It was a whirlwind of emotions for the Virginia Cavaliers this past summer. While in-state rival Virginia Tech was getting attention for their coach moving to Oregon, UVA was going through a coaching change of their own. After serving the program for six years, coach Pete Watson departed from Charlottesville to coach the men at Texas.
Now, Jason Dunn has transitioned away from his Director of Operations role to coach the Virginia men. Given his history of success with the squad, the move makes plenty of sense.
There were plenty of ups and downs throughout the 2017 season for UVA. Their battle to establish back-end scorers and remain a threat within their conference and region was one of the more underrated storylines throughout the entirety of last fall.
The Cavaliers, also known as the Wahoos (or Hoos), began last cross country season at the Panorama Farms Invite, a home meet on their on own turf. With Syracuse no longer in attendance, Virginia was favored to take the win. However, Campbell looked like a legitimate threat thanks to their handful of new talent.
When the gun went off, it was clear that UVA didn't have the low-sticks to match Campbell's firepower. The Camels would finish 1st, 2nd, and 4th, all before Virignia's Brent Demarest crossed the line in 5th.
Despite Campbell's impressive top finishes, UVA was able to close the gap with finishes of 7th (Cook), 12th (Klau), 14th (Corbett), and 17th (Novak). As for the Camels, they secured the 10th scoring position before their 5th man dropped to an ugly 45th place finish overall. Virginia would emerge victorious, but only by five points.
If the opening meet taught UVA anything, it was that they still had work to do. They were well-rounded, but there were still vulnerabilities to address.
The next stop on UVA's 2017 schedule was the Wisconsin Invite, a meet with Kolas points at stake. The expectation for the Cavaliers was that they would at least finish in the middle of the pack. Their lineup held a spread of solid scorers and a pair of respectable low-sticks. What could go wrong?
Apparently, a lot.
It was simply a bad day for the Virginia men as no one met the expectations that were set for them. Demarest led the way with an unexciting 56th place finish while Lachlan Cook and Matthew Novak dropped all the way to 134th and 144th overall. Senior Chase Weaverling and sophomore Alex Corbett would finally cap the scoring with finishes of 166th and 208th. When the final team scores were tallied, UVA had ended up in 30th place...out of 35 teams.
It was almost panic time for the Virginia men. ACC's would be a great opportunity to potentially earn some Kolas points, but the competition was not going to make this easy. To no one's surprise, Syracuse won the title while Virginia Tech comfortably finished in 2nd.
The fight for 3rd was between NC State and Virginia. Demarest and Cook had a pair of monster performances, finishing 2nd and 5th overall. However, significant gaps began to form after those top two with Weaverling, Corbett, and Klau placing 19th, 36th and 38th, respectively. When the dust had settled and scores were calculated, the Wolfpack had secured bronze, only two points ahead of the Hoos.
There's no doubt that Virginia was in danger of not qualifying for the National Championships. However, they weren't completely out of it yet. Even if they finished outside of the top two in their region, they could still have the rare opportunity of being pushed into NCAA's. The only way that would happen was if they finished ahead of a team with enough Kolas points to also qualify. NC State was likely the team on their mind. With so much on the line, UVA had to collect themselves for the most important performance of their 2017 season.
It was no surprise to see Furman dominate the Southeast Championships while Virginia Tech made a hard charge late in the race to snag the second automatic qualifier.
As for Virginia, everything fell into place.
The Cavaliers finished 3rd overall led by Cook and Demarest's 6th and 7th place finishes. Weaverling and Corbett would finish 26th and 35th overall while Klau would cap the scoring in 57th. With Virginia securing 3rd, they had to ensure that NC State (or Campbell) would finish 4th overall and push them into NCAA's.
In a near-miracle scenario, NC State finished 4th overall. Both UVA and NC State would qualify for Nationals despite UVA not earning a single Kolas point throughout the season.
The Virginia men made sure to make the most out of their trip to Louisville. Demarest put together a huge 19th place finish while Cook and Weaverling hovered at 85th and 101st. Klau would place 115th overall. Unfortunately, the 5th man would be the main weakness in UVA's lineup that weekend, finishing 197th overall.
Despite the scattered performances, UVA still finished 16th in the team scoring. That was enough to beat out conference and regional rivals NC State, Virginia Tech, and Furman. When you consider how far they had come, it's fair to say that their appearance at Nationals was a success.
With the fall of 2018 fast approaching, the Virginia men are poised for a strong return. Despite the loss of Chase Weaverling to graduation, the rest of their scorers will maintain their eligibility. Not only that, but these men are no longer underclassmen. Demarest will become become a redshirt senior while the other four are set to be juniors. Say what you want, but having a handful of veterans can help with consistency and results at championships meets.
With Demarest and Cook leading the way, the Cavaliers will one have of the best 1-2 punches in the ACC and Southeast region. They'll have to be a bit more consistent, but it's clear that they give the blue and orange some scoring potency at the front of their pack.
Corbett, Klau, and Novak are three athletes who will likely find themselves back on UVA's varsity squad this fall. At least one of these men are primed for a breakout season, although they will need to close the gaps in the scoring with Weaverling now out of the lineup. Yet, even if this trio can't fill the gaps, they will provide plenty of depth and an extra layer of insurance in case someone in their top five has an off day.
So if those three don't work out, then who will? Luckily, Coach Watson didn't leave this team in shambles. Instead, he put together one of the best recruiting classes in the nation (9th in our rankings). Although the Cavaliers are set to bring in a series of great distance talents, it's the duo from Loundon Valley that captures my attention.
Peter Morris was an All-American at NXN while Colton Bogucki recorded a personal best of 8:58 for two miles during their time in high school. These two were (arguably) the best high school cross country runners in the state of Virginia (if you exclude their teammate Sam Affolder). Shifting their training to the collegiate level could spark an absurd growth in their fitness this fall. They may not have an immediate impact at the beginning of the season, but it's very possible that they'll be top five scorers by the time ACC's rolls around.
Others like Johnny Pace, Spencer Dodds, or superstar recruit Ryan Lockett could also find themselves in Virginia's top seven. To make a long story short, Coach Dunn will have multiple options to choose from in his arsenal that he calls a roster.
As I mentioned earlier, there's still work to be done. The middle of the lineup needs to improve and gaps between their scorers need to shrink. Still, this is a squad that has been dominant over the past few years. One less-than-ideal season isn't an accurate portrayal of what to expect from this group in 2018.
With the ACC and Southeast region wide-open for the team title, UVA might be motivated to make the most of their returners and elite recruits this fall...