October 16, 2014
Sadly, much of the NCAA college cross country’s regular season is meaningless. By rule, all meets before September 26, had zero bearing on the NCAA championships. The three official big meets of the season are conference, regionals and NCAAs. However, only 18 teams make it to NCAAs automatically (13 of the 31 teams at NCAAs get their thanks to at-large points), and if you’re not one of those 18, you need to run well in the regular season – which for many teams comes down to just this weekend – (or have a great day at regionals) to go to the big dance.
For teams on the bubble, this weekend might be the most important meet of the season as Friday’s adidas Wisconsin Invitational and Saturday’s Pre National Invitational represent the two best chances to acquire at-large points for the NCAA Championships. For evidence of how a strong run can impact a team’s season, look no further than last year’s Harvard men. The Crimson ran great at precisely one meet — Wisconsin, where they beat six teams that would qualify for the NCAA Championships. Thus, despite only finishing fourth in the Ivy League and 6th in the Northeast Region, Harvard still advanced to NCAAs, pushing 5th-place Dartmouth in along with them. You could certainly make the argument that too much emphasis is placed on this weekend’s action — that a failure to run well can doom a team on the bubble or a team that has one good meet can make NCAAs even though they don’t necessarily deserve it (Harvard ended up finishing second-to-last at NCAAs). On the other hand, one could say it seems appropriate for a sport that determines its end-of-season rankings using one do-or-die race.
In the future, we may talk more about ways to reform the sport of cross country. This week, we talked to a coach of a top-10 team who said the current system may result in the elimination of NCAA cross country all together (ADs want to cut costs and they have hard time understanding why they should spend money on a meaningless regular season). He dismissively referred to this weekend’s action as being the “lottery” as you get into NCAAs by beating teams that have an awful day, yet you don’t get punished if you lose to a ton of teams. But we don’t have time for a longer discussion right now. Below, we preview Friday’s adidas Wisconsin Invitational. Click here to read our preview of Saturday’s Pre National Invitational.
adidas Wisconsin Invitational (Madison, Wis., Friday, 12 p.m. ET)
Ranked men’s teams (19): #3 Northern Arizona, #5 Portland, #6 Syracuse, #7 Stanford, T-#9 UCLA, T-#9 Wisconsin, #11 Michigan, #12 BYU, #13 Providence, #14 Iona, #16 New Mexico, #17 Arkansas, #18 Florida State, #19 Eastern Kentucky, #20 Oklahoma, #23 Indiana (split squad), #24 Princeton, #25 Washington, #27 Minnesota, Guelph (Canadian #1, 8-time defending Canadian champs)
Ranked women’s teams (22): #2 Michigan State, #5 Arkansas, #6 Stanford, #8 Iowa State, #9 Florida State, #10 Virginia, #11 New Mexico, #12 Syracuse, #13 North Carolina, #14 Washington, #15 Wisconsin, #16 Boise State, #17 Boston College, #19 William & Mary, #20 West Virginia, #23 Providence, #24 Dartmouth, #25 Arizona State, #26 Minnesota, #27 Vanderbilt, #28 Notre Dame, #30 BYU, Guelph (Canadian #1, 9-time defending Canadian champs)
Though neither of the #1 teams in the most recent USTFCCCA poll will be in action in Madison, Wisconsin is unquestionably deeper than Pre-Nats with 19 ranked men’s teams (compared to 9 at Pre-Nats) and a staggering 22 ranked women’s teams (compared to 6 at Pre-Nats). The forecast right now looks okay, with a high of 55 degrees predicted, but it is also going to be windy (17 mph). Let’s start with the men.
Men’s Team Race: Does Stanford Have Enough to Hold Off NAU?
A few weeks ago, #7 Stanford looked like the favorites for this race. That was before Jim Rosa (5th at NCAA XC) underwent knee surgery on Monday, knocking him out for the 2014 season. With Sean McGorty (13:37 5,000 pb) not racing until Pac-12s, the Cardinal will have to rely on its second group — Garrett Sweatt, Jack Keelan, Michael Atchoo and Sam Wharton — to step up in their place.
