As we inch closer to the postseason, I want to look at the most important runners on some of the top teams in the country. When I say most important, I mean someone who can significantly alter a team’s positioning by having a good or bad race. We are going to stay away from the top two or three runners on each team as they obviously have a huge impact on their program. Instead, we will look at the rest of the runners who make up the top seven and who could all dramatically swing their team result one way or the other...
Octopias Ndiwa (Alabama)
Alabama’s precarious situation has been well-documented. Potentially losing Noel Rotich for the season puts a heavy spotlight on the 800 meter specialist and recent Crimson Tide recruit. Although Ndiwa has apparently represented Kenya on the cross course, he has yet to compete for Alabama. We expect to see him in the lineup this weekend.
Last year, the Tide finished 3rd in their region with a total of 95 points, but 93% of those points came from their fourth (39) and fifth (49) scorers. The team should still score less than 10 points at their conference and regional meets with their top three, but Ndiwa will need to place in the top 40 to give Alabama a chance at staying under 100 points. With underrated teams like Tennessee, Belmont, Florida State, and possibly MTSU scattered throughout the South region, Alabama desperately needs a good performance from Ndiwa at Pre-Nats before they enter the postseason.
Seth Hirsch + Finn Gessner (Wisconsin)
Wisconsin’s statement performance at Nuttycombe was exactly the type of race we have been waiting to see from them for the last few years. After securing one of the best recruiting classes in the nation during 2017, we knew this team could be special. Last year, they signed Finn Gessner, Noah Jacobs, Tannor Wagner, and Seth Hirsch who were coming off of fantastic high school cross country careers. However, none of those men had an immediate impact in their first year of collegiate competition.
Both Hirsch and Gessner ran for the first time this season at Nuttycombe, finishing 110th and 161st which, for the caliber of runners they were in high school, is a bit disappointing. Tyson Miehe was Wisconsin’s fifth man two weeks ago finishing in 73rd, far behind the top four. That is a solid finish, but one that needs to be improved upon to challenge for a top three spot at Nationals.
The talent of Gessner and Hirsch is tantalizing for a team that is filled with talented runners. If either Gessner or Hirsch can take a big step forward and match expectations, then Wisconsin could be the clear second-best team in the country.
Iliass Aounai (Syracuse)
Syracuse had an impressive race last time we saw them at the Battle in Beantown, winning by 33 points over Washington. Aounai had a solid race, finishing 13th overall and 5th for the team. He was only 6 seconds behind their number four.
Unfortunately, the gap between Aounai and Dominic Hockenbury (who was Syracuse’s number six) was 28 seconds. Now this is not a problem in and of itself, but it does emphasize the importance of Aounai's scoring role.
The senior is coming off of a solid track season where he ran a personal best of 29:19 in the 10k. However, he did not have a great fall, finishing 234th at Nationals. Two years ago, Aounai flexed his immense talent by finishing 6th and 7th at ACC’s and the Southeast Regional Championships. He then followed that up with a disappointing 128th finish at Nationals.
If Aounai can replicate his performance at the Battle in Beantown from three weeks ago and ACC’s from two years ago, then Syracuse could have one of the best top five in the country. If we see the runner that finished in the bottom half at Nationals, then Syracuse could be one runner short of finishing in the top 10 come November. Unless someone new steps into the top five (which is very possible), Aounai’s performance could sink or swim the Orange.
Alek Parsons (Stanford)
Breaking from the trend of picking from the backend of scoring lineups, Parsons has the ability to be one of Stanford’s top four (or even top three). He made his season debut at the Stanford Invitational and was the first Cardinal to cross the line (in 3rd) ahead of teammate Alex Ostberg. Parsons is crucial to this team because he could add to an already lethal Stanford trio. With Grant Fisher (one of the favorites to take the individual title) being flanked by All-Americans Steven Fahy and Alex Ostberg, Stanford has enough firepower to match almost any team in the nation (almost).
If Parsons, who finished 145th at Nationals last year, can run with Ostberg and Fahy, then that would be huge for Coach Milt's crew. This would obviously be a big jump for the junior, but the signs all point to a breakout year. A PR in the 8k to start the season preceded by PR's in the 5k and 10k last spring show that he is on the rise. With solid support behind him (such as D.J. Principe and Tai Dinger), Parsons could be the one to elevate Stanford to a podium finish.
Ethan Gonzales (Colorado)
The senior Buffalo was Colorado’s number four man at Nuttycombe, finishing 84th. Gonzales is hugely important to this team because, after the re-addition of Joe Klecker to the lineup, he will be the team’s final scorer.
Following a stellar indoor season that saw him set PR's of 8:03 and 14:02 in the 3k and 5k, Gonzales only raced once outdoors (perhaps because of an injury?). With the top three at Wisconsin all running under 24 minutes, adding Klecker and an improved Ethan Gonzales could put everyone in the 23 minute range. Without a good performance from Gonzales, Colorado will have to rely on underclassmen Paxton Smith and Gus Newcomb who did not have great races at Nuttycombe. If Gonzales can get back into the fitness he was during the indoor season, then he could help push Colorado into the top five come Nationals.