When you think of Arkansas cross country, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
Elite? Dominant? Consistent? All of those are valid descriptions that give you a perfect understanding of Arkansas' history on the distance side. Every year, this team seems to be one of the best teams in the nation and when you look at their reputation, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Although they lose a heavy portion of last year's group, we should expect the Razorbacks to be contenders once again.
The 2017 season was a revenge campaign for the men of Fayetteville, Arkansas. After a heart-breaking 5th place finish at the 2016 National Championships, the Razorbacks were hungry to walk away as All-Americans in 2017.
Arkansas began last year's cross country season at the Chile Pepper Festival, an early-season rust-buster that the Hogs often attend. As usual, the Razorbacks cruised through the field with George, Bruce, and Dalquist taking the top three spots. Kyle Levermore and Cameron Griffith comfortably finished 8th and 9th. It was an easy 23 point win by Coach Bucknam's group.
Despite the encouraging start, the real challenges had yet to emerge. The first true test of the Razorbacks 2015 season came at a loaded Pre-Nats meet that seemed deeper than usual. Throughout the race, it became apparent that Arkansas was going backwards in the point totals. George and Bruce had respectable finishes of 16th and 18th overall, but guys of that talent level should have been competing for a top 10 spot.
The rest of the squad struggled. After the top two, a massive gap opened with Griffith placing 78th, Moehn finishing 116th, and Levermore dropping to 160th overall. Simply put, it was an ugly performance that wasn't catastrophically bad thanks to George and Bruce. A 9th place team finish at a meet where they were favored to finish in the top three was not a good sign...
Of course, bad meets happen and they don't always spell trouble for the rest of the year. With SEC's fast approaching, it was important that Arkansas refocused and began the process of regaining momentum. Sure enough, the Razorbacks dominated the SEC Championships with a 41 point victory, 40 points better than second place Alabama who took the top three spots. The low-sticks of George and Bruce stepped up and secured a pair of huge 4th and 6th place finishes while Griffith had his best race of the season, placing 7th.
In addition to the strong top three, Coach Bucknam also put freshman Matt Young into the lineup for the first time that season. It was a decision that paid off as Young crossed the line in 11th overall. Senior Austin Dalquist capped the scoring with a 13th place finish of his own.
The South Central Regional Championships held little competition that could actually threaten Arkansas. Texas had a respectable squad, but neither team was concerned about losing a spot to NCAA's as long as they did their job. As expected, Arkansas glided through the field with ease, taking spots 5, 7, 8, 15, and 24 in an effort that was clearly not 100%. That all-out Arkansas assault wouldn't come until Nationals.
With NCAA's on the horizon, many people began to speculate as to how good Arkansas was. What kind of performance would we see out of the Razorbacks? Would they revert back to their Pre-Nats appearance? Or would they continue their run of postseason success?
The answer would be the latter.
Jack Bruce would have the best cross country race of his career and end his season with an All-American 13th place finish. Austin Dalquist also had one of his stronger performances earning the 43rd spot overall. Alex George didn't have his best day, but he only fell to 51st which was still a reasonable finish. The final two scorers is where we began to see the gaps form. Cam Griffith held his own by placing 86th overall while freshman Matt Young finished the scoring in 116th place.
Although their collective performances were strong it wasn't enough to finish as a podium team. Arkansas would end the day the with a score of 259...in 5th place. For the second straight year, the Razorbacks were one spot out from an All-American finish.
Missing out on the podium by one place for two straight years has to sting...a lot. For some of these men, it has to be a frustrating way to an end an era that included two elite low-sticks in Jack Bruce and Alex George.
The 2018 cross country season will involve some rebuilding for the Razorbacks. Not only did they lose the top two scorers on their team (Bruce and George), but they also graduate Austin Dalquist, a consistent #3 guy who gave this team an underappreciated scoring boost throughout the 2016 and 2017 cross country seasons.
The entire front-half of Arkansas' lineup is gone and the scoring potency is no longer there. To say that they lose a lot would be an understatement.
Still, there is plenty of talent on this squad that has the potential rise above these obstacles and stay relevant within the SEC and the South Central region. After all, this is Arkansas we're talking about...
Coach Bucknam may not need to look far for a low-stick replacement. Cameron Griffith was Arkansas' 3rd and 4th scorer throughout the year, but didn't really breakout until this past indoor season. The rising senior erupted for some of the fastest times in the nation, running 7:49 for 3000 meters and 13:52 for 5000 meters. He earned a bronze medal at the Indoor National Championships and followed that up with another All-American 8th place finish in the 1500 during the outdoor season.
It seems rather obvious that Griffith's peak talent wasn't on full display during cross country. Someone of his caliber is bound to have a far greater impact than what his 2017 cross country season showed us. How much of an impact is yet to be determined.
Yet, even if Griffith doesn't become the superstar that Arkansas craves, they still have a secret weapon that not many people know about.
Gilbert Boit is a transfer from Tennessee Tech who had a very underrated fall in 2017. This is someone who was 19th at Pre-Nats (one spot behind Bruce) and 13th in an underrated South region. Unfortunately, he was the first man out of Nationals.
With personal bests of 13:50 and 29:13, it seems likely that Boit will become Arkansas' next ace. He doesn't need to be 13th at NCAA's like Bruce was, but he does need to bring some much needed firepower to the Razorbacks. Last year's resume should already suffice.
As we look at the rest of this squad, it's hard not to be excited about their potential. Matt Young was a stud as a true freshman and gave his team a boost in the scoring after a rough performance at Pre-Nats. His sophomore year jump should result in an even greater improvement in fitness, giving the men another nice supporting scorer within their lineup.
Another rising sophomore is Hayden Dressel, brother of Colorado star John Dressel. We have yet to see him race in an Arkansas singlet after being redshirted for the entirety of the 2017-2018 academic year. However, something tells us that running fast might "run" in the family...
Horrific puns aside, there are also numerous veterans on this squad that could have key roles during the 2018 season. Kyle Levermore found himself in a scoring position multiple times during the fall while Ethan Moehn was consistently finishing among Arkansas' top five. Together, these two veterans will give the Razorbacks reliable depth and scoring security throughout the season.
The biggest question mark for Razorback's 2018 season will be rising senior Andrew Ronoh. After transferring from Iowa Central CC in 2016, Ronoh has posted strong results including a 28:36 10k, a 6th place finish at the 2016 SEC Championships, and a runner-up finish at the 2016 South Central Regional Championships. Unfortunately, Ronoh had a difficult string of performances in 2017 after failing to finish within the top 25 at any postseason meet Arkansas ran in.
While I do think that this is a touch concerning, it's very possible that injury, illness, or even general fatigue played a role in his less-than-stellar 2017 performances. If we assume that he's back to 100%, Ronoh could be a huge x-factor that catapults the Hogs back into the top 10 of our rankings.
It's fair to be concerned about a team that just lost their top three scorers to graduation. Those are losses that most teams can't come back from, especially within a year. However, Arkansas isn't like "most teams". They have a resiliency that makes them so hard to defeat.
As great as this team may be, a lot of this speculation relies on the idea of...
a) Griffith matching his performances on the track
b) Younger guys having a significant scoring impact
c) Veterans staying consistent
d) Ronoh returning to his 2016 fitness
That's a lot of "if this, then that" scenarios and those don't always work out. Potential is exciting only if it comes to fruition.
But what if those things DO work out? How good could Arkansas be? It's tough to say for sure, but if you're a betting man or woman, it's best not to pick against the Razorbacks this fall.