With regionals week upon us, most men’s teams are preparing to race their first 10k of the season. For those that advance to NCAA’s, they will run a second 10k just eight days later. Unless a team ran at the Arkansas Chile Pepper Festival this year, most athletes have been running no more 8k up until this point. Yet, in two of the most important races of the season, they will have to run 2k longer.
This element of racing has always intrigued me as one of the more underrated elements of teams that exceed or fail to meet expectations. It appears that the teams that best handle this change tend to run their best at NCAAs regardless of who they have running or what the conditions are. Sometimes you will see a team struggle if they are filled with more middle-distance and mile specialty athletes, or if they raced someone two weeks in a row who was just not ready to run a 10k.
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at our top 10 teams and give each a grade on how ready they appear, from an outsider’s perspective, to run two 10k’s in eight days.
NOTE: This article is based purely on past XC and Track results with an attempt to predict fitness based on current season results (if they haven’t run a 10k before). This is not necessarily a prediction of where teams will finish since some guys have gained a lot of fitness since this past track season.
10. Southern Utah: C+
Southern Utah has been one of the nicer surprises on the NCAA this year after their big upset win over Colorado at the Piane Notre Dame Invitational and a solid 7th place showing at Wisconsin. Looking ahead, however, they may struggle a bit at 10k solely based on their lack of experience. Only their second man at BIG Sky’s (Matthew Wright) has ever broken 30 minutes for a 10k on the track. Yes, Mike Tate did run 13:34 over 5k last track season and was conference champ at 10k over NAU’s top runners, albeit in 30:28, but you would have to assume that he is worth at least 29:20 given what NAU’s distance guys ran last year.
After those top two, the Thunderbirds top five has Josh Collins and George Espino who are both more middle-distance type athletes. They also have Kasey Knevelbaard who has run 13:50 for a 5k, but has never run a 10k on the track. Knevelbaard has been Southern Utah’s 2nd man at two big invitationals this year, but he struggled down the stretch last year coming in 47th and 180th at regionals and NCAA’s respectively. If we are going by these numbers, then it is clear that SUU is going to need to have done the necessary training to ensure their fitness in 2017 can handle the 10k’s if they are going to make a top 10 finish at Nationals truly possible.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks: A
When you look at Arkansas on paper, it is very easy to see why many had them ranked in the top five pre-season and even as high as #1 in some polls. The only reason I didn’t give them an A+ is because some of their guys lack the fast 10k times you’d expect they’re capable of. Still, just take look at this roster:
Alex George: 13:40 5k (15th) @ 2016 NCAA XC
Jack Bruce: 13:38 5k (19th) @ 2016 NCAA XC
Cameron Griffith: 13:52 5k (48th) @ 2016 NCAA XC
Andrew Ronoh: 28:36 10k
Austen Dalquist: 13:58 5k, 30:12 10k @ 2017 Chile Pepper XC
Wow, that lineup is loaded with guys that have 10k ability on the track or grass. The x-factor is really Andrew Ronoh who has yet to follow up his lightning fast 10k time with an equivalent performance on the grass. If he is able to match that 10k performance, that would put him in the top 20 at Nationals and most likely match the finishes of his teammates Alex George and Jack Bruce. If that happens, then the Razorbacks suddenly have a potent top three.
One thing to note is that Cameron Griffith did not run at regionals last year, but still placed 48th at NCAA’s. It seems like that was some smart decision making by the Arkansas coaching staff, which is encouraging as we head into the final stretch of this season.
8. Colorado State: B+
In reality, this grade is really carried by CSU’s top two guys (on the track): Jerrell Mock (28:11 10k) and Grant Fischer (28:45 10k). Both of those times are elite at the national level and both runners have shown an ability to run with the NCAA’s best on the grass as well. Eric Hamer is the only other top five guy with 10k experience as he ran 30:00 last outdoor season. Other guys like Cole Rockhold and Trent Powell have a history of being middle-distance oriented.
Ultimately this team is diverse in distances, which means, if handled correctly, the Rams may either run at or above their talent level and challenge for a top five finish. Then again, they could also fade down at NCAA’s with two straight 10k’s and find themselves on the outside of the top 10 at Nationals.
7. Furman: A-
Although they may lack a sub 29:00 performer in the 10k (which keeps them from getting an A), the Furman Paladins understand that depth can be the name of the game in cross country. Josh Brickell, Tanner Hinkle, and Frank Lara have all run sub 29:35 in the 10k which gives the Paladins a solid contingent of pure distance guys that should be ready for the longer distances at Regionals and Nationals. We also can’t forget Aaron Templeton who has historically run much better than his track times would suggest, and Troy Reeder who has run 8:36 in the steeple and 13:59 in the 5k.
This team looks primed and ready for the big time 10k’s and if they can run to their potential, this #7 ranking will look smart, and who knows? Maybe even a little bit of an underestimation…
6. Colorado: B-
As we evaluate the Buffaloes, we have to look at Joe Klecker who has never run a 10k on the track, but his 28th place performance at Nationals last year helps. Colorado's grade was rounded up from a C+ almost entirely due to the “Wetmore Factor”. On this year’s top five, only Ryan Forsyth has run a “good” 10k with his 29:32 performance from last outdoors. After him and Klecker, it’s guys like Eduardo Herrera, Adam Peterman, and Zach Perrin who are more 3k steeple and below types based on their past cross country performances at 10k. The apparent absence of John Dressel also hurts this team. If Dressel were to return at regionals and Wetmore work his magic once again, then this grade becomes purely meaningless and the Buffaloes will find themselves on the podium once again.
