Finn Gessner was a high school superstar. He was more than just someone who could win his state meet or barely snag a national qualifier. Instead, he was battling for national titles and running some of the fastest times that the state of Wisconsin had ever seen. In the eyes of many, he was one of the best Wisconsin high school distance runners of all time.
When all was said and done, Gessner entered the NCAA with monster personal bests of 8:47 for 3200 meters and 14:39 for 5000 meters. College coaches and scouts were salivating at the idea of adding someone like Gessner to their roster. His raw talent and overwhelming fitness made him a game-changing recruit.
Despite heavy interest from top programs around the country, Gessner opted to stay in-state and become a Wisconsin Badger. On paper, the two should have been a perfect match. The Badgers were (and still are) a historic program, known for producing some of the NCAA's top individuals and teams. With so much emphasis, money, and focus being put into the longer distances, it's no wonder why they've had so much success over the past few decades.
Gessner's high school career showed everyone that he was able to thrive in longer races like the 5000 meters. When you consider the fact that he got to stay somewhat close to home, he seemed like a natural fit for the Badgers.
Gessner, along with the other elites of his recruiting class, had a pivotal role in his first year with the team. Morgan McDonald would end up redshirting while Olin Hacker was rumored to have sustained an injury, forcing him to sit out was out for the entire 2017 cross country season. With two crucial scorers out of the equation, Mick Byrne fielded true freshmen Finn Gessner, Seth Hirsch, and Tannor Wagner to make up for Wisconsin's lacking depth.
Despite the valuable experience the youngsters were able to gain, they simply weren't developed enough to have a legitimate impact in the postseason. For the second time in three years, Wisconsin failed to qualify for Nationals.
Gessner's next few seasons were uneventful. He ran unattached once during the winter where he recorded a time of 8:29 for 3000 meters. Outdoors wasn't much different after he ran 9:24 in the steeplechase before cutting his spring season short.
Fast forward to the 2018 cross country season where expectations were incredibly high. Morgan McDonald and Olin Hacker had returned to the Wisconsin lineup. Oliver Hoare was fresh off a national title in the 1500 meters while guys like Ben Eidenschink and Zach Snider continued to grow as key supporting scorers. Sure, their roster may have been loaded, but Gessner and his sophomore teammates were still expected to contribute in one way or another.
Unfortunately, the results weren't up to par. Gessner finished 163rd at Nuttycombe and then 206th at Pre-Nats. Eventually, he lost his spot in the Badgers postseason lineup. That group would go on to place 8th at the national meet as a team.
The first few seasons of Gessner's collegiate career have been a struggle. His lack of results on the track have sparked suspicions about injuries and he hasn't been able to produce anything of substance in the fall. That, however, is exactly why it would be unfair to write him off. Outside of cross country, the second year harrier has had limited opportunities to display his collegiate talent. For someone who was likely training as intensely as he was, that high school fitness doesn't just disappear.
Who knows? Maybe he just needs a fresh start...
Like Wisconsin, the Cyclone men were fighting for a podium spot during the fall of 2018. With Andrew Jordan and Edwin Kurgat leading the way, they had plenty of firepower to be national contenders. Veterans like Dan Curts and Festus Lagat provided comforting support in the middle of their lineup while youngsters like Chad Johnson and Milo Greder supplied additional depth. Despite not earning a spot on the podium last fall, Iowa State still had an encouraging finish to their season, finishing 7th as a team at the national meet for the second straight year.
With a number of top scorers and promising underclassmen returning in 2019, next year's roster looks encouraging for Iowa State. However, they are set to lose multiple key scorers from their 2018 lineup. Dan Curts, John Nownes, and Festus Lagat* have finished their cross country eligibility and Thomas Pollard is still attempting to regain fitness after being diagnosed with a heart condition in 2017. With fewer lineup options and limited depth, Finn Gessner's decision to transfer to Iowa State could not have come at a better time.
*Nuttycombe Invite results show Lagat as a senior, but he may have been granted additional eligibility
We could go on for days speculating as to why Gessner left Wisconsin for Iowa State. However, it seems rather obvious that Madison just wasn't a place where he was going to thrive. The training failed to yield any notable results and he was basically unable to toe the line for a race during the indoor or outdoor track seasons. After spending two years with the Badgers, it's tough to blame Gessner for wanting to change his situation, especially with half of his eligibility now gone.
Although it may be disappointing for the Wisconsin men to see Gessner leave the program, his departure likely leaves unused scholarship money on the table (how much is still unknown). Coach Mick Byrne will happily use that money to bring in another top-tier recruit or to incentive one of his scorers to improve like Coach Rob Conner did with Logan Orndorf in Portland.
On the flip side, Iowa State now has a high school star with untapped potential who could very easily find himself in a varsity lineup eight to nine months from now.
What's even better is that Gessner has not yet taken a redshirt season for cross country and he still has two years of eligibility left to use. If Coach Martin Smith wanted to focus on the future development of his program, he may consult with Gessner about sitting out in the fall of 2019. That could very easily be an option with low-sticks like Kurgat and Jordan approaching their final year with the team.
Yet, at the end of the day, what truly matters in these ultra-competitive environments is results and we haven't seen that from Gessner at the collegiate level. Will joining Iowa State change the trajectory of Gessner's collegiate career? It's happened before with other Wisconsin transfers. Just take a look at Addison DeHaven who left the Badgers in 2015 to join Coach Cory Imhels at Boise State. Since then, DeHaven has run 7:54 for 3000 meters and has become a two-time All-American in cross country.
Fans will undoubtedly speculate about the outcome of Gessner's transfer, but no one truly knows how this story will end. What we do know is that he has a fresh start with a program that he has some familiarity with. After all, Iowa State was one of Gessner's official visits when he was being recruited in high school.
In the meantime, Wisconsin will move on with the luxury of having an open roster spot and (in all likelihood) untouched scholarship money. Who knows? Maybe the Badgers will add a new name to their roster in the near future...
The future is bright and the nation is watching. Don't forget about Gessner just yet. He still has plenty of unfinished business to attend to.