On The Brink (Men)

Every year, there are always a handful of teams that are just on the verge of qualifying for Nationals. Half of the fun for cross country fans (like ourselves) is trying to figure out which teams will make it to the national meet and which teams will have their seasons end early.

Below, we took five men's teams that didn't qualify for Nationals last year and ranked them in order of their likeliness to make it to NCAA's later this fall. Here is what we came up with...

5. Duke Blue Devils

The Duke Blue Devils have been a tricky team to figure out over the past few years. They've thrown together a handful of respectable performances at meets like the Cavalier Classic and Roy Griak, but have struggled in larger, more competitive meets such as Pre-Nationals.

However, the Blue Devils' 2019 cross country season ended on a high note, finishing 6th overall at the Southeast Regional Championships. Now, as we enter the fall of 2020, the Duke men will return six of their top seven from last year.

CJ Ambrosio has consistently been Duke's top finisher and is slowly stepping into a role where he can be a reliable front-runner for his team. On most occasions, the group behind him (Romine, Miley, Dellinger, Rivera and Kinne) have consistently run well together and have limited any excessive point scoring in the second half of their lineup. With a heavy portion of that lineup returning for their senior seasons -- and two rising sophomores showing plenty of promise -- this year's Duke team has the potential to do some damage.

That said, there are still obvious fixes that need to be made. Ambrosio is talented, but he needs to be a true low-stick that can compete for a top 15 finish at a meet like the ACC Championships in order for Duke to compete with the top teams. The rest of the pack also needs to step up and make improvements.

In other words, they just need to be better.

Even so, this is a program that has had scattered success with a lineup structure that (in theory) can be competitive at major invitationals. While it's still unclear who the next men's distance coach at Duke will be, it's safe to say that this team may have a shot at securing a spot to the national meet later this fall...

4. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

The men of Wake Forest have quietly risen up the national ranks for the past few years. They've recruited well, developed a low-stick in Zach Facioni, and put together a roster with a good-enough amount of depth.

Could 2020 be the season where they finally make it to the national meet?

Facioni is a true front-runner who the Deacons can rally around while Jack Tiernan -- when healthy -- can be a valuable #2 option for the men from Winston-Salem. He placed 8th at the ACC Championships last fall.

However, the most exciting thing about this team is that they were so incredibly young last year. A heavy portion of their 2019 distance group consisted of underclassmen. That indicates that there is still a ton of potential upside and untapped fitness that the Wake Forest men can capitalize on later this fall.

Don't forget, this team was only 16 points out from Virginia Tech and Virginia at the ACC Championships last year.

Now, truthfully, not everything has been perfect with this group. They struggled at Nuttycombe and faltered a bit at the Southeast regional meet. They'll need to be better when it matters the most if they want to make it to Stillwater, Oklahoma later this year.

Even so, another year of experience should do wonders for this team. It also helps that the Southeast region will be far more open than it was last year as teams like Furman, Virginia and Virginia Tech all lose numerous scorers from their 2019 squads.

3. Gonzaga Bulldogs

I feel like we've talked about Gonzaga at endless lengths for the past few weeks, so I won't make this section super long.

The Bulldogs are a team that return their entire top seven from last year, boast one of the top low-sticks in the country and have a plethora of rising upperclassmen who should improve with age.

I would also be willing to bet that there isn't a team in the country hungrier to get to the national meet than Gonzaga. After finding themselves in a bizarre Kolas scenario last year, the Bulldogs are out on a revenge tour of sorts. Of course, trying to get out of the West region is a challenge in and of itself.

Teams like Colorado, Stanford, Washington, Oregon and Portland will still be plenty competitive while Boise State (and maybe UCLA) -- despite losing a few key scorers -- will likely find a way to stay in the national qualifying mix. That's still a heavy number of high-quality opponents that Gonzaga will have to battle at the West Regional Championships if they want to get to the national meet.

In other words, regular season success will be crucial for Gonzaga if they want to qualify for NCAA's. But given the group that they return from last year, earning a few more Kolas points in 2020 should be enough to get them over the national qualifying hump.

2. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys of Oklahoma State were one of the top-ranked teams in the country coming into the fall of 2019. They had a lethal top-three, numerous returners and one of the country's top distance recruits in Alex Maier.

However, the 2019 season ended up being a wash for the Cowboys. Ashenafi Hatte was a top low-stick who finished only one early-season race, Isai Rodriguez struggled at the Midwest Regional Championships and the gap between their top scorers and the second half of their lineup proved to be too much to overcome.

However, the 2020 cross country season should (theoretically) treat the Pokes better. Hatte may be gone, but Rodriguez and Smeeton both return, as does the rest of their lineup. The group of Quigley, Haines, Maier and Dayani showed plenty of promise in the postseason, acting as reliable scorers for the Cowboys. Both Maier and Dayani were only freshmen last cross country season, so an additional year of experience should greatly benefit them come October and November.

Not only that, but Oklahoma State is also bringing in top recruits such as Will Muirhead, Grant Wilcox and top high school distance talent Ryan Schoppe. Those rising freshmen -- paired with the numerous returners and any JUCO transfers that Coach Dave Smith occasionally brings in -- should be enough to get the men in orange and black to the national meet this year.

It also doesn't hurt that there is an added incentive of running at the National Championships on their home course.

1. Princeton Tigers

The Princeton men were in the middle of a Kolas controversy last year after questions arose as to how NC State's DNF at the Nuttycombe Invitational should be interpreted in the national selection process. Despite an appeal (along with Gonzaga), the Tigers ended their season early and did not advance to NCAA's.

Now, the Ivy League powerhouse will be back and hungrier than ever to prove that they belong at the National Championships.

The loss of veteran star Conor Lundy -- as well as Viraj Deokar -- will obviously be difficult to manage for a team like Princeton. Still, other top teams in the Mid-Atlantic region such as Villanova and Georgetown are also losing a handful of their best runners.

One of the best things about this year's Princeton squad is that they are still so incredibly young. Last year's lineup consisted of four freshmen, one of whom won the regional title (Camren Fischer). When you consider that they also return Matt Grossman -- a rising senior who finished 40th at the Nuttycombe last fall -- and a plethora of top-ranked recruits, you begin to realize just how good the Princeton men can be this fall.

Now, admittedly, relying on youth and inexperience can be risky at times, especially on championship stages. Younger distance runners don't often have enough base miles in their career to effectively cover a 10k distance or enough experience to understand the tactics of collegiate racing.

However, last year's Princeton group dispelled that thought process. Even when the Tigers struggled at the Ivy League Championships (where they placed 3rd), it was the freshmen who stepped up and secured the top two finishes for their team.

This year's group may lose long-time veterans from their 2019 team, but the Mid-Atlantic region isn't exactly getting any stronger and the Princeton men are still retaining the core of what makes them great.