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.
Colorado under Coach Mark Wetmore refuses to rebuild.
After losing two top-10 runners nationally, most teams would be in an awfully difficult position the following year. Joe Klecker nearly won the national title last fall and John Dressel was 7th at the same national meet. The departure of that firepower is a brutal hit.
And yet, with internal development, key transfers and strong underclassmen, the Buffaloes would have been right where they always are: comfortably in the top 10 and challenging for a podium spot.
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With three All-American-caliber runners returning, Colorado would have had a formidable trio in 2020.
Alec Hornecker is the top returner from last year's national meet as he finished 38th at the NCAA Championships and is listed at TSR #37 in our individual preseason rankings.
The senior was a revelation in 2019 and announced his arrival on the national scene with a 26th place run at Joe Piane. He followed it up with 38th place finish at Pre-Nationals and a 12th place result at the PAC-12 Championships. The consistency and steady improvement that Hornecker provided was hugely important for the Buffaloes in 2019, and he was rewarded for that with an All-American finish at the national meet.
If he had been able to take that postseason peak that we saw from him last year and translate it to an entire cross country season, Hornecker could have been one of the key low-sticks that this Colorado team would have leaned on during the 2020 cross country.
Speaking of talented veterans, Eduardo Herrera has been a steady presence for the Buffaloes since 2017. He was an All-American 33rd place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2017, placed 43rd in 2018 and later finished 55th in 2019.
There really is not much to say about Herrera other than he will show up to the national meet and run well. The senior does not know how to run any other way at NCAA’s and that is why he is TSR #35. While he may not have been an All-American last year, a 14th place finish at Joe Piane and 17th place finish at Pre-Nationals suggested that he was in the conversation to do so.
The last member of this talented returning trio is Kashon Harrison who we ranked at TSR #23. No one, besides the team in Boulder, expected the New Mexico native to play such a massive role in Colorado's success last fall.
Harrison was impressive from the very start of the 2019 season. With performances of 18th at Joe Piane, 11th at Pre-Nationals and 7th at PAC-12’s, he looked like an All-American ace going into Terre Haute as only a freshman.
While he did have a bit of an off day at NCAA’s where he finished 90th, much of that can be attributed to typical freshman inexperience. Plus, he gained valuable national meet experience and would have (likely) been much better in 2020.
The Harrison-Hornecker-Herrera combo is absolutely lethal and arguably one of the best top three scoring groups in the NCAA this year. If all three of those men could have realistically ended up as All-Americans, then Colorado immediately jumps back into podium contention.
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Coming from Mississippi State is Stephen Jones who is the next key scorer for the Buffaloes. The star steeplechaser was fantastic in the few races he ran in last fall, culminating with an 80th place performance at the National Championships.
With a strong group to train with in Boulder, it would not have been surprising to see Jones take a big step forward in 2020. Even if he does not improve on his 80th place finish last year, he gives Colorado someone who can stabilize the middle portion of this lineup and stop (some) of the lost scoring potency left behind by Klecker and Dressel.
However, after those four is where things begin to get a bit dicey and a little less clear. The Buffaloes have plenty of options to fill out the rest of their top seven, but trying to figure out who that would be and who would be able to take that fifth scoring spot isn't easy.
Further complicating matters is that Gabe Fendel, a consistent varsity runner for the Buffaloes throughout last fall, is no longer on the Colorado cross country team. Considering that this team needed depth, his loss is a bit more impactful than some may realize.
The team does have Austin Vancil who ran at NCAA’s last fall and ended up posting a respectable 150th place finish. Both likely would have played a role in the 2020 team. At the very least, he gives Coach Wetmore an experienced, high-upside runner that has enough talent to run in this varsity lineup.
Two other strong returners are Paxton Smith and Hunter Appleton. Smith had a very similar season to Fendel and Vancil, but did not race at the NCAA Championships. He does own national meet experience from 2018 and will be a key veteran presence on this relatively young Colorado team.
We did not get to see Appleton on the cross country course during his freshman year, but he performed well during the indoor track season when he ran 8:17 (3k) and 14:17 (5k). It's tough to say what his role would have been in this varsity group, but his times indicate that he would have been a strong backend scorer on this front-heavy Colorado lineup.
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Lastly, Colorado boasts a strong group of incoming runners. Jace Aschbrenner arrives to Boulder after finishing 18th at the NXN Championships and running a jaw-dropping time of 8:44 for 3200 meters earlier this year in a time trial.
With his experience at the national level in high school (while running with Nico Young), the former Newbury Park runner could have forced his way into Wetmore’s top seven as just a freshman. That 8:44 is extremely impressive and shows that hit fitness has only improved since the fall.
Caleb Niednagel also comes to Colorado with NXN experience after he finished 50th last year. With personal bests of 4:13 (1600) and 9:01 (3200), he would have given the Buffaloes additional depth in 2020 and someone to look forward to in the years to come.
Two other names to keep an eye on are Ethan Powell and Shaw Powell (no relation). Ethan comes from Kansas State where he finished 26th at the Midwest Regional Championships and could give Colorado a nice veteran presence with upside in the back-end of the lineup.
Meanwhile, Shaw comes to Boulder as a freshman with personal bests of of 4:11 (1600) and 9:09 (3200). While he may not have been a piece in Colorado's 2020 lineup, he does add to the team's depth and is a good asset for the future.
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Overall, we like this Colorado team a lot and they have the lineup structure which suggests that they'll be on the podium whenever competition returns. Still, there were a few cautionary aspects of this team that we had going into 2020.
The Buffaloes will be heavily reliant on the trio of Herrera, Hornecker and Harrison whenever we next get to see cross country compteition. Their success will determine how far Colorado goes whenever competition returns.
If all three of them are All-Americans, then this team gets on the podium, but two of them did not accomplish that last year and the best race of Hornecker's life happened to come in Terre Haute. They were all great throughout last fall, but trying to replace the almost non-existent scoring (which is a good thing in cross country) that Klecker and Dressel left behind is not going to be easy.
Further, we don't have a ton of clarity about the backend of this lineup. The loss of Gabe Fendel gives this team one less piece in their projected lineup and a lot of their options are still relatively young. Now, admittedly, we said something similar last year (and look how that turned out), but it still feels like a valid concern.
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When you compare Colorado to other top-10 teams, it becomes quite clear that their front three might be one of the strongest trios in the country. Their top three returners all should be in the All-American conversation and, with the exception of Harrison, have been All-Americans in the past.
Stephen Jones adds to that group as another proven contributor who could brings a ton of value to this lineup.
The back portion of this projected varsity group also impresses us, truthfully more than last year. They have a nice mix of veterans and underclassmen who have the talent and experience to provide the Buffaloes with plenty of scoring options at the backend of their lineup.
Overall, we continue to be amazed by what Coach Wetmore has done with this Colorado team. Losing Dressel and Klecker should have been death knell for their podium chances and yet, it would have surprised no one to see them back in the top four in 2020.
But that's what happens when you have the Wetmore Factor on your side...