What If...

Updated: Apr 4, 2019

Photo by Kyle Terwillegar / USTFCCCA, Edits by The Stride Report

College recruiting, transfers, and injuries can make or break a program. The development or recruitment of just one elite-level athlete can help push your program to the next level. It can be the difference between 1st and 2nd at a National Championship, the two seconds your DMR needed to qualify for Nationals, or maybe just another top-tier name who can help build the legitimacy of your program for years to come. There are many people who would argue that collegiate distance running is a level playing field and that the right training can turn anyone into a superstar (I happen to agree). Still, no one is going to ignore the fact that a guy like Drew Hunter could have had a massive impact on a college program.

Below, we identified a few notable names from the past few years and discuss what the storylines could have been if things played out differently.

What If...

Georgetown XC stays healthy?

The 2016 Georgetown Hoyas squad had the potential to be one of the most lethal and exciting teams in recent history. Jonathan Green was coming off of a breakout year where he finished 5th at the 2015 NCAA XC Championships. Notre Dame All-American and distance star Michael Clevenger transferred to Georgetown to do graduate work and finish his eligibility. Darren Fahy and Scott Carpenter had huge spring track seasons in the steeplechase and seemed primed to have strong cross country seasons that fall. Amos Bartelsmeyer and Michael Lederhouse were developing into experienced veterans who displayed consistent improvement and reliability. It also helped that the Hoyas brought in an elite-level recruiting class while younger guys like Christian Alvarado were beginning to show promise.

We should also mention that Georgetown brought back their entire 2015 varsity squad which placed 10th at XC Nationals that year. It was tough to dislike what the Hoyas brought to the table.

During the preseason rankings, Flotrack ranked the Hoyas 5th in the nation while my projections (when I wrote for Etrain) had them at 3rd.

We were both very, very wrong.

Jonathan Green sustained an injury earlier that summer and only raced once during the cross country season before shutting it down completely.

Michael Clevenger struggled to adapt to his new training group and failed to enter the realm of All-American fitness that he was once in.

Darren Fahy, who placed 49th at the 2015 XC Championships, was MIA throughout the entire 2016 season and it remains unclear whether he was preserving eligibility or injured.

Amos Bartelsmeyer ran twice during the regular season, but wasn't seen again for the entirety of the championship meets. It might be safe to assume that he was injured during that time frame.

The rest of the Hoya freshmen class was solid, but they failed to provide anything more than filler spots in the 6th and 7th scoring positions on the varsity squad. Christian Alvarado, a sophomore at the time, provided some support in the scoring but never became the ace that some thought he could be.

After struggling at Paul Short and Wisconsin, the Hoyas rebounded and were able to capture both the Big East and Mid-Atlantic team titles, albeit both relatively weaker in comparison to other conferences and region. Georgetown would qualify for Nationals and settle for 21st overall.

Scott Carpenter was the silver lining throughout the entire 2015 season as he ended up placing 10th at Nationals to complement a slew of other big-time performances that season.

The grey and blue lost one of the best low-sticks in the nation to injury, key scorers went missing, their new transfer never returned to his peak fitness, and the depth wasn't as strong as it was expected to be.

Still, you can't help but ask "what could have been"? The last time Georgetown finished as a top four team in the nation (now known as All-American) was 1965 where they were 4th among 18 teams. Could the Hoyas have been All-Amercan in 2016? If this team was entirely healthy and replicated their best finishes at NCAA's, you would have had the following...

- Green: 5th place (4th team scoring)

- Carpenter: 10th place (8th team scoring)

- Clevenger: 38th place (31st team scoring)

- Fahy: 49th place (39th team scoring)

- Bartelsmeyer: 128th place (105th team scoring)

TOTAL TEAM SCORE: 187 points

In 2016, scoring 187 points would have been enough to push out Ole Miss for the 4th place position (they scored 196 points). That evaluation is simply a cumulation of the best performances that their projected top five have actually run at Nationals. That doesn't take into account any improvements that they would have had.

So yes, theoretically, that Georgetown squad (at it's best) would have been an All-American team for the first time in over half a century (51 years).

Justyn Knight had chosen Oregon over Syracuse?

In November of 2016, Syracuse.com published an article detailing Knight's rise through the high school ranks and the attention he was receiving from other programs. One of the more widely recognized programs that was offering Knight a scholarship was Oregon. However, the push to do a year at a prep school prior to his arrival at Oregon was enough for Knight to decline the offer and join Coach Fox at Syracuse.

But what if Oregon had not suggested that prep year? What if Knight decided to become a Duck? What if Justyn Knight and Edward Cheserek were on the same team? Even if it was just for one year?

