The BIG 10 Championships are set to be one of the most interesting conference meets of the weekend - and not just because they are the only one that takes place on Sunday. The competition features 11 TSR-ranked teams (four men, seven women) and a handful of ranked individuals across the board.
Let’s take a look at the men’s race first...
There aren’t a lot of folks out there who would have pegged Purdue as the BIG 10 favorites before the season began. If you exclude those located in Indiana, that number is even less.
However, the Boilermakers are having one of their best seasons in recent memory thanks to strong front-running by the trio of Jaret Carpenter, Brody Smith, and Curt Eckstein. Although none of these men were All-Americans last year, that may be a different story in 2019.
Carpenter won the Great Lakes regional meet last fall while Smith was 27th in that race. However, both men finished over 100th at Nationals. This year, the Carpenter-Smith duo have looked fantastic, finishing within four places of one another at every race (and near the front as well).
Along with this pair, Curt Eckstein has been right on the heels of Smith and gives the Boilermakers the best 1-2-3 in the conference. Eckstein has not finished more than four places behind Smith this fall and should be aiming for a top 10 finish this weekend.
With this trio leading the way, Purdue men will be the team to beat heading into Sunday.
Right on the heels of Purdue have been the Hoosiers of Indiana. IU finished directly behind Purdue at both the John McNichols Invitational and the Nuttycombe Invitational, and were two spots behind at Joe Piane.
Led by returning track All-American Kyle Mau and rising star Ben Veatch, the Hoosiers will be looking to take down their in-state rivals this weekend. Mau has been one of the best runners in the country this fall, finishing in the top 10 in all three of his races. He should have a chance to contend with Oliver Hoare and Jaret Carpenter for the individual win this weekend which would be huge for Indiana as team.
Not far behind, Veatch has been finishing just outside the top 10 in a few of his races, most recently placing 17th in a loaded Nuttycombe field. He was 4th at this conference meet last fall and should have a similar finish on Sunday.
The biggest issue for the Hoosiers this season has been their bottom two scorers. Nuttycombe was the first meet where the #4 Hoosier was ahead of the #5 Boilermaker this season. In a smaller BIG 10 meet, head-to-head battles will decide who takes home the team title and right now, that stat favors Purdue.
One team you can never count out is Wisconsin. Oliver Hoare is the individual favorite and will provide a key low-stick for the Badgers. After him, the next four Badgers will need some big improvements to beat Indiana or Purdue.
All three teams recently faced off at Nuttycombe, with Wisconsin narrowly losing out to Indiana. The Badgers actually had all five men in before Indiana, but thanks to the minimal gaps between their top two, Indiana was able to finish ahead.
When we look at this BIG 10 field, it’s unlikely that we will see a gap like that from Wisconsin this weekend which is a huge plus for Mick Byrne's group. Olin Hacker was their #2 runner at Nuttycombe, and although he hasn’t looked as strong as he did in 2018, he was 19th at this meet a year ago and should be in the top 20 yet again on Sunday.
Unless the Boilermakers really fall apart, Wisconsin should be aiming for a runner-up finish.
As always, the men of Michigan will make their presence known this weekend as they come in as the TSR #14 ranked team in the country. The Wolverines are the deepest group of the four squads that we have mentioned and have put five runners in before either Purdue or Indiana both times that these three teams have raced each other (Joe Piane and Nuttycombe).
The issue for Michigan is they have no standout talents up front. At Nuttycombe, the first Wolverine across the line was Devin Meyrer in 36th place.
The top runners for Wisconsin, Indiana, and Purdue? Oliver Hoare (2nd), Kyle Mau (10th) and Jaret Carpenter (22nd).
Even with a deep team, Michigan will struggle to finish ahead of the others unless Meyrer (or someone else) can make a big jump. The one thing going for Michigan is that a smaller BIG 10 meet (relative to Nuttycombe) could make their incredible depth even more valuable in a condensed field.
After those four teams, the race for the 5th position is really up for grabs. Minnesota seems to be on the rise after strong performances from Alec Basten and Jack Manderscheid at Pre-Nationals. However, we should note that the Gophers finished behind fellow BIG 10 foe Iowa due to Owen Hoeft placing 112th and Evan Ferlic finishing 116th. Hoeft is definitely capable of a top 60 finish at that meet and Ferlic should have been somewhere between 70th and 90th. Based on that, Minnesota should have the best odds to finish 5th behind the four aforementioned ranked squads.
