Updated: Aug 16, 2018
Following the publication of this article, TSR was informed that Kasey Knevelbaard and Josh Collins will redshirt the 2018 cross country season.
Is there a team more consistently underrated than Southern Utah? Each and every year, they are able to develop some of the top distance talent in the nation with incoming recruits who have lesser credentials than those going to powerhouse programs.
However, it's not just the depth that keeps this team competitive. Their production of top-ranked low-sticks has given them an edge when it comes to racing against some of the nation's best teams over the past few years. Just think back to guys like Cam Levins, Nate Jewkes, Hayden Hawks, and (most recently) Mike Tate. All of those men (and more) have played a heavy role in SUU's success.
Last year was an exciting one for the Thunderbird men. After entering the season ranked 22nd in our TSR preseason rankings, there was plenty of potential for this team to emerge as a respectable sleeper pick among the loaded Mountain region. Despite most fans of the sport acknowledging their overall talent, many people didn't expect them to have the season that they did (including me).
Their first true test of their 2017 campaign came at the Notre Dame Invite where they stunned the field with an absolutely dominant performance. The Thunderbirds comfortably defeated a heavily favored Colorado squad to win the team title thanks to a powerful 1-2 punch from Mike Tate (5th) and Kasey Knevelbaard (6th). Josh Collins also put together a top 20 finish (17th) while George Espino and Matthew Wright rounded out the top five by placing 21st and 23rd, respectively.
The upset win was a statement race that established Southern Utah as a potential podium team. Still, the season was young and the competition would only improve from that point on.
The next stop for Coach Houle's group was the Wisconsin Invite and the field was set to be far deeper than what they saw at Notre Dame.
Once again, Mike Tate put together another strong performance, placing 18th overall and giving the Thunderbirds a low-stick to lean on. Knevelbaard held his own in 45th, but he didn't have the same scoring potency that he had at Notre Dame.
Unfortunately for Southern Utah, they were without Josh Collins for this meet. Instead, they turned to Matt Wright and Aidan Reed to step up in the supporting roles. Luckily for SUU, Wright and Reed got the job done with respectable finishes of 52nd and 59th. George Espino was the final scorer for this group, placing 74th overall.
Overall, it was a great day for the men from Cedar City. Even without Josh Collins, they came together and produced a 7th place team finish. It was an excellent display of depth, but it also put into perspective how hard it was going to be to podium in November.
As strong as Southern Utah was last year, no one was going to touch the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks. SUU settled for silver at the BIG Sky Championships and shifted their focus to the Mountain region, a meet where they were expected to earn a favorable amount of Kolas points.
With Southern Utah already in a great position to qualify for Nationals, there wasn't much urgency to have their best race of the season at regionals. Mike Tate seemingly took it easy and settled for 30th while Josh Collins led the charge in 13th. Wright (19th) and Knevelbaard (21st) did what they had to do in order to advance the Thunderbirds to the final stop in their season. Through four runners, Southern Utah looked strong, but a 44th place finish by their final scorer forced the squad to settle for 6th in the region.
That, of course, didn't matter. They just needed to qualify and they did just that. Their attention was already on Nationals.
After a huge win over Colorado at the Notre Dame Invite and a 7th place finish at Wisconsin without Josh Collins, the idea of the Thunderbirds becoming a podium team was a very real possibility. If everyone had their best day, Southern Utah was going to pull off another surprising team finish.
Unfortunately, not everyone was able to show the true extent of their talent. Josh Collins ran a great race for a very underrated 55th place finish. Unfortunately, the low-stick duo that we saw from Notre Dame lacked the same spark that we saw from earlier in the season. Tate dropped to 77th while Knevelbaard settled for 82nd. Matthew Wright once again stepped up when he was needed and placed 76th overall.
Although they lacked the low-stick finishes they need for a podium spot, they were still one of the top teams in the nation through four men. However, the gap from four to five (114th) was enough to keep Southern Utah out of the top 10 and have them finish 11th in the team standings.
