A ton of action took place this past Friday in Birmingham, Alabama. Here a few key takeaways from an excellent meet which was headlined by a handful of talented teams...
The Best Matchup of the Day Wasn't Between D1 Teams
We talked about this in our meet preview, but the best team matchup wasn't going to be between Arkansas and Ole Miss or any other programs at the Division One level. Instead, the men's Gold race led to a three-team battle between Alabama-Huntsville, Augusta and Lee (Tenn.) -- three highly-ranked D2 programs.
Ultimately, the Chargers of UAH were the ones to come out on top, beating the Jaguars of Augusta by 10 points. Both teams had a strong leader giving them up-front scoring potency, but UAH's lineup was more compact while Augusta's lineup saw a gap between their top three and bottom two scorers.
Meanwhile, the Lee Flames settled for 3rd. It wasn't a terrible result, but most of their lineup just wasn't able to keep up with the depth of Alabama-Huntsville or Augusta.
Even so, Christian Noble was flat-out phenomenal, winning the individual title by 51 seconds and running a time of 23:24 for 8000 meters. That time would have been fast enough for him to win the Green race (which featured top-tier D1 talent) by a second.
Overall, this was an excellent matchup that was headlined by star front-runners and marquee depth.
Arkansas Women Cruise to Victory, Georgia Tech Women Take Down Florida State Yet Again
The Arkansas women won this race with a total score of 42 points which, truthfully, wasn't that surprising. For perspective, no other team in this race cracked 100 points. The Razorbacks had four women in the top-10 and their entire top seven in the top-20 of this race.
We could try to give you some fancy analysis and talk about some massive revelation, but the simple fact is that Arkansas is really good and that they will be the heavy favorites to win the SEC title later this month.
However, what we do need to analyze is the fact that the Georgia Tech women were the 2nd place team in this meet, taking the Florida State Seminoles (by 11 points) and Ole Miss Rebels (by 14 points) in the process.
As expected, Nicole Fegans got the job done with a 6th place finish, but it was her supporting cast that really impressed us. The scoring group of Mary Kathryn Knott (21st), Claire Moritz (23rd), Liz Galarza (25th) and Hannah Petit (32nd) displayed some of the best pack-running that we saw all weekend.
The Yellow Jackets utilized their depth to avoid excessive point scoring and had a low-stick giving them a spark at the front of their varsity group. That's a lineup structure that will often produce great results, and just like we mentioned in our meet preview, this team is far more well-rounded than some people realize.
As for Florida State...well, it's hard to really figure out what went wrong here. Addison Coggins put in a strong effort by placing 5th overall while Funderburk finished 15th. However, there were too many gaps in their lineup after those two women and their final three scorers finished too far behind Georgia Tech's 2-3-4-5 runners.
We didn't get to see Lauren Ryan or Rebecca Clark for the 'Noles this weekend and we like to think that they would have given them some noticeable scoring support. Still, this is a team that we had ranked very highly during our preseason rankings. They had solid front-runners, experience and depth. Unfortunately, they have looked a bit rusty this season and it's not just one or two runners in particular.
I like to think that this team will be far better whenever an official cross country season happens, but their past few races have left us scratching our heads.
Amon Kemboi Returns, Arkansas Men Defeat Ole Miss
The headline says it all. The Arkansas men took home a relatively comfortable win, scoring 29 points to Ole Miss' score of 50 points. That may be a relatively straightforward result, but there are plenty of insights to draw from this race.
Amon Kemboi has finally returned! The Campbell transfer toed the line at the UAB Blazer Classic this past Friday and took home a win in his first race in roughly a year. That victory, however, was by no means easy as he barely edged Mario Garcia Romo (Ole Miss) by 0.30 seconds, sophomore Cole Bullock (Ole Miss) by 0.50 seconds and teammate Emmanuel Cheboson by 0.70 seconds.
Kemboi's return is huge as he gives the Razorbacks yet another top scoring threat and an overwhelming amount of scoring potency. We'll need to see them race a few teams other than Ole Miss to truly get a gauge of just how good the Arkansas men, but gosh, it's crazy to see so much firepower on one team...even if we did expect this after seeing all of their transfers during the offseason.
