Written by Michael Weidenbruch and Garrett Zatlin
As mentioned in our rankings rubric article, we are aware that certain conferences and universities will not be competing this fall due to ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, for the sake of content, we have constructed these rankings as if a regular cross country season will happen.
10. George Kusche, Junior, Nebraska
We debated our TSR #10 spot for quite some time, but ultimately, Nebraska's George Kusche gets the nod after a 2019-2020 calendar year where he displayed underrated stamina and dynamic speed.
For the most part, Kusche was lights-out during the 2019 cross country season. After taking home the win at an early-season rust-buster, the rising junior placed 5th at Pre-Nationals, taking down established distance stars and eventual All-Americans such as Ehab El-Sandali (Iona), Joe Klecker and John Dressel (Colorado) and Andrew Jordan (Washington).
However, it was the BIG 10 Championships where Kusche really showed the peak of his fitness, finishing 2nd overall to Oliver Hoare and pulling ahead of an elite BIG 10 field which featured the Indiana duo of Ben Veatch and Kyle Mau, the Purdue trio of Carpenter, Eckstein and Smith, and Michigan's Devin Meyrer.
However, the rest of the postseason was not as kind to Kusche as it was to a few others. After individually qualifying for the National Championships, the Husker ace struggled to stay with the top pack and ultimately faltered to 165th overall to end his 2019 cross country season.
Despite the rough ending to what was a very promising cross country season, Kusche found redemption on the track. The South Africa native threw down electric marks of 3:57 (mile) and 7:50 (3k), comfortably placing himself in the All-American conversation and quietly settling into a national title sleeper role (well, at least in my eyes he was).
Yes, we acknowledge that his performance at the National Championships wasn't great. However, this is someone consistently defeated some of the country's best distance runners.
Kusche is someone who continues to make improvements in each and every season he competes in. We didn't expect that progression to stop in the fall of 2020 (of course, we didn't expect a global pandemic either).
9. Abdi Nur, Rs. Sophomore, Northern Arizona
While many men in our preseason rankings had 2019 performances that fluctuated between good and bad, Northern Arizona's Abdi Nur consistently appeared as a steady and reliable name for the Lumberjacks throughout 2019 -- a rarity for someone who had such little experience last fall.
After a rust-buster at the George Kyte Classic, Nur went on to post a very impressive 5th place finish at the John McNichols Invitational. It was a result that shocked many distance fans who weren't expecting Nur (along with two other redshirt freshmen) to be such strong low-stick talents for a team that was already considered a powerhouse program.
As we fast forward to Nuttycombe, Nur once again emerged as a top NAU scorer, finishing 9th overall and showing the rest of the NCAA that his outstanding John McNichols performance was no fluke.
The rest of his season was relatively quiet for Nur, but by no means poor. After sitting out of the BIG Sky Championships and cruising through the Mountain regional meet, Nur ended his season with an All-American 33rd place finish at the National Championships.
Nur's top-40 result was a good one, but based on what we saw at Nuttycombe, a top-20 or top-25 result felt closer to his actual talent level for the redshirt freshman. But at a meet where very few NAU runners ran their best race, Nur's All-American result was a welcomed one.
Following the 2019 cross country season, Nur continued to toe the line. He recorded a new personal best of 7:57 in the 3000 meters and ran an altitude-converted 13:39 for 5000 meters. He now had the top-tier times to match his top-tier cross country finishes.
Overall, it was hard to look at Nur's 2019 season and be disappointed. Despite it being his first year of collegiate competition, he still emerged as a legitimate low-stick who never had a bad race and who always produced on the biggest stages.
We still believe that the best is yet to come for Nur which is why we gave him the #9 spot in our preseason rankings.
8. Patrick Dever, Senior, Tulsa
7. Peter Lynch, Senior, Tulsa
The Tulsa duo of Peter Lynch and Patrick Dever remind us a lot of the already-ranked Iona duo of Johnjack Millar and Ehab El-Sandali.
Why? Well, mainly because we only have to look at two results from the 2019 season to fully summarize why we opted to rank these men where we did.
Between the Rhodes College XC Invitational, the AAC Championships and the Midwest Regional Championships, the Golden Hurricanes didn't necessarily have to put forward their best efforts in any of those races.
But Nuttycombe and Nationals? Well, those meets are a different story.
In their first true challenge of the season, the Tulsa men thrived. Peter Lynch had a huge breakout performance to finish 14th overall while Patrick Dever finished in 35th place. The result was far better for Lynch than it was for Dever, but it's important to remember that Dever qualified for the World XC Championships in 2019 where he finished 37th overall. He was definitely capable of doing more.
And as it turns out, that was exactly case. At the National Championships, Dever and Lynch prospered. Dever finished 11th overall while Lynch secured a 13th place finish. Only Colorado, Alabama and BYU had a better 1-2 punch.
