2016 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #8 Colorado, #7 Northern Arizona, #6 Arkansas and #5 Iona

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By LetsRun.com
September 22, 2016

Cross country is back, and while the season is not yet in full swing, we’ve already reached the point in the season where meets count for at-large qualifying purposes for NCAAs. A new rule this year means that you can get points at any meet held September 9 or later but for the most part that has meant next to nothing as most coaches are still running B teams. Between the Summer Olympics and the Diamond League, we didn’t have any time to focus on collegiate XC, but given that basically nothing has happened of yet, we have little reason to apologize for being a little late to the party. Now it’s time to get ready for the season. We’re doing that by rolling out previews for the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in the country.

Our pre-season rankings are only a rough estimate of what will happen this fall. While we did correctly predict the top two women’s teams last fall in order (#1 New Mexico and #2 Colorado), we only predicted six of the top 10 teams on the women’s side and five of the top 10 teams on the men’s side, with two of our preseason top five — the Wisconsin and Villanova men — failing to qualify for NCAAs entirely. A lot can change between now and November 19, when the NCAA championships return to Terre Haute, Ind., and while it’s usually easy to predict the top teams, places six through 15 can often be interchangeable depending on who runs well on the day. That’s what happens when you’ve got roughly two guys crossing the finish line every second in the main pack. So consider these rankings a starting point for the national title conversation; we’ll check in periodically throughout the fall and offer analysis as the season unfolds.

Key dates
September 9: 
Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
October 14: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wis.
October 15: adidas Pre-National Invitational, Terre Haute, Ind.
October 28-30: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 11: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 19: NCAA championships, Terre Haute, Ind.

Previous men’s previews: #10 Washington, #9 Wisconsin

Women’s previews: *#10 Michigan State, #9 Oklahoma State, #8 Michigan, #7 Boise State *#6 New Mexico, #5 NC State, #4 Oregon, #3 Stanford * #2 Providence, #1 Colorado

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2015 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.

*Previous Men’s Teams: #10 Washington, #9 Wisconsin

8. Colorado: Buffaloes begin rebuilding effort after five straight years on the podium

2015 results: 2nd NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 1st Pac-12, 1st Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #1, #2, #5, #6 from NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
John DresselSO 1213:48/29:20
Ben SaarelSR 133:38/7:52/13:48
Zach PerrinJR 1193:42/14:16
Joe KleckerFR7:59/13:44
Adam PetermanSO8:43 steeple
Eduardo HerreraFR4:04/8:15; 5th NXN
Phillip RochaFR2nd Foot Locker
Will Saarel have something to cheer about in 2016?

Will Saarel have something to cheer about in 2016?

Colorado is coming off the best five-year run in program history; since 2011, the Buffs have finished 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 1st and 2nd at NCAAs and won the Pac-12 title every year. However, the core of that team is now gone, though Colorado does return Ben Saarel (a two-time top-1o NCAA finisher) and John Dressel (26th last year, 3rd among freshmen).

We don’t really have anyone who can step into their shoes immediately,” coach Mark Wetmore said of departed seniors Ammar MoussaPierce MurphyMorgan Pearson and Connor Winter.

But Wetmore’s cross country machine should keep rolling along in 2016. It’s unlikely that these Buffaloes will contend for a national title, but they have firepower up front with Saarel (healed from a nagging hamstring injury last spring) and Dressel and young talent waiting in the wings should Wetmore elect to use it. Joe Klecker, who redshirted last fall, ran 13:44 on the track and should make an immediate impact. Colorado also has two stud recruits in Phillip Rocha and Eduardo Herrera, who went 1-2 at the California D1 state meet last fall. Rocha was second at Foot Lockers and the best cross country runner in the nation not named Drew Hunter, while Herrera ran 4:04 for the mile. 

