Additional contributions by Garrett Zatlin
The Oklahoma State Invitational is taking place this Saturday and it may end up being the most competitive and most exciting meet of the season! Here are a few headlines for the major clash set to take place in Stillwater, Oklahoma...
NAU men vs BYU men: 2020 Edition
A classic matchup and one of the greatest rivalries in the history of NCAA distance running finally makes its return.
We have not seen either of these teams compete this year, so we are going into this battle completely blind. BYU was victorious the last time we saw these two powerhouse programs toe the line in Terre Haute, but it is the Lumberjacks who will enter Stillwater as the favorites.
The Cougars lost some big names from their 2019 title-winning lineup, but they bring back an elite front-runner in Conner Mantz (TSR #1) and a rising star in Casey Clinger (TSR #31) who has finally returned from his church mission. Long-time veteran Clayson Shumway (TSR #32) is also in this race, but he is racing unattached (which he explains in a LetsRun article). This means that he won't officially count towards the team scoring on Saturday.
And NAU? Well, what isn’t there to like about NAU?
They'll be without a handful of key names such as Theo Quax (TSR #25), Blaise Ferro (TSR #43) and Nico Young (TSR #38), but the contingent of Luis Grijalva (TSR #4), Abdi Nur (TSR #9), Drew Bosley (TSR #12), Brodey Hasty (TSR #30), Ryan Raff (TSR #47) and a few others give the men from Flagstaff an overwhelming amount of depth and front-runners.
In a relatively smaller, top-heavy field like this, it will be hard for us to draw any huge conclusions or takeaways. Still, there are plenty of questions to be answered.
How will Conner Mantz look in his season debut? Our preseason TSR #1 runner will get the opportunity to defend his status as the best returner from last year against a host of names within our preseason Top 50. Can anyone challenge him?
Similarly, how will teammate Casey Clinger perform in his first collegiate XC race since the fall of 2017? The cross country All-American has proven that he can be one of the better distance runners in the NCAA and rumor has it that he's incredibly fit right now. Even so, it will be interesting to see how he fares after a three-year absence.
As for the Lumberjacks, veteran Luis Grijalva will likely be the one name from NAU who can give Mantz a run for his money, but young stars like Abdi Nur and Drew Bosley could find themselves near the front of this race as well. Given their endless amount of depth, we'll be interested to see what their actual top five looks like this weekend.
BYU's Depth vs Oklahoma State's Firepower
The performance that we saw from the Cowgirls a few weeks ago was both encouraging and disappointing. On one hand, we saw big races from Taylor Roe and Gabby Hentemann who have clearly taken a step up in 2020. On the other hand, Oklahoma State’s projected top two of Molly Born and Taylor Somers -- both of whom were ranked in our preseason top 10 -- did not contribute as expected. Taylor Somers had an off day while Molly Born did not race.
Unfortunately, Molly Born is absent from the entries yet again, leaving the Oklahoma State women without a key weapon that we thought they would have for this race. However, a potential return to form from Taylor Somers could give the Cowgirls quite a boost and a wicked 1-2-3 punch alongside Roe and Hentemann.
Oklahoma State may have some of the best scoring potency in the field, but it will be their backend scorers who dictate how successful they are as a team. That is also the spot that BYU will likely capitalize on.
The BYU women will come into Saturday's race ready to make their 2020 season debut (and with plenty of talent in tow). Whittni Orton is listed at TSR #2 for a reason and is the heavy favorite to win it all.
The Cougars do lose plenty of talent from last year's podium team, but they have championship experience behind Orton thanks to Anna Camp-Bennett and Anastaysia Davis, as well as 2018 varsity contributor in Aubrey Frentheway. Both Camp-Bennett and Davis held their own at NCAA’s last year and will likely stabilize this lineup which will surely feature a handful of young runners.
Between Canadian Simone Plourde, freshman Lexy Halladay, a pair of promising talents in Sophie Laswell and Haley Johnston as well as a few others, it's hard not to view the Cougars as the overall favorites for this weekend.
How will the NAU women bounce back after losing top contributors?
We didn't mention them in the above section, but the NAU women could be plenty competitive this weekend. The Lumberjacks had a very successful season last fall, culminating with a 14th place team finish at the NCAA Championships. However, they lose three of their top seven, leaving us a bit unsure what certain areas of their lineup are going to look like.
This weekend will be a great opportunity for us to see how well they have developed their new scorers and backend contributors.
2019 scorers such as Taryn O’Neill, Pipi Eitel, Hannah Behunin and Bryn Morley were all set to return to the team this fall. However, Morley is not listed in the entries, leaving the women of Northern Arizona with one less scoring option for this weekend.
When she is at her best, O’Neill is someone who can compete with the top individuals in this race. She's a true front-runner who will likely be supported by Eitel and Behunin on Saturday. We were also expecting to see freshman Tori Gaitan (a three-time NXN qualifier) make her collegiate debut, but like Morley, she is not listed in the entries.
Much like the BYU women, it will be interesting to see who steps up this year (and next year) for the Lumberjacks. Their women’s program has been riding a great wave of momentum over the last few seasons, but this will be a key year to replenish some of their lost scoring options.
