TSR's "If Everything Was Normal" D1 Top 50 XC Rankings: #40-31 (Men)

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.

40. Jack Aho, Senior, Michigan

There aren’t many runners who do a better job of peaking at the right time than Jack Aho. Over the last two years, the Wolverine low-stick has run his best race at NCAA’s, securing two All-American finishes.

Unlike many of the runners ahead or behind him, Aho is as predictable and consistent as they come. It feels like the NCAA could set their All-American status based on whether or not you beat Aho at Nationals.

He was 40th in 2019 and 35th in 2018 with regular seasons that did not indicate those type of performances. Last year, he was 34th at Joe Piane and 113rd at Nuttycombe before bouncing back to finish 14th at the BIG 10 Championships. His 2018 season followed a similar pattern as he got better after each race.

With PR’s of 13:59 (5k) and 7:57 (3k), Aho fits the mold of a top cross country runner who has the experience and credentials on the grass to back it up. While he may not have the high-end ceiling of some of the runners ranked ahead of him, we are very confident in his ability to produce a top result when it matters the most.

39. Cole Hocker, Sophomore, Oregon

One of the most successful true freshman from last year, Hocker enters his sophomore year with high expectations. The Duck was a consistent contributor for an Oregon team that had plenty of experienced firepower last year.

His collegiate debut came at the Bill Dellinger Invitational where he finished 9th overall behind some top names such as Conner Mantz, Robert Brandt, Cooper Teare and James West. He struggled a bit at Nuttycombe where he finished 64th, but bounced back with a solid 17th place finish at the PAC-12 Championships. After sitting out of the West regional meet, the true freshman closed out his season with a strong 69th place finish at NCAA's.

Like many of his Oregon teammates, Hocker had a very successful indoor track season which saw him build on his impressive inaugural cross country campaign. He threw down a sub-four mile (running 3:58 along) with a sub-eight mark in the 3000 meters with his 7:57 time.

Looking at his sparkling freshman year, it is hard not to think that he will be even better in is sophomore season. His indoor track season certainly indicates that his fitness has grown even more.

While he isn’t necessarily a top-40 returner from last year, it seems likely that he will make big improvements and finish as an All-American whenever we next have a cross country season.

38. Nico Young, Freshman, Northern Arizona

As an incoming freshman, it's hard to figure out the right spot for a guy like Nico Young. Then again, how could you not fit him in somewhere? Despite having no collegiate running experience thus far, Young will look to take his legendary high school performances and build upon those results in the collegiate circuit.

As a prep star for Newbury Park in California, Young was able to throw down one of the best collection of times that the country has ever seen. Up to this point, Young has run 8:40 for two 3200 meters, 7:56 for 3000 meters (indoors) and 13:50 for 5000 meters. Those times alone already put Young in the All-American conversation.

On the cross country course, Young had an incredible senior season in which he won the NXN national title and broke the meet record in a jaw-dropping time of 14:52. Since 2004, only Futsum Zienasellassie (a former NAU runner) has won an NXN title by a bigger margin.

Some may push for Young to be ranked higher (and there is certainly an argument for that). However, we opted to stay on the more cautious side of things when it comes to ranking the high school superstar until we see how we actually performs at the collegiate level.

Even so, Young seems like the closest thing to a guaranteed star since Edward Cheserek.

37. Alec Hornecker, Senior, Colorado

Alec Hornecker was a pleasant surprise during the 2019 cross country season. With Colorado facing depth issues behind their strong top trio, Hornecker (along with Kashon Harrison) stepped up in a big way to give Colorado yet another podium finish in Terre Haute.

Hornecker hit the ground running in 2019 as he started out the season with a 26th place performance against a strong field at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational. He followed up that result with a very average race at Pre-Nationals (38th) and a much better race at the PAC-12 Championships (12th).

Hornecker's continued improvements throughout the season paid off as he rode his momentum to a 38th place finish at NCAA’s, capping off his year as an All-American.

With Colorado’s top duo of Joe Klecker and John Dressel gone, it will be up to Hornecker, Harrison and Herrera (can someone make up a nickname? It can’t be "3H".) to try and replicate some of the production that has walked out the door.

Depth will again be a (supposed) issue for the Buffaloes as they will need underclassmen and Mississippi State transfer Stephen Jones to fill in the gaps. While Hornecker is not expected to provide the same top-end scoring that Dressel and Klecker did, he will be an even more critical piece for Colorado as he will likely be a top three scorer.

This theoretical season where everything is normal will come with more pressure for him to be a top scorer, but if he can improve on his fitness from last year, then Hornecker may end up being a dark horse top-20 candidate.

36. Alex Masai, Senior, Hofstra

In a recent episode of the Blue Oval Podcast, I asked Garrett who were the only two athletes to go through the entire season undefeated. Edwin Kurgat (the national champion) was one while Aaron Bienenfeld of Cincinnati was the other (although he did not compete at NCAA’s).

The third runner who nearly joined that group was Alex Masai.

The top man from Hofstra dominated for most of the 2019 cross country season as he took big wins at the Lehigh Paul Short Run, the Princeton Cross Country Invitational, the CAA Cross Country Championship and the Northeast Regional Championships (which was run on the roads).

In those smaller meets, Masai simply utilized his raw fitness and ran away from the field. This strategy worked out extremely well until NCAA’s where he was unable to gap the best runners in the country. He ended up finishing a disappointing 127th place.

However, his indoor track season again showed his tantalizing talent as he ran 7:53 (3k) and 13:28 (5k). Yet, he was somehow not a title favorite going into the 5000 meters at the Indoor National Championships, simply because many were unsure about how he would handle the tactics of a NCAA championship race.