In recent years, both Saarel and Dressel ran (and excelled) as freshmen for the Buffaloes. Wetmore said that he will likely decide whether to run Rocha and Herrera sometime in the middle of October. He has a few things to consider. The first is how the freshmen adjust to altitude and his training system. If they take some time to adapt, it doesn’t make sense to waste a year of eligibility. The second factor is their impact on the course. Last year, Wetmore pulled Saarel’s redshirt for the NCAA regional meet, and 10 months later, he still doesn’t know if it was the right call. 

“We would have had no chance if we didn’t run him, obviously,” Wetmore said. “Obviously also he didn’t have a good day. Had we not run him [and] gotten killed, we’d have him for two years now. So anyway, I have mixed feelings but that was a million years ago, so on to the future.”

Remove Saarel from the results last year, and little would have changed. An 82-91 Syracuse victory would have changed to an 80-98 Syracuse victory (Colorado would have remained a clear second). But the gamble made sense; the 2015 Buffaloes were a senior-laden team that needed every advantage they could get against a strong Syracuse squad. The 2016 edition is young (Saarel is the only senior in a prominent role) and unlikely to become a national title contender unless Herrera and Rocha develop into studs immediately. Racing them this fall could give Colorado a better shot at the podium, however. It’s up to Wetmore to determine whether continuing Colorado’s podium streak is worth burning a year of eligibility for the future building blocks of his program.

If Wetmore gives the greenlight to all his freshman, move Colorado up in the rankings.

7. Northern Arizona: Futsum’s return could lead to the podium in Coach Heins’ final season

2015 results: Did not qualify NCAAs, 8th Mountain Regional, 2nd Big Sky, 30th Wisconsin Invite

Key returners

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Futsum ZienasellassieSRN/A13:37/27:52; 2nd NCAA 10k; 3rd NCAA XC in ’14
Cory GlinesJRN/A13:58/29:11
Tyler DaySON/A14:05/29:06
Nathan WeitzSRN/A7:56/13:55
Matthew BaxterJRN/A14:10/29:19
Geordie BeamishSON/A14:10
Andy TrouardJRN/A4:03/13:56
Zienasellassie and the Lumberjacks will look to hoist another trophy in his final season

Zienasellassie and the Lumberjacks will look to hoist another trophy in his final season

In Flagstaff, 2016 is the season of last chances. Fifth-year senior Futsum Zienasellassie redshirted last fall so he could have one more crack at Edward Cheserek. Head coach Eric Heins will depart after the cross country season, with former Georgetown coach Michael Smith taking over. Both Zienasellassie (4th in ’13, 3rd in ’14) and Heins (five podium appearances) have accomplished plenty during their time at NAU, but neither has claimed an NCAA title.

“A few years ago, I thought we were in a pretty good situation to contend for a national title,” said Heins, whose 2013 team led NCAAs at the 8k mark only to be overhauled by Colorado. “We don’t want to shy away from that. Our goal as a team is to win the national title. For us to say that might be a little overwhelming, but if I had this group of guys in the past, I know that they would be contending for a podium spot.”

Though Heins knows this season is the end of the road for him — he’s taking a break from coaching and moving to Houston to spend more time with his wife and son — he’s trying not to let his impending departure affect the season.

“I only think about that this is my last trip to Terre Haute or Wisconsin if a reporter asks me,” Heins said. “I’m not bringing that up to the guys. They’re handling it really well and they’re just having fun with it. They’re loose and having fun with it right now.”

The coaching transition should go smoothly as Smith is already in Flagstaff, but Heins will handle the coaching duties this fall before Smith assumes control in December. Right now, Heins is focused on his team, and he’s got a good one. Zienasellassie is the clear leader, as he’s twice finished in the top four at NCAA XC. And after sitting out last fall, he produced by far his greatest track season in Flagstaff: big PRs of 13:37 and 27:52, and a runner-up finish in the 10,000 at NCAAs. In the past, Zienasellassie had failed to live up to his potential on the track, but that all changed in 2016.

“I think it was just a mindset,” Heins said. “For him, he knew he could be competitive on the track, it was just a matter of accepting it and getting excited about it.”

