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10 Things To Watch On Regional Weekend

NCAA Cross-Country Talk

By Emory Mort 
LetsRun.com's Employee #1
November 12, 2009

While the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country Championships are the greatest championships in all of sport, first we have to find some reasons for the average fan to care about the regional qualifications this weekend.

Why XC Nationals Are The Greatest
In no other sport does every good team and every good individual line up at one competition at the same exact time and compete against each other for the championship. March Madness takes over the television and talk shows for months, but that's because basketball is simply a higher-profile sport than running and everyone can gamble on the games. Is March Madness really better than XC Nats? No, because to watch it you have to sit in front of the television for about 100 hours and endure terrible officiating, free throws, sketchy coaches and 35 timeouts per game. The Super Bowl is awesome but to most people it's more about the commercials. Most of the Pro Bowl (aka All-Star) players don't shine in the Super Bowl as their teams aren't there. Most of the exciting teams don't even make the Bowl because "defense wins in the playoffs".

XC Nats are like the All-Star game, the entire playoffs and the Super Bowl all in one cold, remote town (Terre Haute, Indiana and the LaVerne Gibson XC course). And it happens on a Monday afternoon and takes all of 30 minutes. AND if you go you can run all over the course and get right up close to the athletes. Last year I almost had my life ended by the insane people driving the all-terrain vehicles as I was laying down taking photographs, that's how exciting the champs are.

The Champs Are So Good It's Easy To Overlook Regionals This Saturday
You might be reading this and saying, what are regionals? You might be reading this and saying "well my alma mater is ranked 9th in their region, if they have a really good day they could get into the big dance!" You're both proving my point. Most people have no idea what the regionals are and if they do it's only because they used to run college cross country and are still fanatically rooting for their alma mater.

There are nine "regions" and the top-2 teams from each region automatically get to go to the championships. After that, the system is fantastically difficult to explain (you can see the official at-large guidelines here). I'd bet that your home computer - let alone your brain - is not powerful enough to run the software that determines the 13 at-large bids to fill out the 31-team field.

10 Things To Watch On Regional Weekend

Cross Country: 37th IAAF World Championships-Press Conference1. Oklahoma State and German Fernandez
German Fernandez
(right) is the biggest name in college cross country right now. He's not the best xc runner on paper, but he's the biggest name. His team, Oklahoma State, is one of three teams that could win the team championship. Conference and national champ (1500) as a true freshman, he was injured and took time off in the summer. Back in August and September Fernandez had barely begun to run and work out. He finished way back at Oklahoma State's Cowboy Jamboree Arkansas' Chile Pepper Festival, well behind Ok St's flying top-3. Two weeks later his fitness had improved to the point where he was right with the Cowboy top-4 that went 1-4 at the conference meet. To get an idea how good Ok State is, remember that Colorado - ranked in the top-5 in the nation - is in the Big 12.

Oklahoma State will likely dominate their region (other regional powers include Oklahoma, Minnesota and 2-time Big Ten individual xc champ Hassan Mead, and Iowa State). The OK State team win is a foregone conclusion but we'll see if Fernandez is progressing. Coach Dave Smith is really smart and patient, so GF might not run all-out yet again. But we'll find out something. Perhaps more important in the national team title race will be the performance of NCAA All-American Girma Mesecho, the Auburn transfer. Mesecho is, quite simply, the key to Ok State winning a national title or not. Ryan Vail, Colby Lowe and Peter John Kosgei are running great, and Fernandez will be there. Will Mesecho improve his fitness, or will another Cowboy step up big-time? (Big XII men's results)

2. Stanford vs. Oregon Round 2 of 3
Stanford and Oregon will fight Round 2 of a fight scheduled for 3 Rounds. We predicted Stanford would beat Oregon at PAC 10's, and boy they took it to the Ducks for the Round 1 knockdown. Everybody is high on Stanford because they have been quite simply on fire in 2009. Every race has been perfect.

That's exactly why we see Oregon getting closer and maybe upsetting Stanford. In case you don't know, the races from regionals on out are 10k, a step up from 8k. The west regional meet will be held in Eugene, and the nationals are in Indiana. The weather is going to get colder, the race is getting longer, and Stanford's boys have been running perfectly all season.

3. National #1 Stanford
There's nowhere to go but down for the talent-rich (not experience-rich) Cardinal. There's nowhere to go but up for weathered Oregon. We took a look at the Cardinal top-7 and there are some big question marks there. To take the national title they will need a bunch of guys in the top-30 at NCAA's. This is no easy feat. Some of the guys in the top-7 for Stanford were way back last year either at conference or at nationals. One of Stanford's leaders Elliot Heath, 3rd at PAC-10's and 100 yards ahead of Oregon's Luke Puskedra, was only 112th at NCAAs last year. Some of them are redshirt or true freshman. There is not a single senior on their team. It's highly unusual for guys who were finishing 73rd at their conference meet (Justin Marpole-Bird) to come back the next year and put together a full season of high-caliber running. A few races of high-caliber running? That's doable, as Stanford has shown. It looks to me like it's going to get a lot closer. I almost changed my pick before PAC 10's but I was glad I didn't as Stanford crushed Oregon. But like I said before; race gets longer, weather gets colder, season gets to crunch time... I don't like a bunch of warm-weather young guys who have been tearing up courses all fall to win a team title against Oregon or Ryan Vail and OK State.