All of the attention coming into the 2020 cross country season was rightfully centered around another potential Northern Arizona and BYU matchup before the National Championships were cancelled. However, the Tulsa men had an argument to be in that same conversation and a lot of that can be attributed to what Lynch and Dever accomplished last year.
6. Thomas Ratcliffe, Rs. Senior, North Carolina
He may have taken a few years to really get going at Stanford, but Thomas Ratcliffe has been one of the more exciting names to watch over the past year or so when he's healthy. The newest addition to North Carolina’s star-studded distance group, Ratcliffe could be the spark who takes the Tar Heels to new heights whenever he does compete next.
We had seen glimmers of what Ratcliffe was capable of doing at the collegiate level dating all the way back to 2016, but it was the spring of 2019 where he really started going off. A 13:32 5k at the 2019 Cardinal Classic set the stage for a thrilling 3rd place finish in the same event at the Outdoor National Championships behind Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher.
Ratcliffe was living up to expectations on the cross country course last fall, translating his newfound fitness on the track to the grass, with top finishes at many of the country's largest races. He was a very strong 2nd at the John McNichols Invitational ahead of Northern Arizona elites like Luis Grijalva while losing only to eventual national champion Edwin Kurgat.
A 4th place finish at the Nuttycombe Invitational validated his strong season debut.
Ratcliffe wasn't just one of the better runners in the NCAA, he was one of the most elite distance runners that the country had to offer. His 13:32 from the spring was certainly no fluke.
After a respectable 6th place finish at the PAC-12 Championships and later cruising through the West regional meet, Ratcliffe and the Stanford Cardinal ventured to Terre Haute. However, once he got to the Big Dance, things went awry as Ratcliffe ended up finishing in 183rd place overall.
A lot will be different when we see Thomas Ratcliffe line up in Carolina Blue, but his return with former Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg (who he spent the majority of his Stanford career with) will allow for some normality.
The big question we have for Ratcliffe moving forward is whether or not he can stay healthy. He didn't seem to have a problem doing that throughout 2019, but after running one early-season mile race during the 2020 indoor track season, Ratcliffe once again remained absent.
If Ratcliffe can stay healthy and put together a full season (whenever that may be), then he has enough talent and potential to possibly contend for the national title one day (or at least be in the lead pack).
5. Morgan Beadlescomb, Rs. Senior, Michigan State
Morgan Beadlescomb has a resume that gives you everything that you could want from a top cross country runner. The Michigan State ace has seen significant improvement through each and every season, having finished 165th (2016), 91st (2017) and most recently 23rd (2019) at the NCAA XC Championships.
If Beadlescomb can maintain that outstanding level of improvement (which is admittedly easier said than done), then he'll be in the national title conversation whenever cross country happens next.
In 2019, Michigan State ran a very competitive regular season schedule, making stops at Panorama Farms (which Beadlescomb won) and the Nuttycombe Invitational (where Beadlescomb placed 7th).
A 3rd place finish at the BIG 10 Championships and a 6th place finish at the Great Lakes Regional Championships gave Beadlescomb a resume where he never finished worse than 7th prior to Nationals.
In Terre Haute, Beadlescomb ended his season with a very respectable 23rd place finish. It was a strong and encouraging result, but one could argue that it was the worst race of his season -- a crazy thought for anyone to consider, regardless of their caliber.
Following the cross country season, Beadlescomb went on to run a massive new personal best of 13:31 for 5000 meters and looked ready to take on some of the nation’s best at the indoor national meet.
While he never got his opportunity to face top competition on the national stage last winter, Beadlescomb's time will eventually come and the grass may be the best place for him to show what he’s made of.
Competing in one of the deepest conferences and regions during the cross country season can make it challenging to be as consistent as Beadlescomb was last fall. The Michigan State star has gone from being a relative no-name, to a solid contender (who still managed to slip under the radar on occasion), to one of the nation’s best distance talents.
If he can continue to improve anywhere near the same rate that we have seen from him over the past few years, then there will be no doubt as to whether or not Morgan Beadlescomb can compete for a national title.
4. Luis Grijalva, Senior, Northern Arizona
It may not happen this year, but the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona will be out for redemption whenever they do toe the line next.
Losing to BYU at the National Championships last fall must have stung quite a bit, but with such an elite squad set to come back, it's hard to think that they aren't the national title favorites, especially with Grijalva as their lead low-stick.
Grijalva’s disappointing 52nd place finish at NCAA’s last fall was a bit of a fluke, but based on his resume as a whole, it's unlikely that he will falter again. The NAU veteran finished in the top five in every race leading up to Nationals. He was 3rd at the very top-heavy John McNichols Invitational and later finished 5th at the Nuttycombe Invitational before cruising into the national meet.
