D2 National Invite Preview

With the pandemic in full effect, we didn't expect to have any racing at all coming into this fall. But as we near the end of a shortened and altered cross country season, we're just happy that we've had any races to talk about. Luckily, we have one last meet preview to offer.

Men's Preview

Written by: John Cusick

The D2 National Invite is finally upon us and 12 men's teams are headed to Lubbock, Texas this weekend to participate in an artificial championship of sorts to cap off the 2020 cross country season. However, many of the big-name schools, mainly out of the RMAC, have decided to opt out of competition.

The men's teams planning on attending the meet include: Alabama-Huntsville, Colorado Mesa, Dallas Baptist, Fort Lewis, Nebraska-Kearney, Northwest Missouri State, Oklahoma Christian, TAMU-Commerce, UT-Tyler, Washburn, West Texas A&M and Western New Mexico.

Of those teams, the two with the greatest chance at taking home the overall win will likely be Alabama-Huntsville and West Texas A&M. These two programs certainly could have challenged for top-10 finishes at the NCAA meet during a regular year, but will instead get to square-off with each other and see who has the edge in a head-to-head contest.

The Chargers of UAH come into the final meet of the season with one of the best top five scoring groups that we’ve seen this year. When they took home the Gulf South title two weeks ago over Lee (Tenn.), there was only 25 seconds separating their first and fifth runners. Harold Lacroix led the team that day, but it has typically been Jay Day pacing the Chargers this year. The likes of Gabe Hennenberger, Caleb Boys and Alex Herbst have helped make UAH one of the strongest teams in the country. Between their consistency, depth and strong team-running, the Chargers should do well in a larger field such as this.

Meanwhile, West Texas A&M brings one of the individual title favorites to this race as well as a potential 1-2 punch that could swing the team battle in their favor. The JUCO transfer of Innocent Murwanashyaka impressed us at the Lone Star Championships the other weekend as he finished 2nd to TAMU-Commerce’s Nicodemus Rotich (we’ll talk about him in a moment).

The Buffaloes ran away with the LSC title and did so without their top runner from last year, Ezekiel Kipchirchir, running particularly well (he finished 22nd overall). Despite the underwhelming performance, the likes of Butare Regenerwa and Arnaud Taki have stepped up nicely this season and have proven to be solid complementary scorers.

However, the one thing that could trip up West Texas A&M would be their fourth and fifth scorers. The Buffaloes had a couple of minor gaps between their top three and bottom two scorers at the LSC Championships and had a similar gap between those same scorers at the Angelo State Blue & Gold Invitational.

Will that gap widen in a larger meet such as this? Or are we just over examining the two races that West Texas A&M has had this season? Truthfully, those questions may become irrelevant if Kipchirchir ends up returning to his 2019 form.

Outside of those two teams, the rest of the field will likely be looking for top-five finishes, although a few of these programs could surprise us and maybe pull off an upset. Specifically, we'll be looking at the group of Colorado Christian, Nebraska Kearney, Colorado Mesa and NW Missouri State.

The Cougars of Colorado Christian finished 3rd overall at the RMAC Championships a few weeks ago in what was one of the more surprising results of this already odd 2020 cross country season. Josh Pierantoni and Ryder Searle have helped turn this program around and it's a shame that we won’t get to see what this team looks like on a true NCAA stage.

That said, this is a field that should still be plenty competitive, but not overwhelmingly so -- a good middle ground for a team of Colorado Christian's caliber. They have strong front-runners and decent middle-lineup contributors, but the backend of their lineup could leave them vulnerable to excessive scoring this weekend, although that is also the case with a few other teams.

Colorado Mesa was the 5th place team at the RMAC Championships and are led by the trio of Tony Torres, Mark Testa and Jerod Kuhn. Those three finished just 10 seconds apart at the RMAC conference meet and if they can replicate that 1-2-3 punch this weekend, then they are a team that we could be talking about heading into the offseason.

The Mavericks are a sneaky group that has seen some solid improvement over the last few years just like Colorado Christian. In the end, even if both of these teams struggle, they will at least get another opportunity to race against respectable distance talent, something that most D2 teams have been unable to experience (on a consistent basis) this season.

Let's shift our focus to a pair of MIAA teams.

Nebraska-Kearney upset the Bearcats of NW Missouri at the Newman Team Invite the other weekend which was significant given how high we were on NW Missouri coming into this season. The Lopes took home the victory with four runners finishing inside the top-10. The total time between that top four was just 24 seconds, and when we add in their fifth runner, that time spread becomes just 35 seconds.

If Ben Arens can lead fellow teammates Luke Stuckey and Justin Vrooman to similar-caliber performances that we saw from them two weeks ago, and the Lopes are able to keep their lineup gaps to a minimum, then the men of Nebraska-Kearney could end up proving that their recent win wasn't a fluke.

