Our TSR crew got together to chat about a few of the more interesting storylines prior to Nuttycombe and Pre-Nats. Instead of our usual open-ended questions, we decided to make a few statements and establish whether or not those statements are "FACT" or "FICTION".
Let's dive in...
Weini Kelati already has the individual title locked up
Garrett: FICTION. I think we’ve seen this story before. Kelati dominates the regular season, becomes the clear favorite for the national title, but ultimately falters at the national meet behind someone who simply had a better race. I think she is still the top name to win it all in 2019 (probably more so than any other season), but Arkansas’ Taylor Werner could end up being this year’s Dani Jones.
So is Kelati the favorite? Yes. Does she have the individual title locked up? No.
Maura: FICTION. Kelati is not unbeatable. As Garrett mentioned, Kelati does have a way of dominating the regular season. However, what really matters is who shows up at Nationals. This past spring, we almost saw Kelati lose the 10k at NCAA's when Oregon’s Carmela Cardama Baez put in a great late kick. This fall, Kelati will have to run away from the likes of Taylor Werner (Arkansas) and Alicia Monson (Wisconsin).
Kelati is a favorite for the individual title, but not a guaranteed winner.
Ben: FICTION. This is less about Kelati and more about the faith that I have in Werner. The way the Razorback ace has run so far this year indicates that she will be able to, like Dani Jones, hang with Kelati long enough to make it a race going into the last quarter mile. If it turns into a sprint finish, then Kelati is susceptible and far from a lock.
Brian: FACT. Yes, this is a bold statement and no, I’m not crazy. Kelati has proven that she is the best in the NCAA and that she will win Nationals. Kelati stomped an elite field at Joe Piane, taking out the likes of Alicia Monson and Joyce Kimeli. She has arguably the most championship experience, the best personal bests, and in my opinion, there is now a battle for 2nd place between Taylor Werner, Alicia Monson, and Erica Birk-Jarvis.
Sam: FICTION. No one has anything locked up in cross country right now. Cheserek was way more dominant than Kelati has been and even he lost at NCAA's. The thing that concerns me with Kelati is that if the weather isn’t great at the national meet, she could have a hard time winning because she won’t be able to just run away from the field. If great finishers like Werner are still around late in the race, Kelati could have a repeat of Dani Jones running away from her all over again.
Sean: FICTION. Last year, I picked Weini Kelati to win the National Championships in cross country and look how that turned out. It’s definitely not that Kelati isn’t a favorite for the title, but I cannot give any athlete the lock to win a national title after running just one race so far this season.
The NAU men will breeze through the rest of the season and claim yet another NCAA title
Garrett: FACT. Dominating Stanford at John McNichols with three redshirt freshmen (and without two All-American veterans who will likely return at Nuttycombe) is absolutely incredible. This team will only get better as the season progresses and if they need reinforcements for whatever reason, they have a handful of star freshmen that they can employ. I don’t see a scenario where this team doesn’t win out for the rest of the season.
Maura: FACT. Coach Michael Smith has created a dynasty at NAU and that will continue through this season. NAU dominated Stanford earlier in the season and didn’t even have their full top seven racing (they were without Blaise Ferro and Geordie Beamish). Brodey Hasty and Theo Quax have gained valuable experience and will only help this team perform better on the big stage.
My money is on NAU standing atop the podium in Terre Haute. And for those who were wondering, Terre Haute was where the winning streak first began for the Lumberjacks. Can NAU come full circle and win their 4th title where it all began? I think yes.
Ben: FACT. I take some umbrage with the question saying that NAU will breeze through the competition to win the NCAA title because I think Stanford is the best team to challenge NAU’s dynasty. That said, the Lumberjacks are huge favorites to win the title once again.
Like Garrett and Maura have pointed out, the scary part about this NAU team is how many underclassmen they have who look like All-Americans. With this new fresh crop of studs being paired with their experienced stars, the dynasty doesn’t look like it is ending any time soon.
