Preview — NCAA Men’s Cross Country Champs

Colorado’s Eduardo Herrera (111) captured the Pac-12 individual title, but Stanford crushed the field in the team competition. (KIM SPIR)

PIECING TOGETHER ANY PROJECTION for the NCAA XC Championships, coming up next Monday in Stillwater, Oklahoma, involves a few more unknowns than most years. Prime among these is that the crucial part of this “2020” harrier season has been run concurrently with indoor track and the two finales are right on top of each other.

That leaves us sometimes guessing exactly how coaches are balancing the two disciplines and also how various list-toppers will be able to handle 10K of hard overland racing two days after they race on the track in Fayetteville.

“Hard overland racing” may be an understatement. The race will take place on Oklahoma State’s dedicated course, but Ed Eyestone, coach of defending champion BYU, says, “In my 20 years plus of coaching at the NCAA, I think it’s the most challenging hilly course we’ve had.”

Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith points out that the lowest point on the course, dubbed “Death Valley,” comes with 800 to go, and the highest, “Mt. Fuji,” is just 200m later. “It’s a very challenging course, and presents opportunities for strategy.”

First, let’s look at the final USTFCCCA Coaches Poll of the season, which came out on March 05 and has the contenders in a logical order:

1. BYU Maximizing XC Strength

Eyestone’s Cougar squad moved to the top of the poll after a 49-point win at the Silver State Challenge over previous No. 1 Northern Arizona (54) as well as Washington and Notre Dame. They packed 4 into the top 10, with Conner Mantz kicking to the win in 22:51 on the 8K course. The squad followed up with a 1-3-5-7-9-10 finish to win the West Coast Conference.

Mantz, who ran an oversized 13:28.00 for 5000 in Seattle and has a 28:07.70 for 10,000 last summer, looks to lead the team. All-American Casey Clinger (13:28.79), Brandon Garnica (13:29.16), steepler Clayson Shumway (8:36.25/28:36.07) and Boise State transfer Elijah Armstrong (13:58.25) also figure to have an impact for the defending champions.

A key factor in the Cougar rating here is that the team — which includes the year’s 3 fastest track 5000 runners — will be skipping the Indoor. “It was an easy decision before they posted the fast times,” says Eyestone, but we had already come to grips with it. We’re going to maximize our strength and that’s cross country.”

Of the wet weather that may be facing the competitors, Eyestone adds, “Sounds like we’ll be running in the mud again; that worked for us last time.”

2. Northern Arizona Thrives On Pack Running

Coach Mike Smith has said, “the fact that we can put so many up front like that is definitely one of our strengths.”

With wins 3 of the last 4 years — and a runner-up finish in ’19 — the Lumberjack squad has many fans who expect them to do it again. They dominated at the Battle Born Challenge in Las Vegas, putting 4 into the top 5 over powerhouses Stanford and Colorado.

Sophomore Abdihamid Nur (22:30.6) and frosh Nico Young (22:30.8) led in Nevada. Veterans Luis Grijalva and Blaise Ferro were 4-5, with fifth man Brodey Hasty in 8th.

A big win at the Big Sky was expected; however, running minus Young, Grijalva and Ferro they were upset by Southern Utah, 35–38. In Stillwater, though, they will be back to full strength. Says Grijalva, “Winning a national title is probably the best feeling in the world. I want that feeling back.”

3. Arkansas Has Heavy Indoor Involvement

The Razorbacks won their 26th SEC crown last fall (after 30 years in the conference). Chris Bucknam has focused his athletes on the track this winter, with most hitting solid 5000 times. Senior Amon Kemboi leads the list with his 13:38.95 from the Tyson Invitational, where he was followed by Gilbert Boit (13:40.20), Jacob McLeod (13:41.26) and Matt Young (13:42.59).

All four of those names will be competing in the NCAA 5000 on Friday night. Boit and Kemboi are scheduled to double back for Saturday’s 3000. How well can they bounce back for Monday?

In its ninth straight year at Nationals, the Hog team will be motivated to redeem itself from an atypical 30th-place finish at the ’19 affair.

4. Stanford Has A Lot Of Youth

The Cardinal have competed thrice this winter, winning the Florida State Classic over Iowa State and Colorado, taking a bad hit from BYU at Silver State, and crushing the competition at the Pac-12 with a 28-point display.

Coach JJ Clark has plenty of youth in his top 7, which currently features 4 frosh, led by Pac-12 runner-up Charles Hicks, 4th-placer Cole Sprout (4th) and Australian Ky Robinson (8th). All-America senior Alek Parsons (5th) provides veteran input along with Callum Bolger (9th). The team placed 6th at the ’19 Nationals and is poised to improve on that. “We’ve been getting better every meet,” says Clark.

5. Tulsa May Be Shy On Depth

After placing 5th in ’19, the Hurricanes found themselves on an upward trajectory. That appears to have continued into this winter, with Steve Gulley’s squad winning the American Conference with only 20 points. They put 5 in the top 7 amid snow flurries on the frozen course in Kansas. In late February they lost a dual to Oklahoma State at the Nationals course, 29–28.

