Every four years, the NCAA holds the National Championship festivals for Division II. In the NCAA’s own words, “The goals of festival are to enhance the student-athlete experience, create more awareness and exposure for Division II sports, and increase attendance by hosting multiple championships in one location.” (NCAA.org). What this means for cross country, however, is a two week shift of the postseason. While Division I is having their National Championships, Division II is having their regional championships, still two weeks away from the national meet. This year, the “festival” took place in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, with the actual title race slated to fall on the morning of December 1st.
Beyond just the obvious potential for less than ideal running weather, this does have some implications to the cross country season. For starters, the majority of invitationals have not changed their dates to adjust for the longer season. Meets that always fall on the last weekend of September, still took place on the last weekend of September. Meets on the second weekend of October? Same thing. From an insider’s perspective, this means you have to do some things a little differently. Teams that normally have a routine of competing every two weeks were forced to improvise. Some teams opted for a three week break somewhere along the way; others added a meet, leaving just a one week break. There a few programs who added a meet only to end up with both a one week break and a three week break at some point in their season.
As far as training and peaking goes, if team’s kept that season opener on the last weekend of August, that makes their racing season a whopping 14 weeks long. Even big time meets like Roy Griak and the Lewis Crossover meet were nine and eight weeks before the National Championships, respectively.
From an outsider’s perspective, what does all this mean? It means we know a lot less about the D2 race than we normally would this close to November. Not unlike major league baseball, where only the teams playing well in October end up on top, cross country teams need to be ready to roll on December 1st, and it won’t matter what happened several months before. Some of the nation’s top programs have wasted no time showing their cards, while others have carefully chosen their battles, attempting to ride their preseason ranking all the way into the national meet. Preseason favorite Adams state opened their season on September 8th at their home meet, placing seven in the top ten to score just 21 points against preseason No. 3 Western State. A week later, the teams would travel to Gunnison, CO for the Mountaineer-Cowboy Open. This time, Western State came out on top; they swept the top five places for a perfect score, while Adams State held their top runners out.
So what do we know after this? Just about nothing. Week 1 of the national rankings had Western State moving up to a tie for #2, with Adams State maintaining the number one spot. Since then, we have seen Western State dominate the loaded Lewis Crossover meet, going 1-2-3, and scoring just 38 points, over 100 points ahead of 2nd place. Adams State went to Stanford to take on some Division I competition, coming up short by only seven points to Stanford.
They did, however, gain some impressive D1 victories over Washington and UCLA. The crazy takeaway from their most recent meet, the Fort Hays State Tiger Open, is that despite not running almost any of their usual top five, they came up just one point short of the men from Air Force, who actually had a slower average time than the Grizzlies. Have we even seen this team’s actual top seven? One thing is for sure: the depth that Adams State has right now is unparalleled in Division II.
What does Western State have to say about that? We may not get to experience this fully until Slippery Rock, but these teams will face off at both the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championships on November 3rd, as well as the D2 South Central Region Championships on November 17th. Both of those meets will also include, #5 Colorado Mines. The Orediggers are a team who, despite losing to both Metro State and Missouri Southern at Fort Hays, unleashed a phenomenal performance at Pre-Nats to win with just 37 points over the 30 team field, placing four in the top seven. This meet was also the first chance to catch a glimpse of the course that will play host to the National Championships. Mines was the only top five ranked team to participate.
Who else has a shot at the podium? As of Week 6, it is clear who are the top five teams in the country and what order they fall. The aforementioned Adams State, Western State, and Colorado Mines have secured spots #1, #2, and #5, respectively.
That leaves #3 Grand Valley State and #4 U. Mary.
Let’s start with the Lakers of Grand Valley State. They began their season at the Michigan State Spartan Invitational where they finished with over 100 points ahead of Central Michigan as well as the rest of the field, losing only to Michigan State. They followed that up with another impressive 2nd place showing at the Loyola Lakefront meet where they took down a slew of D1 teams, losing only to Princeton. They also had the top two point scorers, with Sarah Berger and Allie Ludge both breaking 17 minutes on the 5000 meter course.
Admittedly, the Lakers did not fair as well over 6000 meters at the Bradley Pink Classic, especially their fifth runner. That being said, they still finished 4th overall in a field of 39 teams where they were the only non-Division I competition. Through four runners, they could be as strong as any team in the country, but we will have to wait to see what they can put together on December 1st.
Last, but certainly not least, the University of Mary Marauders round out the top five, coming in at #4. This was a team that shocked everyone last year with a runner-up finish at NCAA’s. Coach Dennis Newell likes to hold his cards close to his face, and that’s pretty easy to do when you’re located in Bismarck, North Dakota. In their one test this year, they headed to the Roy Griak Invitational in St. Paul, Minnesota where they took down several ranked teams, including the (then ranked) #5 Augustana women.
U Mary is strong through three runners, as seems to be the trend with the teams currently ranked in the top five. Look for them to clash with Augustana again at the NSIC Championships on November 3rd and the NCAA Central Championships on November 17th.
As is the case with any National Championship, depth and experience can often prove to be the difference makers. In a field this deep, with several teams capable of competing on the Division I stage, a team will need all five scoring runners in contention for an All-American certificate in order to come out on top. The level of competition, combined with the mystique that the festival year adds to the D2 cross country season, certainly makes this race one to watch.
Although the athletes probably wish this so-called “festival” could be some place a little warmer, it should make for a rough and tough day in Slippery Rock, and that sounds a lot like cross country to me.