4. National #3 Oregon
Oregon has proven late November clutch guys in Puskedra, the Mercado twins who were the key to Oregon's '07 team title (and who are XC All-americans), Matt Centrowitz Jr. who ran well at NCAAs last year and PAC-10's this year and surely they'll find someone else to get up there like AJ Acosta or PAC-10 xc surprise Jordan McNamara.

Oregon got crushed 2 weeks ago (PAC-10 men's results here). We'll see Round 2 - regional championships - in Eugene, 25% longer distance, 2 weeks later in the season, weather getting chillier and damper, pressure settling in squarely on somehow unanimous #1 Stanford.

Cross Country: 37th IAAF World Championships-Team USA5. Super Sophs Puskedra, Derrick, Fernandez (right)
The other thing that must be mentioned about the great Stanford/Oregon rivalry is another showdown between sophomores Chris Derrick and Luke Puskedra. Along with sophomore German Fernandez this trio is absolutely mind-boggling. Derrick has been beating Puskedra in meet after meet. Puskedra beat Derrick last year at NCAA XC's. Throw former Wisco Badger Brandon Bethke into the conversation as well as the now-Ariz St Sun Devil star beat '09 Pre-Nats champ Puskedra at PAC 10's.

6. Worst Region
The 2009 Worst Region Award goes to the South Central. Arkansas is going to finish about 25th at NCAAs and they're the best team in the region. It's the only region without another ranked team. So this region is like that dinky conference in college hoops where the best team (a lock for the dance) gets upset in the conference tournament so Alfred State makes the tourney and USC doesn't. Texas, Texas A&M, Lamar or some other mediocre team is going to make nationals sort of as a gift of the system. Sure, they earned the gift but they're going to hope to crack the top-25 in Terre Haute in a best case scenario.

7. Bubble Teams
The way I see it the NCAA bubble teams are Auburn, Indiana, Ohio State, Duke, Columbia and Cal Poly (I'm sure I'm missing some other potentials so forgive me). Three or four of them will get in. The best story of the bunch comes from Bloomington in the Hoosier State. Indiana blasted into the season with a group of underclassmen ready to prove something big. They won Paul Short against teams like Iona (2008 NCAA runner-up) and NC State ('09 ACC Champs). They then skipped Pre-Nats and ran against Purdue and put seven guys plus their assistant coach ahead of the Boilermaker's first man.

Then Big Tens came along and Indiana was a bit off, getting 4th (results). Normally 4th isn't so bad in the Big Ten but the Big Ten is average this year. Wisconsin put their whole team in the top-16 in the meet. Indiana could theoretically perform so badly in the solid Great Lakes region to not take advantage of their points they earned at Paul Short (if you don't know what points are, don't worry, you don't want to even get started).

I only call Auburn a bubble team because they are a bad flu-shot away from hardly being able to field a team. You can bet this will be changing soon under new head coach Mark Carroll's watch, but for now Auburn has 3 or 4 stud runners and then you time the rest of the team by a sun dial. Look at the SEC results to see what I mean.

Cross Country: NCAA Championships8. Chelanga - Is He Back To Dominant Form?
The normally so-so Southeast region is very good in 2009. William & Mary are having their best year maybe ever, ACC champs NC State are getting hot, UVA is very good and Louisville did well at Big Easts. Liberty's Sam Chelanga (right) will get his second chance to shine against real competition this season after his excellent year in '08-'09 where he was 2nd to Galen Rupp at XC Nats and reset the NCAA 10,000m track record in the spring. He'll face off with some very good individuals and we'll see if he's getting fitter or if he's simply not the same animal he was last year. We only say this because he got beat by Chris Derrick of Stanford at Pre Nats. Chelanga had always been in such monster shape that getting beat wasn't even in the realm of possibility, it was only a question of how much he would win by (only Rupp and Arkansas' 26 year-old Australian Shawn Forrest, in the end, could match him).

Chelanga's latest races? 2nd in soggy conditions in Terre Haute at Pre Nats. Chris Derrick sprinted past him Galen Rupp-style in the closing straight after Chelanga led the whole way. At Big Souths two weekends ago Chelanga won over 2nd-place teammate Evans Kigen 23:50 to 25:13. That's the Sam Chelanga we know and love.

9. Long-Shot Title Contenders - Can Anyone Other Than Ducks, Cardinal or Cowboys Win?
Earlier I said there were three teams with shots at the team title: Oregon, Stanford and Oklahoma State. Can any other teams potentially get it done? Alabama have the firepower to do it but it's an all-Kenyan squad. I don't see an all-Kenyan squad from Alabama getting all geared up to run in windy, damp 40-degree weather for a national title. They didn't run that well at SECs which I found surprising.