Team leaders are All-Americas Patrick Dever, Scott Beattie and Peter Lynch. Their No. 6 is a nice addition, Shay McEvoy, the Irish Junior 3000 champion. Depth, however, will be the biggest challenge to the Hurricanes placing high.

6. Oklahoma State Has Home-Course Advantage

The Cowboys missed a trip to the big dance in ’19. As the host of the affair this time around, Smith’s crew has focused on training.

At last fall’s Big 12 the Cowboys won on the tiebreaker from Iowa State. They’ve demonstrated plenty of fitness recently in beating Tulsa by a point. The winner of that race was junior Isai Rodriguez, who placed 4th at Nationals in ’18. Says Smith, “He’s the most enigmatic runner I’ve ever coached… the competitor in him and his absolute belief himself and his ability to disregard all evidence otherwise.”

7. Iowa State Has Some Familiar Faces

The Cyclones produced the individual winner at Florida State in Kenyan junior Wesley Kiptoo as they finished 2nd in the 20-team field.

Fourth at the last Nationals, coach Martin Smith’s team returns 5 of those athletes, having lost some top-end power in individual winner Edwin Kurgat. JC transfer Kiptoo, undefeated as a Cyclone, is thought to be a more than ample replacement.

8. Colorado Doesn’t Seem As Deep As Usual

The Buffalo men took 3rds at two invites before claiming runner-up honors at the Pac-12. Senior Eduardo “Lalo” Herrera — whom we haven’t seen on the track yet — captured the Conference’s individual race by a large margin.

Coach Mark Wetmore so far doesn’t appear to have his usual depth. His 3rd-place team from ’19 returns 4, but lost low sticks in Joe Klecker and John Dressel.

After Pac-12s, a disappointed Wetmore indicated that he sees room for improvement, “Stanford’s a pretty young team too so I can’t blame it on youth. Stanford ran some really young guys who were ahead of our young guys. The men did not have a great day. After Lalo, we weren’t brilliant.”

9. Notre Dame Hopes It Learned A Lesson

The Irish proved their mettle with a 4th at the Silver State Challenge. It was their only race since winning the ACC in October with a 40-point performance that featured 3 in the top 7.

Outdoor national 1500 champ Yared Nuguse is the team leader; the senior won the ACC by 5 seconds. Also key are soph Dylan Jacobs and junior Danny Kilrea.

Said coach Sean Carlson after the Silver State race, “We made some mistakes and learned a lot and I’m happy it was today and not the national meet. We will make some adjustments over the next 42 days for where we want to be at NCAAs.”

10. Washington Could Have A Busy Few Days

The Huskies are one of the squads that is covering both track and cross country this winter. On the track, their 5K depth has been solid, with senior Andrew Jordan at 13:44.70 and 4 other teammates under 13:55.

At the Silver State Challenge, the squad finished 3rd behind BYU and Northern Arizona, with a 3rd in the individual from Talon Hull, a 3:59.56 miler who hasn’t hit the track yet this year. Said coach Andy Powell, “We had the best 1-to-5 spread, with Talon up front but the other 5 guys all worked really well together. To open up like that was great, which bodes well for hosting the conference in a month’s time.”

Will new 1500 CR-setter Sam Tanner race? Straight from his mouth: “Nah, I don’t think so. Not at this stage.” But yet he’s listed among the team’s entries.

Other Teams To Watch

Iona, Mississippi, NC State and Wisconsin are all squads that could ascend to the top 10. For them, like every other hopeful, it’s going to depend on who is the most effective on what will be the hilliest course in a long time.

In this strangest of years, we’d be remiss not to mention Oregon. In normal times, loaded with sub-4:00 milers, the Ducks would be very high on this list. However, this year, for the first time in 16 seasons, the team did not get an invite to Nationals after finishing 4th at Pac-12s with a squad absent many of its stars. Pac-12 3rd-placer Jackson Mestler will rep the Ducks in Stillwater.

Individuals To Keep Your Eyes On

In alphabetical order:
Morgan Beadlescomb of Michigan State is strong and steady. At the USA Meet of Champions in Terre Haute in November, he only lost to pros Mason Ferlic and Paul Chelimo.

Patrick Dever: In his only other NCAA Tulsa’s English senior was 11th. He’s the American Conference champion.

Luis Grijalva: Northern Arizona’s 13:16 performer in the 5000 says he’s ready: “I’m feeling strong and confident in my strength right now.”

Eduardo Herrera: Colorado’s Pac-12 champion has been improving fast.

Amon Kemboi: Will the Arkansas senior still have any fight left in him after 8K of racing on the track that weekend? If fresh, he’s a solid threat.

Wesley Kiptoo: Another frontrunner, the Iowa State junior says, “I’m ready; I’m excited.” He’s slated to run the 5000 and the DMR at the Indoor.

Conner Mantz: The BYU junior finished 3rd in ’19. He loves to be a frontrunner, saying, “Too many like to sit back and keep it comfortable.”

Nico Young: The Northern Arizona frosh races aggressively and has been getting closer to the front.

Others to watch: BYU soph Casey Clinger should also finish high. Oklahoma State’s Isai Rodriguez has the potential, but at the highest level he’s an unknown quantity who only recently came back from injury. Big 10 champ George Kusche of Nebraska is another to watch.