We are finally here. We are now only three days out until the Division One National Championships (I'm not counting today, don't worry about it) and although we've had a ton of regular season, there are still a ton of questions that need to be answered.
Below, we've answered some questions from our readers who messaged us on our Instagram (@thestridereport). There's not much else to say, so let's cut the chit-chat and jump into it...
Who will be the top freshman this weekend?
*We're only including true freshmen, not redshirt freshmen*
This is a difficult question as I'm not entirely sure there is any freshman who has really struck me as an All-American threat in 2018 However, Northern Arizona's Ryan Raff has had a very solid season after finishing 21st in the Pre-Nats Cardinal race and 11th at BIG Sky's. I'm not sure he'll be among the top 40, but he's my pick to be the best freshman this weekend (assuming NAU decides to enter him in the lineup).
I'm also a big fan of Belmont's Jacob McLeod. He's been extremely underrated this season with a number of impressive performances like a 28th place finish in the Pre-Nats Cardinal race and a 4th place finish in the South region. He's proven that he can hang with the best and I'm willing to bet that he'll do it again this weekend.
Other contenders include Dustin Horter (Indiana) and Danny Kilrea (Notre Dame) who have been arguably the most consistent freshmen in the nation this year. Honorable mentions include John Tatter (Michigan), Shuaib Aljabaly (Wisconsin), Chad Johnson (Iowa State), and Jamie Dee (Iona)...don't worry, I'm sure someone will remind us that we're missing someone.
There is no denying that Arkansas' Katrina Robinson is the best freshman in the country. She has dominated all season and has had some close matchups with some of the best distance runners in the NCAA. Barring a total collapse, she'll be the top freshman and a potential title contender.
Unlike the men, there are number of freshmen women who could contend for a top 40 All-American spot this weekend. Notre Dame's Jacqueline Gaughan has been a top scorer for her squad all year while Michigan's Anne Forsyth just had a breakout race of her own at the Great Lakes Regional Championships (where she finished 3rd). Keep an eye on these ladies as they could make some noise on both the team and individual sides.
Who are the dark horse teams and individuals entering this weekend? (this was asked twice)
*This question was also asked in regards to D2 regionals, but we'll keep the focus on D1*
I think there are six teams that no one one would be surprised about if they ended up on the podium (NAU, BYU, Stanford, Portland, Wisconsin, and Iowa State). Personally, I'm a big fan of Washington. They've got an exciting mix of veterans and younger guys along with a legendary head coach. Anderson, Hull, and Proctor have been a lethal front three and they haven't all run their best on the same day. If they do, then this is not a team I would want to face.
They may not get on the podium, but keep an eye on Eastern Kentucky and Ole Miss. On paper, these teams have all of the weapons they need for a breakout performance. Much like Washington, Eastern Kentucky has an even distribution of older and younger guys. For Ole Miss, their low-sticks and depth give them the perfect formula to succeed at big meets like Nationals.
Don't sleep on Conner Mantz of BYU. This guy is super aggressive and in big races like Nationals, it's important to get out hard and establish your positioning. If he can control his own race and dictate the pace like he has all season, I think he'll have a big result and find himself securing a top finish.
I also think Curt Eckstein of Purdue is due for a breakout race. Over the past two seasons, he's proven that he can run incredibly well in the postseason. With teammates by his side, I think this will be the best race of his season.
Much like Sam Ivanecky, I'm a big believer in the Michigan women. Their may not be a program with better team running than the Wolverines. They have all of the pieces necessary to make the podium and a lot of young talent who may not have hit their full potential yet.
As for other teams, I like what we've seen from BYU and Columbia. Both teams have had quiet, but strong performances throughout the season. I think both of these programs will thrive on the big stage thanks to their depth as well as a few standout scorers.
When it comes to the individual women, we can't dismiss Northeastern's Aubrey Roberts. She has consistently faced the toughest competition throughout the season and hasn't been afraid to challenge the best of the best. Her aggressive moves may not always fall in her favor, but I think she is someone who could potentially find herself in the top five if everything goes well.
Others like Jessica Pascoe (Florida) and Rachel McArthur (Villanova) have made such tremendous progress throughout the season. With confidence that has to be at an all-time high, I like the idea that they'll ride this momentum into the weekend.
Which teams were you surprised that didn't make Nationals?
The biggest shock in terms of non-qualifying teams had to be Georgetown. I'm not so much surprised that Villanova upset them for the second automatic qualifier, but I'm stunned that they couldn't earn an at-large qualifier with 6 (!!!) Kolas points. The madness caused by Bradley and Tulsa in the Midwest region is the biggest reason why the Hoyas failed to qualify. Had Oklahoma State finished 3rd and not 4th behind Tulsa, Georgetown would have qualified. They had some respectable performances throughout the season and should have been among the 31 teams to qualify.
Washington State and UCLA are two more teams who should be in the National Championships, but they also fell victim to the displacement from Bradley and Tulsa. Based on our rankings and projections for the entire season, I felt confident that Washington State and UCLA would qualify. However, once the Midwest results came in, it was clear that those two teams were in jeopardy of being left at home.
We didn't see too many surprises in the team qualifying picture for the women, but the absence of NAU and Air Force was a bit unexpected. Admittedly, those teams were already on the brink of not making it to Madison, but I thought the Kolas scenarios favored at least five teams making it out of the Mountain region instead of four.
Who has the best 4th scorer in the country?
I love this question because the #4 scorer is such a pivotal lineup position that often goes overlooked by the low-sticks up front or the weakness of a fifth scorer. The answer to this question has to come from NAU or BYU. The problem with BYU is that their order never stays the same, so their #4 man could be one of five guys (Linkletter, Mantz, McMillan, Young, or Shumway). As for Northern Arizona, their #4 can vary between Grijalva, Ferro, and Beamish.
So pretty much any of those nine guys...sorry.
I think there is just as much uncertainty behind the women than there is the men when it comes to the #4 scorer. Arkansas has phenomenal depth through four women while New Mexico's Adva Cohen appears to be making some serious improvements at the #4 position. It depends on which order the Razorback trio of Werner, Vilijoen, and Gregory finish, but they collectively make up the best #4 scorer in the NCAA.
So much like the men, it's an answer that isn't really an answer...sorry...again.
Yes or no, is the competition format for NCAA cross country broken?
When you say competition format, I'm assuming you mean the Kolas qualifying system.
I'm not ready to say that the system is broken. In fact, for the most part, I actually like the Kolas qualifying system. Just this past fall, my old high school team was ranked top 10 in the state for most of the year. They competed in the state's toughest league, the state's toughest district, and went out of their way to race in some of the best meets that the state had to offer (and they walked away with a number of wins over strong programs).
Instead of cruising into the State Championships, they were one spot away from qualifying at their District Championship meet. All of their accomplishments from earlier in the season didn't matter.
At the same time, the teams who beat them at the District Championships absolutely deserved to qualify. They saved their season from ending early and peaked at the right time. Superb coaching and clutch performances should be rewarded.
There needs to be a balance when it comes to national qualifying and a system that rewards you for beating other teams who already made the meet seems like a reasonable concept. To put all of the pressure and emphasis on a single day is the not the answer.
Were Georgetown, Washington State, and UCLA better than Bradley and Tulsa throughout the 2018 season? Yes, I think most would agree that they were. Does that mean Bradley and Tulsa don't deserve to qualify? No, not at all. The best races of their season came when it mattered the most.
Much like most things in life, the qualifying system will never be perfect. Still, it's pretty darn close and I think it's a very fair system