Despite the less-than-ideal national meet performance, Grijalva went on to dominate the NCAA during the winter months, running an unbelievable time of 7:43 for 3000 meters and a new personal best of 13:29 for 5000 meters. Had the Indoor National Championships not been cancelled, Grijalva would have had an excellent opportunity to pick up his first national title.
Luis Grijalva has only one cross country All-American honor to his name (a 23rd place finish at the 2018 NCAA XC Championships) which is crazy to think about when you consider what he has done over the course of his career.
However, what he lacks in All-American honors he makes for with his incredible consistency and experience. Grijalva is easily one of the most talented distance runners in the country, now he just needs to put it altogether on the national stage.
3. Amon Kemboi, Senior, Arkansas
Amon Kemboi arrives to Fayetteville, Arkansas ready to put on a new singlet and lead a potential powerhouse team. A six-time All-American while at Campbell, Kemboi has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA XC Championships on two separate occasions. With these credentials, he is an instant low-stick for any team he toes the line for.
With personal bests ranging from 3:39 (1500) to 7:44 (3k) to 13:33 (5k), all the way up to 28:55 (10k), Amon Kemboi has proven himself to be a man of many talents. He’s also shown to have great stamina, having competed in (and won) three or four different events at the Big South Indoor Conference Championships multiple times during his tenure as a Camel.
Arkansas has been fortunate to pick up multiple transfers over the past year, making their lineup pretty intimidating. While Kemboi may be a new guy on campus, he should have no problem joining the Razorbacks and making an immediate impact.
Don't forget, this is the same guy who finished 2nd to Conner Mantz at Pre-Nationals last fall while also taking down a very impressive field in the process.
SEC transfer rules suggest that Kemboi wouldn't have been eligible to compete for the Razorbacks this fall, although that seems to be a moot point now that the National Championships are cancelled.
Whenever he does race next, it will be hard to ignore the guy with elite-level times, numerous All-American honors, championship experience and exceptional range.
2. Cooper Teare, Senior, Oregon
"Oregon’s top runner" is a title that carries a lot of weight, but it's a title that is fitting for someone like Cooper Teare.
The distance running star from Eugene solidified himself as one of the NCAA’s best last year, finishing 6th at NCAA’s as well as 2nd at the absolutely loaded PAC-12 Championships.
Admittedly, his 4th place finish at Bill Dellinger and 12th place result at Nuttycombe don't exactly bolster his resume to the point where he's ranked as the second-best distance runner in the country...but his performances from this past winter certainly do.
The Oregon superstar ran 3:55 (mile), 7:46 (3k), and helped the Ducks set a new national record in the DMR this past indoor track season with a solo 3:55 spit on the anchor leg. It would not at all have been surprising if Teare emerged from the indoor national meet with a national title had the meet not been cancelled.
With Joe Klecker and John Dressel now out of eligibility and Thomas Ratcliffe transferring out of the conference, Cooper Teare is now the face of the PAC-12 -- a label that immediately puts him in the national title conversation.
He’s right there with the top milers and middle distance specialists in the country, but the fact that he can move up and effectively race in the 5000 meters or the 10,000 meters on the grass is what makes him so incredibly valuable.
Can Cooper Teare follow in the footsteps of Oregon legends like Edward Cheserek and Galen Rupp and bring the NCAA crown back to Eugene? It won't happen this fall, but in a world without a pandemic, that would have been a very realistic possibility.
1. Conner Mantz, Rs. Junior, BYU
The top-ranked individual is an athlete who is plenty deserving of the honor.
Conner Mantz comes into this year ranked as the top returner in the NCAA. While we didn't necessarily have have him as a guaranteed lock to win the national title this year, we still viewed Mantz as someone who had the best chance of doing so (and a lot of people are likely in the same boat).
The five-time All-American has yet to win an NCAA title, but has come close numerous times. The worst finish that he had last fall was a 4th place result at the Mountain Regional Championships (a race that he used solely for the purposes of national qualification), followed by his 3rd place finish at the 2019 National Championships.
Aside from those two races, Mantz was undefeated throughout the regular season, picking up wins at the Dellinger Invitational (over Robert Brandt and Cooper Teare), Pre-Nationals (over Amon Kemboi and Isai Rodriguez) and the West Coast Conference Championships (over James Mwaura and the entire Portland team).
If this were a normal season, it is quite possible that we would have seen Mantz go undefeated this fall.
Personal bests of 7:50 (3k), 13:29 (5k) and 28:18 (10k) make Mantz an easy name to bet on. His aggressive front-running style paired with his killer finishing speed makes him an awfully difficult name to out-run, especially on a difficult course like Terre Haute (as we saw last fall).
When it comes to bad days, Mantz doesn’t have many. And for that reason, he is the #1 name in our Preseason XC Top 50 rankings.