Brian: FACT. NAU hasn’t given us any chance to doubt the inevitable. This is a team that will fly through the season as the heavy favorite and crush any opposition they face. NAU took down teams like Stanford and Iowa State without an issue and they haven’t even debuted Blaise Ferro or Geordie Beamish yet! This might arguably be their best team yet based off of their opening race and I fully expect NAU to put up a low score at Wisconsin next week.
I think at this point, we should be asking how well their next best five would place at Nationals (Brodey Hasty/Ryan Raff/Cade Burks/Jack Shea/Mitchell Small)
Sam: FACT. When you dominate the best teams in the country without your top squad, you label yourselves as "Untouchable". I don’t think Stanford is deep enough to knock down NAU. Heck, they can barely match them up front. The only team I could maybe see toppling NAU would be Colorado. With the likes of Klecker and Dressel, plus Wetmore at the helm, I think that the Buffs are the only squad that could pull off some miracle surprise at NCAA's to win.
Sean: FICTION. I think that it would be disingenuous to the rest of the field to say NAU will breeze through the rest of the season. At John McNichols, Stanford lost by 20 points. For the size of the meet, 20 points was a large gap. Still, if Steven Fahy runs with Alex Ostberg (which is a realistic expectation given that Fahy is an NCAA champion) then Stanford is only 12 points back of NAU. If the results had been this close, we wouldn't have this conversation about NAU walking over the rest of the field.
Should NAU be considered the favorite? Yes, absolutely. Will they simply walk over the rest of the NCAA? No.
The Utah women are serious contenders to make the podium at Nationals
Garrett: FACT. Serious contenders? Yes. Favorites to make the podium? Not quite. I like Utah and I was super impressed by their Joe Piane performance, but I simply like other teams a little bit more on the national stage. Arkansas, BYU, Colorado, and New Mexico are all better teams when they are healthy and running at their best with full lineups. That, however, doesn’t mean that Utah can’t make the podium. The Utes may have one of the most complete scoring fives in the NCAA and that could end up being enough to put them on the podium.
Ben: FICTION. I talked about Utah’s podium chances in this article, and although they looked incredible at the Joe Piane Invitational, there are some warning signs when it comes to their podium chances. They only run about five deep, and their top five do not have much experience when it comes to NCAA's. I think this is a top 10 team, but to finish on the podium after missing NCAA's last year is a huge leap, especially when you consider that their roster is very similar to what we saw in 2018.
This is a much improved Utah team, but to label them as a serious contender for the podium might be a touch too much.
Sean: FICTION. It would be super cool, but I’m just not sure that the Utes are there yet. If I were to predict their finishing place at NCAA's, I would place it somewhere like this:
5th-7th: 5% each
8th-10th: 15% each
11th- 13th: 7% each
14th- 19th: 3% each
For our statistics-focused readers, envision a right skewed distribution centered on 9th place. That makes you an outside hope for the podium, but not quite a serious contender. Of course, seeing as how Utah was an outside hopeful for national qualifying based on previous rankings, I’m more than willing to be wrong on this one.
Brian: FACT. After watching Joe Piane, I don’t know how someone would say they aren’t a contender for a podium finish. Ben does make a good argument about their lack of depth, but I like to see the glass half-full when you see their 26 second time spread between their top five. To me, that shows us that the Utah women aren’t just podium contenders, but a real threat to even win Nationals come November.
Maura: FICTION. Yes, taking down top teams at the Joe Piane Invitational put Utah on our radar, but this was only one race. Utah still needs to prove themselves at other meets before one can make an argument about whether or not they are a serious contender to make the podium come late November.
As Ben pointed out, the Utes are only solid through five runners. They really need their #6 and #7 runners to finish closer just in case someone has an off-day. I’d rather say that the women of Utah have the potential to finish in the top 10 at NCAA's.
We will have a better idea of what Utah can do when they travel to Nuttycombe this upcoming weekend.