With a few projected scorers sidelined for this weekend, we'll be interested to see who makes up the second-half of this lineup.
Could the Oklahoma State men challenge BYU and/or NAU?
The men from Stillwater, Oklahoma threw down a huge performance a few weeks ago to beat Iowa State and they will surely look to replicate that success against NAU and BYU on their home course.
More established front-runners like Isai Rodriguez (TSR #13) and Ryan Smeeton should provide OSU with some stability at the top of their lineup. They will be key low-sticks who can give this team a fighting chance to pull off what would be a huge upset.
However, in order for the Cowboys to pull ahead of either NAU or BYU, they will need Victor Shitsama, Ryan Schoppe and Alex Maier to prove that they can be consistent scorers and build upon their encouraging season debuts from a few weeks ago.
Shitsama running like he did at the Cowboy Jamboree would be huge for this team given that he finished right behind Rodriguez. That could give the Cowboys a lethal 1-2-3 punch which would (theoretically) keep them in contention with the Lumberjacks and Cougars.
That said, the backend of this lineup will likely be anchored by Schoppe and Maier, two relatively inexperienced underclassmen. They're both promising talents, but having them fend off high-level runners from two of the best programs of the last decade will be a tall task.
As Garrett said in our latest episode of the Blue Oval Podcast, we aren't necessarily predicting an upset. We do, however, think that Oklahoma State has the potential to keep this race close and it also helps that they have already shaken off the summer rust.
What will we see from Southern Utah? Weber State OUT
The Southern Utah men and women will be toeing the line this weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma as they will join their BIG Sky rivals (Northern Arizona) in an effort to race against top-tier competition.
Unfortunately, despite initial reports, we won't get to see the Weber State men or women this weekend. That's a shame considering that we ranked the Wildcats at TSR #23 in our preseason men's rankings.
Even so, we'll still get to see a Southern Utah men's team that boasts a handful of underrated talents. If we had to rank a TSR #26 team in our preseason list, the Thunderbirds likely would have secured that spot (well, either them or Boise State).
This weekend, we'll finally get to see Aidan Reed who was dealing with some injuries last fall. He was one of the top individual talents in the country in 2018 and was very much in the mix for an All-American finish that year.
We don't know the status of his current fitness, but if he's anywhere near his best, then he'll give the Thunderbirds a top scoring option on Saturday.
Not only that, but SUU will also have the scoring services of Christian Ricketts, an underrated name who has posted a handful of respectable results throughout his collegiate career. Don't forget, this is a guy who placed 27th at the Nuttycombe Invitational last year. With a healthy Aidan Reed running alongside him, the Thunderbirds could have a very underrated 1-2 punch.
Having a veteran returner like Nate Osterstock back on the team is important to note as he has been an underrated part of this lineup for a few years now. He has provided reliable scoring help to the middle portion of this varsity group and his experience will likely benefit him in Saturday's race.
Finally, let's talk about Travis Feeny, the brother of Utah distance standout Sarah Feeny. He has returned from his church mission and is rumored to be in great shape. Don't forget, this is a guy who ran a personal best of 8:54 for 3200 meters in high school.
While we don't necessarily expect the Thunderbirds to seriously challenge the likes of Northern Arizona, BYU or Oklahoma State, we do think it's important to mention them as we see them being relatively competitive in this top-heavy field.
As for the women, keep an eye on Alison Pray. She was an individual cross country national qualifier last fall and could continue to build on that success this weekend. This field will be competitive, but not overwhelmingly so. That should give Pray a great chance to standout and throw down a big performance.
Colorado men and women to compete unattached
Because the PAC-12 has not approved competition for any cross country teams in their conference this season, both the men and women from Boulder won't be able to (officially) rep the Buffaloes in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
That, however, isn't stopping either side from sending nearly all of their top scorers to the meet to race unattached.
On the men's side, the Colorado men will be headlined by the "Triple H" scoring group of Kashon Harrison (TSR #23), Eduardo Herrera (TSR #35) and Alec Hornecker (TSR #37). They'll also have the scoring services of Mississippi State graduate transfer Stephen Jones, star freshman Jace Aschbrenner (8:44 for 3200 meters) and a handful of other names.
Not only that, but we'll also get to see John Dressel toe the line this weekend, although he technically would not have counted in the team scoring given that he is out of cross country eligibility. Even so, he'll have the potential to finish with the top guys in this race after battling an injury last winter.
This men's squad won't officially count in the team standings, but if they did, they would have had a very reasonable chance at taking home the win. When you consider that BYU won't officially have All-American Clayson Shumway and Northern Arizona won't have three men who we listed in our preseason Top 50, a win for Colorado doesn't seem unrealistic.
As for the women, we'll get to see a handful of their more experienced runners such as Rachel McArthur, Annie Hill and recent Ohio State graduate transfer Abby Nichols (TSR #33).
Unfortunately, the team will be without Holly Bent and we won't get to see Emily Venters either. However, we will get to see Emily Covert, the Minnesota native who was an absolute star at the high school level. She was redshirted throughout last year, but could be a big name to watch this weekend.
Between their experienced veterans and promising young talents, the Colorado women could realistically challenge the BYU Cougars this weekend (if their results counted in the team scoring).