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First Thoughts: BIG 10 XC Championships

Wow! What an incredibly entertaining Saturday afternoon of cross country action. The BIG 10 XC Championships gave us everything we wanted (except for the Michigan men and women), leaving us with plenty of results to talk about. Below, we offer some post-meet analysis and give you our major takeaways from each race.


Women's Recap

No Fuller? No Poe? No Problem for Michigan State

The Michigan State women are your BIG 10 XC Champions, defending their 2019 title, but doing so in a far more dominant way than we thought they would.

The loss of All-American standouts Annie Fuller and Jeralyn Poe were supposed to be a pair massive blows to the Spartans when it came to their needs for scoring potency and up-front firepower. We were also led to believe that Lynsie Gram was out of eligibility based on last year's TFRRS results, which obviously wasn't the case based on today's race.

Despite our concerns about potentially thin areas of Michigan State's lineup, the Spartans rallied together and threw down a convincing win on Saturday, scoring just 48 points en route to the BIG 10 title.

Jenna Magness (3rd) and India Johnson (4th) were the 1-2 punch that we knew they could be while Lynsie Gram (11th) was the third scorer who bridged the gap between MSU's top two and bottom two runners. With sophomores Makayla Perez and Katie Osika finishing 14th and 16th, respectively, there was simply no team in this field that was able to match Michigan State's balance of firepower and depth.

The Spartans were ranked at TSR #10 in our preseason winter rankings, the highest-ranked BIG 10 team in our Top 25. However, I had my own personal concerns about this squad which, in retrospect, were far overblown. Beating a talented Minnesota team by 28 points is super impressive.

Wisconsin Women Struggle, But Could Be Better in Future

I picked the Wisconsin women to win the BIG 10 cross country title this weekend.

Not my finest moment.

Brogan MacDougall was the front-runner we thought she could be with her 7th place finish while Alexa Westley made a very encouraging freshman-to-sophomore jump, finishing 12th overall. Those top two kept the Badgers competitive, but the gaps within their top-five, which seemingly began to form relatively early-on in the race, created a scenario where Wisconsin's team score began to culminate an excessive amount of points.

The 6th place finish by the Wisconsin women wasn't great, but I have to believe that they are better than what this result says. Alissa Niggemann didn't have a great day, finishing 35th overall after placing 9th at this meet in 2019. Scarlet Dale, a transfer from Utah, also struggled in her debut with the Badgers, placing 68th overall. She finished 37th at the 2019 Joe Piane Invitational, so she is clearly more talented than what we just saw from her.

And how about Lucinda Crouch? The 13th place finisher from the 2019 BIG 10 Championships was nowhere to be found in Wisconsin's lineup, partly contributing to the gaps that we saw from the Badgers this weekend.

Say what you will about Wisconsin's 6th place finish, but this team is much better (on paper) than what we saw from them during Saturday's race. The problem, however, is that Wisconsin has no other meets on their cross country schedule. This performance will almost surely not be enough to qualify them for the NCAA XC Championships.

As far as their winter cross country season is concerned, the Wisconsin women might be done.

Minnesota, Illinois & Indiana Match Expectations

Bethany Hasz was the star front-runner that we expected her to be, taking home the overall win. The rest of her Minnesota teammates had respectable races, but they didn't finish in the order that we expected them to.

After a few seasons of being on the verge of a breakout performance, Abby Kohut-Jackson put together the race of her life to finish 8th in Saturday's title bout. Her big-time result helped soften the blow of Anastasia Korzenowski finishing 20th while Jaycie Thomsen kept the scoring in tact with a 17th place finish of her own.

Megan Hasz, who finished 30th overall, is clearly not at 100%. However, she was the team's fifth runner and was able to close out Minnesota's scoring early enough to ensure that the Golden Gophers didn't get edged by the Illinois women.

All in all, Minnesota has a lot to be happy about. They can be a much more dangerous team than what we just saw if everyone runs well on the same day. However, we're just not sure when that will happen.

