What a wild ride it has been.
Who would've thought that Andy Powell would leave Eugene?
Who would've thought that mid-distance specialist Ben Thomas would take the helm?
And recruit Helen Lehman-Winters to stand by his side?
Who would've thought that Brodey Hasty would get a release from Oregon?
Did anyone expect Tanner Anderson to leave? Mick Stanovsek? Maybe even the Hoey's?
It's probably fair to say that this has been the most exciting and news-packed offseason ever (at least for collegiate distance running). Oregon has a new identity, but they had to shed elite-level talents as a tradeoff. The Ducks looked like a podium-caliber team entering this summer, but that perspective has since shifted.
Although we should begin to focus on their future, it might be good to revisit what happened last year.
Oregon was a tricky team to figure out. Maton was (still) missing, inexperienced freshmen played a role in their scoring, and there were a series of inconsistent performances throughout their lineup. Still, the Ducks continued to be a key contender among the top teams in the NCAA.
Oregon began their 2017 season at the Dellinger Invite, a home meet which also hosted top programs such as Stanford, BYU, Portland, and Washington. However, many programs ran their B teams (with the exception of Oregon and BYU).
Although UO ran their best men, it was clear that this wasn't an all-out effort as both BYU and Stanford's B squad emerged victorious over the Ducks. The real test wouldn't come until Pre-Nats where Oregon would fight for coveted Kolas points.
Once again, Brigham Young dominated the meet, posting only 41 points to win the team title. Colorado held their own and comfortably secured runner-up. It was a solid rebound race after being upset by Southern Utah at the Notre Dame Invite.
Oregon would round out the top three teams, taking bronze with 129 points, only 11 back from the Buffaloes. Tanner Anderson led the way with a strong 17th place finish while veteran Sam Prakel was close behind in 24th.
Yet, unlike the other teams we have mentioned, the rest of Oregon's lineup didn't fall off. Instead, they stuck together and used some impressive pack running to take spots 29th (Haney), 30th (Teare), 32nd (Brown), and 34th (Neuman). Having depth on the backend of their varsity squad would prove to be incredibly useful later in the season...
There's no doubt that Pre-Nats was an exciting moment for the Ducks. However, it would be hard to live up to that performance at PAC 12's. The conference championships was a challenge for the Eugene men. Colorado and Stanford ran away from the field while UCLA pulled off a six point upset over the Ducks.
Freshman Cooper Teare had a breakout 8th place finish, but Tanner Anderson dropped to 22nd. Austin Tomagno and Travis Neuman put together a pair of strong performances, placing 24th and 25th overall. Their fifth scorer (Reed Brown) had to settle for 31st.
Overall, this was still a respectable performance. Colorado and Stanford were simply at another level and UCLA took advantage of having a stronger 1-2 punch than Oregon did. The next stop would be the West Regional Championships where most PAC 12 teams looked to solidify themselves as national qualifiers. For the Ducks, qualifying was not a concern.
Oregon's scorers were a bit more spread-out than usual at regionals (which could possibly be attributed to their lack of urgency for qualifying). Anderson finished 6th overall while Teare placed 23rd. Haney, Brown, and Tomagno rounded out Oregon's top five placing 32nd, 42nd, and 46th overall. The men in green and yellow placed 4th overall and comfortably qualified for Nationals thanks to their impressive Kolas totals.
Nationals was an exciting opportunity for Oregon to match up against other top teams that they didn't see at Pre-Nats. However, there weren't many people who expected the Ducks to perform as well as they did (including us).
Tanner Anderson and Cooper Teare finally had great races on the same day, placing 41st and 44th, respectively. They weren't All-Americans, but their low-stick finishes were enough to capitalize on the other teams who had their best runners crack under pressure.
Without a doubt, the Ducks displayed the best pack-running of the day. Freshman Reed Brown finished 78th, while Tomagno and Haney placed 81st and 84th overall. When the scores were tallied, Oregon walked away as the 6th place team in the final standings. They didn't have flashy All-American low-sticks or an entire lineup of experienced seniors. However, they were deep through seven men and consistent at the front of their pack. Sometimes, that's all you need at the biggest meet of the year.
After such a strong finish to their 2017 cross country season, the idea that this team could be on the podium in 2018 became a very real possibility. Unfortunately, no one could have guessed that Powell, Anderson, and Hasty would jump ship this summer. With those three gone (as well as Prakel and Neuman), the once promising Oregon roster is now a shell filled with uncertainty and skepticism.
Of course, this is Oregon we're talking about. This is one of (if not the) most legendary distance running programs in the entire nation. They still have some of the top talent in the NCAA and a low-stick to guide them through the season. Coach Thomas' squad will experience challenges, no doubt. However, to completely write them off would be a huge mistake.
Cooper Teare is a sophomore with a year of experience and was only four spots away from being an All-American last fall. His freshman cross country season was strong, but his track performances of 3:59, 7:53, and 13:46 indicate that he's ready for a huge three months of competition. He may "only" be ranked 49th in our XC Top 50, but his ceiling is far higher than most.
Reed Brown should an interesting development this fall. With a personal best of 3:57 and an All-American finish from this past winter, it's hard to think that Brown won't elevate his fitness to a new level.
As exciting as their potential may be, having consistent supporting scorers like Tomagno and Haney is why Oregon had such great success at the larger meets. Tomagno was 24th at PAC 12's and Haney was 29th at Pre-Nats. Having races like that give the Ducks a nice boost in the scoring at nearly any meet they'll attend this fall.
The only question that remains is who will be Oregon's fifth scorer? The most likely candidate is James West, although he struggled in his first collegiate cross country in 2017. However, it's important to realize that the fall of 2017 was West's first season as a Duck since moving across the pond from England. He had never raced against 99% of these NCAA athletes before and was most likely still adjusting to the numerous 8k's and 10k's that were required from him.
Now, West has proven to be a valuable long distance asset, running 3:37 for 1500 meters, 7:51 for 3000 meters, and 13:52 for 5000 meters. In 2018, he could be the perfect replacement for Prakel or Neuman.
There are plenty of other names on this roster who could eventually find themselves in Oregon's top seven. Jackson Mestler, Jack Yearian, and Levi Thomet have all shown flashes of promise and are beginning to broaden their running resumes with each passing season.
The loss of established Oregon teammates has to hurt, from a scoring and emotional standpoint. However, Matthew Maton has stayed put. We have't seen the former high school superstar race for over a year now, but he is still listed on the Ducks 2018 roster.
What if he started racing again this fall? Could we see him return from the shadows and resurrect an Oregon team that is craving a spark at the front of the top seven?
It may be a long-shot, but that would be one heck of a story...