Out of our entire Top 25, this was the article we enjoyed writing the most. The Iowa State men look like legitimate contenders for a podium spot (or more) this fall. They've added new talent, return rising stars, and are poised to be one of the more experienced squads in the NCAA this year. It should go without saying that there is a lot to like about this team.
Just like Alabama, we've talked about this team before our Preseason Top 25 began. In fact, we last published an article about ISU in February, right before the Iowa State Classic (The Iowa State Dilemma). There, we discussed a redshirt scenario and the potential for this squad in the future.
Of course, it seems like Iowa State is gunning for success this season (and rightfully so). They've got all the weapons they need to be a successful team and to get on the podium three months from now.
The 2017 season was filled with uncertainty for Iowa State. How would Andrew Jordan perform in his second year of collegiate competition? What kind of impact would the JUCO transfers have? Was Thomas Pollard a Top 50 runner? Was there enough depth to pull off some upsets and win the conference title?
The first true challenge of Iowa State's cross country season was supposed to start at the Roy Griak Invite. Unfortunately, team-wide illness forced Martin Smith to delay their next race until the Wisconsin Invite.
For the most part, it was a very average performance. Andrew Jordan had a strong 24th place finish to lead the team in scoring, but gaps began to form after he crossed the line. Festus Lagat and Stanley Langat were the second and third men for Iowa State, placing 92nd and 103rd overall. Sam Clausnitzer and Thomas Pollard rounded out the top five by finishing 127th and 133rd.
The Cyclones would finish 16th in the team standings. It wasn't a terrible performance, but it might be fair to say that the team was still feeling the effects of illness. Greater performances awaited them in the postseason.
The BIG 12 Championships would be a true test of where this team was at. Texas was on the rise while Oklahoma State was showing some vulnerability. It was going to be a brawl for the conference title.
The Cowboys controlled the pace up front by taking the top two spots while Texas' Sam Worley secured 3rd. However, Iowa State was not backing down. Jordan, Pollard, and Curts rallied to place 4th, 5th, and 6th. With Oklahoma State and Texas scattered throughout the top 15, Iowa State's next two scorers would be the decisive finishers in this battle. Langat went to place 11th while true freshman Milo Greder saved the day by placing 14th.
When the dust settled, it was Iowa State who emerged victorious. They had defeated Oklahoma State by four points, and Texas by only one. It was a statement race that put the rest of the country on notice: Iowa State was the real deal.
The Midwest Regional Championships were no different. Once again, Iowa State had to hold off a strong effort from Oklahoma State to secure the win. Curts and Jordan gave ISU a nice 1-2 punch by finishing 3rd and 4th. Langat, Rodriguez, and Greder rounded out the top five by placing 18th, 20th, and 24th. Luckily, both teams were able to comfortably earn automatic qualifying spots to Nationals. They had bigger fish to fry in Louisville two weeks later.
Despite the conference and regional titles that Iowa State had won in the postseason, we weren't entirely sure how they would perform against such a large field of top-tier competition. They may not have been 100% healthy when they competed at Wisconsin.
Regardless, there weren't many who expected the Cyclones to race like they did.
Andrew Jordan had the race of his life, finishing 15th overall and giving his teammates an elite scorer up front. ISU wouldn't have any other All-Americans, but Stanley Langat had a great race, placing 53rd overall. The rest of the scorers in their lineup would all find spots in the top 100. Curts finished 68th while Rodriguez and Pollard placed 97th and 98th.
When all was said and done, Iowa State had finished 7th in the team standings. They didn't have multiple All-Americans like other top 10 teams, but they were consistent and kept the spread tight. It a great surprise performance for a team who had failed to crack the top 15 at the Wisconsin Invite.
So where does that leave us for 2018? What can we expect this squad to in the fall?
Although the team didn't graduate anyone from their top seven, they did lose two men to transfers. Sam Clausnitzer had since moved to Utah State and Nathan Rodriguez has (reportedly) transferred to Villanova. Those two occasionally found themselves in scoring roles for Iowa State during the 2017 cross country season.
Losing a pair of varsity runners can be tough, but the new talent coming into this program easily outweighes those departures.
After the end of the 2017 cross country season, Coach Martin Smith made a surprise announcement. The Cyclones had added distance star Edwin Kurgat (from Tennessee-Martin) to their roster. Kurgat was absolutely phenomenal last fall, posting a multitude of top finishes and placing 21st at Nationals. On the track, he would continue to impress, running 7:56 for 3000 meters and 13:41 for 5000 meters. He would finish 7th at the Outdoor National Championships to earn his second All-American honor in a year.
However, Kurgat will not be the only new face in a Cyclone singlet this fall. High school superstar Chad Johnson will join the men in Ames, Iowa and add extra firepower to their lineup. With personal bests of 4:09, 8:52, 14:42, and a New Balance Indoor national title, Johnson has the potential to be a low-stick scorer by the end of the season.
As for Andrew Jordan, he'll be one of the best in the NCAA this fall. He'll be the clear leader of this team and give them a low-stick to lean on. After running a personal best of 7:55 for 3000 meters (before redshirting outdoors), we can confidently say that his string of success last fall was no fluke.
Dan Curts is another key name to watch. He was a touch inconsistent at times, but he has the potential to be reliable ace for this team. Placing 3rd at BIG 12's and 6th in the Midwest region is a sign of significant fitness. Well, that and his 13:45 personal best that he ran this past spring. If he can have those kinds of performances on the big stage, Iowa State can be a legitimate threat for the national title.
While Curts may be incredibly valuable to this squad, Thomas Pollard will be the most important piece of this team. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Pollard was one of the nation's biggest names to watch. Two years ago, he was 4th at BIG 12's, 8th in the Midwest, and 45th at Nationals. Unfortunately, a heart condition (histoplasmosis) held Pollard back from hitting his full potential in 2017.
Still, if Pollard was able to finish 5th at the BIG 12 Championships with limited training and an undiagnosed medical problem, imagine what he can do when he's 100% healthy.
It's amazing that Stanley Langat and Festus Lagat can be such crucial scorers for this squad in 2017, but not even make Iowa State's projected lineup for the fall of 2018. With that said, don't be surprised if these two reappear in the Cyclone's top five at some point this season. They'll provide this team with plenty of depth and reassurance, a crucial aspect of any championship lineup.
What about Milo Greder? The rising sophomore who saved the Cyclones at the BIG 12 Championships to beat Texas by one point? As he becomes another year older, Greder has the potential for a huge breakout season which could give Iowa State yet ANOTHER lethal scoring weapon in their top five.
Despite having such high quality athletes throughout their roster, there are still a few less-than-ideal aspects surrounding this squad. At times, they can be a touch inconsistent. They have great depth to back them up, but we didn't see everyone having their best race on the same day last year.
Additionally, Johnson and Greder are rather young and inexperienced. These two may evolve into "the next big thing", but they'll need to prove themselves on a roster with endless options for Coach Smith's desired top seven. Given their resumes, that shouldn't be an issue.
You can't help but find yourself rooting for this team. It seems like they've done every little thing right. They've developed elite talent, found superstar transfers, built unfathomable depth, and continue to recruit some of the best youngsters that the nation has to offer.
The future looks bright for Iowa State, but now they need to execute.
Who knows? Maybe they'll do more than just make the podium in November.
Maybe, they'll be hoisting the trophy instead...