As a writer and fan of distance running, cross country has always been my favorite season to cover. I love the variability and the surprises that can happen when you race for 6000, 8000, or 10,000 meters. I love the discussion and debate as well as the numerous story lines that are almost guaranteed to keep things interesting.
Yet, what I may enjoy the most are the surprise teams and breakout stars who rise to the top of the NCAA each and every year. In a sport that can be easily dominated by just a few powerhouse names, strong results from non-traditional teams and unexpected front runners help extend our discussion throughout the cross country season
However, these breakout performances don't just happen with sheer luck. Often times, it takes a program-defining change, a battle through adversity, or the development of a winning culture that contributes to the eventual progress and success that we've seen from so many squads.
Just look at what happened with the Florida women this past year. In the summer of 2017, former American 10k record holder Chris Solinsky left William and Mary to join the Gators as their head cross country coach. At the time, the Florida women were struggling to stay competitive in a conference and region that were already weak to begin with. In Solinsky's first year with the team, the Florida women finished 10th (out of 12 teams) at the SEC Championships. To put it simply, they weren't great.
Fast forward a year later, and the story is completely different. The lady Gators entered the season ranked 10th in their region. However, over the next few months, the Florida women would win four straight meets (which included the Arturo Barrios Invite which was hosted by Midwest powerhouse Oklahoma State). At the 2018 SEC Championships, Florida would earn a huge 2nd place finish behind only Arkansas and establish themselves as legitimate threats to make it to Nationals out of the South region. Sure enough, Solinsky's squad earn an automatic qualifier to the National Championships where they eventually finished 16th overall.
Within a year and a half of leaving William and Mary and coming to Florida, Coach Solinsky completely turned around a Florida team that had once been at the bottom of the SEC.
Of course, the Florida women aren't the only success story we can talk about. In fact, they may not even be the most improved team of the 2018 season. That title may belong to the Oregon State women who had former Arizona State coach Louie Quintana join their program in the summer of 2017 (the same time as Solinsky).
In his first year as head coach, Quintana saw that the Beavers were massively overwhelmed in terms of competition and fitness. Oregon State limped through the 2017 season, finishing dead last at the PAC 12 Championships and 13th in the ultra-stacked West region. Establishing Oregon State as a competitive program in the most talented conference and region in the NCAA was going to be an extremely difficult task, regardless of who was at the helm.
Yet, as fate would have it, Quintana pulled off a near miracle. In 2018, the Beavers of Oregon State would finish 16th at Nuttycombe and earn back-to-back 6th place finishes at their conference and regional meets. Those performances were enough to warrant Oregon State's first-ever berth to a National Championship.
As exciting and as heart-warming as some of those stories may be, it's not often that changes like that happen within just one year. Just look at the men of Wake Forest or the entire Temple program.
In his first year as Temple's head coach, James Snyder saw his men's team finish 21st at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships while the women had finished 23rd. After that pair of unimpressive results, very few expected the program to take the turn that it did, especially when you consider what happened next.
In February of 2014, the Temple Athletic Department made the decision to cut seven of their intercollegiate sports team. Of those seven, two included indoor and outdoor track. To say that it put Coach Snyder and his cross country team at a disadvantage would be a massive understatement. The Owls instantly lost a handful of talented recruits (including some who had committed just a week prior) and had only one season of competition that their school would officially sponsor.
By all measures, Snyder was at a disadvantage. It would have been easy for him to jump ship while he could and take his resume to a different university. A university that was stronger financially, held greater athletic resources, and offered a more desirable pitch to recruits.
That, however, is not what happened. Instead, Snyder helped both his men's and women's teams finish in the top 15 at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships. By 2017, they were both top 10. Now in 2018? The men finished 6th and the women finished 4th.
And what about the Wake Forest men? When John Hayes was announced as the Director of Track and Field and Cross Country in the summer of 2016, the Deacon men were in need of a spark. They had finished 23rd in the Southeast region the year prior, but jumped to 16th in Hayes' first year with the program. In 2017, that finish was 11th and now 5th in 2018.
The progress we've seen since Hayes entered the program, along the recent hire of assistant coach Andrew Ferris in 2017, has suddenly turned Wake Forest into a very legitimate threat for their opponents in the Southeast region.
It may have taken more than just a single year, but Temple and Wake Forest have found ways to enter the conversation for a 2019 national qualifier.
It is clear that these coaches have had a tremendous impact on their respective programs. To see their level of progress is outstanding and it leaves many fans around the country (including myself) excited about the future of the NCAA.
There are a ton of coaching additions or changes that we haven't spoken about yet.
Wyoming's Scott Dahlberg joined the program in 2017 and, with the guidance of Coach Berryhill, have helped the Cowboys go from an average Mountain region team to a 12th place finisher at the national meet.
What about UNC? After leaving Iowa State, Coach Andrea Grove-McDonough has made significant progress with the Tarheels in just her first season. They still have a long way to go, but we saw encouraging signs from them over the past three months.
Heck, even Washington has benefitted from a coaching change. With arrival of Andy Powell, the Huskies went from being a decent PAC 12 team to one of the best in the nation.
The list is endless. We could go on for days talking about all of the examples, but the evidence is clear. If growth is stunted and progress is lacking, the right coach can make all the difference.
Despite all of the success new coaches have had, we are missing another key aspect of why these teams have had such great improvement.
Would Florida or Oregon State have been as successful as they were without the rapid rise in fitness from Jessica Pascoe or Juliana Mount? Could Wake Forest and Notre Dame have accomplished as much as they did this season without their star freshmen (Facioni and Kilrea)? Is it fair to say that transfers like Tanner Anderson (Washington), Paul Roberts (Wyoming), and Nick Golbiowski (UNC) were the all-important low-sticks that their teams needed to thrive in 2018?
Other than Temple, all of the teams that we mentioned have a superstar front runner that they were able to lean on throughout the season. It makes sense, right? As long as the rest of your lineup is good enough, your low-stick will be the difference maker when the final results are tallied. It's rare that you see teams like NC State (ever since Parsons graduated) and Michigan (for most of this year) have as much success as they did without a clear standout ace.
Sure, maybe a knowledge coach and a stud scorer can be the recipe for success. Still, it's important to remember that those aren't the only ingredients. In fact, those aren't even the main components of a top-tier program. The most valuable qualities are common team goals, a "next-man-up" (or woman) mentality, and a culture built around being better than the next team.
Just remember: It takes five runners to score, but an entire program to win.