Sam: FICTION. Utah is a good team and they have a very solid top five, but to make the podium this year they’re going to need some All-Americans and I don’t know if they have more than one woman who will realistically finish inside the top 40.
When you look at teams like Colorado, Arkansas, New Mexico, BYU, etc., they all have runners who are top 20 talents in the country. Even teams like Michigan, NC State, Washington, and Wisconsin have runners who should be up there. I don’t see anyone on Utah breaking into the top 20 and I don’t know if I see any even being All-American.
Without that kind of firepower, you’re not making the podium.
Thomas Ratcliffe, not Joe Klecker, has the best chance to be the first American to win an individual title since 2008
Garrett: FICTION. I have been really impressed by Thomas Ratcliffe as of late. His 13:32 and bronze medal at NCAA’s last spring was an absolute stunner. Seeing him finish runner-up at John McNichols only validated that he’ll be a legitimate contender in the NCAA this fall.
However, I still don’t love his inexperience and the fact that he’s injury prone (at least far more than Klecker) doesn’t help his case either. Generally speaking, Klecker is more consistent and has put together performances that indicate that he’ll at least threaten for the national title come November.
Sam: FICTION. Ratcliffe has been to one NCAA XC meet. Ratcliffe has finished zero NCAA XC meets. Ratcliffe didn’t even qualify for Indoor Nationals. Meanwhile, Klecker notched 3rd place and runner-up finishes at that meet.
Ratcliffe is a very good runner no doubt, but I don’t think he’s better than Klecker and he definitely does not have the championship experience that Klecker does. Now, it’s a long way out, but the weather at NCAA's could be anyone’s guess and if it is winter weather, then I feel the most confident in Klecker - ahead of Kiprop, Kurgat, and Ratcliffe. He’s a true Minnesota guy and while I could see others struggling in adverse conditions, I don’t see that being the case for Klecker.
Ben: FACT. I’m not necessarily saying that Ratcliffe is a better runner than Klecker, but I think he has a better chance at winning the title this year.
Here’s why: Edwin Kurgat and Vincent Kiprop look so strong that it is going to take a monster performance to beat either of them. To beat them, a runner needs to have the strength to hang with them through 9k and the speed to kick past them. I, like Garrett, trust Klecker more to stay with the leaders through most of the race, but I’m not sure he has enough to out-kick either Kiprop or Kurgat. Ratcliffe might have that ideal blend on a perfect day.
At the end of the day, I believe that Ratcliffe has a higher ceiling while Klecker has a much higher floor. For that reason, I trust Klecker more to earn a top five finish. But, if I had to pick someone to win, then I would go with Ratcliffe because of his upside.
Brian: FICTION. Ratcliffe put out an unreal performance early in the season, but I just have no trust in him based off of his injury history. I would rather pick a proven Joe Klecker who mixed it up with Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen at Joe Piane.
Klecker has the credentials to make a charge for the title at NCAA’s, but at this point I wouldn’t bet on an American to win the individual title this year.
Maura: FICTION. Even though Ratcliffe finished 3rd in the 5k at NCAA's this past spring and has started the 2019 season well, he still has caught the injury bug numerous times. I think Ratcliffe’s lack of experience at the NCAA XC Championship will affect his finish.
On the other hand, Klecker had a breakout indoor track season before getting hurt during outdoors, but he has come back ready to prove that he is a threat up-front. Klecker, in my opinion, is better than Ratcliffe.
Sean: FACT AND FICTION. If you’ve been reading my analysis over the last few seasons, then you know that I’ve been a strong proponent of Thomas Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe has superior star power and I believe he will be fighting for more come Nationals. I also think Ratcliffe has a higher ceiling given his incredible results with limited racing opportunities.
HOWEVER, I think the best chance for a winner is Conner Mantz. Mantz is one of the most consistent distance runners in the NCAA and should push him up the podium. Last year, Mantz had to do much more work in hopes of running down the NAU men, but having more team freedom might allow him to not rush to the front and therefore create a better race plan in 2019.