By: Michael Weidenbruch
This Friday, the nation’s best will return to Madison, Wisconsin for Pre Nats. While the teams will be split between two races, the competition should still be top-tier. All of these programs are aiming for strong finishes as they attempt to score Kolas points and prepare for the postseason.
The white race at Pre-Nats is headlined by BYU (TSR#2), Portland (TSR #4), and Syracuse (TSR #8). The talent doesn’t stop there, however, as nearly every team in this race will be in the picture when it comes to a top finish at their regional meets.
The top-ranked team in this race is BYU, a squad that (at this point) seems to have the best chance of upsetting NAU at NCAA's. BYU is arguably the deepest team in the nation, but what sets them apart from their competition is the fluidity of their top seven. They don’t necessarily have a strong hierarchy of talent or times that you would see from most teams like Alabama or Stanford. It's not unusual to see a new name emerge as the front-runner.
So far this season, Connor McMillan has been looking like their top guy, but the rest of their lineup has been close. Daniel Carney, Conner Mantz, and Clayson Shumway have been right behind McMillan and are looking strong. Rory Linkletter was BYU’s fifth man at the Joe Piane invitational two weeks ago, but he could potentially be their most dangerous weapon. Linkletter is the defending champ at Pre-Nats, and while he was only 39th at NCAA's last fall, he has a 2nd place finish in the outdoor 10,000 meters under his belt. These guys have all run well under 24 minutes for 8k, putting them up on a pedestal with NAU in terms of depth and firepower. BYU has the ability to prove themselves as a national title contender on Friday, and I’m sure they are shooting for nothing less than a win this weekend.
Portland comes is our 2nd place pick behind BYU. Although some slight roster changes have been made to the Pilots’ squad, this team isn't any worse than last year's group. With everything Portland has done in the past few seasons, I still feel like they are somehow an underrated team. I’m not sure why Portland is constantly overshadowed by teams they have gone on to beat, but their 3rd place finish at Nuttycombe shows that they’re no joke. Nick Hauger is looking like their top guy after finishing 6th at Nuttycombe, but Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse, Caleb Webb, and Noah Schutte all have enough talent to finish with him. Last fall, we saw the Pilots beat BYU at Nationals, and I don’t think we can count out a repeat of that at Pre-Nats if everything comes together this weekend.
After Syracuse won the NCAA title in 2015 they immediately fell back in the rankings, but they’ve been climbing back towards the top ever since. This young team has the chance to set themselves up well for the postseason and show that they can still be a powerhouse program without Justyn Knight. My impression is that Aidan Tooker is often still viewed as a newcomer to the NCAA, but I think he is ready to solidify himself as a contender in races like this. In his last race, he took 2nd in a tight finish at the Battle in Beantown. Noah Affolder, Joe Dragon, and Kevin James are all legit talents who can hang with the chase pack at Pre-Nats and support Tooker’s low-stick capability. Syracuse is on the rise and after a very impressive performance in Boston, they should not be slept on.
The next team on my list is Washington, but they have a bit of a question mark next to their name. The Huskies have only raced an "A" squad once so far this season, so there is not a whole lot out there yet to show the potential of this team. Tanner Anderson is their veteran low-stick, but I was a little disappointed by his 6th place finish at Beantown a few weeks ago. Although I had picked him to win the race (which was admittedly ambitious), he still posted a strong performance earlier this season.
Tibebu Proctor and Talon Hull were Washington’s second and third runners in Boston, and both are sophomores with little experience on the big stage. Mick Stanovsek and Mahmoud Moussa weren’t far behind either, giving Washington a relatively tight pack to work with. Having depth like that will be helpful at Pre Nats. Even if they aren’t up front, they will be able to get their guys across the line quickly and hopefully keep their score low. Keep in mind that we have yet to see Andy Snyder and Fred Huxham race this season. If those two are injected back into this lineup, then the Huskies could become a very dangerous team.
This group is in a transition year with Powell taking over as head coach, but I think he knows what he’s doing especially given the fact that two of his top guys came with him from Oregon. Keep an eye out for Washington to sneak up on some teams and make a statement on Friday.
Another team that I’ve got a question mark next to is Purdue. Purdue has been red hot lately, but I am left questioning whether that will last through the end of the season. Jaret Carpenter was 16th at Nuttycombe and he boasts a 13:44 PR for 5000 meters. He’s definitely someone to look for at the front of this race. Curt Eckstein’s 32nd place finish and Utah State transfer Brody Smith’s 50th place were huge for this team at Nuttycombe where the Boilermakers placed 9th. In our article titled “Overreactions” last week, Ben Weisel and I agreed that saying "Purdue will be a top 10 team at Nationals" was too optimistic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make some noise in a race that only features half of the teams that will be racing in Madison this weekend. The back half of Purdue’s team will need to make a big jump if they want to be a true contender for that sort of postseason finish.
An interesting fact is that Purdue only has 13 guys on their roster. For a team of that size, what Purdue has managed to do so far this season is very impressive. If Purdue can close down some of the gaps within their lineup, I think they have a good shot at another impressive finish.
This race will likely be tight on both the team and individual sides. My guess is that BYU will take a decisive win, but after that, the scores will all be very close among the next few teams. This race is also stacked with top-ranked individuals, and there are dozens of guys capable of running with the lead pack for much of this race.
I’ve mentioned a lot of the top names already with the team previews, but there are plenty of others to watch. Air Force has a very strong team this year, and they are led by Mickey Davey. The Falcon veteran ran 23:40 for 20th place at Nuttycombe, which puts him in the individual contender conversation this week. Azaria Kirwa of Liberty is another stud who I don’t think gets enough attention. Kirwa was 25th at last year’s national meet and looks like he should be in shape for another All-American performance this fall. Tom Nobles of Charlotte could be up there as well, although the 49ers had an underwhelming 24th place team finish two weeks ago. Charlotte will have a lot of work to do if they want to break back into the rankings.
1. BYU Cougars
2. Portland Pilots
3. Syracuse Orange
4. Washington Huskies
5. Purdue Boilermakers
1. Connor McMillan (BYU)
2. Rory Linkletter (BYU)
3. Mickey Davey (Air Force)
4. Nick Hauger (Portland)
5. Aidan Tooker (Syracuse)
6. Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse (Portland)
7. Daniel Carney (BYU)
8. Jaret Carpenter (Purdue)
9. Conner Mantz (BYU)
10. Azaria Kirwa (Liberty)