The one bad thing about having the D2 National Championships at the end of May is that it feels like an eternity before the next season of competition actually begins. If you’re like the rest of us at TSR, you have likely moved on from NCAA's and with that, you’ve already begun to think about the upcoming (but distant) cross country season.
Fear not, I’m here to go through some of the top questions that I think will be at the forefront of the impending season. These are also in no particular order...
What are the chances of Grand Valley State repeating as champions?
First things first, losing a runner like Zach Panning is clearly going to impact this team. That being said, this group did not win the national title with just Panning himself. My biggest concern here is whether or not Enael Woldemichael is apart of this team next year. Currently, their 2019 roster does not have him listed which leaves the top spot up for grabs going into the fall. The depth of this team is always showcased when it matters most and I don’t expect that to change either.
On paper, I imagine that the likes of Tanner Chada and Ben Zaremba will make this team interesting. Chada really impressed this past year as he finished the 2019 outdoor season with a 3rd place finish in the 5000 meters while Zaremba was a national qualifier in the 10,000 meters on the track. Both have shown a ton of promise in their young college careers and are going to play huge roles if there is any shot of a repeat.
On the women’s side, despite losing the national champion in Sarah Berger, four of the top seven women are going to be returning in the fall. Allie Ludge, Hanna Groeber, and Jessica Gockley will all be seniors while Madison Goen will be entering her junior year. That experience will likely benefit the Lakers as other teams lose many of their top runners due to expiring eligibility. Ludge was 5th at XC Nationals last year while Grober was 6th, leaving only one athlete ahead of them who will be returning (Eilish Flanagan of Adams State). If they can replicate any part of that success from last year's national meet, the team will find themselves in a great position.
Gockley will be a key piece for this team in 2019 after not having a great race last fall. Luckily for her, she improved as the year went. She was an indoor national qualifier in the 3000 and 5000 meters during the indoor season and then became an All-American later on in the season in the 10,000 meters. Her continued improvement gives the Lakers another strong trio that could be inside the top 15 come Nationals this fall.
Who are the immediate favorites to win the team title?
I guess this answer can change depending on who you ask, but since I’m asking and answering, my answers are the only ones that matter right now.
On the men’s side, the early choice for me is Western Colorado and on the women’s side, it would be Grand Valley State. The Western men had one of the best track seasons this past year and they weren’t at full strength while doing so. Taylor Stack, Charlie Sweeney, and Ross Husch were all national qualifiers during the indoor and outdoor seasons. Not only did they qualify, but Stack and Sweeney turned heads as they finished with top performances at the NCAA Championships.
If Ahmed Jama returns and is healthy for 2019, it’s going to be tough to stop the Mountaineers from seeing three runners inside the top 10 at Nationals. Add in Husch, Evan Sutherland, Woodrow Murray-Wood, Nicholas Turco, Albert Hesse, and Ricky Esqueda as the preliminary eight, and the future looks extremely bright for a group of men who will only have one senior on their team next year.
I won't chat too much about the women, because we already had an entire section about this team. Still, when you look at who Grand Valley is going to return next year, it might be too much for the rest of the country to handle. Allie Ludge, Madison Goen and Hanna Groeber are all very strong 6k runners and while the Adams State women may reign supreme at 5000 and down, I feel that it’s Grand Valley’s title to lose. The depth on their side looks to be better (dependent upon their recruiting classes) and they have the stronger returners when it comes to team racing. For what it’s worth, I do think the race will be tight next year between them and Adams State.
Which teams could surprise next year with strong performances?
Immediately, I think of Sioux Falls on the men's side. Led by Mason Phillips who finished 7th at last year’s championship meet, they’ve got a strong case at moving inside the top three. They’re returning six of their seven scoring athletes and that experience alone could propel them over two more teams. Phillips should be in the running for the individual championship and his teammates Zach Lundberg (50th) and Steven Brown (51st) should be able improve upon their 2018 performances...which would hopefully give them three runners who will be All-American contenders.
On the women's side, I believe Chico State will improve from 8th at last year's national meet to a top five position in 2019. Just like Sioux Falls, they’re returning six of their seven scorers and they were only separated by 45 seconds at Nationals last year. More so, if you add in the sixth and seventh scorers, the Wildcats were only 55 seconds apart.
Coach Towne will have four returning seniors from last year's scoring squad and that should translate into more success on the cross country course. The Wildcats were only 50 points out of 5th place in 2018, so if everyone in their top five can each make a minor improvement, they could see a very big jump in their scoring.
Who’s the strongest individual coming into next year’s championship meet?
Gidieon Kimutai was just a freshman last year, but managed to take home a 4th place finish at XC Nationals. I think he’s the early favorite to take home the title in 2019. He followed that cross country performance up with yet another 4th place finish during the indoor season in the 5000 meters. Despite a not-so-strong outdoor season, I think a summer of training will only help him with his strength and ability to outlast the rest of the field.
I’ll go out on a limb on the women’s side and pick Leah Hanle. I’ve been extremely impressed with her throughout this entire past year. She finished 7th during cross country and then had two 3rd place finishes (3000, 5000) during the indoor season which was then followed by a 2nd place finish (10,000) and a 3rd place finish (5000) during outdoors. I’m sure some of you are saying that the top returner will be Eilish Flanagan, and while you’re not wrong, I think Hanle’s senior year will be the year she puts together the best 6k race of her life and then takes home the 10,000 meter national title when next year's outdoor season rolls around.
Who are some sleeper teams that could play a strong part in 2019?
Queens (N.C.) on the men’s side looks to have a promising future. They lose three of their top seven, but there are a lot of respectable, experienced pieces on their 2019 cross country roster. Anthony Raftis was their top scorer at XC Nationals last year and he later qualified for Nationals in the 10k this past spring. Nick Kipkemei is coming back, and despite Felix Wammtersberger being labeled as a miler, he could play a pivotal role in where they finish during the cross season. If they can add one more athlete to the top ranks along with Raftis, I think we could see them moving higher up in the team finish.
The women’s team that is potentially flying under the radar is Simon Fraser. They were 9th in 2018 and are only losing Addy Townsend and Sophie Dodd (both 800 meter runners) from their scoring group. The big thing this group will have to overcome is their experience. Four of the five returners will be sophomores with only one junior leading the way. Obviously, that could change given that they need two more runners to field a a full seven, but if they can find a way to overcome that, the chances of them making some noise are very high.