Updated: Nov 5
NOTE: Official entries were not released prior to the publication of this article.
ACC teams approached their racing schedules in very different ways during this altered cross country season. How will those scheduling decisions impact Friday's race?
When you look from one team to the next, each program enters Friday's ACC Championship in Cary, North Carolina with varying degrees of race experience this season.
The Syracuse men (the defending ACC champions from last year) have not raced since the end of September, battling only Boston College and Army (twice) this fall. Meanwhile, the men from South Bend, Indiana (Notre Dame) have raced only once this year in a meet against Louisville which essentially turned into a battle against themselves.
The NC State men rested their top runners two weeks before ACC Championships. However, at that same meet, North Carolina and Wake Forest fielded many of their top scorers (with a few absences), giving their men one last chance to compete before Friday's title race.
Florida State has thrown themselves into competition this season, toeing the line three times this year, although they only left the state of Florida once, and that was to race in Alabama.
Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke each fielded their top runners at Panorama Farms which was two weeks in advance of the ACC championship meet. However, Duke's varsity squad took off from racing at the Wolfpack Invitational earlier in the season.
On the women’s side, NC State withheld their top runners from their last competition, but Florida State and Georgia Tech have raced three times and have traveled more than most teams.
Syracuse has competed only twice this season, UNC's varsity group has run on a fairly consistent basis and the Notre Dame women have only run in one truly competitive race.
In other words, there isn't a specific formula that teams have been following when it comes to competition this fall.
Will the teams that raced at the Wolfpack Invitational earlier this month run better this weekend considering that that race gave them a preview of the course? Will runners who previously competed at WakeMed Soccer Park during their time in high school (which hosted the NXR Southeast Championships) have an easier time navigating the course?
Will teams that traveled multiple times this season be more accustomed to the required travel for Friday's race? Or will the teams that stayed nearby to race be less fatigued from a season which required less travel?
Will the teams that raced more sparingly this season be better rested for this championship race? Or will the teams that have raced on a more consistent basis have less rust to shake off?
During a normal year, most teams follow a fairly standard schedule of meets (especially the top-ranked squads). However, this year is far from normal and teams have taken a variety of different approaches for racing.
While each team has had different experiences leading up to the ACC Championships, one thing is for sure: this will be the most competitive field that any of these programs have run in all season long.
Recent history & current rosters favor the Notre Dame men and Syracuse men
There is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the men’s race. No singular team jumps out as the overwhelming favorite, although history will tell you not to bet against Notre Dame or Syracuse. They have been the top two teams over the past two years at this meet and their current rosters suggest that they'll be in the mix for a top finish yet again come Friday. Speaking of the Orange, the addition of graduate transfer JP Trojan has proven to be an ideal fit as he has won both of his races for ‘Cuse this year, although his main competition has been teammates. Just behind Trojan has been Joe Dragon, Nathan Henderson, Matthew Scrape and Alex Comerford. Coach Bell’s cross country teams always seems to have the right mix of veterans to complement their inexperienced (but talented) underclassmen and that seems to be the case yet again in 2020.
Overwhelming the Army Black Knights has been a favorite activity for this team due to the competition limitations put in place by COVID-19. Against Army, the Orange tallied 15 points (a perfect score) and 18 points in their next meeting. A solid month of training has followed as they prepare for Friday's race in Raleigh, leaving us a bit unsure just how good this team is. We haven't seen Aidan Tooker this year, but that doesn't mean that he couldn't toe the line for Friday's race. Last year’s runner-up ACC team was Notre Dame. With so much depth and firepower, it would be hard to imagine them coming out flat, even if they have only raced once this season.
Led by 3:55 miler Yared Nuguse, he provides only the tip of the iceberg in terms of scoring potency as the Irish have plenty of names that they can put around Nuguse to eventually claim the team title. A pair Foot Locker champions in Josh Methner (2019) and NCAA All-American Dylan Jacobs (2017) serve as familiar faces nationally for the Irish.
Making up the rest of the scorers are Andrew Alexander, 2018 All-American Danny Kilrea, Matthew Carmody and maybe a few others who haven't really had their chance to shine (yet). With an easy dual meet against Louisville being the only time we got to see the Fighting Irish this season, we can only speculate as to the type of race that they are going to run. As seen in the Division 2 race at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) Championships, where Colorado School of Mines raced only once prior to their dominating win, their lack of racing during the season didn't seem to impact them at all.
Can Virginia continue their magical season?
Due to their inexperience, most people would not consider Virginia to be title favorites for Friday's race. However, if you look through their recent results, your opinion may change as this year’s Cavaliers team seems to have an edge to them. Coach Vin Lananna has changed this team for the better and it has showed as the ‘Hoos swept through their three meets this season, including an upset win over NC State at this very course. The Cavs are led by Rohann Asfaw who has really come into his own as a true low-stick. A talented runner who has battled injuries during his first couple of years, he has finally put together a few solid months of training and it has showed as he has been lights out, taking home three straight wins over top ACC individual talents like CJ Ambrosio (Duke), Jack Tiernan and Carter Coughlin (Wake Forest) as well as the NC State trio of Shanklin, Bistritz and Flavin.
