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Women's series coming next week!
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We only just entered the month of October, but it's hard not to think about the future. Most of the top teams in the country have already made their season debuts, giving us a glimpse into their potential strengths and weaknesses. Despite season-defining meets like Joe Piane, Nuttycombe, and Pre-Nats still on the schedule, most of us have a pretty decent idea as to who the top teams will be in November...we think.
With so many talented groups gearing up for an exciting regular season, the door is wide open to a collection of teams to earn a top four finish at Nationals. Any team within TSR’s top 10 probably believes that they will be on the podium at the end of the season and this optimism isn’t misplaced.
Let’s take a look at why each team will, or will not, end their season on the podium.
Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
The Case For: Do we really have to explain this one or can we move on?
The Case Against: It feels like such a stretch to find a flaw with this team, but if we were forced to find one, it's would have to be that the backend of their lineup is relatively inexperienced. Abdi Nur, Brodey Hasty, Theo Quax are all redshirt freshmen who haven't run collegiate cross country prior to this year. Even Ryan Raff, despite his great success so far, is only a sophomore. This team isn't falling off the podium, but that inexperience could be the only thing that stops this team from getting title #4...but even that is a reach.
The Case For: Before we knew what the Northern Arizona men had, the Stanford Cardinal had been crowned as the team with the best top four in the country. On paper, that made a lot of sense. Alex Ostberg and Alek Parsons were proved All-American low-sticks, Steven Fahy was coming off of a steeplechase national title, and Thomas Ratcliffe seemed to finally be healthy after running 13:32 in the spring before finishing 3rd at Outdoor Nationals. That group of four had an overall resume that was insanely strong.
Sure enough, Thomas Ratcliffe seems to be the elite low-stick we thought he could be after his 2nd place finish at the John McNichols Invite. Ostberg also seems to be in relatively decent shape after finishing 7th in the same race. And, despite somewhat unexciting performances from Fahy and Parons, were not exactly deterred from saying that they will be inside the top 40 come November.
More so, this team has some of the most underrated depth in the country. Guys like Connor Lane and Clayton Mendez were some of the best 5k runners in the country this past spring and their recruiting class rivals any group of freshmen in the country this year. Even DJ Principe and Callum Bolger look like nice options at Stanford's #5 spot. In theory, this could be one of the most complete varsity lineups in the country.
The Case Against: Of course, things aren't always perfect with top-heavy programs like Stanford. Steven Fahy struggled in his season debut and the second half of their lineup hasn't always been the most exciting in terms of scoring potential over the past few years. More so, the health concerns with both Ratcliffe and Fahy make the Cardinal a risky bet. If one of these guys go down, then other teams with top-tier firepower (such as Iowa State and Washington) could find a way to get in front of the men from Palo Alto.
In others words, there are numerous areas where things could go wrong. Stanford seemed like a safe bet to be on the podium last fall, but were bumped to the 5th place spot by Colorado. There are arguably more pros than cons on this team, but they aren't perfect.
The Case For: The Cougars have been a podium team the last two years and with Conner Mantz on their squad, they have someone who will challenge for a top five spot individually. Between their culture, talent, and depth, BYU has the goods to be able to earn their third straight podium finish. Mantz winning the Bill Dellinger Invitational was obviously very important for BYU as they finished runner-up, but his value will only increase in a larger field like NCAA's.
Additionally, Jacob Heslington looks to be in good form and is an All-American candidate this year after his 8th place finish at Dellinger. BYU will also get a big boost whenever Clayson Shumway returns to the lineup. The All-American from last year will give the Cougars a very solid trio of scorers.
Behind that top three is an incredibly deep group of varsity contributors. Michael Ottesen, Brandon Garnica, Zac Jacklin, and Matt Owens all had solid races the past weekend and should give BYU a dependable backend to their top seven.
Based on their recent performances and Coach Eyestone’s resume, it seems safe to assume that one or two of these guys will make a jump and finish closer to Heslington. With three potential All-Americans and a plethora of lineup options behind them, the Cougars are a safe bet to finish in the top four come November.
The Case Against: Conner Mantz aside, there aren't really any guaranteed All-Americans in BYU’s lineup. If Clayson Shumway come back and is healthy, then he is certainly an All-American, but we still haven’t seen him race so we can’t pencil him in quite yet. Heslington certainly looks like he has a good chance at breaking into the top 40 this year, but he is by no means a sure thing. The real worry that I have for BYU’s podium chances was best displayed at the Dellinger Invitational. Oregon pulled off the upset because, although Mantz and Heslington ran well, the Ducks put four men in before BYU’s number three. This certainly wouldn’t be the case if Shumway raced, but it does exemplify the Cougars one possible weakness. While their depth is a huge asset, it becomes less important if they don’t have most of their finishers inside the top 60 or 70 at Nationals.
BYU misses the podium this year if their bottom two scorers put up 130 points. It won't matter how close their #6 and #7 runners will be if they can't close out the scoring early enough in the race. The improvement we end up seeing from BYU's depth could dictate whether or not they make the podium this year.
Iowa State Cyclones
The Case For: Iowa State raced two weekends ago at the John McNichols Invitational where they turned in a solid 3rd place performance behind NAU and Stanford. With Edwin Kurgat leading the way, the Cyclones proved that they belong in the podium conversation. Addison DeHaven ran a strong race in his Iowa State debut to finish 11th while Mitchell Day, also making his Cyclone cross country debut, surprised us all to cross the line in 15th. The trio of Thomas Pollard, Milo Greder, and Chad Johnson finished together to give Iowa State six runners in the top 21. This is also without prospective top five runners David Too and Festus Lagat.