As far as the individual race goes, we can't forget about Michigan State's Morgan Beadlescomb. The standout Spartan ace recently finished 7th at Nuttycombe and could very easily be in the title conversation. He's been a consistent top talent in the BIG 10 for a few years how and should be able to mix it up with the best names in this field.
Most of the individuals with a chance of winning it all have already been mentioned - with the exception of Nebraska sophomore George Kusche. The South Africa native was 5th in a strong Pre-Nationals field and has a great shot at taking down Oliver Hoare and Kyle Mau on Sunday.
Kusche is predominantly a miler on the track, but has shown his ability in cross country to handle the longer distances. While it’s hard to bet against Hoare, my bold take is that Kusche will win it all this weekend.
1. George Kusche (Nebraska)
2. Oliver Hoare (Wisconsin)
3. Morgan Beadlescomb (Michigan State)
4. Jaret Carpenter (Purdue)
5. Kyle Mau (Indiana)
6. Ben Veatch (Indiana)
7. Brody Smith (Purdue)
8. Alec Basten (Minnesota)
9. Curt Eckstein (Purdue)
10. Devin Meyrer (Michigan)
The women’s race this weekend may be the most competitive conference championship in the country. There are 14 teams in the field and seven of them are ranked in our the XC Top 25. No other conference has this depth, which includes the TSR #1 ranked runner in the country in Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson.
If you were forced to only watch one conference meet this weekend, the BIG 10 would be it.
On the team side, the ladies of Michigan State come in ranked at TSR #7 in the country and the top school in the conference...but just barely. Right behind the Spartans are the Badgers of Wisconsin (TSR #8) and the Wolverines of Michigan (TSR #9). All three teams have had great seasons thus far and Sunday’s race should be an exciting showcase of who has the edge going into the Great Lakes regional meet.
The Spartans were narrowly edged by Wisconsin during the Nuttycombe Invitational, but the gap of only two points was largely a result of Alicia Monson winning the race. In a smaller field, the gap between Monson and Annie Fuller (the top Michigan State Spartan) is much smaller than 12 places and MSU would likely come out on top.
Fuller has looked great this season and comes in ranked at TSR #24 in the country. Behind her, both India Johnson and Jeralyn Poe were able to crack the top 50 at Nuttycombe, with Jenna Magness close behind in 53rd. Despite narrowly losing to Wisconsin, the Spartans were able to place both their #5 and #6 runners ahead of the #5 Badger. With this advantage in overall depth, Michigan State will be the team to beat in a smaller BIG 10 field where Monson's elite scoring has less of an impact.
The Badgers come into Sunday led by the top-ranked runner in the country (Alicia Monson). Unless something incredibly unexpected happens, Monson should have no problem claiming the individual title. Fellow senior Amy Davis is also nationally ranked at TSR #31 and should be vying for a top 10 spot after finishing 13th at this meet a year ago. Davis finished right on the heels of Fuller at Nuttycombe and will likely need to edge the Spartan ace on Sunday if Wisconsin hopes to come away with the win. Both Lucinda Crouch and Alissa Niggeman have been having solid seasons so and should provide solid depth through four runners.
The real issue for Wisconsin all season has been their final scorer. In their two big races at Joe Piane and Nuttycombe, the Badgers have been relatively even with other top teams through four runners, but lose substantial ground when it comes to their #5. At Joe Piane, the fifth Badger was over 30 places back from the #5 runners on the five teams ahead of them. At Nuttycombe, seven teams had their #5 across the line before Wisconsin.
In bigger meets, the Badgers can mask this problem thanks to Monson finishing at the top of the results, but at the BIG 10 Championships, the field has less depth up front which will limit her scoring impact.
If Wisconsin hopes to win this weekend, they will need a big performance from someone who can close the gap between their #4 and #5. If not, the Badgers will have a tough time beating the Spartans and maybe even the Wolverines.
Speaking of the Wolverines, they will be looking to defend their team title despite losing quite a few of their top women from last year. Michigan is led by the top freshman in the country in TSR #17 Ericka VanderLende. The true freshman has finished in the top five in two of the country’s biggest meets - finishing 4th at John McNichols and 5th at Pre-Nationals.
Behind VanderLende, junior Kathryn House has been having a stellar season as Michigan’s #2 runner. House finished 12th at McNichols, only seconds behind TSR #20 Carina Viljoen of Arkansas. At Pre-Nationals, she had another respectable showing, notching a 32nd place to barely edge Rebecca Craddock of Illinois.
