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.
Just as the pandemic was beginning, there was admittedly some concern at The Stride Report about what we would report on and talk about. There weren't going to be any races during the spring months and we weren't even sure what was going to happen with cross country.
However, the transfer market was wildly active this past offseason and no team made more noise in that area than the Arkansas Razorbacks.
After a quiet 2019 cross country season, the men from Fayetteville, Arkansas have since reloaded with a scary-good roster that has enough raw talent to get on the podium and challenge some of the best teams in the NCAA.
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We could talk through last year's varsity lineup and discuss what they accomplished during the 2019 cross country season, but truthfully, so few members of that team were/are expected to be part of their 2020 lineup that our efforts to detail last year's group would be futile.
In short, last year's team had respectable depth and a few promising long-term pieces, but they desperately lacked scoring potency. Their 30th place finish at the NCAA Championships was evidence of that.
However, that's what this summer and last winter were for -- completely revamping and bolstering this Arkansas roster in ways that far exceeded our expectations.
But before we get to all of those new additions, let's start with their returners.
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Gilbert Boit (TSR #28) was redshirted during the 2019 cross country season, but his value as a true low-stick should not be overlooked. He was the SEC cross country champion in 2018 and owns outstanding personal bests of 13:37 (5k) and 28:25 (10k).
Despite a few inconsistencies throughout his cross country career, his scoring potency and incredible talent was set to give this team a major boost this fall.
Joining Boit among the accomplished returners from last year's Arkansas lineup is Matt Young, a quietly talented breakout runner who posted a handful of strong results during the 2019-20 academic calendar.
Young was the lead man for this Arkansas team last fall, posting a 4th place finish at the Chile Pepper Festival and later finishing 7th at the SEC Championships. He went on to run some outstanding new personal bests on the track such as 8:03 for 3000 meters and 13:43 for 5000 meters.
With another year of experience, Young could have emerged as a potential front-runner for this team in 2020. In fact, he still could depending on who runs for Arkansas (if at all) this fall.
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But those are just the returners from last year. Let's chat about the new names on this team.
We need to start by talking about Amon Kemboi (TSR #3), the former Campbell runner who has been one of the most elite distance runners in the NCAA for the past few seasons.
The newest Arkansas Razorback owns personal bests of 3:39 (1500), 7:44 (3k), 13:33 (5k) and 28:53 (10k XC). Not only that, but he has also been a two-time top-10 finisher at the NCAA XC Championships, placing 7th in 2018 and 8th in 2019.
But wait, there's a catch.
There was (and still is) a bit of uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of Kemboi this fall. SEC transfer rules suggest that he would have had to sit out of cross country competition for a year due to having less than two years of eligibility remaining in the sport (which was not the case for his outdoor track eligibility).
That, however, appears to be a moot point now that the pandemic has cancelled the 2020 cross country national meet. That shouldn't change the fact that Kemboi gives this team a massive boost in scoring and completely alters how we view this program.
And how about Emmnauel Cheboson? After initially committing to Iowa State last winter, the former Louisville runner did a 180 and switched his commitment to Arkansas.
Cheboson had plenty of success running for the Cardinals, posting a strong personal best of 28:42 for 10,000 meters. This past winter, in his first official season with the Razorbacks, Cheboson ran new personal bests of 8:02 (3k) and 13:41 (5k).
The only issue with Cheboson is his consistency on the cross country course. In 2018, he finished 8th in the Pre-Nationals White race, but didn't even make it to the national meet that year. In 2019, he finished 4th at the Commodore Classic (ahead of Ben Veatch), but then struggled to replicate that kind of performance throughout the rest of the season.
Few men have more raw talent than Cheboson, but he'll need to improve his consistency if he wants to be the major contributor that we think he can be whenever competition returns.
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You'll have to have patience when it comes to talking about the rest of this roster because the new names on this team are seemingly endless.
Jacob McLeod has also transferred into the program this summer and offers additional scoring stability and potential firepower for this group.
The former Belmont runner was injured during the 2019 cross country season, but caught the attention of many distance running fans after performing so well as a freshman in 2018. In only his rookie year, McLeod individually qualified for the NCAA XC Championships (where he finished 107th overall) and later went on to run 13:59 for 5000 meters during outdoor track.
Is McLeod the elite prospect that Kemboi and Boit are? No, not necessarily, but he can certainly reach that point and potentially find himself in the All-American conversation if he is able to rebound from injury.
At the very least, he offers scoring stability, championship experience and exciting upside for a team that is simply drowning in talent.
A few other new additions include Luke Meade (formerly of Furman) and Andrew Kibet (formerly of Hutchinson CC).
Meade had a breakout indoor track season last winter with the Paladins. He dropped personal bests of 4:03 (mile) and 14:01 (5k) after not racing for most of the 2019 cross country season. This guy still has a lot of potential and could translate his success on the track to the grass.
Similarly, Andrew Kibet is coming in with a 4:04 mile PR from March of this year. He also has some underrated cross country prowess after winning the NJCAA Division I XC Championships in 2018. At the very least, he'll add depth to a team that is not short on options.
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After reading all of this, it may be easy to ask "Why are the Arkansas men only ranked at TSR #6? Why are they not ranked in a podium position?"
Great question, theoretical reader. Here are our reasons.
There is no doubt that this team is talented, but there is just so. much. uncertainty. surrounding this roster.
Gilbert Boit is a top-tier distance runner, but struggled at the NCAA XC Championships in 2018 and never qualified for the national meet prior to that.
Emmanuel Cheboson is in a similar boat. Despite great times on the track, he has shown a ton of inconsistency and has yet to qualify for a national meet in any season.
Jacob McLeod hasn't competed in cross country since 2018 and is rebounding from an injury, leaving us a little unsure as to what kind of impact he would have had on this team this fall.
Both Luke Meade and Matt Young had outstanding indoor track seasons this past winter, but we don't know how (or if) they will translate that newfound fitness to the grass.
Amon Kemboi is really the only guy we have some certainty about, but we didn't even know if he was going to be able to compete this fall.
Overall, this team is LOADED with talent, but there is so much uncertainty surrounding this group and we don't have a ton of answers as to how some of these guys were going to develop and perform.
Admittedly, you could say that about any team, but it feels like that logic applies to this Arkansas squad more than any other program.
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Even so, the amount of firepower and raw fitness on this team is absolutely mind-boggling. This roster doesn't look anything like it did in 2019 and it's crazy to think that a 29:07 (10k) runner like Ryan Murphy or an 8:55 steeplechaser like Carter Presyn had/have the potential of not even making this team's top seven.
The Arkansas coaching staff knew that they needed to bring in extra scoring potency and they did just that. They went out and secured big-time talents and set themselves up for massive success whenever competition returns.
We may have a lot of questions for this team as a whole, but they would have been a serious problem for any team they faced in 2020.