Rosa’s loss really hurts and will likely derail any national title hopes Stanford may have had. They still have two top-10 types in Maksim Korolev and Joe Rosa, and Sweatt finished an impressive eighth against a strong field at the Washington Invitational. But there’s no guarantee McGorty will be 100% by NCAAs, as he’s coming back from a back injury this summer. Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg said McGorty is a week or two ahead of schedule, but that he will likely race only two times this year: Pac-12s and NCAAs. Even if McGorty can put it together and finish in the top 20 (remember he beat every one of Colorado’s guys at Pre-Nats last year and was six seconds behind Edward Cheserek), Stanford is still knocking about 50 points off its team score by losing Jim Rosa. That’s simply too much against what many view as a historically-great Colorado team. Stanford may have been able to beat Colorado with Rosa, but they were never going to win by 50+ points.
So what can we expect from Stanford this weekend? The top-ranked team in the men’s field, #3 Northern Arizona, raced against Stanford at Washington on October 4 and though the Lumberjacks won, it wasn’t by a huge margin (62 to 92). If you sub out Stanford’s bottom two that day with Korolev and Rosa (let’s give those two 3rd and 5th), that brings Stanford’s total down to 48 points, giving them the victory. Another way to look at it: NAU and Stanford’s #4/#5 runners were very close at Washington (NAU’s #4/#5 were 24th and 26th, Stanford’s were 23rd and 29th). Now consider that those two Stanford guys project as their #6/#7 at Wisconsin. Stanford may have been wounded, but it’s still the team to beat in Madison. However, Miltenberg said that the Cardinal men had two hard workouts last week and another tough day on Tuesday (tempo in the morning, 8-10 300s in the afternoon).
“We’re going to go to Wisconsin very tired but that’s what I want — to develop a mindset to run well even when you’re not feeling great,” Miltenberg said.
That’s a strategy that could hurt Stanford in the short term but if the Cardinal end up running well at NCAAs, Miltenberg could end up looking very smart. Even a bad showing on Saturday may be good for Stanford as lowering expectations might benefit them. They have a recent history of going into NCAAs with a high ranking only to totally bomb when it matters most.
That lack of rest may be the difference as NAU is a very tough team and will be even better if Tyler Byrne (29th at NCAAs last year) can return to his 2013 form (he was only 35th at the Washington Invitational). How Byrne does is a key thing for true NCAA aficionados to watch.
Stanford and NAU project as the two top teams but they’re far from the only quality squads in attendance. #6 Syracuse (2nd to Oregon at Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, T-#9 UCLA (2nd to NAU at Washington Invitational), T-#9 Wisconsin (won Greater Louisville Classic) and #11 Michigan (won Notre Dame Invtitational) have all run well already in 2014 and should contend for top five spots. But the two most intriguing teams are #5 Portland and #14 Iona, neither of which has run a full squad yet this season. It’s actually important for Portland to run well here because they’re in a loaded West region that also features Stanford and Oregon. The Pilots, whom we ranked #6 preseason on the strength of their six sub-29:30 guys, were third at Wisconsin last year and have a good shot to replicate that this season, but we don’t know much about them as their top guys haven’t raced much.
Similarly, Iona is something of a wildcard. They’ve got two guys who could be really low sticks in Chartt Miller (3rd at Paul Short in 23:46) and Gilbert Kirui (2nd at Panorama Farms Invitational in 23:54). Add in Jake Byrne (4th at Panorama Farms) and Andrew Kowalsky (15th at Paul Short) and it will be interesting to see what the Gaels are capable of at full strength.
Top Individuals: Watch Out for Arkansas’ Stanley Kebenei
Korolev (2nd last year) and Joe Rosa clearly have to be considered threats for the individual title, as does NAU’s #1 Futsum Zeinasellassie (2nd at Washington Invitational). Based on 2014 form, the favorite might be Arkansas’ Stanley Kebenei, who defeated 2013 Wisconsin champ Kemoy Campbell and NCAA mile/steeplechase champ Anthony Rotich of UTEP at the Chile Pepper Festival two weeks ago. Other guys to watch include Michigan’s Mason Ferlic (won Notre Dame Invitational) and Oklahoma’s Abbabiya Simbassa (3rd at Washington Invitational).
Women’s Team race: Michigan State Is the Favorite; Can Canadian #1 Guelph Challenge Them?
