Our rankings begin with the Washington State Cougars out of Pullman, Washington. The Cougs have a deep squad this year with the potential for a few names to have breakout seasons. Despite having to compete in the stacked PAC 12 conference and West region, Coach Phipps' group has consistently found ways to be successful and earn multiple trips to NCAA's. This year should be no different.
Last year held a variety of ups-and-downs for Washington State. They began their season at the Notre Dame Invite, but struggled on the big stage. Chandler Teigen held his own with a solid 19th place finish while Nathan Wadhwani placed 38th. After those two, the gaps began to form. Washington State had to rely on true freshman Matthew Watkins to be their 3rd scorer with his 68th place finish. Nathan Tadesse and Paul Ryan rounded out the top five with finishes of 77th and 91st. The Cougs dropped to 11th overall, losing to three teams that would eventually fail to qualify for Nationals. Washington State did not secure a single Kolas point, but it's important to note that they did not race their top runner (Michael Whelan).
As disappointing as that performance may have been, sometimes teams need a wake-up call to realize their true potential. Sure enough, we saw a complete turn around at the Wisconsin Invite. Despite the field being far more competitive than what they saw at Notre Dame, WSU stepped up to have their best race of the year. Williams returned to the squad and placed 39th while Teigen finished in 55th. Once again, we would see a gap develop after the top two, but Wadhwani would still finish in the top 100 (96th) while Jake Finney finished 104th.
Unfortunately, the largest downfall came at the 5th man position where Paul Ryan placed 147th. Although the team was spread throughout the field, Washington State was able to walk away as the 13th best team in the final standings. That was enough to beat respectable programs like NC State, Iona, Virginia, Iowa State, and in-state rival Washington. Defeating those teams would put the Cougars in a great position when it came to Kolas points.
Fast forward to PAC 12's and Washington State's competition wouldn't get any easier. Stanford and Colorado were not going to be touched while UCLA and Oregon were just too strong through five runners for Washington State to compete with. Washington was one of the few teams within WSU's reach. Yet, even the Huskies were too strong to overcome.
Washington State finished 6th out of nine teams in the PAC 12 standings despite a huge 9th place finish from Teigen and a respectable 19th place finish from Williams. The rest of the team didn't run terribly (taking spots 34th, 37th, and 45th), but the gap after their top two was still the main issue.
Two weeks later was the West Regional Championships. There was pressure on Washington State to perform, especially with all of their expected Kolas points coming from just the Wisconsin Invite.
Once again, Williams and Teigen teamed up for a pair of top 20 finishes while Wadhwani and Janke were 41st and 47th, respectively. In a region as deep as the West region, these were decent performances for 3rd and 4th scorers. However, the large drop at the 5th man position (74th) forced the Cougs to settle for 7th overall and sit on the brink of elimination.
However, their Wisconsin Invite performance came back to be the savior of their season. Washington State was the 8th at-large team and the final West region squad to punch their ticket to Nationals.
After a strong 14th place finish at NCAA's in 2016, the Cougs wanted to start a trend of finishing among the top half of the nation's best. That, however, didn't go as planned.
As expected, Teigen and Williams secured top 70 finishes while Wadhwani was able to stay within the top 100 (94th). While those may not seem like mind-blowing finishes, their top three were still better than other teams who finished ahead of them such as UCLA, Washington, and NC State.
Unfortunately, the next two scorers would dramatically fall off their top three, placing 201st and 206th. It would force the Cougars to settle for 24th overall as a team. All things considered, it was a respectable finish. Still, it would leave the men in crimson hungry for more...
So what are we left with this fall? What does Washington State bring to the table? What do they lose?
First off, the Cougars will still be a competitive national contender. Over the past few years, they have consistently found themselves at NCAA's and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Why? Because Washington State returns six of their top seven from last year. That alone is a good enough reason to have them in our Top 25.
Admittedly, that lone departure was one of their top scorers (Michael Williams). Obviously, that is a huge hit for a team that relied on the success of their top two for the 2017 season. However, that is essentially the only true downfall for this upcoming cross country season. This is a team that had more than five men make appearances as a scorer last year. Simply put, they have options to choose from.
I am a big fan of Chandler Teigen. His 9th place finish at PAC 12's shows us that he can be a legitimate ace in his conference and region this year. He's also incredibly consistent, a trait that not all top finishers have.
Speaking of consistency, that is exactly what Wadhwani has. He is a solid supporting scorer who will most likely move up to become the second scorer. He was a valuable asset in WSU's top five last year and with a year of training/progression under his belt, I imagine that he'll continue to build on his finishes at big meets.
Matthew Watkins was just a freshman last year, but he stepped up when his other teammates faltered. He was put into a scoring role in his first collegiate season and held up incredibly well. A year of experience can do wonders for a talent like Watkins and improve his reliability among the top five. The upside potential of this rising sophomore is enough to keep Washington State in the hunt for a top 20 finish at NCAA's.
After the top three, there isn't exactly a clear set of scorers. For some teams and analysts, that may be a major concern. For Washington State, it isn't an issue.
Between Justin Janke, Nathan Tadesse, Jake Finney, and Paul Ryan, the Cougars have a variety of options in order to complete their lineup. Each of those guys have shown flashes of promise as a scorer, but they aren't always dependable at big meets and occasionally lack the "clutch gene". Luckily, all it takes is one of these guys to have a breakout season. If that happens, Washington State becomes a very real threat to other contenders in the PAC 12 and West region.
There are understandable reasons to be cautious about this group. They have gaps in the middle of their scoring and they lost a top low-stick. However, the upside is too great to ignore. Teigen could be a Top 50 athlete in our rankings, Watkins could be one of the biggest breakout athletes of the 2018 season, and there are reliable veterans who can stop the point totals from getting out of control.
Even if those things don't happen, remind yourself that this is a squad who made the National Championships out of the toughest and deepest region in the NCAA last year and now they return 85% of that lineup in 2018.
Don't sleep on Coach Phipps and the Cougars this fall. If you do, that decision may come back to bite you...