With his cross country pedigree, Zienasellassie is one of the top runners in the country, but once again finds his path to a national title blocked by Edward Cheserek. As a high schooler, Cheserek denied Zienasellassie the Foot Locker title in 2011 and won NCAA cross titles in 2013 and 2014, with Zienasellassie finishing in the top four on both occasions. Most recently, Cheserek was the only man to beat Zienasellassie in the NCAA 10,000 in June. Cheserek remains the heavy favorite to win a fourth consecutive cross country crown in November, but Zienasellassie has never been more prepared and will get to race on his de facto home course (Zienasellassie went to high school in Indiana and is intimately familiar with Terre Haute).

Zienasellassie’s best finishes at nationals
2010 Foot Locker: 2nd to Lukas Verzbicas
2011 NXN: 1st
2011 Foot Locker: 2nd (1 secs behind Cheserek)
2013 NCAA XC: 4th (24 secs behind Cheserek)
2014 NCAA XC: 3rd (6 secs behind Cheserek)
2016 NCAA indoor 5,000: 4th (4.37 secs behind Cheserek)
2016 NCAA 10,000: 2nd (1.11 secs behind Cheserek)

“The great thing about Futsum is that he’s going to give it his best shot but respects what Edward’s going to do,” Heins said. “That’s the target, and he’s doing everything he can to get ready for the end of November.”

Zienasellassie gives the Lumberjacks a tremendous #1 and there’s solid depth behind him, with six more guys at 14:10 or faster for 5,000. The best among them is Cory Glines (38th at Wisconsin Invite last year), though junior Matthew Baxter beat Glines at the Sycamore Invitational in Terre Haute on September 10 (they went 1-2). Tyler DayAndy Trouard and New Zealand import Geordie Beamish are all solid, while Peter Lomong (brother of two-time Olympian Lopez) was NAU’s third man at Sycamore. One red flag: 7:56/13:55 man Nathan Weitz was well back of the NAU pack in that meet (16th in 26:27).

Assuming that group can make some progress between now and November — and that’s typically been the case during Heins’ tenure — Northern Arizona will have a good chance to make its fourth podium appearance in the past five years.

6. Arkansas: The Razorbacks look to end a 10-year absence from the podium

2015 results: 6th NCAAs, 1st South Central Regional, 1st SEC, 3rd Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #3, #5 from NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Jack BruceJR 1113:54
Frankline TonuiSR 1929:14/8:30 steeple; 2nd NCAA steeple
Austen DalquistJR 4514:17
Christian HeymsfieldSR 97
Alex GeorgeJR 1017:55/13:49
Andrew RonohSO14:15/28:36

Though the Razorback track and field program has continued to churn out studs (most recently, Jarrion Lawson and 110 hurdles Olympic gold medallist Omar McLeod), the cross country program hadn’t sniffed the podium at NCAAs since 2005 until last year in Louisville, where Arkansas placed sixth overall, its best finish in the post-John McDonnell era. Perhaps fans took it for granted while McDonnell was around, but it’s very hard to be nationally competitive in cross country, indoor and outdoor track at the same time.

“We’re just trying to be good in all three of them,” said Razorbacks coach Chris Bucknam. “And being good in all three takes a little depth away from you. We’ve got a great program of sprinters and jumpers here. The cupboard’s not as full as you’d like it to be in cross country because of our efforts [in track and field]…we’re spread pretty thin only because we’re trying to be good in all three of them. You get betwixt and in between sometimes — you wish you had a few more distance runners in the fall and you wish you had a few more sprinters in the spring. With 12.6 [scholarships combined for XC and track], it’s hard.”

In fact, over the past five academic years, only two programs have pulled off what Arkansas managed last year — top-10 finishes in cross country, indoor and outdoor track.