Mick Byrne's Wisonsin Badgers have gotten no attention and frankly they haven't run that well... until Big Tens last weekend. If I know anything about college coaches I know Mick Byrne knows how to get a squad ready to run when it counts. He's got Landon Peacock (returning All-American), Craig Miller (sub-4 miler, 2nd in NCAAs in track) and some really good young guys including true freshman Mohammed Ahmed who is going to be a very special college runner. They haven't run a race yet that really matters so look out for them upsetting some teams come November 23.

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day ThreeNAU. I don't know what to think of NAU. Early in the season they looked really, really good beating up teams like Oklahoma State without their top runners. But two weeks ago at Big Sky's something strange happened. Junior Aussie David McNeill (left) ran 24:35 and won by almost a minute! Now it's not surprising to see McNeill run so well (he is a bona fide individual title contender but is flying under the radar as he didn't start training until basically September as he was doing track all summer). What IS surprising is a 1-minute gap between McNeill and the 2nd NAU runner - NAU is ranked #4 in the country. If you're the 4th-best team in the country your top-5 should not be that spread out. They are not going to finish 4th in the country if their 4th and 5th guys finish two minutes behind McNeill over 10k (they were well over a minute behind on an 8k course). Jordan Chipangama was almost a full minute behind McNeill after starting out the season on fire. Either McNeill is super, super good or NAU's 4th and 5th are going to score a ton of points (bad points) at NCAAs.

Colorado is going to have a pack do pretty well. But at Big 12's we saw where Colorado's pack is likely going to be: behind the packs of the very elite teams. Ok State put 4 guys ahead of CU's 1st! End of discussion. This isn't to say anything bad about Mark Wetmore or his Colorado team. I'm probably getting a bit over my head here, but I would go out on a limb to say that Colorado's talent on their team hardly belongs in the top-15 in the country, let alone the top-3 or 4. I've looked at the rosters and it's almost laughable how GOOD Colorado is considering the High School performances of their guys. Colorado's days of winning team titles are over unless they get the recruiting going at hyper speed again.

10. Oops I Forgot To Mention The Women
Let's see, storylines, storylines, where are the storylines? Ok, Colorado's Jenny Barringer is going to win NCAAs. Someone needs to look up the record margin of victory, the course record and any other legitimate record . Barringer might smash them all. Only FSU's (and the Netherlands') Susan Kuijken is even remotely close to the talent of Barringer these days (did you know Barringer never won a conference XC title until THIS YEAR?! Hard to believe but remember Texas Tech's and now Oregon Track Club's Sally Kipyego's dominance).

NCAA Cross Country: Pacific-10 Conference ChampionshipsOregon's Jordan Hasay (right) is the most recognizable female runner in the world to the average American. I know that sounds crazy but cute California girl with pony tail down to her hips who looks like she's 12 running in the Olympic Trials final goes along way with AP writers and watchers of the nightly network news and Good Morning America. Hasay has run very, very well this year for Oregon. She was their top finisher at Pre Nats and was right up there at PAC 10s though teammate Nicole Blood won it. I am relieved to see the incredibly likeable Hasay do well with all the unreasonable expectations people put on her coming out of high school.

Washington are looking primed for an upset. Washington's women were super dominant in 2008 but 2009 is not going to be a cake-walk despite the whole team returning including Kendra Schaaf and Christine Babcock. The Wildcats from Villanova are the likely "upset-ers". They have performed like the #1 team in the country but most coaches still give the Huskies the nod (U-Dub and 'Nova are a narrow 1-2 in the polls).

Early NCAA Women's Predictions: 1. Barringer, CR; 2. Kuijken, 40 seconds behind.
1. Villanova; 2. Oregon; 3. Washington; 4. Florida

Employee #1's Men's Picks To Make NCAAs (in no particular order)

W = West, MW = Midwest, NE = Northeast, S = South, GL = Great Lakes, SE = Southeast, SC = South Central, M = Mountain, MA = Mid-Atlantic)
1. Oregon (W)
2. Stanford (W)
3. Washington (W)
4. Arizona State (W)
5. Portland (W)
6. Oklahoma St (MW)
7. Oklahoma (MW... no longer Joke-lahoma)
8. Minnesota (MW)
9. Iowa State (MW)
10. Arkansas (SC)
11. Texas (SC)
12. Georgetown (MA)
13. Villanova (MA)
14. NAU (M)
15. Colorado (M)
16. BYU (M)
17. New Mexico (M)
18. Iona (NE)
19. Syracuse (NE)
20. Providence (NE)
21. Wisconsin (GL)
22. Butler (GL)
23. Indiana (GL)
24. NC State (SE)
25. Virginia (SE)
26. Louisville (SE)
27. William & Mary (SE)
28. Alabama (S)
29. FSU (S)
30. Auburn (S)
31. Cal Poly (W)

West region wins the regional battle with six teams including two of the best three teams in the country. Mountain region is 2nd-best and Southeast comes through for the bronze.

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