2016 Heps / Ivy League Men’s Cross Country Preview: Can Anyone Stop Penn From Winning Its First Title Since 1973?

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by Robert Johnson
October 27, 2016

(Talk about the Heps on our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Official Heps 2016-2017 XC/TF Discussion Thread)

Two years ago, I spent 8,000 words previewing the 2014 Heps XC meet. Last year, it was down to 3,700. For this year’s meet, to be held at Princeton on Saturday, hopefully even less. (Editor’s note: It’s less than 2,500)

Am I just getting old? Or less interested in things since no one I used to coach is still in the league (except a sixth-year senior who only does track)? I’d argue those might be true but it’s also because the men’s Heps results have been less than inspiring this year.

A few days ago, someone asked me on the phone, “Are you going to write a Heps preview this year?”

I was like, “I don’t know. What do you want me to say? No one is running any good except for maybe Penn.”

So I thought about just leaving the preview at eight words.

But I guess I’ll wade into it.

Heading into last year’s meet, I talked about how the meet would be won by Columbia or Princeton but there were four other teams thinking they had a chance. In the end, the results showed that was correct as the top four teams – Columbia (65), Penn (69), Yale (75), Cornell (75) – were separated by just 10 points and the top six (Princeton 85, Dartmouth 103) by just 38. That result was a bit misleading as Columbia was firmly in control of the race until they nearly blew it in epic proportions over the last 900m (at 7.1k, Columbia had a 25-point lead on Penn, which was third at the time).

Last year was a very senior-dominated meet. Eight of the top 10 spots were secured by seniors. All of the six Ivy League teams that were in the hunt for a title last year (who happen to be the only ones with a chance this year — sorry Harvard and Brown) were led by seniors.

Columbia lost its #1, #3, and #5, Penn lost last year’s champ Tommy Awad (plus its #5 and #6), Yale lost its #1, #4 and #6, Cornell lost its #1, #2 and #6, Princeton lost its #1, #2 and #4 and Dartmouth its #1 and #6.

Graduation happens every year but it’s unusual for all of the top teams to lose their leaders in the same year. In 2016, most of the teams have been operating like rudderless ships, sorely lacking in direction and leadership.

I’ve already stated above that Penn is the favorite. That’s not because they’ve been running amazing. It’s more because everyone else has been running poorly. Let me discount the other contenders in reverse alphabetical order.

Yale   

What Yale has to be excited about

The good news for Yale is that their 3:58 miler James Randon has been running quite well. He’s picked up two wins on the Princeton course this year – at Harvard-Yale-Princeton and the Princeton Invite – and certainly needs to be considered the favorite for individual title.

Why Yale won’t win

They were trounced by Princeton at the HYP meet (23 to 49). Then they went to Notre Dame and got next to last. Instead of running Wisco or Princeton, they went to the Princeton Invite and got trounced by Columbia’s B team (68 to 104), barely beating Penn’s B team (104 to 107). They’ve definitely missed the services of Cameron Stanish, who was 26th at Heps and Regionals last year but hadn’t raced since then until last week at Princeton (where he was just 65th).

Conclusion: Yale hasn’t won a Heps since 1942 and 2016 certainly has been the year of “long losing streaks coming to an end.” An American male hadn’t won Olympic gold in the 1500 since 1908 until Matthew Centrowitz did it. Now either the Cubs or Indians are going to win the World Series. Unfortunately for Yale, their Heps drought is going to continue.

Princeton

What Princeton has going for it

Their season-opening dominant win over Yale (23-49) was encouraging. The Tigers basically then just trained until they went to Wisconsin two weeks ago.

The #1 runner in the Ivy League two weeks ago may have been Princeton’s Conor Lundy, who finished 19th at Wisconsin. And he’s a freshman (a freshman hasn’t won Heps since 1971). He was a total stud in HS (4:08 mile / 8:49 3200, 7th at Foot Lockers). That’s the good news. The bad news is their next guy was nearly a minute behind him.

However, Noah Kauppila (3:43/14:07) beat Lundy at HYP. If Kauppila can run with Lundy at Heps, that’s two low sticks. Will Bertrand was 18th two years ago. Garrett O’Toole has run 4:01 for the mile. That’s four guys right there. Princeton’s got a ton of other freshmen who could step up and fill in as fifth man.

