First Thoughts: John McNichols Invite

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Men's recap written by Ben Weisel

Women's recap written by Maura Beattie

Men's Race

NAU’s Dynasty Is Not Ending Anytime Soon

I’ll admit that I thought Stanford was the clear #1 team in the country coming into 2019. Northern Arizona was obviously an impressive team, but they just didn’t have the experienced cross country talent like Stanford.

It only took one meet for that idea to look incredibly dumb.

Three - I repeat three - redshirt freshmen finished within NAU’s top four. If someone had told me that before the John McNichols Invitational started, then I would have guaranteed a Cardinal victory. Instead, those three redshirt freshmen - Theo Quax, Abdihamid Nur, and Brodey Hasty - finished right behind Luis Grijalva to finish 4th, 5th, and 6th. So even without racing Geordie Beamish and Blaise Ferro, the Lumberjacks still handily beat a Stanford team at full strength.

Obviously, it is still early in the season and while the three super freshmen look incredible, the only meet that matters is still two months away. Stanford’s Alex Ostberg, Alek Parsons, and Steven Fahy are proven All-Americans who have performed well on the national stage. I would be surprised to see all three of these runners behind NAU’s freshmen horde again, but once you add in Beamish and Ferro, the Lumberjacks depth will almost certainly be too much to handle.

But let's think past this season. It should be real frightening for the rest of the NCAA that Quax, Nur, and Hasty will be leading the NAU dynasty for the next three years. Forget about a four-peat. Titles #5 and #6 are just as realistic.

Thomas Ratcliffe Is Healthy & a Legitimate Title Contender

After Ratcliffe’s stunning 3rd place finish in the 5k this past spring, there were high hopes for the junior coming into this cross country season. The oft-injured star appears to have stayed healthy over the summer and was the only runner within five seconds of Edwin Kurgat. With McDonald and Fisher gone, the door is open for this year’s individual title.

While Kurgat is certainly the favorite, keep an eye on Ratcliffe, especially if he can stay healthy for the entire season. Along with Joe Klecker, Ratcliffe could be the first American to win an NCAA cross country title since Galen Rupp in 2008. For someone who wasn’t even on the national radar before last spring, this is an astonishing turn of events. The Cardinal ace may be the most talented runner in the country, and this might be the year where all of that potential produces some big time results.

Iowa State Flashes Impressive Depth

The Cyclones didn’t have just Edwin Kurgat. Addison DeHaven was a nice second scorer for the team, but the most impressive part about Iowa State’s race was their three-man pack of Chad Johnson, Thomas Pollard, and Milo Greder who finished 19th, 20th, and 21st. Even without David Too and Festus Lagat, Iowa State had six men within the top 21. However, the biggest impact name for the Cyclones was someone who didn't even get a mention in our team rankings last month.

Mitchell Day, a mid-year transfer from Wake Forest, ran extremely well to finish 15th right behind Ryan Raff and Callum Bolger of Stanford. If Day can keep up this type of progress throughout the year, then he could be the guy who pushes the Cyclones onto the podium.

How close David Too can finish behind DeHaven will be a key factor for Iowa State, but the Cyclones look like a much deeper team than they were last year.

Additionally, Festus Lagat could give the team yet another option. The 1:45 800 meter runner is a huge talent who could be an extra x-factor in November. While they only finished four points ahead an impressive Purdue team, Iowa State has reinforcements on the way that will catapult them to an even higher tier.

With Washington struggling this weekend, it looks like it will be a dog fight between BYU, Iowa State, and the Huskies to earn the last two podium spots. With eight weeks left in the season, there will undoubtedly be more twists and turns, but Iowa State look to be in good shape to finish in the top four.

Women's Race

No Surprise Here, Razorbacks Take the Win

It looks like we were accurate in ranking the Arkansas women as the top team in the nation (for now). Even without racing Katrina Robinson and Lauren Gregory, the Razorbacks came away with the win at the John McNichols Invitational. Taylor Werner has been on a tear since the indoor track season and there looks to be no stopping her anytime soon. Werner easily won the race today, finishing 10 seconds ahead of Stanford’s top-tier front-runner, Fiona O’Keefe. This finish by Werner is no surprise and sets her up nicely for the rest of the season.

But, who was Arkansas’ number two in the race?

Katie Izzo came out of nowhere for the Razorbacks and placed 3rd in a field full of All-American elites. Izzo transferred to Arkansas from Cal Poly and has experience at the national level. She was an individual qualifier for NCAA's last fall where she finished 82nd. Izzo's early season showing will add more high-scoring potential for the Razorbacks.

One point of concern for the Razorbacks was that the spread between their top five was 1:09. It will be imperative for the #5 runner to remain as close to the front packs as possible to help this team succeed. But still remember, the depth on this team in unreal when thinking about Werner, Robinson, Gregory, Izzo, Devin Clark, and Carina Viljeon. With these talented ladies, there should be someone very capable to fill in a scoring spot on any given day.

Northern Arizona Women are the Real Deal

The Northern Arizona women have seen the success of their men’s team over the last few seasons and now they want to make their own history. The team’s 5th place finish at the John McNichols Invitational, although expected, was a step in the right direction for the Lumberjacks.

Taryn O’Neill, who transferred to NAU from Villanova earlier this year, seems to be having an easy transition to a new team, coach, and training environment. She led the team today in Terre Haute with a strong 13th place finish. Senior Mikayla Malaspina crossed the line only two places behind O’Neill. Malaspina was an All-Regional athlete in 2017 and appears to have the drive to improve off of that and qualify for NCAA's this time around.

After the two-woman pack of O’Neill and Malaspina, Miranda Myers and Pipi Eitel finished side-by-side in 26th and 27th. Hannah Behunin was 11 seconds back in 37th. If Behunin can close that gap and finish alongside Myers and Eitel (which she proved she could do last year), then special things will happen for the NAU women this fall.

Am I saying that the women of NAU are guaranteed a spot on the line at NCAA's in November?

Not exactly.

They will need to keep their packs together and ensure that the finishes throughout their top seven are tighter. Even so, O'Neill and Malaspina are great low-sticks to have on a roster that is packed with depth. Their performance at the McNichols Invite proved that their lineup structure can be effective.

Freshmen Stars Headline Leaderboard

Every season there is a group of freshmen who vie for the top freshman honor and that competition has already started. Michigan and Washington had two newcomers lead their teams, both finishing inside the top five while beating out multiple All-American talents.

Michigan’s Ericka VanderLende has started the season off on a strong note by taking on the top-dogs of the NCAA. VanderLende races like she is a veteran on the cross country course and proved that today when she finished 4th in Terre Haute. After such a dominant win at the Michigan Open, this finish is not much of a surprise. VanderLende already had experience on the national level while in high school and those racing opportunities are clearly translating well to the college scene. She appears to not be afraid to stick her nose into the top group of runners.

Two seconds after VanderLende crossed the finish line, the next freshman finished.

Melany Smart of Washington also enjoyed a top five finish at the John McNichols Invitational this morning when she led the Huskies with a 5th place showing. Smart arrived in Seattle from Australia, boasting PR's of 2:08 (800), 4:42 (mile), and 16:08 (5k). Her range will only add to the depth on Washington’s roster.

In Terre Haute, Smart finished ahead of teammate Katie Rainsberger by eight seconds. Coach Maurica Powell knows how to develop her athletes and coach her teams towards major success. Smart made her presence known and will look to contribute to the new era of Washington women’s cross country.