The John McNichols Invitational, hosted by Indiana State University, will serve as an initial preview of the LaVern Gibson cross country course in Terre Haute, which is this year’s NCAA Championship venue. Top ranked teams from around the nation will be in attendance as many will face their first real tests of the season.
This will not only be a great opportunity for Kolas points, but it will also show us how some of these top ranked teams handle other powerhouse programs on the championship course.
The men’s race could bring us one of the best early-season battles in recent memory, as Stanford (TSR #1) and Northern Arizona (TSR #2) will face off for the first time this year. The fact that we will be seeing the top two ranked teams in the country lining up this early is exciting, as last year it took NAU and BYU until the Mountain Regional Championships to finally go head-to-head.
This race will serve as Stanford’s season opener, so we will get a clear look at the top ranked squad for the first time. With four athletes in the Top 30 of our individual rankings, Stanford has a lot of firepower and the question of who their top runner might be answered.
Based on our rankings, Alex Ostberg is their new front-runner, but Alek Parsons, Steven Fahy, or Thomas Ratcliffe could also find themselves in that number one spot. According to the meet entries, all four of these athletes will be on starting line. They will be joined by Connor Lane, Clayton Mendez, and DJ Principe (among others).
Stanford appears to be racing their full squad, which is not necessarily surprising at this point as it is their first competition of the season. If all of these guys are on the line, this will be a dangerous team that will be difficult to take down. Multiple All-Americans headline their roster and as mentioned in their team preview, the Cardinal top four is second to none.
Of course, if there is a team prepared to take down Stanford at this point, it is the NAU Lumberjacks. The Northern Arizona men opened up their season two weeks ago at their own George Kyte Classic in Flagstaff. This is usually a low-key meet that the Lumberjacks run as a workout and win without too much difficulty.
This year, however, the team from Tokai University in Japan was wrapping up a high-altitude training trip in Flagstaff and NAU head coach Mike Smith invited the team to come compete in the race. NAU ended up winning with 25 points to Tokai’s 30, but it was no easy win. The Lumberjacks did not race some of their top runners, but the athletes who did compete had their work cut out for them. Our friends at LetsRun wrote a piece on the race which can be found here if you want to read more.
With an initial test out of the way, NAU has the advantage of knowing what they’re working with while Stanford may still need to figure out what their lineup will look like. However, it's important to note that the Lumberjacks are once again resting some of their top talents (Geordie Beamish and Blaise Ferro).
Instead, we will see Luis Grijalva, Theo Quax, and Ryan Raff lead the charge in an effort to keep things competitive with a loaded Stanford team. However, maybe the most exciting thing that could come out of this race is that Brodey Hasty is entered in what will be his first collegiate cross country race. Will Hasty break out and add his name to our Top 50? Based on his impressive freshman track campaign in which he ran 13:55 for 5000 meters, it is definitely possible.
NAU does not look quite ready to take down Stanford without guys like Blaise Ferro and NCAA mile champion Geordie Beamish, but they will undoubtedly bring their A game.
Stanford and NAU will almost certainly take the top two team spots, but the rest of the field will feature some strong teams as well. With such strong competition upfront, it is easy to overlook a team like Iowa State (TSR #5).
With the top runner in the nation, Iowa State might not be too far off from the top two teams. Festus Lagat - someone who I believe is one of the more underrated scorers on this team - will add a powerful punch behind Edwin Kurgat to push Iowa State into the mix. Then we have Addison DeHaven and David Too who will be making their cross country debuts for the Cyclones after transferring from Boise State and Florida A&M, respectively. It will be hard to take down Stanford or NAU, but if there is a team in the field who can do it, it’s Iowa State. Their mix of experience and vast scoring options could be enough to upset a short-handed NAU team.
Purdue (TSR #12) is also in the field and is slated to be making their first full-squad appearance of the year. The Boilermakers feature Jaret Carpenter, Curt Eckstein, and Brody Smith as their likely top three. Purdue dominated this meet last year, but they will have much, much stronger competition this year.
We can expect to see Purdue’s top three running up with the lead pack trying to break up the Stanford and NAU contingents to put themselves in the mix. However, the second half of their lineup will likely determine how competitive Purdue can be this weekend.
This race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting of the season ahead of meets like Pre-Nats and Nuttycombe, and it will be held on the NCAA Championship course. The perfectly manicured course in Terre Haute always produces fast times and great competition, so we should expect to see a fiercely competitive pack up front fighting for every spot.