Top-10 NCAA finishes in all three seasons, 2011-12 to 2015-16

SchoolXC finishIndoor finishOutdoor finish
Oregon ’15-’16414
Arkansas ’15-’16622
Oregon ’14-’15611
Oregon ’13-’14511
Arkansas ’12-’131013

Though the Razorbacks lose two of their five scorers from NCAA XC last fall, they add in a megatalent in Andrew Ronoh, who transferred from Iowa Central Community College in January. Ronoh ran modest personal bests of 8:14 and 14:15 indoors, but in his first outdoor NCAA race he broke out in a big way, clocking 28:36 in heat 2 at Payton Jordan. Bucknam feels that Ronoh is very strong aerobically — “if that was a 28:00 race, I think he would have been there” — and that he has vast untapped potential, especially if he can develop the closing speed required to excel in championship races.

Ronoh suffered an Achilles injury at the end of the outdoor season that severely limited his summer training, but he is back to running now and should be available for the championship portion of the season. Between returning All-Americans Jack Bruce and Frankline Tonui plus Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown champ Alex George, Arkansas has enough to win its 24th SEC title in the last 26 years even if Ronoh does not return at full strength. But to land on the podium for the first time since 2005, Ronoh will need to run well. Bettering last year’s result will be a challenge, but the Razorbacks are ready for it.

“I’ve never had so much fun coaching as I’ve had my last couple years at Arkansas,” Bucknam said. “They’re just a great group of guys and it’s fun coaching and they work hard. And hopefully I won’t mess it up too much.”

5. Iona: Gaels look set to keep on rolling

2015 results: 5th NCAAs, 2nd Northeast Regional, 1st MAAC, 5th Wisconsin Invite, 1st Greater Louisville Classic

Key returners (lose #4 from NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Gilbert KiruiJR1013:50/29:16
Chartt MillerJR214:00/7:57/14:01
Kieran ClementsSR3113:53/28:57
Liam DeeSO6014:04
Brandon AllenJR8514:21/8:42 steeple
Johannes MotschmannJR13114:14/8:46 steeple
Andrew TarioJR14:17/29:52
Ehab El-SandaliFR8:13/30:15
Jack O’LearyFR8:14/14:28

No matter who they lose, Iona manages to reload year after year. The Gaels have landed in the top 10 in 13 of the past 14 seasons, with 2012 (when several members of the team went down with a bout of food poisoning) the sole exception. Iona graduates just one of its top seven from the team that placed 5th at NCAAs last year, which means that coach Ricardo Santos won’t have much of a rebuilding job. Instead, he can focus on getting the guys he does have onto the podium for the first time since 2008, his first year in charge.

Gilbert Kirui didn’t do much on the track last year as he didn’t make it to nationals indoors and didn’t race outdoors, but he was 20th a year ago in Louisville and should challenge for All-American honors again. Chartt Miller (43rd) and Kieran Clements (58th) both ran well at NCAAs last fall and both have a chance to join Kirui in the top 40 in Terre Haute. If Iona’s supporting cast can make some progress, the Gaels have a chance to better last year’s fifth-place finish and land on the podium. A pair of freshmen, Ehab El-Sandali from Canada and Jack O’Leary from Ireland, could also make an impact, as both ran at the World U20 Champs over the summer, though neither placed particularly high (El-Sandali was 17th in the 10k, O’Leary was 25th in the 5k).

Iona was in a similar situation last year, searching for a reliable fifth man to step up, and they got a good run at NCAAs from freshman Liam Dee to put them fifth. The top three remains solid, and given their track record, we’ll give the Gaels the benefit of the doubt that they’ll be able to find a few more guys to help their podium chase this fall.

One caveat; the USTFCCCA has said that Iona (currently ranked 15th nationally in the coaches’ poll) may be dealing with some injury issues at the moment. We could not confirm that was the case (as of publication, Santos did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him) but if this team is banged up, their ranking should obviously fall.

*More: 2016 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: Syracuse #1 in the Nation, but Could Be Challenged by #2 Stanford, #3 Oregon, #4 Georgetown #1 and #2 are racing this weekend.

*Miss our Previous NCAA XC Rankings? Check them out here.