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TSR's 2023 Preseason D3 XC Top 10 Rankings (Men): #1 Wartburg Knights


Written by Conor Daly, edits and additional commentary by Gavin Struve and Garrett Zatlin

 

NOTE: Earlier this summer, The Stride Report reached out to nearly every team that was considered for a possible ranking this summer. While we did receive numerous responses and great clarity, we did not get a 100% response rate. On rare occasions, we are referencing TFFRS in order to talk about returners and athletes who are out of eligibility.

 
 

The moment that you have all been waiting for, the time where we unveil our top-ranked men's team entering a wide-open year in Division Three, has arrived. Let us begin by stating the obvious: The Wartburg Knights are going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall.


At the 2022 cross country national meet, the Wartburg men were the runner-up finishers. And the good news for Wartburg (and the bad news for everyone else) is that the Knights return their entire lineup from that triumphant performance with the exception of their fourth scorer.


With the exception of North Central, there is no other D3 team that can match that kind of roster retention (at this level of competitiveness) that Wartburg has.


* * *


Wartburg’s runner-up performance at the 2022 NCAA XC Championships may not have been expected per se, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a very strong season leading up to that point.


After winning a trio of smaller and less competitive meets early in the season, the Wartburg men waited until mid-October to face their first real test. That's when they got thrown into the deep end at the Augustana Interregional Invitational, a race that was loaded with many of the top teams in the country, including two of Division Three's top-four squads.


And yet, despite the top-caliber of competition, the Wartburg men rose to the occasion, led by big performances from Christopher Collet and Connor Lancial. The former pulled out the individual win over a field that was loaded with elite D3 talents. Meanwhile, Lancial ran the best race of his career, finishing 12th overall.


Veteran Morgan Shirley-Fairbairn snagged a solid 18th place finish while the Knights' fourth and fifth scorers, Jacob Green and Sam Schmitz, fell back a bit more than Wartburg could afford, finishing 28th and 31st respectively.


Consequently, the Knights placed 3rd as a team behind Pomona-Pitzer and North Central. It was a solid performance, but the Knights needed to condense their scoring group and find greater firepower if they wanted to contend for the podium in November.


Wartburg then went on to win their conference meet with ease by putting all five scorers in the top-nine. And at the Midwest Regional XC Championships, Wartburg once again went head-to-head with North Central. This time, the Knights employed some team-centric tactics, controlling the front of the race by running five-wide.


That strategy worked out for Collet who got the job done once again by securing his fifth victory of the season. But since they took on the wind early, the rest of Wartburg's squad suffered in the second-half of the race. The gaps behind Collet were simply too big which allowed for North Central to take the win while Wartburg finished 2nd.


Wartburg didn't necessarily have a bad day, but they simply needed a better team performance from their latter four scorers to beat North Central. Still, teams historically don't place much emphasis on the regional meet, and it seems that the Knights were saving their best performance for the "Big Dance" just a week later.


In his season finale, Collet was fantastic as always, finishing out a very consistent fall campaign by placing 7th overall. He may have wanted a slightly higher finish, but from a scoring perspective, he was still excellent.


However, the true heroes for Wartburg were Jacob Green and Connor Lancial. Both runners had the best races of their seasons at just the right time. Each of those men ran to their first All-American honors with Green placing 22nd and Lancial placing 34th. Those performances were huge for Wartburg in the team race as the Knights were able to flex far greater firepower than they had shown all season long.


To close out the scoring, Morgan Shirley-Fairbairn placed 41st and Sam Schmitz rose to the occasion to place 47th. With no backend gaps to worry about, the Knights' team effort at the 2022 NCAA XC Championships proved to be good enough for silver, Wartburg's best national meet finish in program history.


* * *


If you could find any concerns about Wartburg's national meet finish from last year, then it certainly didn't come from the performances of their front five. Instead, you could probably point to what their sixth and seventh runners did that day as Jack Kinzer and Lance Sobaski finished in 130th and 151st, respectively, well behind Schmitz.


And truthfully, Wartburg was lucky that their top-five were firing on all cylinders that day. If they had not, then a runner-up performance could have easily turned into a 7th place finish.


So without any momentous transfers or blue-chip high school recruits expected to counteract the Knights' lone scoring departure, who exactly do we expect to step into this top-five?


To answer that question, we would point you to Lance Sobaski. Yes, we think the same guy who placed just outside of the top-150 at the cross country national meet last year can be a contributor on our top-ranked team and a legitimate All-American.


Sobaski’s stock went through the roof over the past year after seeing what he did on the track. Not only has he run 4:12 for the mile, but he also ran 8:51 for the steeplechase. The latter mark was good enough for him to place 3rd at the outdoor national meet in that event, a very impressive accomplishment for a freshman who is only beginning to hint at his potential and long-term upside.


