XC Top 25 Teams: #14 Furman Paladins

For some of our readers, this may come as a surprise. In fact, I know what you're probably thinking. How can a team lose four of it's top five scorers and still be ranked 14th in the nation? Arkansas was 5th at NCAA's last year, lost it's top three scorers, and were pushed back to the 21st spot in our rankings. How does any of that make sense?

There are a multitude of reasons why we have Furman starting our preseason rankings at the 14th spot. For starters, they have been one of the deepest teams in the NCAA throughout the past few years, utilizing new talent and producing strong results with each passing season.

Unlike Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Georgetown (as well as a few others), the Paladins actually return a low-stick from last year's squad (Aaron Templeton). Not only that, but a variety of these men have been on this team for years now and have occasionally played a role in the scoring.

Furman has a history of using a "pack-running" racing style (like we've seen from NC State) in the past. That's an indicator that these men were able to stay close to other top talent on their team and potentially replicate some of the scoring performances that we saw from them last year.

Additionally, let's not forget about how much talent all of the other teams in the NCAA have lost. Syracuse, Arkansas, Colorado State, Ole Miss, Michigan, Princeton, Oklahoma State, and Virginia Tech are just some of the top teams from last year who lost three or more scorers and are not nearly as deep as Furman (with the possible exception of Syracuse)...at least not historically speaking.

What makes us say that? Just think back to the 2016 Southeast Regional Championships. Coach Gary had opted to redshirt most of his star talents like Tanner Hinkle, Troy Reeder, Aaron Templeton, and Austin Sprague (who eventually transferred to Georgia). The squad looked to Frank Lara and Josh Brickell to lead the way and although they had significant struggles during the regular season, the Paladins would eventually finish a miraculous 3rd in their region that year.

The catch? They were only one point away from upsetting Virginia and grabbing an automatic bid to Nationals...without four varsity scorers. Sound familiar?

The differences between that 2016 squad and this year's team are important to understand. In 2018, Furman will be more experienced, deeper through five runners, and simply more talented. In fact, it's very possible that they'll repeat at Southeast Regional Champions.

In other articles for our Top 25 teams, we usually give a recap of their 2017 season. That, however, won't be necessary as most of Furman's top five are now gone. However, the key name to remember from last fall is Aaron Templeton. The rising redshirt senior placed 7th at the Louisville Classic, 20th at the Wisconsin Invite, and 5th at the Southeast Regional Championships. Unfortunately, he would struggle at NCAA's and place 141st.

With Templeton set to return, he'll be a key name to watch as Furman looks to keep their team score from getting too out of control. He may have had a sub-par race at last year's National Championships, but he was a consistent performer, a trait that often benefits teams at the larger invites.

Mason Coppi will most likely take the second scoring position this fall after a series of underrated finishes in 2017. Finishing 18th at the Louisville Classic and 25th at the Southeast Regional Championships are strong runs that should not be ignored. Admittedly, he didn't fare as well at the larger meets, but big-meet nerves should dissipate now that he's an experienced junior.

Much like Mason Coppi, Ohio native Ryan Adams has been a key contributor on this team for quite some time now. He's run 3:42 for 1500 meters and has qualified for NCAA's on the outdoor oval. However, Adams has also found himself in the Paladins top seven on more than a few occasions. He was a top 30 finisher at the Southeast Regional Championships twice in his career, a nice feature to have in someone who is projected to be your 5th scorer.

As great as Adams is, I think it's clear that he is more of a miler. Still, he will provide plenty of insurance at the backend of the lineup. His experience should bode well for Furman at the larger meets.

Rising sophomore Daniel Bernal will enter the 2018 season as the x-factor on this squad. He was one of the top high schoolers in the nation during the 2016-2017 academic year, standing out against other elite Texas prep stars. With monster personal bests and multiple appearances at national championships, expectations were incredibly high for the young gunner in 2017.

We'll be honest, he wasn't a superstar freshman stud like Teare, Grijalva, or Herrera were. Still, placing 30th at the Louisville Classic shows that he has plenty of promise. With the freshman learning curve now behind him, we may finally get to see his true potential.

Although he has enough talent to be a legitimate low-stick, he doesn't necessarily need to blow away the competition. As long as he becomes a consistent number three scorer, Furman will be able to maintain their status as one of the more competitive groups in the country.

The final name to watch will have to be Cameron Ponder. Just like Bernal in 2017, Ponder enter this program as the superstar freshman with big expectations placed on his shoulders. The high school miler from North Carolina threw down a US #1 time of 4:04 at the Music City Distance Festival earlier this summer. That time complements his other personal bests of 8:56, making him one of the more dangerous recruits in the nation this year. We haven't seen him race at a national meet during cross country, but when you run personal bests like that, there's plenty of reason to expect that he'll be a top five runner for Coach Gary's squad this fall.

After those five, things get a little dicey. The Paladins will have used all of last year's depth to reconstruct a powerful lineup for the 2018 season. However, guys like Jake Ogden, Trent Mandato, Allen Clark, or even new recruit Noah Dolhare (one of the top high schoolers in North Carolina last year) could potentially find a spot in that top seven (or dare I say top five). Ogden is a rising junior while the other three will be either sophomores or freshmen. Between the pressure to replace graduating seniors and the potential fitness of younger runners, Furman may have more than just a few lineup options after all.

There are plenty of readers who will disagree with this ranking (and that's ok). However, we've seen this story before. If you overlook the men from a small school in Hampton County, they will do everything in their power to prove you wrong.

After a sub-par finish at NCAA's last year, I would not want to race against a motivated team who has something to prove...