As for Illinois, they ran exactly how we expected them to. Their top-five scorers were extremely compact and they essentially had zero noteworthy gaps within their lineup. In fact, they didn't have a gap greater than four places between anyone in their top-five. That is an outstanding display of team running.

The group of Craddock, McGrath, Aldadah, Milburn and Lucki finished 9-13-15-19-23 in the overall scoring. That's a great string of results in such a deep field. However, this team does need a bit more scoring potency if they want to gain an edge in these larger fields.

Yes, it's true, they only lost to Minnesota by three points and that result could have easily changed if one runner performs slightly better or slightly worse. However, to truly get to the next level, the Fighting Illini' will need to find someone else who can join Craddock as a potential All-American.

Either way, Illinois has a lot to be proud of. I mentioned in our meet preview this team had one of the more reliable varsity lineups in the NCAA and sure enough, they validated that suspicion on a championship stage this weekend.

Finally, let's talk about Indiana, the 4th place team at the BIG 10 Championships. The Hoosiers ran exactly how we thought they would. Bailey Hertenstein (2nd) was amongst the best in the field while Sarah Schmitt held her own and landed a 10th place finish.

After those two, there was a significant gap in Indiana's lineup until we saw Jenna Barker, Maddie Dalton and Gracie Sprankle cross the line in 28th, 29th and 32nd, respectively. While that may not be ideal from a scoring structure standpoint, it's not exactly bad either. Hertenstein is a junior, Schmitt, Barker and Dalton are only sophomores and Sprankle is a redshirt freshman.

This team is still incredibly young and all things considered, they held their own in this deep BIG 10 field. The Hoosiers may be one or two years away from earning a top-two or top-three finish.

Hasz & Hertenstein Give BIG 10 Fans Thrilling Ending

I said in our meet preview that Bethany Hasz and Bailey Hertenstein should truly be the only two women in the conversation to win the BIG 10 individual title. Sure enough, these two distance running stars battled it out for the entire race, eventually separating themselves from Jenna Magness and the rest of the field.

In the final stretch, it looked like it was Hertenstein who was going to take the win. However, one last hard charge from Hasz, along with a late stumble from Hertenstein, gave Hasz the narrow victory.

With such a tight and dramatic finish, it's hard to pull any major takeaways from these two performances other than they are both super talented. Both Hasz and Hertenstein are very much primed for top-20 finishes at the NCAA XC Championships in March.

I also want to give a quick shoutout to Allie Guagenti (Ohio State) and Erika Freyhof (Nebraska). Coming into the BIG 10 Championships, we didn't consider them to be among the top individual contenders in this race.

However, they put themselves in the lead pack at the very beginning and were rewarded for their courage with 4th and 5th place finishes, respectively.


Men's Recap

Wisconsin Flexes Depth, Wins With Limited Lineup

Coming into this race, we expected the Wisconsin men to take home the win. We felt that they were relatively comfortable favorites, especially with a group of four which featured Jackson Sharp, Olin Hacker, Jack Meijer and Shuaib Aljabaly.

The problem with that initial analysis, however, is that Sharp was the only runner from that group to actually race. And yet, somehow, the Badgers still won.

The Wisconsin men displayed incredible depth on Saturday, utilizing veteran-level pack-running with numerous inexperienced underclassmen. In fact, the Badgers' top-five consisted of three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior.

Rowan Ellenberg (3rd) and Charlie Wheeler (6th) were the two breakout stars who ran beautifully, perfectly positioning themselves throughout the entirety of this race. They sandwiched teammate Jackson Sharp (4th) in the results, easily giving Wisconsin the best top-three in the field.

With the freshman duo of Bob Liking and Evan Bishop closing out the scoring relatively quickly with 12th and 15th place finishes of their own, the Badgers were able to fend off a very impressive (and surprisingly strong) effort by the Indiana Hoosiers.

Admittedly, this year's BIG 10 field doesn't feel quite as strong as it was in the past. The Michigan men, after all, didn't race. That, however, shouldn't take away from the 41 points that the Wisconsin men scored without a handful of their top distance talents.

