By: John Cusick
There may be a few Arkansas fans who aren't too happy that they are ranked behind their SEC rival. However, over the past few years, Ole Miss has figured out a way to become one of the more competitive squads in the NCAA. Their mix of mid and long distance talent, although unorthodox, has been surprisingly effective ever since Ryan Vanhoy entered the program in 2014.
The Ole Miss Rebels took a step back in 2017 after finishing 4th at the National Championships in 2016. However, that move backwards was understandable when you consider that the Rebels graduated three seniors, leaving behind a young core of athletes to fill some very big shoes.
The Rebels began their 2017 season at the Brooks Memphis Twilight XC Classic, running their B squad and finishing 2nd behind Middle Tennessee State. They were led by junior Brandon Harvey who finished 6th overall. Immediately behind him was senior Trevor Gilley and freshman Ben Savino who placed 7th and 8th. That, however, wasn’t enough as four Middle Tennessee State athletes finished ahead of them to secure the win. Freshman Tyler Moore and junior Dylan Day finished 11th and 17th to cap the scoring for Ole Miss. Although they didn't win, the Memphis Twilight Classic was an encouraging start for the Rebel men who would fight to be a part of Ole Miss' true top seven.
Let's fast forward to the Cowboy Jamboree where the Rebels had their top runners toeing the line. Sean Tobin lived up to the bill as being the team's low-stick after finishing 3rd behind two Oklahoma State runners. Senior Derek Gutierrez finished 5th, keeping pace with the Cowboys of OSU. Freshman Parker Scott was another top 10 finisher for the Rebels, placing 9th overall. Ryan Manahan finished 12th while junior Taylor Caldwell was close behind in 15th.
Despite a solid assortment of scorers, the Rebels finished 2nd behind the Cowboys (but only by two points). It wasn't perfect, but things were beginning to round into form for Ole Miss. The younger men on this squad were beginning to have a noticeable impact. However, some essential names at the end of the year had yet to be revealed.
Let’s move on to Pre-Nats where the Rebels had a very impressive performance, finishing 5th ahead of teams such as Utah State, Texas, Campbell, Arkansas and Charlotte.
Once again, Tobin led his Mississippi teammates with a 20th place finish. Next was freshman Parker Scott in 33rd place followed by Gutierrez two spots later in 35th. However, a new name added himself to the mix in Waleed Suliman who made his first appearance in the Rebels top seven. He was the number four scorer that day coming in at 49th. Meanwhile, senior Ryan Manahan rounded out the scoring for the Rebels in 61st capping off an impressive top five team finish.
Despite their strong finish at Pre-Nats, new challenges awaited the Mississippi men. Alabama was beginning to show some promise while Arkansas was hungry to avenge their 9th place finish (also from Pre-Nats).
When the gun went off, it became clear that the Razorbacks were simply too strong, taking the title by a comfortable margin. As for the Rebels, they finished 3rd...just a single point behind Alabama. As usual, Tobin was the lead stick in 8th while Gutierrez and Scott flipped their scoring positions from Pre-Nats, finishing 14th and 15th. Once again, Suliman was the fourth man in 18th while Manahan rounded out the scoring in 27th. The team result may not have been what they wanted, but there were still encouraging signs within their lineup.
At the South Regional Championships, Ole Miss placed 2nd in the team standings, securing an automatic bid to Nationals and finishing only five points behind Middle Tennessee State . However, the real storyline was that they finished 19 points ahead of an Alabama team that beat them two weeks prior. With Tobin (8th) and Gutierrez (12th) staying true to their 1-2 positions for most of the year, it was Suliman that found himself finishing in the third spot at 14th and Scott coming in at the four spot in 19th. It was those two who truly made the difference in the scoring that day. Harvey would close out the scoring as the fifth man, placing 30th overall.
Ole Miss ended their season at Nationals with mixed results among their top five. Sean Tobin had a monster performance, finishing 12th overall and 10th in the team scoring. Gutierrez and Suliman would stay within the top 100 spots, placing 96th and 100th overall. Although the top three was strong, it was the last two scorers who caused a dip in the scoring. Freshman Parker Scott finished 168th overall with Manahan placed 178th. The Rebels ended their season as the 18th best team at NCAA's.
