Updated: Aug 29, 2018
By: John Cusick
Stop us if you have heard this before, but yet another Pac-12 team had a successful cross country season in 2017. Okay, don’t stop reading, but is anyone else really surprised? We’re talking about the UCLA Bruins this time around.
The Bruins finished their 2017 season as the 21st best team at NCAA's, but their regular season performances were noticeably better than that. They were one of the six Pac-12 teams that raced well enough during the regular season to earn a national qualifying spot. So, how did they get there? We discuss below.
The Bruins opened up their fall season at the George Kyte Classic where they raced 4.5 miles. They finished 2nd overall behind the eventual National Champions of Northern Arizona. They were led by junior Jackson Marshall who finished the course in 6th place. Garrett Reynolds (8th), John Carter Blunt (9th), and George Gleason (10th) were the next three to cross the finish line for the Bruins. Chris Morentzi was the fifth Bruin in 16th place. Again, like most teams this early, this was not their full A-squad. We needed to wait almost three weeks to see that team.
The Bruins next competition was at Roy Griak in Minnesota that saw them place 3rd behind Colorado State and Michigan State. They had a strong 1-2 punch, led by junior Garrett Reynolds (2nd) and sophomore Robert Brandt (3rd). They finished within a second of each other leading some to believe that the Bruins were going to win Griak (which would have been huge given the amount of Kolas points).
However, the Bruins fell off a bit as their next runner was Jackson Marshall in 16th place. Myles Smith was next in 18th place and the fifth runner was Daniel De La Torre who crossed the line in 24th. That put them eight points behind Michigan State and 16 behind Colorado State.
Also racing was Richard Ho (33rd), Chris Morentzi (40th), George Gleason (41st), and John Carter Blunt (58th). Of the nine athletes that were racing, six of them were underclassmen meaning that the Bruins will be locked and loaded for the upcoming 2018 season.
The next big meet for UCLA came at Wisconsin where they, like many others, tested out the national course. As a team, they finished 9th overall, besting the likes of Michigan State, Minnesota, Washington State, Washington, and Iowa State. The Bruins’ low stick was Brandt who had a huge 7th place finish ahead of top-tier aces such as Colin Bennie, Jerrell Mock, Geordie Beamish, Mike Tate, and Ben Flanagan. Reynolds finished 33rd and was the number two man for UCLA. The number three through five runners for the Bruins held on with respectable finishes of 64th (Marshall), 72nd (Burke), and 93rd (De La Torre).
It would be tough to improve upon their Wisconsin finish, but the Bruins were beginning to gain some momentum heading into the PAC 12 Championships. Brant and Reynolds once again put together a big 1-2 punch, finishing 6th and 14th which was enough to keep UCLA in the hunt for top three. Jackson (23rd) and Smith (26th) were able to lessen the gap between the top two runners giving the Bruins some much needed depth.
Burke was the key man in the race as he finished in 35th, securing a 3rd place finish for his team and securing the Bruins a nice win over the Oregon Ducks. However, they were no match for the likes of Colorado and Stanford as they were bested by more than 60 points.
Things were looking up for the Bruins as they headed into the West Regional two weeks later. At least that’s what we thought would be the case. The Bruins arguably underperformed at the regional meet, placing 5th overall and losing to an Oregon team they had defeated two weeks prior. This was, in large part, due to the absence of their top runner Brandt. He was being rested for the National Championships. Reynolds responded by finishing 14th for the Bruins while De La Torre acted as the number two man for UCLA finishing 33rd. UCLA's three through five runners finished consecutively with Burke at 38th, Marshall at 39th, and Smith at 40th.
Despite missing their best runner for the entire year, the Bruins were able to finish just 15 points behind the Ducks while still defeating Boise State and Washington State.
Still, we weren’t sure what to expect from the Bruins when it came to the national meet. Unfortunately, it wasn't the ideal finish that they were hoping for.
Brandt returned for the national meet where he finished a disappointing 88th overall, but still led the team in scoring. Burke was the second man for the squad as he finished 103rd. Reynolds served as the number three at 121st while Smith (127th) and Jackson (136th) rounded out the scoring for the Bruins, ending their 2017 season in a somewhat underwhelming fashion.
So where does that leave the Bruins for 2018? In a really, really good spot.
We mentioned that the Bruins return six of their top runners that they raced in 2017. Of those six, that includes their top two elite performers in Brandt and Reynolds. Both of these men are Top 50 talents and will be looking to improve upon their 2017 finish at Nationals. With two likely low-sticks coming back and only getting better, we have every reason to believe the Bruins will be team to watch.
As for those runners finishing three through five, that has yet to be solidified. However, names such as Colin Burke (13:58 5K) should find his way into the mix. He has been rapidly developing over the past year and will most likely this fall his breakout season. The same can be said for George Gleason who ran 14:01 during the track season and was a preliminary qualifier in the 1500 before his DNF. Having those kind of accolades indicate that they will be far more consistent (and therefore more valuable) in 2018.
Carter-Blunt enjoyed a successful track season as well and has the potential to aid the Bruins throughout their 2018 cross country season with continued improvement. The rising sophomore has been developing for the past few years and has the potential to be a key scorer this fall. We may have him as the fifth projected scorer, but we feel confident that he will make up for the loss of De La Torre and Myles Smith. In fact, he could drop down into a low scoring position...
We mentioned Marshall throughout this entire article, but he isn’t currently on the 2018 XC roster for UCLA foreshadowing a potential transfer and loss for the Bruins. That said, the Bruins are going to be led by a veteran group of runners this upcoming fall and with an experienced squad usually comes results.
The expectations for the Bruins are higher than ever, both internally and externally. What's even more exciting is that this is the first time in the past few years that they haven't lost their top runner. In 2015 they graduated Lane Werley and in 2016 they graduated Ferdinand Edman. Luckily, this is a program that has been known for its constant development of talent which has kept them competitive, but not a top 10 program. We have every reason to believe that that will change in the next three months.
In 2018, the Bruins will return both Brandt and Reynolds as well as a slew of talent that are trending upwards in fitness. If they continue to follow their path of progression, then we have every reason to believe that they be a top 10 team this fall. Come November, we could see yet another Pac-12 team fighting with other powerhouse programs.
Who knows? Maybe they'll end up on the podium...