XC Top 25 Teams: #3 Stanford Cardinal

By: John Cusick

We have finally reached the top three of our rankings. For many of our readers, it’s probably easy to determine who the other teams in our rankings are. Yet, for today, we’ll have another Pac-12 team in our Top 25. Introducing the Stanford Cardinal.

Given their veteran leadership and a legitimate contender to win the individual title, Stanford comes into the 2018 season with something to prove. We know competition has already started, but that doesn’t mean we can’t recap the 2017 season to let you know how the Cardinal got here.

The men from Palo Alto began last fall at the USD Invite where they finished 2-3-4-5-6 to easily take home the team title, 19 points clear of the next contender (UC San Diego).

Leading that group was freshman Isaac Cortes in 2nd place. Tai Dinger finished in 3rd, Alek Parsons was 4th, Alex Ostberg was 5th, and Blair Hurlock was their last scorer in 6th. With the entirety of their top five finishing within 1.5 seconds of each other, it seems rather obvious that this was more of a tempo than an actual race. It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t their A squad either. They were still missing Grant Fisher, Steven Fahy, Alex Ostberg, and Jack Keelan (among others).

Fast forward to the Bill Dellinger Invite where the Cardinal battled eight other teams in another early-season meet. The only team Stanford lost to was BYU who had run a fully-stacked A squad. Nonetheless, the Cardinal still took home wins over Gonzaga, Washington, Cal Poly, Idaho, UC Santa Barbara, Portland, and Oregon.

Ostberg was the low-stick for the Cardinal coming in at 6th place overall while the rest of his teammates filled in the gaps between places 14th and 20th. Callum Bolger placed 14th while Blair Hurlock and Steven Fahy finished 16th and 19th, respectively. Tai Dinger rounded out the scoring with a 20th place finish.

The Cardinal held their own against a number of schools with a history of success and sneaky-good talent. The future looked very bright for the 2017 Stanford Cardinal and we had yet to see their superstar toe the line.

As we they approached one of the biggest meets of the year (Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invite) we finally got to see the 2017 debut of Grant Fisher and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Fisher challenged the eventual national champ in Justyn Knight to the finish line, placing 2nd overall and holding off the likes of Andy Trouard, Tyler Day and Matthew Baxter.

Fisher served as the low-man for his Cardinal teammates, but Alex Ostberg was the big surprise of the meet thanks to his 12th place finish. As strong as Fisher and Ostberg were, Stanford was unable to match the firepower from top programs. Callum Bolger finished 46th, Alek Parsons was 47th and Tai Dinger was 48th leaving the Cardinal hurting for points when it came to the team standings. While they may not have won, Stanford was still able to secure a 4th place team finish with 155 points. That was better than Furman, Colorado State, Southern Utah, Michigan, UCLA, and Michigan State. They were only four points behind Syracuse, giving us a good idea of what they could do if they were firing on all cylinders.

Next up for Stanford was the Pac-12 Championships which we have talked about quite a bit in our rankings. Of course, we have yet to discuss how Stanford took home the team title.

Fisher held up his end of the bargain as he claimed the individual title, immediately giving his team the upper hand. Steven Fahy and Alex Ostberg had spectacular performances, finishing 3rd and 4th overall. Tai Dinger (15th) and Callum Bolger (18th) were the fourth and fifth scorers. Despite coming in behind Colorado’s last scorer, Fahy and Ostberg’s finishes were good enough to clear the Buffaloes by six points and give Stanford the conference title.

At this rate, we could have booked the national bid for Stanford. They cruised through the West Regional Championships with a conservative effort, knowing that they were locks to secure a national bid. They walked away with a 3rd place performance which was led by Fahy in 3rd and Fisher in 11th. Hurlock (22nd), Parsons (24th) and Dinger (25th) rounded out the scoring.

With Fisher, Fahy, and Ostberg looking like a lethal top three, Stanford was poised to make some noise at the National Championships. Sure enough, Fisher led the team with a valiant 5th place effort while Ostberg and Fahy threw down huge finishes of 16th and 17th overall (putting them way ahead of eventual 3rd place team BYU). Unfortunately, the final few scorers held this team back eclipsing the Cougars. Dinger placed 83rd while Bolger finished 138th.

The Cardinal would grab the last podium spot of the meet, but there may have been more left in the tank. With development still needed at the back-end of their lineup, it was clear that this team was hungry for more.

As we jump into 2018, what is the status of this team now? In the eyes of many, the Stanford Cardinal are one of the few teams who have enough firepower to put together a team capable of winning the national title.

Returning for his final year of eligibility will be Grant Fisher who is hungry to prove himself after a 5th place finish at the National Championships in 2017. He should be considered as a legitimate individual title contender and a no-brainer low-stick for this team (but you already knew that). However, what really makes this team special is Alex Ostberg and Steven Fahy.

Fahy is returning for his fifth year with the program and is riding the momentum of his 3rd place finish at NCAA Championships in the 3000 meter steeplechase (with a PR of 8:34). He also ran 7:54 and 13:44 during the indoor season, proving that last fall was no fluke. He should be able to capitalize on his fitness and become yet another ace for this team as they prepare for another big cross country season.

Alex Ostberg returns as well and he should continue to trend upwards with another summer of training under his belt. Last fall was his breakout season, but now we know what to expect from him. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll give Stanford a boost in the scoring.

Tai Dinger is back as well as he works towards his graduate degree. He’s a savvy race veteran who will provide some additional leadership to a young core. His experience and consistency will certainly be useful, but the breakout potential from other stars in this program is too notable to overlook.

Thomas Ratcliffe will be the key name to watch this year. After overcoming a series of injuries, it looks like the 2016 PAC 12 Freshman of the Year is set to return this fall. Two years ago, he was 8th at the PAC 12 Championships before running 7:50 for 3000 meters during indoors (unattached). It’s been a long time since he last raced in a Stanford singlet, but his raw talent makes him yet another exciting name individual to keep your eye on.

Rounding out our projected scoring five is Callum Bolger who will be back for his sophomore year after a strong freshman campaign. His youth and inexperience hurt him at times last fall, but he is clearly one of the stronger runners on this team who will only improve over time. Expect a large jump in his fitness over the next three months.

We could go on for days, dissecting this roster and each of their talented underclassmen. They’ve had some of the best recruiting classes in the country (especially over the last few summers) which should indicate big things for the future. Whether it’s Alek Parsons, DJ Principe, Michael Vernau, Connor Lane, or redshirt senior Blair Hurlock, one of these men are likely on the verge of a breakout season in 2018. Heck, maybe one of the rising freshman has a monumental impact. It’s not like Stanford needs many more weapons to win the national title…

There’s a lot to like about this Stanford team, but they aren’t perfect. Their roster has a ton of depth, but they lack experience. There are young stars capable of having breakout seasons, but the team is so deep that they may not have an opportunity to show their true talent. They have some of the best low-sticks in the nation, but their final few scorers are inconsistent at times. All of these are fair critiques, but ones that can be easily overcome.

The Pac-12 always contains some of the best distance runners and programs in the nation. That being said, it’s the Stanford Cardinal who will be leading the pack (again) in November. Given the fact that they are returning all of their five scorers from last year, there should only be high expectations this group in 2018.

I would say “don’t sleep on this team”, but with their history of success and multiple big names up front, there will be no sleeping on this Stanford squad.