Let's fast forward to the 2015 season when Oregon finished 4th overall at the National Championships with 183 points. Syracuse won the title that season with 82 points, edging out Colorado who finished 91 points. In that race, Knight finished 3rd in the team scoring (4th overall).

But now suppose that Knight had chosen Oregon. If we maintain that all of the finishes would have been the same, Oregon would have improved their team score to 120 points, overtaken Stanford, and watched the Orangemen fall to 130 points. Colorado would have won the national title, the Ducks would have been 2nd, and Syracuse would have earned the bronze. That's how much of an impact one guy can have in a single race.

Ryan Vanhoy doesn't join Ole Miss?

One of the greatest hiring decisions in recent history (and maybe ever) was Ole Miss hiring an assistant coach from Northeastern, Ryan Vanhoy. After three years at UNC (where he ran collegiately) and one year at Northeastern, Mississippi took a chance by hiring the younger candidate.

Their decision turned out to be a phenomenal choice. Vanhoy began to attract some of the top runners in the nation, specifically transfers. In nearly two years, the Rebels brought in Craig Engels (NC State), Ryan Walling (UNC), Wes Gallagher (Northeastern), MJ Erb (Syracuse), and Ryan Manahan (Georgetown). Can anyone remember an accumulation of transfer talent better than this?

The Rebels gained an unreal amount of hype in the summer of 2015 thanks to the amount of talent that they recruited. Their cross country team was projected to become an All-American squad and some thought that they could even contend for a national title. Of course, expectations rarely go according to plan.

Unfortunately, MJ Erb struggled to adjust and began to lack consistency. Many forgot that Ryan Walling had no eligibility left for cross country. Wes Gallagher was (assumedly) redshirted and had no role during the 2015 cross country season.

The lack of star power and the need to rely on milers resulted in deafening (and even unnecessary) criticism. Ole Miss would go to finish a disappointing 30th place at Nationals.

However, with the cross country season behind them, we got to see The Vanhoy Project in full effect. Engels and Erb may not have qualified for NCAA's, but they began to thrown down some very competitive times. Meanwhile, Ryan Walling began to find momentum in the 5000 meters and eventually finished the winter season as an All-American.

Transition to the outdoor season and the Ole Miss squad was beginning to back up their hype from nearly 8 months ago. Walling replicated his All-American performance in the 5000 meters, Engels became an All-American in the 1500 (and qualified for the Olympic Trials), and Erb snagged the last All-American spot in the steeplechase.

Fast forward to next cross country season and something special began to brew in Oxford. Erb was far more consistent, Tobin was became a legitimate low-stick, and their depth began to back-up the the rest of their scorers. The Rebels would shock the nation to finish as an All-American team at Nationals (4th overall) while Erb placed 6th and Wes Gallagher finished 39th (individual All-Americans).

The indoor track season was equally as impressive. Craig Engels rebounded from an early-season injury and hopped onto the Ole Miss DMR which eventually went on to win the national title. The win continued to validate Vanhoy's vision for his squad.

In just a few short years, Vanhoy has turned an average Mississippi squad into one of the most feared mid-distance / distance programs in the nation...but what if never came to Oxford? What if Vanhoy opted to stay with Northeastern and somehow became the coach during that time? Would the Huskies now become the powerhouse we see Ole Miss as? The thought process isn't as crazy as it may seem (although available scholarship money could have played a role).

With the credentials of training Eric Jenkins and key individuals like Wes Gallagher and Paul Duffey on the roster, Vanhoy may still have been able to attract MJ Erb when he was leaving Syracuse. After all, Northeastern is only two hours away from Syracuse...

A scenario of keeping Gallagher and recruiting Erb seems realistic, but would Engels and Walling have a reason to go up north?

In case you may have forgotten, Vanhoy ran collegiately for UNC and was a graduate assistant there for three years. His connection to Ryan Walling (who ran for UNC) is an easy one to make. Meanwhile, Engels (then with NC State) was an in-state rival who was less than a half-hour down the road from UNC. Vanhoy had tried to recruit Engels to UNC two years prior and was able to reignite that dialogue during his move to Ole Miss. It's very possible that he could have accomplished the same thing at Northeastern...

Ryan Manahan's transfer from Georgetown was an interesting one. Controversy surrounding the Hoya program was enough incentive for a few athletes to leave. How he landed with Vanhoy is still up for speculation, but he did go to high school only an hour away from Erb. If you connect enough dots, Manahan's move to Northeastern definitely seems possible.

Obviously, some of this is speculation and there are a wide-array of factors that could play a role in all of these transfers.

Still, the network between Vanhoy and all of these transfers makes plenty of sense. Who knows? Maybe Northeastern could have been the powerhouse program that Ole Miss is today...