freshman who will make an impact right away is Alex Maier. One of the best recruits in the country will help the Cowboys immediately on the grass and on the track. With PR's of 4:09, 9:00, and 14:26, he looks like someone who could be a regional qualifier in the 5k right away. His presence will be felt in cross country as he was 7th at Nike Cross Nationals this past year and 14th two years ago. Maier is a big-time stud who will strengthen Oklahoma State’s top seven tremendously this fall.
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With potent low-sticks and plenty of talent primed to make a jump, the Cowboys will be a dangerous team this fall who, if everything goes right, could challenge for a podium spot. No matter what happens, this will be an entertaining group to watch.
All of the pieces are there, now let’s see if they can all fit together to reclaim the BIG 12 title and earn a top 10 finish at Nationals.