Kudos to the Wisconsin men on securing their 51st BIG 10 cross country title in program history. They took home yet another conference victory with the exact thing that has made them so great for so many years: incredible depth.

Indiana Displays Shockingly Strong Pack-Running

I'll be 100% honest, I was not at all confident about the Indiana men heading into this race. Losing a top low-stick in Kyle Mau and a reliable backend veteran in Bryce Millar left me incredibly concerned about the scoring support on this team.

Of course, I don't think anyone was expecting Schadler (9th) to have the best cross country race of his life...and Gebhardt (10th) to have the best cross country race of his life...and Stidham (13th) to have the best cross country race of his life.

Heck, even if we knew that they were all capable of those performances, actually having all three of those guys run well on the same day seemed like a further improbability.

And that's where I was flat-out wrong.

With Veatch finishing 8th and Jha finishing 11th, Indiana easily had the best time spread in the field, sporting a wildly impressive 4.7 seconds between their top-five scorers.

There were bound to be a few surprises at the BIG 10 Championships, but this would have been very far down on my list of "things that could realistically happen". Congratulations to Coach Ron Helmer on his incredible ability to develop multiple men into legitimate top-five cross country scorers.

Michigan State Almost Edges Purdue Without Beadlescomb

Wisconsin may have won the title, but the biggest winners of the day had to be Michigan State, a team that tied with Purdue for 3rd (but lost on the tie-breaker). The Spartans scored 97 points and nearly took down Purdue all without Morgan Beadlescomb, a guy who would have been in the individual title conversation if he had run.

For the Spartans, this was a massively exciting and encouraging performance. James Uhlenberg (7th) and Brendan Favazza (14th) validated their recent 3k personal bests while veteran Joe Riordan finished 21st. With four Spartan taking home spots 27-28-29-30, the men from East Lansing put together one of the better team performances that we've seen out of them over the past few years.

Even so, it was the Purdue men who narrowly escaped with a 3rd place result, edging Michigan State on the tie-breaker. Curt Eckstein got the job done by securing a 5th place finish. However, the rest of this lineup just fell a bit flat.

Brody Smith finished 16th overall which is by no means a poor performance, but he was capable of being in the top-10. Bailey McIntire posted a very respectable 18th place finish, but needed to be higher up if the Boilermakers were actually going to contend with Indiana.

Graduate transfer Joseph Humes had a respectable 23rd place finish, but with Purdue's final scorer dropping all the way back to 35th in the team scoring, it was plain to see that this team just had too many scoring deficiencies to remain competitive with the Hoosiers.

Kusche Wins, But Davis Makes Statement

With 2000 meters to go, it looked like Nebraska's George Kusche wasn't going to be beat. He quietly (but rapidly) separated himself from the rest of the field and had put an eight to nine second gap on the chase pack. With the Husker star continuing to find his momentum in the latter stages of the race, it looked like no one was going to challenge him.

Of course, Jonathan Davis had a different plan in mind, making up an unbelievable seven and a half seconds in the final 600 meters, closing the gap on Kusche in the span of a few moments and making a hard charge to the finish which forced Kusche to put in one final surge.

At the end of the day, Kusche took home the BIG 10 title as he rightfully deserved to. He has established himself as one of the most dynamic distance runners in the entire NCAA and now has a conference title to his name.

However, seeing Jonathan Davis return to a top-tier competitive level is so refreshing. The Illinois veteran has been absent from multiple seasons of competition in the past and when he raced last winter, he didn't look great.

Davis opened up his 2021 indoor track season with a respectable (but modest) time of 8:08 for 3000 meters. That, however, wasn't nearly as encouraging as finishing 2nd at the BIG 10 XC Championships, a race that he possibly could have won if he had made his final move a little earlier.

Even so, this has to be a massive confidence boost for Davis. Who knows? Maybe this could be the necessary stepping stone needed to get him back to his 2018 form when he ran 3:58 (mile) and 7:49 (3k).


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