We have now reached the point in our rankings where the top teams are clearly a step above the others we have talked about. These teams hold limitless scoring potential, superstar athletes, legendary coaches, and decades of success. The men of Wisconsin hold all of those traits (and then some).
The Badgers may be one of the more unfairly criticized teams in the NCAA ever since they snapped their NCAA qualifying streak in 2015. The numerous injuries that plagued their roster left them vulnerable to scoring deficiencies that year.
After rebounding in 2016, Wisconsin opted to redshirt both Olin Hacker and Morgan McDonald for the 2017 cross country seasons. In the long run, the move made perfect sense. With Knight, Cheserek, and Tiernan now out of the picture, there are now fewer obstacles in McDonald's path towards the individual title (although, that's not to say it will be easy). Olin Hacker will also return to the team after dealing with (what was rumored to be) a season-ending injury last fall.
With no qualifying streak to maintain and two of their top runners out of the lineup for 2017, the Badgers had the perfect opportunity to develop the rest of their roster. Hoare could emerge as an elite low-stick, Snider and Eidenschink could develop greater consistency in their supporting scorer roles, and an elite recruiting class could earn valuable big-meet experience.
Last fall was a test of will and grit for the Wisconsin Badgers who were working with a young, depleted lineup. They began their season at the Louisville Classic where they would face some of the best teams in the nation (such as NAU, Furman, and Viriginia Tech).
As expected, there were some struggles. Oliver Hoare stepped up to have a great 8th place finish and lead the team in scoring. Senior Joe Hardy held his own, but was a bit further back in 22nd. After Hardy, we saw notable gaps begin to form. The freshmen trio of Seth Hirsch, Finn Gessner, and Tannor Wagner were thrown into a high pressure situation where they were expected to help the team. They finished 66th, 71st, and 93rd overall.
The Badgers would finish 8th in the team standings. However, Eidenschink struggled in his first race of the season and Snider was kept out the lineup. With two varsity runners not contributing, it was understandable why Mick Byrne's squad looked a bit rusty.
With the Wisconsin Invite next on the calendar, it was important for the Badgers to perform on their home course (especially with Kolas points on the line). Unfortunately, that would not be the case. Joe Hardy led the way with a strong 25th place finish, but the rest of the team struggled to race well on the big stage. Ben Eidenschink was their second runner in 93rd while Oliver Hoare dropped to 114th. Finn Gessner and Tyson Miehe rounded out the top five by placing 188th and 215th overall.
It was an ugly race for the men from Madison, Wisconsin. A team finish of 25th was not what they wanted and it hurt their chances of qualifying for Nationals. Oliver Hoare needed to be more clutch on the big stage and the backend scorers needed to close the gaps.
Luckily, the BIG 10 Championships would be the perfect opportunity for Wisco to rebound and find their groove. With multiple Kolas points at stake, this was an important meet.
Sure enough, the Badgers stepped up to the plate when it mattered the most. Oliver Hoare and Joe Hardy gave their team the top two spots while Eidenschink secured a top 20 finish (20th overall). The return of Zack Snider to the lineup helped keep the score on the lower side as he finished 32nd overall with Tyson Miehe close behind in 33rd.
Although it wasn't enough to beat Michigan or Michigan State, it was arguably the best performance that we had seen from the Badgers all season (3rd overall). They were now ahead of teams who were beating them during the regular season.
Despite the respectable finish, Wisconsin lacked Kolas points and were in need of a huge performance at the Great Lakes Championship if they wanted to have any shot of qualifying for NCAA's.
Just like conferences, Hoare and Hardy gave Wisconsin a crucial 1-2 punch, finishing 3rd and 6th overall. Ben Eidenschink continued to find his groove in the postseason, placing 14th overall. However, the final two scorers became the main areas of concern. Although they still had respectable finishes of 29th (Miehe) and 32nd (Gessner), it wasn't enough to give Wisconsin an automatic qualifying spot. The Badgers would finish 3rd in the region and end their season short.
If we were to tell you just that story without any background, you would most likely scoff at the idea of Wisconsin being ranked 8th in our Preseason Top 25 (and understandably so). Of course, there is more than meets the eye with this team.
Obviously, the addition of Morgan McDonald back into this group drastically changes things. He is someone who will consistently fight for the win at nearly every meet. If he doesn't win, he'll at least be top five. Pairing McDonald with last year's BIG 10 Champion gives the Badgers one of the best duos in the nation. If you thought Hoare and Hardy were impressive, wait until you see McDonald and Hoare...
The most important piece to this team will likely be Olin Hacker. This is the same guy who had back-to-back 12th place finishes at the BIG 10 and Great Lakes Championships in 2016. He is a key scorer for this squad when he's fully healthy and his consistency is a nice aspect as well. Hacker will be the perfect supporting scorer to put next to Eidenschink who had a great postseason in 2017. They don't even have to improve from the last time they raced. As long as they contribute what we've seen from them in the past, then Wisconsin becomes one of the most dangerous teams in the NCAA.
The final spot is a bit up for grabs, but there are so many options that it hardly makes a difference. Zack Snider and Tyson Miehe went back-and-forth last season and are now another year older. I like the development that we've seen from Snider and I expect him to elevate his fitness to another level this fall. After running 13:54 and 29:15, he has the potential to be one of the best number five guys on any varsity lineup this fall.
What truly makes this team special is their young core. Between Finn Gessner, Seth Hirsch, Noah Jacobs, and Tannor Wagner, these are gutsy runners who are capable of unleashing a huge breakout performance in only their second year of collegiate competition. They were all elite high school athletes, so it isn't crazy to think that they'll follow the trend of second year athletes making big improvements from when they were rookies. They may not be in our projected scoring five right now, but one (or more) of these men could have a major role on this team by the time NCAA's rolls around.
Yet, like most teams, Wisconsin isn't perfect. Although they have an exciting young group of athletes scattered throughout their roster, they are still relatively inexperienced. We also saw some inconsistency from Snider and Eidenschink last fall which could hurt the team at larger invites. Luckily, both individuals have shown signs of improvement throughout 2018.
You may not see a more well-rounded team than Wisconsin this season. They have every low-stick, supporting scorer, and young star that a coach could want. The Badgers are out for blood this fall and I would not want to be the one who gets in their way.