Princeton’s Ridiculous Freshman Class
Viraj Deokar – 8:24 3k in HS. 20th at FL finals.
Gavin Gaynor – 4:05/8:50 (16/32) in HS.
Perrin Hagge – 1:53/4:08 (8/16) in HS.
Eli Krahn – 1:54/4:09/8:58 (8/16/32). He ran 4:09 and 8:58 as a freshman in HS. Hasn’t raced this year. Quit the team (he’s not on their XC roster).
Gannon Willcutts – 4:10/8:25 (16/3k)

Why Princeton won’t win

After the win at the HYP meet to start the season, the Tigers basically then just trained until they went to Wisconsin. At Wisconsin, it appears that the Princeton guys forgot to read the memo that they were no longer supposed to be training – they were in a race. They ran AWFUL. Their bottom four (4-5-6-7) runners ran over 5:20 pace. Yes, 5:20 pace. That was almost my marathon pace and I wasn’t even on the team when I was at Princeton. (My claim to fame when I went to Princeton was that I was the intramural mile champ. Guys, if you are going to run that slow, you should just write for The Princetonian and enjoy the track parties like I did). Princeton ended up third to last.

Sophomore Jeremy Spiezio, who was the top freshman at Heps last year (18th) and ran 8:46 for 3200 in HS, wasn’t too far behind Kauppila and Lundy at HYP. However, he hasn’t raced since then due to a broken bone in his foot.

Conclusion: On paper, Princeton appears looks like they’ll soon be a juggernaut as the amount of young talent on this team is unreal. Of course, we probably said that last year. At some point, these guys have to start running fast now and stop waiting until next year. Unfortunately for Princeton, they’ve been running like paper Tigers instead of Heps contenders.

If Spiezio can get and stay healthy, this team may be the favorite – for next year, not this year. This year, it’s going to take a huge upset as O’Toole is totally unproven as a collegiate XC racer (he was 187th at Wisconsin), Spiezio has been hurt and freshman rarely finish in the top 20. I fully expect Lundy to do that, but the others can’t be expected to do it – Lundy appears to be a Ben True-type freshman (True was 10th as a freshman and he didn’t even train at all that summer).

Dartmouth

Senior Dan Salas leads the Dartmouth men

Senior Dan Salas leads the Dartmouth men

What Dartmouth has going for it

Dartmouth is always solid but they haven’t won Heps since 2005. Before the season, Dartmouth wasn’t expected to contend for a Heps title but then at the Battle in Beantown, they beat both Providence and No. 5 Arkansas and took home the title. What the heck was going on?

Seniors Daniel Salas and Matt Herzig were both top 60 at Pre-Nats and are having nice years.

Why Dartmouth won’t win

The victory in Boston was a bit misleading. Arkansas wasn’t running its full team – Brown was the team just behind them in the standings. At Paul Short, Dartmouth was beaten by both Penn and Columbia. However, it was fairly close. Columbia’s five-man average time was just three seconds faster than Dartmouth and Penn’s was just six seconds faster.

Dartmouth certainly can’t be totally discounted, but if you look at their guys’ track times, they aren’t nearly as fast as what you’d expect to see from a Heps-winning team in the year 2016.

Here are the accomplishments of Dartmouth’s top five at Pre-Nats.

Daniel Salas – SR – 14:19/29:43 – Ok, pretty solid.
Matt Herzig- SR – 14:46/30:54 – Much slower than what you’d expect.
Kyle Dotterer – JR – 14:51 – Much slower than what you’d expect.
Nat Adams – SR- 14:13/29:57 – Ok, pretty solid.
Julian Heninger – SR – 3:49/8:19/14:32 – nothing amazing.

Conclusion: When I was coaching, I felt like I was often battling it out with Dartmouth for third. They just don’t have the firepower to contend for the win. Look for Dartmouth to get third.

Cornell

What Cornell has going for it

Take a look at this team’s accomplishments on paper:

Dominic DeLuca – 4th at Heps as a freshman, 18th as a soph.
Mark Tedder – 3:44/13:57
James Gowans – 3:58 mile.
David Taylor – 14:08/29:14

Look at that and one might think, “Find a fifth and this team wins its first Heps since 1993.”

Why Cornell won’t win

The Princeton course may be an easy cross country course but it’s still cross country. Cross country is not a track race and the most of the Cornell runners aren’t nearly as good at cross as they are in track. None of Tedder, Gowans or Taylor has ever finished in the top 30 in the league. Taylor, despite running 29:14, has never scored at Heps in track.