Overall, you have to commend the T-birds for assembling a deep squad that pulled off an exciting upset early on in the season. They had great low-sticks, a strong supporting cast, and a variety of scorers through seven men. It was tough not to like this team.
Although they were well-rounded, they struggled to all race well on the same day after their win at Notre Dame. I don't think it's fair to say that they peaked too early, but I think you could make the argument that their Joe Piane performance was the best race of their season.
Regardless, Southern Utah returns with a strong group in 2018. They are just as deep, but have savvy race veterans who can will keep this squad competitive.
Admittedly, the loss of Mike Tate is huge. We can't ignore his significance on this team's scoring last year. This isn't like Washington State losing Michael Williams or Washington losing Colby Gilbert. With the exception of Nationals, he stepped up and gave the Thunderbirds a true low-stick to rally around, especially at Notre Dame and Wisconsin. There is no doubt that losing his presence will be dearly missed this fall. It will be extremely difficult to replace the impact that he had.
As if that wasn't enough, Matthew Wright has also graduated. He was one of the best supporting scorers for any team in the nation last year. He may have been known for his role as the 3rd/4th man in last year's lineup, but he was incredibly clutch and never let the point totals get out of control. Consistent and reliable guys like Wright are the reasons why teams like Southern Utah thrive at big meets.
With those two gone, I can't help but put the Thunderbirds at 24th in our rankings. They lose a lot of structure from last year's varsity lineup and that's not (usually) something that can be fixed overnight.
Despite the two major departures, we have to remind ourselves of what this team accomplished last year. We ranked them on the lower side entering the 2017 season and they later came back to shock us.
Knevelbaard has the potential to be the reliable low-stick that Tate was last year. The rising senior has shown that he can be a true ace for this squad in 2018 (after placing 6th at Notre Dame). However, he lacked the consistency that is necessary to be a top runner in the nation. It's not exactly an easy fix, but it can certainly be done.
On the flip side, we have Josh Collins who was essentially the opposite of Knevelbaard in 2017. He didn't have a true breakout race or crazy finish, but he quietly had solid performance after solid performance. 17th at Notre Dame and 55th at Nationals are great finishes for anyone, especially for a guy who was typically seen as the 2nd/3rd runner in their lineup last year.
Collins will need to elevate his fitness to another tier, but he could potentially pair up with Knevelbaard to create one of the best 1-2 punches in the NCAA this year. Together, those two could reignite the spark at the front of their pack.
After those two, you still have some pretty solid names. George Espino is a rising senior who had a series of great races throughout the regular season. He kept the score low and was one of the more reliable scorers on the backend of their top five. Espino's consistency will be a key factor in SUU's success this fall.
Aidan Reed is a great name to mention. I think he'll be one of the more underrated names in the Mountain region this year. He was a solid supporting scorer who showed plenty of promise throughout the season (think Wisconsin Invite and BIG Sky's). He wasn't always perfect, but his ability to score as a sophomore was a nice asset to have for Coach Houle.
After Reed, the varsity lineup begins to look at it's rising sophomores, specifically Christian Ricketts. As a freshman, Ricketts was exposed to some of the best competition in the nation at Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Nationals. He didn't have phenomenal finishes, but a year of experience could be the difference maker between 179th at NCAA's to 79th at NCAA's this year.
The 5th man will be the big question mark for Southern Utah this year. Is Ricketts the answer?
Even if Ricketts isn't the "answer", there are still other guys who could have a role in Southern Utah's starting seven. Nate Osterstock made a handful of appearances in Southern Utah's top lineup last fall and could also benefit from a year of experience.
Although there are still some uncertainties about the second-half of SUU's top group, this is a squad known for building young talent and assembling never-ending depth. If there is any team capable of addressing the lesser developed areas of their top seven, it's Southern Utah.
I like the Thunderbirds this fall. They have been an underrated team for quite some time now despite their ability to consistently produce strong results. Admittedly, the loss of Mike Tate and Matt Wright is a bit disconcerting which is why I don't have this program inside the top 20.
Of course, we already saw last fall what happens when you question the Thunderbirds. If you give them enough motivation, they'll put on a show.