We definitely can’t be certain about how well Sobaski’s track fitness will translate to the 8k distance this fall. Even so, we should also consider that Wartburg has a track record of producing elite steeplechasers, like Collet and Aubrie Fisher, who have also mixed it up with the best in the nation on the grass.


So for now, we’re going to give Sobaski the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’ll follow suit. In our eyes, he is the x-factor for Wartburg in the national title race this fall, although he's not the Knights' top runner.


* * *


Speaking of the steeplechase, let’s dive into the face of Wartburg’s steeplechase and cross country programs right now -- national champion and Division Three record holder, Christopher Collet.


Collet is everything you could want in a low-stick. The veteran star has proven to be highly reliable and generally speaking, has a high floor. You know what you are going to get from him at a minimum every time he toes the line.


Last fall, Collet won five of his seven races, only falling to a single Division One runner at the Redbird Invite and finishing 7th at the cross country national meet. He is battle-tested at the national level, earning All-American finishes across the mile, steeplechase, 5000 meters and cross country.


Additionally, Collet’s versatility separates him from his competitors. Other low-sticks that wish to compete with Collet may have comparable strength over some of the longer races on the track, but may not have the speed that he does, backed by the 3:46 (1500) PR that he has to his name.


Collet is not someone who anyone in Division Three wants sitting around in the latter stages of a race. That closing speed makes him a threat to win any meet that he contests this fall. And in terms of raw fitness, he's flat-out elite, having recently run 8:38 over the barriers and water pits back in June.


* * *


We then come to Jacob Green, Sam Schmitz and Connor Lancial who were mainstays in Wartburg's lineup last year. Each of those men exude a ton of exciting upside and we think that they could be even more impactful contributors this fall compared to 2022.


Generally speaking, those three men finished right near each other throughout last year. However, on the other hand, they each have different strengths and weaknesses that we have noticed since last fall.


We’ll start with Green who we have ranked at TSR #18 in our preseason top-20 individual rankings. Green was a reliable scorer throughout last fall. Like many 5k/10k athletes, the Wartburg senior has proven that his ceiling is highest on the grass. Green showed us his top-end capability at last year’s cross country national meet with a huge 22nd place finish.


And believe it or not, Green made some significant jumps in fitness since then.


Yes, his 14:29 (5k) from this past spring is good, but his 29:26 (10k) PR puts him on another level. That latter mark suggests that the longer distances are Green's sweet-spot and that he may have more to offer this fall compared to last year, especially if he continues to improve.


Lancial was another name who was largely spectacular last year. His regular season was highlighted by a 12th place finish at the Augustana Interregional Invitational. And although he usually finished around Green, that particular performance far exceeded his teammate’s.


Come the national meet, Lancial finished 34th. That was about where we expected both Lancial and Green to be which speaks to the former's reliability and just how impressive Green’s performance was that day.


We have many of the same things to say about Schmitz as his two training partners. Although his overall resume might be considered a half a step down from his counterparts, Schmitz is still a very solid athlete in his own right.


While his track results don't necessarily fill us with excitement, Schmitz is someone who tends to be better on the cross country course, so we’re not too concerned by a relatively quiet spring campaign. At the end of the day, the fact that we’re hardly mentioning someone who placed 47th at the national meet last year shows just how much talent that this Wartburg squad returns.


With Collet as their lead scorer, Green, Lancial and Schmitz filling the middle portion of the lineup and Sobaski as the projected fifth scorer (who could also be their second scoring option come November), the Knights should have a defined lineup structure that is capable of winning gold by November.


However, they still need to round out the rest of their varsity lineup from there.


That's why Jack Kinzer's return is such a boon after he was part of the Knights' national meet lineup in 2022. He placed 5th at the American Rivers Conference XC Championships and was 130th at the NCAA XC Championships last year, suggesting that he has top-100 upside entering 2023.


Let's also not forget about Eli Larson who is another likely contributor after running 14:51 (5k) as a freshman in the spring. When you pair him with Kinzer, that gives this team a complete top-seven and some depth which holds respectable upside.


* * *


We know that this squad is looking to improve upon their runner-up national meet finish from last year -- and we believe they can do so.


Yes, this ranking does require some projection and improvement, but we're extremely confident that the Knights can (potentially) match some of North Central's firepower and hold depth that may be just as strong as what MIT and Pomona-Pitzer's rosters hold (if they can continue to develop their backend).


A singular program hasn’t won both the men’s and women’s races at the NCAA XC Championships since 1988. With both the men and women of Wartburg at TSR #1 in our team rankings, could we see the Knights sweep both fields to snap this 35-year streak?

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