In terms of the very top teams, Wisconsin is probably slightly weaker up front than Pre-Nats (Wisconsin has #2, #5, #6 and #8 while Pre-Nats has #1, #3, #4 and #7) but the depth in Madison is absurd. 22 of the top 30 teams in the country will race at Wisconsin as well as the top team from another country — Guelph University of Canada, which has won 9 straight national titles and scored 48 points at Paul Short to clobber #4 Georgetown (missing three of its top runners) and #9 Florida State (full strength). Guelph went 2-3-5-7 at Paul Short, putting four in front of FSU’s #2, and the Gryphons have a serious shot at winning Wisconsin. The question is, how well will Guelph’s #5 run? Sophie Watts was 31st at Paul Short, 44 seconds back of their #4. A gap of 44 seconds between #4 and #5 could be fatal at a meet like Wisconsin, where that could equate to about 90 places.
#2 Michigan State has run very well so far in 2014, destroying #3 Oregon at the Bill Dellinger Invitational on September 5 and winning the Roy Griak Invitational on September 27. Griak featured a much deeper field, but the Spartans’ performance at Dellinger may have been more impressive. At Dellinger, Oregon only ran five of its top seven from the team that won the Washington Invitational but they did run their #1, Lindsay Crevoiserat, who was fourth at Washington. At Dellinger, Michigan State put in four before Crevoiserat. MSU is clearly the top American school at Wisconsin and with a better #5 (Alexis Wiersma was 22nd at Griak, just six seconds back of their #4), it has an advantage over Guelph too. A win by the Spartans and a loss for #1 Michigan at Pre-Nats could send MSU to #1 in the next coaches’ poll.
Among the other contenders, #5 Arkansas is the best-suited to contend with Michigan State. #6 Stanford lacks depth with Aisling Cuffe and Cami Chapus done for the year, #8 Iowa State already lost to Michigan State at Griak (66 to 102) and Florida State was underwhelming at Paul Short. That leaves the Razorbacks, who finished second at Wisconsin last year. Arkansas hasn’t tested itself against top competition yet, but ran very well two weeks ago at the Chile Pepper Festival, scoring 16 points led by a big performance by Dominique Scott, who ran 16:01 to take first overall (we’re a little skeptical that the course was a full 5k). Scott, Grace Heymsfield and Shannon Klenke all finished in the top 13 at Wisconsin last year and if they can replicate that feat, they have a shot to take down the Spartans on Friday.
Top Individuals: Shelby Houlihan Goes for Major Win #2
With almost all of the top individuals running at Wisconsin, the winner of this race will stamp herself as the favorite for next month’s NCAA Championships. Right now, the woman to beat looks to be Arizona State’s Shelby Houlihan, the NCAA 1500 champ who won Roy Griak three weeks ago. In that race, Houlihan defeated Boise State’s Emma Bates (2nd at NCAAs in ’13), Iowa State’s Crystal Nelson and Katy Moen and Michigan State’s Rachele Schulist, all of whom should challenger her at Wisconsin this weekend. Bates’ sixth-place finish at Griak came as a surprise to many and if she doesn’t win this weekend, history says it’s unlikely she’ll win NCAAs.
Other women to watch include Iona’s Kate Avery (who will likely debut after taking 3rd at NCAAs last year), and several women who have already won big races this season: Arkansas’ Scott (Chile Pepper), New Mexico’s Charlotte Arter (Notre Dame Invitational), Boston College’s Liv Westphal (Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown), Florida State’s Colleen Quigley (Paul Short) and Stanford superfrosh Elise Cranny (Washington Invitational). Cranny, a 4:10 1500 runner, has tremendous upside and Wisconsin will show whether she’s ready to compete for an NCAA title right now.
“She can mix it up with anyone in that race and I think she’ll be in that group with 1,000 meters to go,” Miltenberg said.
One other Stanford tidbit: Cranny’s classmate Anna Laman (12th in 1500 at World Juniors, 4:13 pb) will likely run the open race at Wisconsin as cross country wasn’t emphasized in her training program in Australia and Miltenberg wants to get her used to the event before entering her in a big race.
What do you think will hapen? Discuss it in our fan forum: Official 2014 adidas Wisconsin Discussion Thread.