I also want to talk about Kemboi's teammate Emmanuel Cheboson, the transfer from Louisville. Despite finishing 4th overall, he was just on the cusp of winning this race. This is now the second race in the row where he's recorded a top finish which is very encouraging.
We knew that Cheboson had a ton of talent, but he lacked consistency during his time with the Louisville Cardinals. However, we have now seen back-to-back races where he is finishing with some of the best individuals in the field. Hopefully he'll be able to keep that momentum at the SEC Championships.
Finally, let's talk about Ole Miss. Their top three was lethal as Garcia Romo, Bullock and Suliman finished 2nd, 3rd and 6th, respectively. In fact, that top three (which scored a combined 11 points) actually ran better than Arkansas' top three (which scored 12 points).
However, just like we mentioned in our meet preview, the gap between Ole Miss' top three and bottom two scorers was simply too much to overcome and the Razorbacks took full advantage of that.
Although the Rebels may not have the complete varsity group that Arkansas does, you have to be wildly encouraged by their front-runners. Garcia Romo is making the most out of his breakout season while Cole Bullock is showing that he will be the future of this Ole Miss team. When two-time cross country All-American Waleed Suliman is only your third scorer, it speaks volumes to how talented the other two men ahead of him are.
Top SEC Women Prove That They Are The Real Deal
A few weeks ago at the Louisville Classic, we saw Kentucky's Jenna Gearing take home the overall win while Tennessee's duo of Sydney Seymour and Katie Thronson finished 2nd and 4th, respectively.
If we're being completely honest, I wasn't buying the idea that those women were some of the top individuals in the SEC this season. That Louisville Classic field didn't have a ton of highly-ranked individuals and it lacked the same headline names that a few other meets had.
However, seeing Tennessee's Katie Thronson and Sydney Seymour finishing 1st and 3rd in the final results -- along with Jenna Gearing placing 2nd -- was awfully impressive.
All three of those women took down highly-accomplished veterans from Arkansas, Florida State and Ole Miss as well as Georgia Tech's Nicole Fegans. It was a statement race which validated their performances at the Louisville Classic and it showed that one of those three women could realistically contend for the individual SEC title (although it will be far from easy).
Kudos to those three individuals who proved us (ok, maybe just me) wrong.
So...what happened to the Charlotte men? We were eager to see them in the results on Friday, but it looks like they opted not to toe the line. That's definitely a shame as we believed that they would have had a noticeable presence in the team results. We also wanted to see what they looked like with a full lineup after their group from the Louisville Classic was supposedly missing a few names.
Unfortunately, we'll likely need to wait until the Conference USA Championships to see them race. After a not-so-great performance from the Middle Tennessee State men, it seems fair to say that the 49ers will be favored to take home the conference title at the end of the month.
As for the Kentucky men, they didn't run their top guys on Friday, so don't just look at their 8th place finish and jump to conclusions about the actual fitness of this team. The Wildcats are likely preparing for one final effort at the SEC Championships.
Finally, we didn't get to see the Georgia men or women compete.
We would have loved to see the Bulldogs toe the line on the men's side. They took home a win at the FSU Invitational over Florida State and Georgia Tech the other weekend and this would have been a great opportunity for them to validate that victory.
Nice race for the Florida State men as they finished 3rd overall with 97 points, beating a 4th place Tennessee team which scored 110 points. Paul Stafford had what may be the best race of his career so far with a 5th place finish while freshman Gabriel Curtis and sophomore Jacob Holmes gave this lineup some scoring stability by finishing 13th and 19th, respectively. After struggling at the FSU Invitational a few weeks ago, this was a nice bounce-back performance for the 'Noles.
Solid run for Karl Thiessen of Tennessee. He secured an 11th place finish ahead of Arkansas' Jacob McLeod. That's the kind of result that we had been waiting to see from someone who quietly has a lot of potential.
The Ole Miss women ended up finishing 4th overall in the team standings, just three points behind Florida State. With the exception of their top runners, each scorer between Ole Miss and FSU was within three places of each other. In other words, it is very realistic that the 'Noles could have dropped to 4th place overall instead of 3rd.