Every few years, a star emerges on the collegiate scene who changes the individual and team title race. Sometimes these front-runners develop organically, simply following the intended trajectory that their initial recruiting pitch marketed to them.
The now-graduated Northern Arizona duo of Matthew Baxter and Tyler Day are two recent examples of this when they had finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, at the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Day was 23rd the year before, while Baxter had finished 111th in 2016. Few people expected that duo to challenge for the individual title that year or even show the overall level of dominance that they had during the 2017 season.
Nonetheless, their elevated fitness went on to ensure that the Lumberjacks would easily win their second consecutive national team title.
Conversely, there are instances when transfers from outside of the Division One ranks shake up the national picture. The same year that Baxter and Day finished 2nd and 3rd at the NCAA Championships, two Alabama runners, Gilbert Kigen and Vincent Kiprop, crossed the line in 4th and 7th, respectively.
Originally hailing from the Division Two and JUCO ranks, Kiprop and Kigen, along with teammate Alfred Chelanga, were headline stars coming into the 2017 cross country season. Both transfers came in with impressive personal bests and had garnered accolades which placed them within our top 25 preseason rankings (yes, TSR was a website back then).
Not only did they evolve into realistic contenders for the individual national title, but they also transformed Alabama into a top-15 team nationally despite the significant challenges that the Crimson Tide had with depth.
Now, just like previous years, we have a new breakout star at the Division One level, an emerging talent who has taken the same JUCO-to-NCAA route that Gilbert Kigen once did.
Although the craziness of 2020 has limited the number of competitive opportunities, Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo has already begun to reshape the NCAA's individual and team podium picture just like the emerging stars before him.
However, for as good as Kigen, Kiprop, Day and Baxter once were, Kiptoo might be able to do the one thing that none of them were able to accomplish: become an NCAA Cross Country Champion.
Not only that, but Kiptoo could vault his school back into podium contention. He could redefine the upper-echelon of the NCAA for his era and he could even replace the immense cross country scoring value that current teammate and national champion Edwin Kurgat has since left behind.
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Last year, Iowa State finished on the podium with their 4th place run in Terre Haute. That podium finish, however, was expected to be the peak of their success for at least the next few years.
The Cyclones have since lost Edwin Kurgat, the individual champion, to expired cross country eligibility, as well as Addison DeHaven who finished 76th at the NCAA Championships last year (he was the team's fifth scorer). David Too was another notable roster casualty.
As a result of that expired eligibility, The Stride Report ultimately listed the Cyclones at TSR #8 in our preseason poll this past summer. However, the team still returned some high-caliber talents in Chad Johnson, Mitchell Day, Milo Greder and Thomas Pollard. They even added Eastern Kentucky transfer Ezekiel Kibichii (TSR #24) to their roster, although he is expected to sit out for a year due to NCAA transfer rules*.
*Note: The NCAA Division I Council has recently approved a blanket waiver that allows all transfers within the division to compete this year. There is potential for Kibichii to compete during this academic year.
Despite all of the talent residing in Ames, Iowa, the Cyclones still needed to find a true bonafide low-stick to replace some of the scoring potency that Kurgat left behind, at least for the upcoming winter cross country season.
Of course, as fate would have it, Iowa State has suddenly reentered the podium conversation seemingly overnight, all because Kiptoo has so massively exceeded our expectations. While we earnestly believed that Kiptoo had the ceiling of being a top-20 runner nationally, the prospect of him now emerging as a top-five talent in the NCAA seems not just possible, but probable.
Seeing the newest Iowa State star convincingly take down a top-ranked talent like Isai Rodriguez (TSR #13) on two separate occasions, once by a total margin of 27 seconds, while also running a jaw-dropping 8k time of 22:35 at the BIG 12 Championships, sent a clear message to the rest of the NCAA: Wesley Kiptoo is the real deal.
Admittedly, some fans may have found it difficult to gauge his fast times on a cross country course. They could have even had trouble reconciling dominant wins over limited competition that resided in only the BIG 12. However, his recent 10k personal best of 27:37 at the Sound Running Track Meet should have erased most, and maybe even all, doubts that we or anyone else had about the former Colby CC runner.
All of this is to say that Kiptoo had the potential coming into the season to not only shake up the NCAA team race, but also the individual title race. What he accomplished this past fall, capped by his performance at the “Track Meet” earlier this month, indicates that he can be the nation's next great collegiate star, even in an era currently headlined by the likes of Conner Mantz, Yared Nuguse, Luis Grijalva and Cooper Teare.
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The comparisons between Kiptoo and the aforementioned breakout stars that we talked about earlier, specifically Gilbert Kigen, are fairly noticeable.
Kiptoo boasts a JUCO resume equally elite to what we saw during Gilbert Kigen's time in the NJCAA, maybe even more so. He employs the same aggressive front-running tactics that we once saw from Kigen and it's fairly clear that the longer the distance, the better it was (and is) for both Kiptoo and Kigen.
However, what separates Kiptoo from Kigen -- and other recent stars who rapidly and unexpectedly ascended to the top of the Division One ranks -- is that this Iowa State standout could very realistically win a national title. After all, he now holds an all-time mark that is less than a second off from one of the best collegiate 10k performers in NCAA history (Shadrack Kipchirchir).
As Edwin Kurgat nears the complete end of his collegiate eligibility this spring, a new star shining of equal brightness seems primed to pick up where he left off.
In the NCAA, life moves quickly, both on the track and in the life cycle of a roster.
But Wesley Kiptoo? Well, he appears to move faster.