This issue was one that we wrestled with as we made these rankings. Masai clearly has the talent to be an All-American, but will he be able to execute an effective race strategy (other than just running all-out from the gun)?

Despite all of this, he is a clear All-American favorite. The experience he gained during his breakout year will surely help whenever he next toes the line. He does not have a ceiling on his potential. Running 13:28 during the indoor track season puts you in truly elite company.

If Masai puts it together on the right day, he could be a top 10 talent in the country.

35. Eduardo Herrera, Senior, Colorado

One of the most consistent runners in the NCAA, Herrera will lead a Colorado team that lost its top two runners from last year. It will be extremely difficult to replace the scoring potency that Joe Klecker and John Dressel left behind, but Herrera will be the much-needed constant All-American-caliber presence for the Buffaloes if they were to compete this fall.

The senior has finished within the top 55 at NCAA’s over the last three years with 2019 being the worst of those performances. He was 43rd in 2018 and 33rd in 2017. It would be shocking if he did not finish somewhere in that range in 2020 / whenever there is a season.

Like his other cross country seasons, Herrera had a strong and very steady regular season in 2019. He was 14th at Joe Piane, 17th at Pre-Nationals and then 13th at PAC-12’s.

While he has been a consistent All-American candidate for the past three years, 2020 could be the year that Herrera takes the next step as a cross country runner and pushes towards a top 20 finish.

With Alec Hornecker and Kashon Harrison returning, an improved Herrera could have the Buffaloes competing for yet another podium finish if a season were to actually happen.

34. Christian Allen, Junior, Weber State

One of the biggest surprises from the 2019 NCAA Cross Country Championships was Christian Allen. His 14th place finish at NCAA’s -- on the heels of performances that did not indicate an All-American finish -- was nothing less than stunning.

Last fall, he was 65th at Joe Piane, 40th at Pre-Nationals and 7th at the Big Sky Cross Country Championships. None of these races screamed NCAA individual qualifier, much less a top 20 runner at the National Championships.

And yet, the top runner from Weber State put it together when it mattered the most and peaked at the perfect time.

Allen was one of the hardest runners for us to rank because of the lack of a proven track record. As Garrett laid out in our rubric, we take into account a runner’s overall profile. While NCAA performance is certainly very important, it is not the only criteria for our rankings.

When it comes to Allen, he is one of the top returners in the country and because of that, he deserves a place within our rankings. Still, when compared to other top runners around him, his overall resume isn't as strong.

TSR #34 is where we landed for Allen, but there are arguments to be made for a spot that is much higher or lower. This year is a big one for him.

If Allen can prove that his race NCAA’s was not a fluke performance on a tough and muddy course, then he will vault himself into another tier of runners. He may prove to be our most inaccurate ranking, but I have no doubt that we will learn a lot more about Christian Allen whenever he does race again.

33. Alek Parsons, Senior, Stanford

The top returner for the Cardinal after Thomas Ratcliffe transferred and Alex Ostberg finished his eligibility comes in at TSR #33 on our list. Parsons is a fascinating runner to look at for the coming year and was a difficult one to rank.

Parsons started his season with a respectable 12th place finish at John McNichols, but then had a less impressive 45th place finish at the Nuttycombe Invitational and a 22nd place finish at PAC-12's.

Stanford, as a whole, did not look quite as strong as we expected, likely stemming from the fact that Parsons and Steven Fahy did not appear to be their former All-American selves.

And yet, when it mattered the most, Parsons came through in a big way. He was an All-American once again as he finished 34th at the 2019 National Championships.

With back-to-back All-American finishes in the top 35, Parsons is strong All-American candidate once again coming into this year. Seeing him finish in the same range would not be surprising, but I feel like we could see a much better version of Parsons in 2020 (or whenever he next competes).

Parsons didn't have a great 2019 season overall, but he has proven that he can peak when it matters the most. Plus, his 2018 performances suggest that he is a much better all-around talent when he's at his best.

32. Clayson Shumway, Rs. Senior, BYU

Clayson Shumway is one of the many BYU runners who has a host of question marks surrounding him, but that doesn't mean that he's not talented.

The veteran distance talent had a tough 2019-20 year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the season down. He struggled with injuries in the fall, and when he came back in the winter, he did not look quite like himself. Still, he is a proven cross country weapon with plenty of potential as he enters the fall of 2020 healthy.

The steeplechaser had a breakout 2018 season which saw him finish 32nd at NCAA’s in the fall and run a personal best in the steeplechase (8:36) and a personal best in the 10k (28:36).

If Shumway can get back into his form from previous years, then he will give BYU yet another All-American contender who is capable of adding scoring potency to the top portion of this lineup.

31. Casey Clinger, Sophomore, BYU

Coming back from his mission trip, Clinger has been hard at work getting back to the same fitness he had when he finished 24th at NCAA’s as a true freshman in 2017. We have reports of Clinger and Conner Mantz hitting some impressive time trials in the middle of the summer which bodes well for the returning star.

On talent alone, Clinger has a case to be a top 15 runner in the country. There are very few runners in the NCAA who can come straight from high school and finish in the top 25 at NCAA’s. It's also easy to forget that he was a two-time Nike Cross Nationals champion and had a high school pedigree that rivals some of the top prep runners ever.

In a lot of ways, Clinger compares favorably to Grant Fisher. The former Cardinal was a two-time Foot Locker national champion before finishing 17th at NCAA's as a freshman in 2015. Fisher went onto finish 5th as a sophomore at NCAA’s in 2016.

Clinger has that same type of talent, but we still do not know how well he will compete after being absent from competition and top-level training during a two-year mission trip.

There is no doubt that Clinger could follow in Fisher’s footsteps over the next few years, but this year is very dependent on how quickly he is able to come back from his mission. That's the biggest reason why we settled on placing him at our TSR #31 spot.