For Virginia to be competitive, Asfaw has to translate the success that he's had in smaller fields to a larger championship meet. Filling in the rest of the Virginia lineup as been a couple of freshmen in Wes Porter, Bryson Crites (redshirt freshman) and Kellen Hassle, not to mention veteran graduate student Randy Neish. Porter hasn’t looked anything like a freshman in any of his three races thus far. He has posted a top-five finish in each of his three meets this season and have been a wildly valuable scorer for this squad. He is my pick for ACC Freshman of the Year...and maybe the best freshman in the NCAA. Now comes the tricky part about this Virginia team. They have only raced in meets with two or three other teams all season long. How will they respond to their first championship meet against the likes of Syracuse and Notre Dame as well as 12 other teams? How will these younger, inexperienced scorers handle such a large and crowded field?
The impact of the in-state teams...
Let's shift our attention to the teams that won't have to travel too far to race on Friday. Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and NC State have individuals that will have a large impact on this race. If other teams aren't careful, one of these programs could surprise.
With a trio of solid runners, the NC State men will look to learn from their earlier defeat at the hands of the Virginia Cavaliers from the Wolfpack Invitational.
JP Flavin, Joe Bistritz and Ian Shanklin will lead the charge for the ‘Pack (as per usual) on their home course. Their backend is what left them vulnerable to an upset earlier in the season, but one tweak to the second-half of their lineup could dramatically alter NC State's scoring for the better. They could very realistically finish in the top three on Friday if just one person closes the gap between the NC State's top three and their final two scorers. Top scorer CJ Ambrosio has been a bright spot this season for an overlooked Duke team. The Blue Devils are looking to put together a solid ACC performance that may surprise a couple of people. Their depth is solid and on paper, they should be able to run well in this larger field. After a couple of bumps in the road, North Carolina looks to have a promising future thanks to their freshmen contingent of Patrick Anderson, Will Coogan and Max DiMuccio. These youngsters may not have a dramatic impact on Friday's race, but they will surely gain valuable experience for the future no matter how they perform. Finally, the Wake Forest men have been led by Jack Tiernan and Carter Couglin this season, two runners who have finished 1-2 and 2-3 in each of their two meets. Expect these two Deacs to fight for real estate at the front of the lead pack on Friday.
Don't sleep on Florida State
We mentioned a few other teams, so it felt only right to give the 'Noles some attention. They haven't always looked great this season (losing to Georgia and Georgia Tech at the Florida State Invitational), but they rebounded incredibly well at the Blazer Classic, finishing 3rd overall.
Paul Stafford looks like a true low-stick while freshman Gabriel Curtis has been a very solid second scoring option for this lineup. Jacob Holmes also had a nice race a few weeks ago in Alabama. If this team can carry their momentum into the ACC Championships, they could surprise a few people.
A few individuals to watch...
These individuals will be at the front of this race and a handful of them could be battling for the individual title. Here are a few of our top names to watch in no particular order...
Yared Nuguse (Notre Dame)
Dylan Jacobs (Notre Dame)
JP Trojan (Syracuse)
Joe Dragon (Syracuse)
Rohann Asfaw (Virginia)
Ian Shanklin (NC State)
JP Flavin (NC State)
Joe Bistritz (NC State)
Paul Stafford (Florida State)
Carter Couglin (Wake Forest)
Jack Tiernan (Wake Forest)
CJ Ambrosio (Duke)
Fitsum Seyoum (Virginia Tech)
Andrew Kent (Georgia Tech)
Virginia has been impressive all year long and there is a certain aura around the program that wasn’t there before this season. With that, give me the Cavaliers as your 2020 ACC Champions.
NC State is the overwhelming favorite
The women’s team race is a bit clearer as NC State is the overwhelming favorite. The last time they lost an ACC Championship was 2015 when Virginia took home the title. Luckily for the ladies from Raleigh, they are the ones hosting ACC's this year.
Dominique Clairemonte and Hannah Steelman have each taken a turn being the top low-stick for the ‘Pack. After those two seniors, the Wolfpack have operated by committee due to an insane amount of depth that can only be exhibited by a top-tier program.
Complementing Clairemonte and Steelman has been 2019 XC All-American Kelsey Chmiel (who finished 4th at ACC's last year), sophomore Sam Bush, junior Nevada Mareno and an All-ACC performer in Savannah Shaw. Many of these women have made notable improvements and seem to be highly reliable backend runners thanks to their extensive experience.
Even if one of these women were to falter during Friday's race, NC State would still have plenty of depth to overcome someone having an "off" day. Not only that, but we haven't seen Katelyn Tuohy, Marlee Starliper or Julia Zachgo this season. Could one of them toe the line on Friday? That's more wishful thinking at this point, but it could happen.
Gauging UNC's recent success with a young group
It took the North Carolina women a couple of races to find their groove, but they showed up in a big way at their last meet by scoring only 19 points against a field that was admittedly on the lighter side.
Aside from seniors Paige Hofstad and Emmeline Fisher, the Tar Heels have relied heavily on their true freshmen this year. One of those true freshmen being Sasha Neglia. The rookie front-runner has impressed us (and everyone around the country) from her very first meet of the season and is a leading candidate to win ACC Freshman of the Year (and likely NCAA Freshman of the Year as well).