Last year, the Cyclones struggled with their depth behind their top five, but they seem to be a different team in 2019. David Too is the wild card, but for Iowa State to get onto the podium this fall, they need him to on the All-American bubble. Kurgat and DeHaven give the team a very consistent top duo, and with the emergence of Mitchell Day, the Cyclones have four guys who can fill out most of their scoring spots.
Simply put, Iowa State has essentially upgraded most of their varsity from last year's team (which nearly made the podium anyways). In 2019, they are one of the most complete programs that the country has to offer.
The Case Against: Outside of Kurgat and DeHaven, there are a few question marks. How will Too run in his first cross country season on the national stage? What can we expect from Mitchell Day in his first national meet? How much better are Chad Johnson and Milo Greder from last year? Will we see Festus Lagat this fall?
This team looks extremely talented on paper, especially after their run at McNichols, but they have a ton of runners who aren’t proven on the national stage which leaves us with a lot of cautionary aspects. Again, Too will be huge x-factor, but he has never run at big meets such as the Nuttycombe Invitational, much less the National Championships. That inexperience on the nation's biggest stage could be what keeps the Cyclones off the podium in 2019.
The Case For: After their 6th place finish at NCAA's last year, the sky seemed to be the limit for the Huskies. They lost Tanner Anderson, Fred Huxham, and Andy Snyder, but Washington reloaded by adding Andrew Jordan, Jack Rowe, and the best recruiting class in the country. To make matters even more exciting, their top returner is All-American Tibebu Proctor who will be closely flanked by Talon Hull, the same guy who nearly upset Grant Fisher at the PAC-12 Championships in 2018.
Proctor, Hull, Rowe, and Jordan present a formidable top four while Alex Slenning, Gavin Parpart, and Julius Diehr offer other lineup options for Coach Andy Powell. When you add in a handful of elite freshmen, it becomes clear that the Washington men have no shortage of options for their top seven.
After seeing such a massive improvement in their first year under Coach Andy Powell, it is/was expected that the men from Seattle would take another step forward in year two and finish on the podium. Although their season debut went poorly, they still have plenty of reinforcements on the way and runners such as Andrew Jordan should improve dramatically as the season goes on.
The Case Against: After such a surprising season last year, we were in for another surprise from the Huskies at the Battle in Beantown. Except this time, it wasn’t positive. Washington finished 5th in a race that they were expected to win, falling behind Syracuse, Army, Stony Brook, and Harvard. Talon Hull and Jack Rowe ran well, but the rest of the team disappointed. For a roster that supposedly has a lot of depth, it was disconcerting to see them perform so poorly.
Tibebu Proctor, Alex Slenning, and the slew of elite freshmen have yet to race, but even with Proctor winning the meet, they wouldn’t have finished in the top two. Additionally, relying on the freshmen to make a big impact is a dicey strategy. More importantly, Andrew Jordan seems to still be rounding into fitness after suffering an injury last spring. If he can’t get back into All-American form by the end of the season, then Washington suddenly loses the original scoring potency that made them so exciting in the first place. That alone could be enough to leave the Huskies off the podium.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Case For: We have not yet seen the Irish run at full-strength this season, but I suspect that will change this weekend when they race on their home course at the Joe Piane Invitational. Consequently, the case for Notre Dame to finish on the podium rests solely on their performances from last year. Thankfully for the Irish, those results are very encouraging.
Yared Nuguse won his first individual national title in the 1500 meters last spring after helping Notre Dame capture the DMR title during indoors. Nuguse, along with Waleed Suliman and Oliver Hoare, will look to prove once again that milers can compete with the best cross country runners in the nation. He may have finished 59th at last year's national meet, but don't forget that this is someone who was very much in the All-American conversation prior to Nationals in 2018. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that he has top 30 potential a month and a half from now.
The good news for the Irish is Nuguse likely won’t be there number one runner. That honor goes to sophomore Danny Kilrea. The top true freshman in the country last year, Kilrea had a stellar freshman campaign which included an All-American finish last fall and a top finish at the ACC Championships. Like Nuguse, he should be a relatively safe bet to be an All-American once again this year.
Even with these two studs, the path to a podium finish goes through the 3-4-5 runners of Notre Dame's lineup. If Anthony Williams can continue to improve and replicate his 6th place finish from ACC's last year, then he will give the Irish another top scorer. Kevin Salvano and Andrew Alexander both ran well last spring and, if they make the same jump in the fall, will give Notre Dame more top-end depth than most teams could dream of having.
The few runners who have run so far this season have made the Irish’s podium case even more compelling. Dylan Jacobs looks to be in great shape after easily winning the National Catholic Invitational with a host of his teammates about ten seconds behind. If Jacobs or any of the new freshmen such as Carter Cheeseman or Jake Renfree make a leap like Kirea did last year, then it will be very hard to keep Notre Dame out of the top four.
With a loaded roster bolstered by two great recruiting classes, my bet is that Coach Carlson develops at least one other stud to pair with his top two. If that happens, then Notre Dame will earn a spot on the podium later this fall.
The Case Against: Notre Dame, unlike many of these other top-ranked teams, are heavily relying on underclassmen. Danny Kilrea is a sophomore, Dylan Jacobs is a redshirt freshman, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a true freshman break into their top seven at some point. This team does have veteran leaders in Nuguse, Alexander, Keslin, and Williams, but they still lack a lot of proven runners at the national meet. Williams was 97th at NCAA's last year while Keslin and Alexander were 145th and 160th, respectively. This mix between inexperience and unexciting national meet performances can leave any fan feeling uneasy about their chances of making the podium.
Although the Irish only lose their #7 man from last year and adds a handful of new talent, moving up ten spots in the team standings is a huge jump. This group will undoubtedly improve, but will they improve enough to make it onto the podium? For a team with only two All-American candidates, they will need one or two others to take a big step forward if they want to be a top four team at the end of the season.