The problem for Michigan is that while House has been having a great year, the team still needs more scoring potency. At Pre-Nationals, the 4th place Wolverines had all five of their runners in before runner-up BYU and 3rd place Colorado.
However, both of those teams scored a combined four and 11 points through two runners whereas Michigan had a total of 35.
The upside for Michigan is that the gap should not be as big on Sunday. The rest of the Wolverines have been very solid this season and offer excellent depth behind VanderLende and House. Of that group, Camile Davre and Anna West are the most intriguing.
West may have only been their #6 runner at Pre-Nationals, but as a former All-American, she has plenty of potential. Davre, however, hasn’t been nearly as good as last fall, but she did start 2018 slow as well, so there’s a chance she will have a big breakthrough in the coming weeks.
One other important note for the Wolverines was the absence of Alice Hill at Pre-Nationals. The sophomore was Michigan’s #4 runner at John McNichols, but she toed the line in the “B” race in Terre Haute where she finished runner-up to teammate Emma Sloan. Both could be back in the lineup for the Wolverines this weekend.
The amazing thing about the BIG 10 women is how much depth the conference has. Some order of Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Michigan should make up the first three spots in the team standings, but there are still four more ranked teams in the conference.
The biggest surprise from the BIG 10 has been either TSR #17 Illinois or TSR #22 Ohio State. Heading into 2019, neither team really seemed like possible candidates to be ranked, but both have shown solid improvements throughout this season.
Illinois is led by junior Rebecca Craddock who comes into this meet having just missed our XC Top 50 rankings in our latest update. Craddock has had some strong showings this year, notching an 11th place finish at John McNichols and a 3rd place finish at the Buckeye Preview. Her race at Pre-Nationals was a bit of an underperformance, but BIG 10's should give her a great opportunity to bounce back. Craddock has never finished better than 43rd at this meet, but she should easily blow that result out of the water on Sunday.
As for the Buckeyes, huge jumps by Lainey Studebaker and Abby Nichols have propelled the team to success. At the Buckeye Preview, the duo finished 2nd and 5th. Nichols had another very strong run at Nuttycombe where she placed 28th overall with Studebaker crossed the line in 57th. For perspective on how much they have improved, the last time they ran at a Pre-Nationals meet, Studebaker was 98th and Nichols was 139th.
When Ohio State last raced Illinois, they were narrowly edged out by 13 points. The two teams should be close once again this weekend.
Another team that could be in the mix with Illinois and Ohio State is TSR #20 Penn State. The Nittany Lions appear to be relatively strong this year, but have yet to face much competition. In their only real competitive scenario, PSU finished behind both Illinois and Ohio State at the Buckeye Preview. Since then, the team has rolled past TSR #25 Georgia Tech at the Penn State National Open with a convincing 32 point margin of victory.
The biggest surprise for the Nittany Lions this year has been Kathryn Munks, not Julia Paternain, leading the way this fall. Paternain was the star freshman in 2018, but has been somewhere between #2 and #4 spots for PSU this fall. She closed the gap on Munks at the Penn State National Open which is a good sign for the Nittany Lions as the postseason approaches.
As for Munks, it’s a bit hard to tell where she’s at. She easily won the Penn State National Open, but was 4th at the Buckeye Preview, finishing a substantial distance behind the top three of that race.
The BIG 10 Championships will be the first time Penn State faces a deep field of top talent. The end result should give us a better idea on just how strong they are.
The final ranked team in the BIG 10 is Minnesota at TSR #24. The Gophers are likely not good enough to top any of the other ranked teams this weekend given that their dynamic duo of Bethany and Megan Hasz are both redshirting this fall. Still, the Gophers should be a lock for 7th place.
As far as the individual race, Monson should run away with it on Sunday. VanderLende, Fuller, and Davis will all give chase, as will Indiana’s Bailey Hertenstein.
2. Michigan State
5. Ohio State
6. Penn State
1. Alicia Monson (Wisconsin)
2. Ericka VanderLende (Michigan)
3. Annie Fuller (Michigan State)
4. Bailey Hertenstein (Indiana)
5. Kathryn Munks (Penn State)
6. Amy Davis (Wisconsin)
7. Rebecca Craddock (Illinois)
8. Abby Nichols (Ohio State)
9. Kathryn House (Michigan)
10. Jeralyn Poe (Michigan State)