Winning two meets and placing 3rd in another (behind only Clairemonte and Steelman) is is incredibly rare for a true freshman who didn't garner anywhere near the same kind of attention that Tuohy or Starliper did in high school.
The other freshmen who have inserted themselves into the top portion of this lineup have been Kelsey Harrington and Taryn Parks. Both have consistently produced top-15 finishes throughout the year and seem to be improving with each meet.
Despite their youth and inexperience, expect the ‘Heels to be in contention with some of the top teams in Friday's race. They have a few underrated veterans who could bring some scoring stability to this lineup.
Trying to figure out Florida State
The Florida State women have been a confusing team for TSR all season long. They opened their season with a loss to a Georgia Tech team that we correctly predicted would have a breakout season (or at the very least, would be a team to watch). Still, FSU was without numerous top scorers in that meet, so their loss wasn't necessarily shocking.
The 'Noles would bounce back with a win at the Florida State Invitational which featured that same Georgia Tech squad (minus Nicole Fegans who was a DNF) as well as Alabama. However, an eventual trip to the UAB Blazer Classic only left us more confused as they lost again to Georgia Tech and beat SEC teams Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky by only a few points.
Maudie Skyring, the 10th place finisher at ACC's last season, has only raced in uniform once this fall and has been a little rusty. Meanwhile, teammates Addison Coggins and Rebecca Clark have been just the opposite as they have taken the reigns of the program. Elizabeth Funderburk, Ella Swigler and Alyson Churchill have all shown that they are capable of racing well, just not on the same day.
We should also note that Lauren Ryan, the team's top finisher from last year's ACC Championships where she placed 6th, hasn't competed this fall. At this point, we wouldn't expect her to toe the line on Friday.
With plenty of moving parts, we're not 100% sure what to expect from the Seminoles. On any given day, they are capable of competing with the top teams in this field, but they haven't always looked like they are firing on all cylinders this season.
Can Georgia Tech carry their momentum into Friday's race?
I guess we can't call Georgia Tech a "dark horse" for this race given their recent success. Even so, they have been a pleasant surprise in terms of how well they have run.
The Yellow Jackets are strong and well-rounded, but it's clear that Nicole Fegans is the engine behind their scoring. In races that she has competed in, the Yellow Jackets have performed well above initial expectations. A runner-up performance at the Blazer Classic and a win at the Mountain Dew Gator Invitational are good examples.
However, this team is more than just Nicole Fegans. Women such as Mary Kathryn Knott, Claire Mortiz, Liz Galarza and Hannah Petit make up a solid four behind their low-stick. They haven't let their team score get out of control and they should do well on Friday given their experience.
Uncertainty with other key contenders
I'll be honest, I'm not sure what to make of teams like Syracuse and Notre Dame as they haven’t raced in quite some time.
The Irish looked good at the Louisville Classic as they put five women in the top-13 to take home the win over a respectable Ole Miss squad. However, they didn't have Maddy Denner in that race despite her racing in the Irish's season opener.
While a win over Ole Miss is respectable, it's hard to say for sure where that puts the Notre Dame women in the ACC's hierarchy of cross country teams. That said, adding Maddy Denner back into this lineup could certainly make this team much better.
As for Syracuse, they haven't raced in a month, but they do have two races under their belt which has truthfully only left us with more questions.
The Orange actually lost to Army at the beginning of the season, but 'Cuse was without a heavy number of their scorers. The two teams later collided at the Battle of Beantown, and although Syracuse ran a lineup that wasn't too different from their first outing, they were able to take home the win the second time around.
Low-stick Amanda Vestri has looked solid this season with two individual wins and the freshmen contingent of Savannah Roark, Sarah Connelly and Katie Kemnitz have quietly run very well (even if Army has been their only competition).
If the Orange opt to bring back some of their more experienced weapons from last year's 2019 cross country lineup, they could surprise a lot of people on Friday. There is still a ton of scoring potential on this roster that hasn't been fully unlocked yet.
The only question is will we get to see those weapons tomorrow?
Finally, don't sleep on Duke. They ran very well at their latest meet against Virginia and Virginia Tech, taking the top three overall spots. If they can translate some of that scoring to the ACC meet, then the Blue Devils could surprise a few people.
Top individuals to watch...
When it comes down to the finish, look for these individuals to be fighting for a top spot (or even the overall title) in no particular order...
Sasha Neglia (UNC)
Paige Hofstad (UNC)
Dominique Clairemonte (NC State)
Hannah Steelman (NC State)
Kelsey Chmiel (NC State)
Amanda Vestri (Syracuse)
Lauren White (Boston College)
Purity Sanga (Louisville)
Jessica Schneider (Notre Dame)
Maddy Denner (Notre Dame)
Addison Coggins (Florida State)
Nicole Fegans (Georgia Tech)
Michaela Reinhart (Duke)
Elise Wright (Wake Forest)
NC State has too much depth to lose, although that depth will certainly be tested. My pick is that the Wolfpack bring home their fifth-straight ACC title.