5. Syracuse: A
Unsurprisingly, one of the best teams in the NCAA over the past four years earned a grade in the A range. Their top three of Justyn Knight, Colin Bennie, and Philo Germano have all run sub 29:05 in the 10k (if you assume Knight could do it, which based on his 29:27 at NCAA XC last year seems reasonable) and have been All-Americans in XC. Those three have the experience and will be ready to go when they hit the 10k.
Their next two guys, Aidan Tooker and Joe Dragon, are why they did not get an A+ grade since these two add some uncertainty. Tooker is a fantastic steepler with an 8:39 personal best while Dragon has been running well above his track personal bests this season, so it seems like Coach Fox might have these guys ready to go for the 10k. Fox is also a coach who has historically rested his guys at regionals, and given how much better the Orangemen appear than the rest of the Northeast field this year, that may happen again. Potentially resting some of their athletes could set ‘Cuse up for a great shot at the podium.
4. Portland: B-
The Portland Pilots always seem to be a surprise team every year. I think part of people’s surprise is that they somehow manage a top 10 team finish with a bunch of guys who, on paper, have no business being on a top 10 team. It is the magic from Rob Connor that really kept their grade above a C. Historically, he has made the most of what little he has had (on paper).
Only Nick Hauger has ever run a 10k on the track where he ran 30:09 last outdoor season (so not exactly spectacular), and yet, he finished 9th at Wisconsin. Similarly, Jeff Thies and Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse may lack superb 10k times on the track, but they were both in the top 15 at Wisconsin as well. It would appear that Connor has those three ready to run much better than their times would suggest.
The problem appears to be at the 4th and 5th men with Caleb Webb and Logan Orndoff who have never run anything above a 5k on the track and are not running as well as the top three. Of course, Connor controversially rested everyone here expect Thies and Hauger at the West Coast Conference Championship meet. Perhaps he has a trick up his sleeve to ensure that the Pilots will find themselves on the podium in Terre Haute.
3. Stanford: B
Given all the talent that Stanford has, and combined with their great performance at PAC-12’s, I could not justify giving them lower than a B. Grant Fisher has run 13:30 for 5k on the track and 29:55 for 10k in XC, so really it’s safe to assume he is at least worth 29:00 for 10k on the track and that is most definitely an underestimation. Stanford also has Blair Hurlock who ran 29:50 last outdoor season. That’s two guys under 30 minutes who should be ready to handle the big boy 10k for the last two meets of the season.
After them, however, Stephen Fahy, Alex Ostberg, and Tai Dinger are all inexperienced with anything longer than 5k on the track or 8k on the grass. After seeing Ostberg’s 4th place finish at PAC-12’s, it appears that he is beginning to peak at the right time, which should help Stanford’s chances at NCAA’s. If Jack Keelan and Sam Wharton were running like their past selves, this would be a totally different conversation and the Cardinal would have gotten an A- or even an A.
Yet, even with them struggling, Coach Miltenberg and the Cardinal have the talent and depth to mix and match at the next two meets to find the right formula to get back on the podium at Nationals.
2. BYU: A+
This top grade for BYU is really due to both performances on paper and also their fantastic performances this year. On paper the Cougars have 4 guys who have run under 29:15 for the 10k on the track. Even more impressive is that 29:05 Jon Harper has not been in the top 5 at either of BYU’s last two races, and to me, that says more about guys like Casey Clinger and Daniel Carney being super fit rather than a slight on Harper.
With Rory Linkletter and Clayton Young running up to the 28:58 and 28:45 potential that they have respectively shown, the pair are now leaders of a very fit and tightly compressed pack that Coach Ed Eyestone has developed. Unlike BYU teams that may have struggled over the final stretch in the past, this team looks primed to be peaking at the right time. As this grade suggests, they are very serious contenders to dethrone NAU and walk away from Terre Haute as national champions.
1. NAU: A-
This grade may seem a bit surprising to many people who consider NAU and BYU as teams that are both deserving of the #1 spot this year. However, when you look at where NAU is vulnerable compared to BYU, 10k depth becomes an area of concern. The Lumberjacks do have three guys in Matt Baxter, Tyler Day, and Cory Glines and who have run under 29:15 in the 10k, but the problem is that Glines does not appear to be in that type of fitness based on his results this year which knocks NAU’s grade down a bit.
What brings that grade back up has been the breakout season from Andy Trouard (who fun fact, has been 3rd in all four races he’s run in this year). He has shown he is not just a good miler and 5k guy on the track, but he looks ready to be a sure fire All-American in cross country as well.
The reason they still grade out lower than BYU ultimately comes down to uncertainty surrounding Luis Grijalva, Geordie Beamish, and Peter Lomong. All three of these guys have not shown the versatility to step up to 10k quite yet. Although Grijalva has been very impressive as a freshman this year, you just never know how younger guys will react to the 10k (just look at Justyn Knight in 2014). Nonetheless, Mike Smith has assembled enough talent and depth to keep me confident in this grade. They may have grade below BYU in this element of the race, but if NAU’s top guys can maintain what they have been doing and pull their pack along with them, then there is no reason that the Lumberjacks can’t defend their national title.