NCAA Cross Country Preview Part 1: Men’s Top 10 Teams

The favored Lumberjacks return Baxter (246), Day (429), Lomong (r), Beamish 427) & Grijalva (431). (MIKE SCOTT)

Making predictions about a cross country nationals is a fool’s game. A busload of assumptions can go wrong while some of the most delightful surprises of the year have a way of making us look silly. We’d rather position our harrier previews as less of a prediction than as a viewer’s guide.

A number of phenomenal programs are gearing up for a heck of a fight in Madison, Wisconsin, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, November 17. As with most sporting events, the informed fan gets much more out of the experience. With that said, here are our thoughts on the men’s teams seriously looking to win the Div. I title (and here’s a link to last year’s complete results):

1. Northern Arizona

Loaded. The defending champs will be returning 5 of 7, including 3 Top 10 finishers: Matthew Baxter (2), Tyler Day (3) & Peter Lomong (8). Also coming back will be junior Geordie Beamish (40) and the Big Sky frosh of the year, Luis Grijalva (60), who clocked 13:49.75 on the track. As well, the altitude-trained Lumberjacks add prize frosh Brodey Hasty, the NXN runner-up. So far coach Michael Smith—with a new 5-year contract extension—seems to be on the right track. At their home opener over 8K, Lomong (22:59) led Baxter (23:05) and Day (23:15) with Beamish at 23:19. Says Lomong, “We are a lot more dominant this year. Not just the top finishers but we’re strong all the way to the tenth guy.”

2. Stanford

The Cardinal, 4th last year and the Pac-12 champions, have the talent to perhaps upend the formcharts. Coach Chris Miltenberg will return all 7 from last season. All eyes will be on senior Grant Fisher as a potential individual winner; he has placed 17th/5th/5th in his previous Nationals appearances and has an NCAA Outdoor 5K crown on his résumé. Other key personnel include Alex Ostberg (16) and Pac-12 steeple champ Steve Fahy (17). Soph Callum Bolger was the No. 5 man at Nationals as a frosh. If healthy, Thomas Ratcliffe could improve on the form that made him Pac-12 frosh of the year in ’16. Throw into that mix 4 new recruits with top-flight potential: Connor Lane (USATF & Pan-Am Junior XC champ, Clayton Mendez (Footlocker 9); DJ Principe (’16 NBN 5000 champ) & Michael Vernau (8:49.36 for 2M).

3. BYU

The Cougars finished 3rd last year. This time coach Ed Eyestone is looking for more. The team has so much top-end talent it’s tough to tab any one individual as the team leader. Returning are All-Americas Rory Linkletter (32 in ’16, 39 in ’17 and 13:37.98/28:43.51 on the track) and Connor McMillan (30, 13:38.88/28:09.55), as well as Clayton Young (13:37.60/28:27.48), Conner Mantz (28:57.83), Danny Carney (42, 13:39.95) and Clayson Shumway (13:59.66). Plus, 2-time Footlocker finalist Kramer Morton placed 65th at Nationals last year. Casey Clinger (24 as a frosh) was the highest finisher last year, but is on his church mission now.

4. Alabama

Kenyan power. Gilbert Kigen (4) and Vincent Kiprop (7) were a powerful 1-2 punch last year as the Crimson Tide earned 14th in the team standings. They’re back, along with 28:04 man Alfred Chelanga (37). Last year the dropoff to runners 4 & 5 was substantial. This season new frosh (1:49) Kewmoi Ndiwa and 8:52 steepler Noel Rotich may help bridge that gap.

5. Portland

Last year’s runners-up are certainly no slouches; their position on this list is simply a statement on how tough the competition is. Pilot coach Rob Conner returns 5 of 7. Leading the way is junior Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse (11). Also back are Nick Hauger (26, 29:16.34) and Gabriel Haughey (29:16.67). Dutch senior Noah Schutte improved nicely in the spring, clocking 28:34.51 before concentrating on the steeple. Frosh Justin Hazell won the Cal State title last year and ran 9:01 on the track; he could contribute if he makes a smooth transition to the longer distance.

6. Iowa State

Seventh last year, Martin Smith’s Cyclones have a little more firepower on the line this year. Andrew Jordan (15) is the top returnee, but new to the XC squad is last winter’s transfer, Edwin Kurgat, (21 for Tennessee-Martin). Dan Curts (68, 13:45.69), Stanley Langat (53) and Thomas Pollard (98) all should be key, and they will be joined by frosh Chad Johnson, the NBN Indoor 5K champ.

7. Colorado

Buffalo coach Mark Wetmore returns a quartet from last year’s 8th-place squad: Eduardo Herrera (33, 13:57.35), Ryan Forsyth (57, 13:41.19), Joe Klecker (67) & John Dressel (33 in ’16) will form the nucleus. Says Wetmore, “We have four returning, proven, and very good runners. We will need someone to emerge from the rest of the group as an NCAA contributor at that level. There are a lot of hard working people and sometimes it takes a year or two so I don’t know who will fill that 5th through 7th spot to make a full team… There is just no room for error.”

8. Oregon

With coaching changes and the obligatory turmoil that goes with it, Oregon wouldn’t be faulted for dropping a bit from last year’s 6th. Instead we can see them doing just as good if not a little better. Top ’17 finisher Tanner Anderson transferred out but Cooper Teare (44), Reed Brown (78), Austin Tamagno (81) and Blake Haney (84) all return. Senior James West, who ran 3:37.41 for 1500 last spring, should contribute, as likely will Jack Yearian (8:04.46 for 3000) and 8:53 steepler Jackson Mestler.

9. Syracuse

Even with the departure of longtime coach Chris Fox, the Orange are expected to move up from last year’s 13th. Interim coach Brien Bell knows the system after 13 years in the mix with the ACC powerhouse. But losing national champion Justyn Knight means that improvements are expected from the 4 returning members of that squad, none of whom broke into the top 100 last year: Aidan Tooker (13:52.92), Joe Dragon, Dominic Hockenbury and Iliass Aouani (29:19.43). Among their teammates, look to Kevin James (29:48.88) and steeplechase All-America Noah Affolder. New recruits include Michael Phillips (4:06.22) and Foot Locker finalist Matthew Scrape.

10. Colorado State

No. 9 last year after ranking only No. 18 in the USTFCCCA preseason poll, Art Siemers’ Rams lost 3 to graduation, but return Cole Rockhold (32), Eric Hamer (90), Carson Hume (111), and Trent Powell (175). The reigning Mountain West champions may see junior Forrest Barton step up. Among a host of new frosh is 8:54 performer Michael Mooney.

Others To Watch: Arkansas, Campbell, Southern Utah, Washington State, Wisconsin.