The Bearcats, on the other hand, also have one of the individual favorites in Jhordan Ccope and a supporting cast that, on paper, should be some of the best distance talents in D2.

Ccope finished 9th at last year’s NCAA meet and there is no reason to believe that he couldn’t take home the title on Saturday. Although, admittedly, the Bearcats didn't exhibit have the same depth as some of these other teams at Newman Team Invite, but the low-stick prowess of Ccope covers a lot of scoring holes and the potential return of Augostine Lisoreng could end up filling a major lineup gap.

Those are two important aspects to keep in mind when looking at the NW Missouri men in Saturday's results.

We mentioned Nicodemus Rotich earlier in this article and we wanted to circle back and talk about him. He’s just a freshman, but he seems poised to take home the individual title on Saturday.

He probably would not have been in the national title conversation during a normal 2020 season, but we are far from that at this point. This should be a really fun race to watch as the individual battle should come down to Murwanashyaka, Rotich and Ccope.

Who knows? Maybe we'll have a few others breakout with a big performance...

Women's Preview

Written by: Eric Baranoski

Based on the entries, Dallas Baptist, Northwest Missouri State and West Texas A&M appear to be the main contenders for the women's race. UCCS would have been in the conversation, but they are no longer attending the meet.

Based on the current entries, the field will also include teams such as Alabama-Huntsville, Missouri Western, Rogers State, St. Edwards, Texas A&M International, Western New Mexico and Westminster.

Starting with the ladies from Dallas Baptist, they come into this meet with an undefeated record hanging in the balance. They have been truly dominant in each of their meets this fall with Marissa Brown and Marissa Insinna leading the way and acting as a reliable 1-2 punch at the front of this lineup. Filling in a few of the other varsity spots is Analynne Klotz, Leslie Filorio, Emily Mackel and Jenna Thorman.

What has made the Patriots so dangerous this year has been their tight pack of runners which has allowed them to score less than 30 points in each of their four meets during this altered season. We are expecting an equally-tight spread in this meet as the Patriots seem to be, on paper, the deepest and most complete team in the field.

Having only raced once this year have been the women of NW Missouri. At the Newman Invite, made up of mainly MIAA schools, they took home the “W” over Central Missouri by a mere two points.

Surprising everyone was Delanie Dykes who won the race after finishing 101st last year at the MIAA Championships. Her surprising rise as a legitimate low-stick, along with the promising growth of Caroline Cunningham and Amber Owens, make up a solid trio of scorers for the ‘Cats.

It's clear that the NW Missouri women have made substantial improvements, but how will they handle non-MIAA competition and a larger field? This will be a great opportunity for them to show that their recent progression is legitimate despite finishing in 11th place at the MIAA XC Championships during the 2019 season.

Let's be honest, the women of Dallas Baptist absolutely dominated West Texas A&M at the Lone Star Conference Championships a few weeks ago. As a result, the Buffaloes are surely looking for revenge or, at the very least, are looking to lessen the 60-point gap that mounted against them at the LSC meet.

Headlined by the Iowa Central CC transfer Florance Uwajeneza, the Buffs appear to have a big scoring spark in this field. Uwajeneza is not just your 2020 Lone Star Conference Champion, she is someone who could win this race as she dusted the field in San Angelo by a minute and a half.

Providing scoring support behind her is Nyia Sena, another JUCO product, and Daphne Pate, a sophomore. Despite those lineup pieces, the gap between Uwajeneza was simply too large at the LSC Championships and that was a big reason why Dallas Baptist had so much success against the Buffaloes during their last encounter.

Even so, don't overlook the fact that the West Texas A&M women are relatively close to Lubbock Christian as they are only 110 miles apart. With no time difference and limited travel, the Buffs could make a bit more noise than some might expect.

* * *

Even though there are 18 total individuals entered, the winner of the first (and hopefully only) D2 National Invite is likely going to come from one of the teams mentioned above.

Even though we didn’t mention Alabama-Huntsville, they have a very respectable low-stick in Kaylee Stewart who has the potential to place highly in this field.

Florance Uwajeneza has had that “plug and play” ability for the Buffs, instantly coming into this program and having an immediate impact. Even though she has only raced once, she has enough raw talent to overwhelm this field if she establishes an aggressive pace early on.

The Dallas Baptist duo of Marissa Brown and Marissa Insinna will surely prove to be formidable opponents as they should be in the lead pack from the start. Given the success that they've had, we don't imagine that their racing style will change much from what they have been doing all season long.

The aforementioned Delanie Dykes of Northwest Missouri is someone who wouldn’t have been in this conversation last year, but her drastic improvement (based on her one race so far this season) has left us very high on what she could do in this field.

With so many great teams in one location, this meet is going to be truly a unique event.