The new era of Syracuse cross country has begun. We all knew that the graduation of Syracuse's Big Three was coming, but it almost seemed like it would never come to fruition...until now.
Justyn Knight, Colin Bennie, and Philo Germano may have finished their NCAA eligibility, but that didn't come as a surprise. What was a surprise was the announcement made by Chris Fox. He retired from collegiate coaching earlier this summer and opted to start a professional group with Justyn Knight at Reebok. With three All-Americans and one of the NCAA's best coaches now gone, fans of the sport have offered up valid concerns about how this team may look in the future.
With that said, this is Syracuse we're talking about. Chris Fox and assistant coach Brien Bell (currently the interim) put years of dedication into this program, slowly developing it into the elite distance group that it's considered today.
The 'Cuse roster wasn't designed to be a top-tier squad for just a few years, it was designed to be a powerhouse team for decades. It may have been a long, slow process, but a process usually means progress, and that's exactly what happened for the Orange.
The 2017 season was, as usual, filled with high expectations. Syracuse returned a heavy number of top scorers, had some of the best recruits in the nation, and were equipped with veterans capable of supporting the backend of their lineup.
The Syracuse men had their first challenge at Beantown in Boston, although they handled the competition rather easily. Even without Justyn Knight, the Orange cruised the field, finishing 3rd (Bennie), 4th (Germano), 5th (Tooker), 11th (James), and 12th (Dragon). Coach Fox's group would win by 21 points over second place Illinois, but it felt like we didn't see 'Cuse at their absolute best.
It would be another three weeks until we saw these men back in action, this time at the Wisconsin Invite. As expected, Knight walked away with the individual title, although he had to hold off three NAU men (as well as Grant Fisher) to secure that win.
Naturally, it was going to be difficult for the Orange to overcome the Lumberjack's overwhelmingly strong top three. Still, the men from upstate New York held their own. Sophomore Aidan Tooker would have a phenomenal race, finishing 10th while Bennie was close behind in 14th. Other than Northern Arizona's Geordie Beamish, Philo Germano had the best performance from any 4th man at the meet, placing 31st overall. As great as their top four was, Joe Dragon wasn't able to match that scoring potency. He finished the day in 95th.
Syracuse would finish 3rd overall behind NAU and a surprisingly talented Portland squad. Adjustments would need to be made in the second half of the scoring, but this was still a team capable of competing for the national title.
The dominance would only continue throughout the postseason. The Orange would breeze by their ACC competition, putting five in the top 10. They would route their competition, winning by 46 points.
We saw more of the same at the Northeast Regional Championships. Syracuse would post a score of 28 points after placing five in the top 11. There was no doubt that this crew was one of the best in the nation, but the real test would come two weeks later.
The national meet would be the final championship effort required by this crew. Could they replicate their magic from 2015 and walk off into the sunset with another national title?
The answer to that would unfortunately be no. Although Knight took the individual title, the rest of the lineup didn't have their strongest days. Colin Bennie would finish 55th overall while Tooker had to settle for 109th. Just like the previous two National Championships, Germano was the team's fourth scorer, but his 142nd place finish was not going to put them on the podium this time. Joe Dragon would close out the scoring, finishing 174th overall.
In their final hurrah, the Orange would place 13th overall. Considering their overall talent, it had to be a touch disappointing to see that they had finished outside of the top 10. Most reasonable fans would agree that they were more than capable of being a podium team. That, however, is just the nature of the sport. It's tough to have your best day in every race.
It's now 2018 and Syracuse is in need of new leadership, both on the coaching and scoring sides. Despite the season only a week away from officially starting, the university has yet to formally announce who their new head coach will be. Shouldn't Brien Bell be the obvious choice? Why is this taking so long? Given all of his supporters and lengthy resume, Bell should be the no-brainer decision to take the job. He played an integral role in Syracuse's recruiting and development which eventually gave the team their second national title (and first ever since 1951).
Coaching politics aside, this team is still one of the best in the country. Yes, they did lose numerous top scorers, but the Orange have been preparing for this for a while now.
The top returner on this team in 2018 will be Aidan Tooker, the New York native who had a series of huge performances throughout the 2017-2018 academic year. Finishing 10th at the Wisconsin Invite and securing back-to-back 6th place finishes at his conference and regional championship meets just goes to show that the rising junior can follow in the footsteps of Justyn Knight. He doesn't have to win every meet he toes the line for, but he'll be seen as the reliable ace that Knight was for so many years.
After piecing together an impressive string of steeplechase runs in the spring, we will likely see Noah Affolder flanking Tooker this fall. As a freshman, Affolder had very little impact on Syracuse's cross country success in 2017. On a program such as this, the drastic change in training intensity can take some time to get used to. For Affolder, that adjustment only took him two seasons.
As the outdoor track season unfolded, the superstar freshman had become one of the best steeplechasers in the country. He would run a personal best of 8:40 in the prelims at the National Championships before finishing one spot short of All-American. He may have been lost in the sea of talent last fall, but his sophomore jump should provide the Orange with another potential low-stick.
Iliass Aouani is our projected 3rd scorer, but he needed to make some adjustments last year after a difficult 2017 season where he failed to finish inside the top 20 at any cross country meet he ran in. He didn't run at the Wisconsin Invite and only began to race during the postseason. It's very possible that he was rebounding from an injury (although that is only speculation). Whatever the case may be, Aouani did not have the same fitness that we saw from him during the 2016 season where he had a pair of top 10 finishes at the conference and regional meets.
Luckily, Aouani has seemingly rebounded after redshirting the indoor track season (where he ran 7:59 for 3000 meters unattached). His outdoor season was strong, recording a personal best of 29:19 in the 10k and earning two silver medals at the ACC Championships (behind only Justyn Knight in both races). Whatever issues he was having, Aouani appears to be back to his normal fitness. Maybe Syracuse has enough for a new Big Three after all...
The final two scoring positions are a bit up in the air, although you have to favor the veterans in these situations. Joe Dragon, while not perfect, was a consistent fifth scorer who had never been put into a lineup like that before. After being exposed to top talent, it's fair to think that he'll improve thanks to a greater understanding of what is expected from him.
Kevin James is another interesting name to keep an eye on. He was a key scorer during the 2016 season when Syracuse found themselves back on the podium after winning the title a year earlier. He'll need to a bit more consistent, but his experience will prove to be incredibly valuable as the program looks to recapture their identity.
Even if Dragon or James don't end up in the team's top five, there are so many others who could step up and play the part. The Orange have been able to put together a top 10 recruiting class for the past two summers (based on TSR's rankings) and there is no reason to think that they can't find new talent to fill any gaps in their top seven.
Nathan Lawler and Thomas Witkowicz have plenty of star potential. Could they play a role in Syracuse's top seven? Maybe they'll provide some unexpected firepower for the Orange this fall...
Others like Dominic Hockenbury, Nathan Henderson, and the rest of the 2018 recruiting class gives Coach Bell a variety of options should he want to make any adjustments to his lineup in the middle of the season. If Syracuse struggles this fall, a lack of depth won't be the reason why.
I'll admit, it was incredibly fun to watch Knight, Bennie, and Germano bring an entire new attitude to a program on the brink of something special. However, like most things in life, the torch must be passed down. In 2018, a new generation of 'Cuse distance runners are to set to take the stage and prove that even without the Big Three, they can still Take Care of Business...