NCAA Cross Country Preview Part 2 — Men’s Top 10 Teams

Powerful Northern Arizona is favored to repeat as NCAA men’s champs. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

THE MEN’S TEAM RACE in Tallahassee looks to be a classic battle, with a dominant favorite and challengers that are even stronger than they were in Stillwater last March. The return of Oregon throws up another plot twist for fans, who will be the real winners whether or not our early-season guesses hold up through 8 weeks of competition.

(Years in school cited here match what the school has reported to TFRRS, the NCAA’s results-reporting service.)

1. Northern Arizona

Michael Smith’s defending champions have now won 4 of the last 5 titles and show no signs of victory fatigue. In March the Lumberjacks did it with just 60 points, the lowest tally in 16 years. Two top-10 finishers from that group have moved on: Blaise Ferro (graduated) and Luis Grijalva (pro). Big pickup Hobbs Kessler was lost when he turned pro at the Olympic Trials. Still, Smith can count on frosh Nico Young (4th last spring) and soph Abdihamid Nur (7). Add to that sophs Brodey Hasty (44) and Drew Bosley (62). Junior Ryan Raff, a veteran of two nationals, won the team’s low-key opener. Said Smith, “We don’t taper for it in any way; they train right through it.” Look for soph Theo Quax (13:49.38 for 5K) to be a strong contributor, as well as junior George Kusche. The South African transfer won the Big 10 overland title for Nebraska.

2. Notre Dame

The runner-up squad back in March, the Fighting Irish scored just 87. They return 6 of their top 7, all of whom placed in the top 36: juniors Danny Kilrea (10) and Dylan Jacobs (20), senior Andrew Alexander (21), and 1500 Olympic qualifier Yared Nuguse (23), plus frosh Jake Renfree (22). Coach Sean Carlson boasts some exciting additions: grad transfer Anthony Russo from Penn (89 in ’19) has a 28:57.20 best for 25 laps. And true frosh Luke Schildmeyer placed 3rd at the XC Town Meet of Champs.

3. BYU

The Cougars can never be counted out. Ed Eyestone’s squad beat Northern Arizona for the title in ’19 and returns 5/7 from the squad that placed 7th in March. Most notably, that includes individual champ Conner Mantz as well as soph Casey Clinger (13) and senior Elijah Armstrong (118). Frosh Aidan Troutner (125) and junior Brandon Garnica (42 in ’19) will also help. Throw in 8:36 steepler Kenneth Rooks who is returning from his mission and Eyestone has plenty to work with.

4. Oregon

In the spring the Ducks chose not to contest cross country, focusing on indoor track. Back in ’19, Robert Johnson’s crew placed 9th but now looks to be powerfully rebuilt, even with the news that frosh Olympian Cole Hocker has turned pro. Among the returnees: seniors Cooper Teare (6 in ’19), Reed Brown (3:56.61 mile), Jackson Mestler (73 in ’19), Jack Yearian (29:00.99) and junior Charlie Hunter (143 in ’19). A key grad transfer is Cincinnati’s Aaron Bienenfeld, the German who placed 5th in the NCAA Indoor 5000 and then 16th at the XC Nationals 3 days later. Also new to Eugene is Caleb Brown, the ’19 New Balance 2M champ, and British junior James Gormley, who has run 7:57.77 for 3K. Says Johnson, “After the challenges last year due to the pandemic, it will be nice to be back this fall with a full focus on cross country.”

5. Stanford

The Cardinal return all but one of the squad that placed 5th in March, and the crew has a lot of upside for coach J.J. Clark with regard to future eligibility. Five of the returnees are still frosh, including top-50 types Charles Hicks (14), Cole Sprout (15) and Ky Robinson (46). DJ Principe (72) is a junior and Callum Bolger (100) a senior. Also contributing will be Canadian frosh Evan Burke (13:58.09) and a pair of true frosh/Foot Locker finalists in Robert DiDonato and Nolan Topper.

6. Arkansas

Fourth in March, Chris Bucknam’s Razorbacks return some powerful experience in seniors Amon Kemboi (11) and Gilbert Boit (40) and juniors Jacob McLeod (57) and Emmanuel Cheboson. Senior Luke Meade (38) has been lost for the season due to a rock-climbing ankle injury over the summer. However junior Andrew Kibet, the SEC steeple runner-up, should help out, as well as incoming frosh Reuben Reina (4:07.69), German Elias Schreml (13:58.48) and Ben Shearer (8:48.90 for 2M). Says Bucknam, “We’ve got a great mixture of veterans and young people. Already watching them interact it’s a good vibe. So, we’re looking forward to seeing what that group can do.”

7. Oklahoma State

Dave Smith’s Cowboys finished 3rd in March. Says lead runner Isai Rodriguez, “Honestly we felt like we could do a lot better. This year, our goal is to win Nationals, but right now we’re just taking it day-by-day.” Every member of the March squad is back, including 4 who made the top 35: Rodriguez (8), junior Alex Maier (17) and seniors Ryan Smeeton (26) and Victor Shitsama (34). At their home season opener, Rodriguez led the squad to a win over ranked Tulsa.

8. Tulsa

The Hurricanes finished 6th in March and despite the graduation of 5th-placer Patrick Dever, appear to have reloaded quite well. Seniors Peter Lynch (12) and Isaac Akers (19) lead the returnees, along with 28:41.38 track runner Scott Beattie. Coach Steve Gulley has also added a pair of juniors from Ireland: Cormac Dalton (29:19.75) and Michéal Power (13:54.42).

9. Washington

Only 25th in March, the Huskies are bringing back a solid crew and also some serious new talent. Coach Andy Powell’s top returnee from March is frosh Luke Houser (51), along with senior Isaac Green (104). Foot Locker finalist Sam Affolder is returning from a redshirt season. The new guys on campus might make all the difference. Senior Brian Fay is the Irish steeple champion at 8:29.75 and also has 28:41.70 skills. Canada’s Kieran Lumb has run 13:24.25. Ryan Renken (4:00.68, 13:52.78) is a grad transfer from Penn. And frosh Nathan Green ran a 4:00.97 mile last spring. Says Powell, “Clearly they did their work over the summer and are in good shape.”

10. Colorado

Third in ’19, the Buffs only placed 14th in Stillwater. Says coach Mark Wetmore, “We weren’t totally thrilled with how we did in March of ’21. And so now we get to redo.” Among the returnees are two who made the top 100 in March: senior Alec Hornecker (59) and junior Ethan Powell (95). Also back is senior 13:24.46 performer Eduardo Herrera (43 in ’18). The real story might be the grad transfers who have come to Boulder: Brendan Fraser from Notre Dame (29:14.65); Stephen Jones from Mississippi State (SEC steeple runner-up); Andrew Kent from Georgia Tech (13:47.77); and Charlie Sweeney from Western Colorado (13:51.00).

Others To Watch:

Butler, Iona, Iowa State, Mississippi, Wake Forest, Wisconsin.