Skip to 2018 and the conversation is now entirely different. Sean Tobin, Derek Gutierrez, and Ryan Manahan are three scorers who have now graduated, leaving Ole Miss with big shoes to fill. How can the Rebels be a top 20 team after losing more than half of their scorers from last year?
The answer can be found in their young talent and new recruits. Waleed Suliman was a high school star who was just beginning to find his groove last fall. The true frosh would become nearly unstoppable in the spring, running personal bests of 1:46 and 3:39. It's clear that his fitness has reached another level and that should be on full display this fall.
In addition to Suliman, Parker Scott was another freshman who showed a lot of encouraging signs in 2017. He placed 33rd at Pre-Nats and 15th at the SEC Championships. Much like Suliman, he had a breakout spring track season after running 8:47 for the 3000 meter steeplechase which was enough to eventually qualify him for the National Championships. He too, will be someone that could emerge as a potential low-stick for Ole Miss this fall.
There are plenty of other individuals on this roster who could step up and have a role within the Rebel's top seven. Taylor Caldwell, Ben Savino, and Brandon Harvey all made appearances in Vanhoy's varsity squad last fall. They'll provide some much needed depth on a team that lost numerous seniors.
However, I'm not convinced that Caldwell, Savino, or Harvey are guaranteed to secure a top five scoring spot within this Ole Miss lineup. Instead, they may find themselves competing with a handful of new talent.
Dalton Hengst, Mario Garcia Romo, and Nick Moulai are three incoming freshmen with the potential to have a massive impact on this squad in 2018. It's clear that Vanhoy was thinking of the future when he recruited these three to Oxford.
For our American readers (yes, we do have readers outside of the United States), Hengst is a familiar name that you've seen in a handful of high school results. The young distance star had absolutely electric performances at both the prep and collegiate level (where he ran unattached as a high school senior). With personal bests of 2:25 (1k), 3:45 (1500), 4:08, 8:28 (3k), 8:56, and 14:44, it's clear that Hengst is one of the more elite freshman talents who could easily become a scorer this fall. His dynamic and explosive performances perfectly fit the Ole Miss attitude and culture.
Mario Garcia Romo may not be as well known as Hengst, but he has just as much potential (maybe even more). Romo has run 1:50, 3:42 (1500), 8:12 (3k), and 23:38 (8k). All of that was done BEFORE THE AGE OF 19. Even as a true freshman, there is no doubt that Romo will be a huge addition who could quickly climb up the Ole Miss depth chart.
As if that wasn't enough, New Zealand native Nicholas Moulai has personal bests that aren't much slower. He owns PR's of 1:51, 3:47 (1500), and 8:16 (3k). What's even crazier is that he ran that 8:16 3k at 17 years old. Don't let the success of Jakob Ingebrigtsen distract you from the other talented teenagers around the globe.
We haven't even talked about Everett Smulders, Farah Abdulkarim, or the rest of the rising sophomores who will maintain their freshman eligibility after being redshirted in 2017. Simply put, Ryan Vanhoy has a lot of options when it comes to completing his ideal top seven.
As exciting as this team is primed to be, there are still a few minor concerns. The success of this group will be based entirely on how the younger guys perform. As strong as they may be, they still lack experience and big-meet exposure. If we assume that our projected top five is correct, Ole Miss will only have sophomores and freshmen scoring for them this fall (although Brandon Harvey could change that).
Additionally, a handful of these guys are mid-distance oriented (such as Suliman and Smulders). We've seen that Suliman can be scorer at the 8k and 10k distances, but does he have enough to be a true low-stick for this team? It's a fair question, but I'm not ready to pick against someone who ran 3:39 for 1500 meters.
Of course, if anyone can produce a national contending cross country team out of mid-distance runners, it has to Coach Vanhoy. Mid-distance specialists such as Domanic, Engels, Manahan, Gilley, and Gutierrez all focused on the 400, 800, or 1500 throughout their collegiate careers. That, however, didn't stop them from having a role in Ole Miss' top seven during cross country.
There's a lot speculation and plenty of uncertainties within this Ole Mis roster. However, the Rebels could prove to be one of the most exciting teams of 2018 and beyond...