It's surprising to see how underappreciated the Longhorns are entering the 2018 season. After years of solid recruiting and development, Texas has finally turned the corner and is only trending upward. The addition of Coach Watson could further establish UT as a true long-distance threat this fall. We've talked about the impressive depth on a number of teams, but Texas may take the crown in that category (I know we said something like that about NC State, but work with us here).
Before we talk about the structure of the Longhorn's roster, it's important to understand where they are coming from. Let's revisit their 2017 cross country season...
After shaking off the summer rust at the Texas Invite, the men from Austin, Texas prepared for a big match-up at the Notre Dame Invite. With a handful of young recruits and established veterans, no one was quite sure if the Longhorn's new team dynamic would set them up for success.
Luckily, the Texas freshmen handled the pressure incredibly well. While many were focused on Sam Worley, it was true freshman Connor O'Neill who acted as team the low-stick with a 13th place finish. Veteran Alex Rogers (predominantly a miler) was 16th, giving Texas a very encouraging 1-2 punch.
Sam Worley would follow in 33rd place while Charles Mills was 45th. However, John Rice would struggle in his first true test of fitness, finishing 76th overall. The back-end of their lineup wasn't ideal, but the Texas men still thrived on the big stage. They finished 6th in the team standings, ahead of multiple programs who would eventually provide them with numerous Kolas points. It was a decent start, but there was still work to do.
Fast forward to Pre-Nats and the Longhorns were still fighting to prove themselves against the nation's best. Once again, a freshman led the way, but this time it was Sam Worley instead of Connor O'Neill. Worley would finish 31st while Alex Rogers gave Texas another top 40 finish, placing 39th overall.
The final three scorers would force Texas to drop a few spots in the team standings. John Rice was 57th, Eric Kroon was 82nd, and Garek Bielaczyc was 117th. None of those performances were particularly awful, but the gaps among the top five left plenty of room for improvement. Still, the Longhorns were able to finish 7th ahead of respectable programs like Campbell and Arkansas.
As we transitioned to the BIG 12 Championships, it was clear that Texas was a team to beat. Still, they were going to have to battle with the titans of Iowa State and Oklahoma State if they wanted a conference title.
When he was needed the most, Sam Worley had the race of his life, finishing 3rd overall. Connor O'Neill, Alex Rogers, and John Rice also had huge performances, placing 7th, 8th, and 10th respectively. Charles Mills rounded out the scoring in 13th overall.
However, when the dust settled, Texas would emerge victorious over only one of those aforementioned teams. Iowa State took the title, but only barely, defeating the Longhorns by a single point (40 to 41). Oklahoma State finished the day in third with 44 points.
The South Central Regional Championships would prove to be an easy assignment for Texas. They decided to rest a few individuals while also enacting a conservative race plan to prepare for the national meet. Coach Herbster's squad took care of business by finishing second overall, but concerns were raised after Sam Worley ended the race as a DNF.
Two weeks later, the Longhorns attempted to utilize their depth on the big stage. Unfortunately, Nationals was the meet where Texas would have their worst race of the season (by a lot).
Worley was a DNS, but he wouldn't have done enough to truly help this squad. Jacob Pickle, who had finished outside of Texas' top five for most of the season, was their top runner finishing 120th overall. Rogers, O'Neill, Rice, and Kroon rounded out the top five with finishes of 128th, 203rd, 213th, and 228th.
Texas finished 30th out of 31 teams. Their Cinderella season was over.
Their is no doubt that Texas had an incredibly poor finish to their 2017 season. However, I think most knowledge fans understand that this team was better than that. They had all of the right ingredients for success, but they might have been a year away from hitting their true potential.
In 2018, the most exciting thing about this squad is not their new coach. It's the fact that they return every single individual from their 2017 lineup. That's an incredibly encouraging sign when you consider what they were able to do last year.
As true freshmen, Sam Worley and Connor O'Neill were the clear low-sticks for a Texas team that had been looking for some firepower ever since Craig Lutz had graduated.
There is no doubt that Worley is the real deal, especially after running personal bests of 3:40/3:58 and becoming an All-American this past spring. These two rising sophomores will need to be a bit more consistent, but their upside is exciting to think about. They could be a legitimate 1-2 punch that few teams in the NCAA can match.
Alex Rogers was a very solid second scorer last year. His experience allowed him to stay a bit more consistent and handle the larger fields of competition at Notre Dame and Pre-Nats. Is this someone who has the potential to breakout into a low-stick position this fall? Rogers will need to elevate his fitness to another level, but if he does, then Texas could be in the hunt for a top 10 spot later this season.
We may have Rogers in the 4th projected scoring spot right now, but that's only because we expect John Rice to have a much stronger season in 2018. After running personal bests of 8:40 and 13:52 this past spring, it's clear that Rice has made a significant jump in his fitness. Whatever he's doing in his training, it's working.
The final scoring spot will most likely go to Charles Mills, the reliable 5th man who put together some respectable performances last fall. He didn't blow us away, but he had some very solid races. Finishing 13th at BIG 12's should not be ignored.
However, Mills may not be guaranteed the 5th scoring spot. Jacob Pickle is a key veteran who could play a role in the Texas lineup last this fall. He had some struggles early on in his career, but it's clear that he is rebounding after running a 10k personal best of 29:32 in the spring.
Eric Kroon was another individual who found himself in the Longhorns scoring five on multiple occasions throughout the 2017 season. He will be another layer of added protection in case Texas has another race like Nationals.
We could on for days talking about this roster, but the message is clear. Texas will be a legitimate threat to any team they face this fall. Their mix of youth and experience will create an exciting team dynamic with the potential to maximize their scoring. If Worley, O'Neill, and Rice improve like we think they can, then anything is possible for Coach Watson's new squad.
Is this the reemergence of Texas cross country that Longhorn fans have been waiting for? It certainly seems like it...