Based on the depth of this field, the individual title will likely come down to the final sprint, as there is nobody in this field capable of running away from the level of talent that the rest of the top individuals possess.
2. Northern Arizona
3. Iowa State
1. Edwin Kurgat (Iowa State)
2. Alex Ostberg (Stanford)
3. Steven Fahy (Stanford)
4. Luis Grijalva (NAU)
5. Alek Parsons (Stanford)
6. Festus Lagat (Iowa State)
7. Ryan Raff (NAU)
8. Addison DeHaven (Iowa State)
9. Thomas Ratcliffe (Stanford)
10. Jaret Carpenter (Purdue)
The women’s field features five teams in our Top 10: Arkansas (TSR #1), Stanford (TSR #7), Michigan (TSR #8), and Washington (TSR #9). Even this early in the season, this race could serve as a preview for what we could see at NCAA's in November.
Arkansas comes in as our top ranked team who has yet to open up their season. They have a full squad entered which features Taylor Werner, Katrina Robinson, Lauren Gregory, and Carina Viljoen; all of whom are ranked in our individual Top 50. The Razorbacks will have a lot to prove if they want to hold on to their #1 ranking through the season, and this race will be a great opportunity for them to show that they are not messing around.
With so much talent up front, Arkansas will be able to use this race to figure out exactly what their lineup is going to look like this season as they make a push to be the top team in the country. Any of Arkansas’s top four could be their first runner across the line this weekend, which speaks to their depth and versatility. If they are going to walk away with the win this weekend, it will be because of their overwhelming firepower.
Stanford comes into this meet without any races under their belt, so just like Arkansas, the Cardinal women will be able to use this race to work out any kinks in their lineup while solidifying themselves as a podium threat come November. Fiona O’Keefe is our top ranked individual for Stanford, but just like with the men, the Stanford women have a lot to work with.
Christina Aragon and Jessica Lawson are also ranked in our Top 50 and will be complemented by a handful of other talented women. Hannah Debalsi and Ella Donaghu are incredibly strong athletes in their own right and will surely make an impact in Stanford’s top five. In contrast to Arkansas, Stanford's depth may be the best in the country which may be enough to pull off an upset if everything goes their way.
The Michigan women enter this meet as an outside pick to win NCAA's after a podium finish last fall. Anne Forsyth will likely lead the charge for Michigan, followed by Camille Davre and star freshman Ericka VenderLende. With veteran Anna West also in the lineup, it's hard not to like what the Wolverines are working with.
Even so, their youth is a concern and that could result in a few inconsistencies throughout their top seven. Still, all of these women have proven themselves in championship meets. This weekend shouldn't be too big of a stage for the top youngsters on this team, but it will be interesting to see how VenderLende handles such incredibly strong competition so early in the season.
Then we have the Washington Huskies. Katie Rainsberger is coming off of a top 20 finish at NCAA's from last fall and will be hoping to better that mark later this season. Like Rainsberger, Lilli Burdon also came to UW from Oregon and finished as an All-American last fall. She will be another powerful piece for Washington’s lineup this fall as they make their way up the national ranks and shoot for the podium.
There are numerous Huskies who can provide scoring stability throughout their lineup (such as Melany Smart, Allie Schadler, and Kaitlyn Neal). However, keep in mind that this team will be without star Oklahoma transfer Haley Herberg this weekend. If Maurica Powell opts to add Herberg into their lineup later this fall, then Washington could become a serious problem for their PAC-12 rivals come October and November.
Among other teams will be the NAU women, who are quickly gaining national recognition of their own. Villanova transfer Taryn O’Neill is set to make her debut in a Lumberjack uniform, and her up front scoring presence will be a perfect complement for a team that already boasts incredible depth.
Early-season races are often not the greatest indicator of postseason success, but these powerhouse squads in the women’s race will be making every effort to establish themselves as threats to shake things up come NCAA's. It is possible that some of these programs will rest top athletes, but they are all entered on the start list so it is possible that many of these teams will all be at full strength.
If they are, we could have a great team battle on our hands.
5. Northern Arizona
1. Taylor Werner (Arkansas)
2. Katie Rainsberger (Washington)
3. Fiona O’Keefe (Stanford)
4. Lauren Gregory (Arkansas)
5. Katrina Robinson (Arkansas)
6. Christina Aragon (Stanford)
7. Anne Forsyth (Michigan)
8. Lilli Burdon (Washington)
9. Taryn O’Neill (NAU)
10. Carina Viljoen (Arkansas)