Cornell tied for third last year and lost its top two runners to graduation. That’s very hard to overcome.

At Paul Short, Cornell lost to Penn, Columbia and Dartmouth. At Pre-Nats, they lost to Dartmouth again but their five-man average went from being just six seconds behind Dartmouth’s at Paul Short to 17 seconds behind. Cornell only put one runner in the top half of the Pre-Nats field.

Conclusion: They are in the same boat as Princeton. Having bombed in their last race before Heps, they are hoping for a super race to make up for it at Heps, and of course one of my favorite phrases is, ‘Everything averages out to be average.’

Columbia

Columbia won its second title in three years at Van Cortlandt Park last year (courtesy Ivy League Sports)

Columbia won its second title in three years at Van Cortlandt Park last year (courtesy IvyLeagueSports.com)

What Columbia has going for it

They are the defending champs. Jack Boyle is the #2 returner from Heps and has been running like it (6th at Paul Short, 34th at Wisco). The Lions were only three seconds per man behind Penn at Paul Short. Brian Zabilski ran 14:11 as a true frosh last year.

Columbia also has some good depth. Their B team beat Yale’s A team and Penn’s B team at Princeton last week.

Why Columbia won’t win

Columbia was three seconds per man behind Penn at Paul Short but that ballooned to 12 seconds per man at Wisconsin. Last year, while the Lions held on and won Heps (barely), they were headed in the wrong direction as they ran badly at Regionals (losing to both Cornell and Dartmouth). It’s quite possible they’ve started a late-season slide earlier this year than last. Plus the team is reliant on a lot of mid-d types with milers Spencer Haik and Rob Napolitano (Of course the Princeton course is so easy compared to VCP, that’s not the end of the world).

Sophomore Sam Ritz, who was the #2 freshman at Heps last year and Columbia’s 5th man, hasn’t raced all year (Update: He got a stress reaction in late September and is now getting ready for track).

Conclusion: Considering the gap between them and Penn is growing, it doesn’t seem wise to think Columbia is going to repeat (Update: Since publishing this, I’ve learned that one of the Columbia runners fell in Wisconsin and it cost them about 50 points so the gap isn’t as big as it appeared).

Since I’ve basically discounted all of the Ivy League teams except for Penn, that leaves Penn as the winner as someone has to win, right?

Penn

What Penn has going for it

Penn has four returners from the top 30 last year (Yale has three, Columbia and Cornell have two). No one else in the league has more than one. If you take out the seniors from last year’s meet, Penn was the favorite coming into the year with 57 returning points (Columbia was next with 72). Penn hasn’t lost to an Ivy all year and they’ve raced all of the Ivies except for Brown and Brown isn’t winning. Penn beat Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Harvard at Paul Short and then widened the gap between themselves and Columbia at Wisconsin, adding in a defeat of Princeton in the process.

Why Penn should be nervous

Before I get to Penn’s negatives, let me state that Penn is CLEARLY the favorite. Penn has already beaten Columbia, who is the #2 Heps team on paper, twice this year.

But if we are going to use a political analogy, Penn is Hillary Clinton – not Barack Obama. In 2008, many people were really excited about Obama. In 2016, many of those supporting Hillary view her as simply being better than everyone else.

Penn is not a juggernaut of a team that is going to dominate Heps and go on to get top-20 at NCAAs. At Paul Short, they were only three seconds better per man than Columbia. Yes, they increased that to 12 seconds at Wisconsin but not because they ran a great race. Penn finished 20th out of 30 at Wisconsin and fell out of the national rankings after the meet. They crushed Columbia and Princeton at Wisconsin by running a conservative race and letting Columbia and Princeton totally blow up. That’s not going to happen at Heps.

Columbia and Princeton went out much harder than Penn at Wisco – presumably trying to go grab some at-large points. Both were ahead of Penn at both 2k and 4k before cratering. Penn ran a safe race. Penn only had two guys in the top 100 at Wisconsin. Penn’s 3-4-5 could just be solid grinders that are better at not getting frazzled and finishing 100th in a large field. That doesn’t necessarily translate to getting top 15 at Heps. Of course, given the way the rest of the league is running, being solid may be enough to win.

Let’s take a look at Penn’s top seven on paper.

Penn’s Top 7 At Wisco

Nicholas Tuck – 13th and 36th at Heps last two years. 73rd at NCAA XC last year. 8:44 steepler.
Brendan Shearn – 12th and 29th at Heps last two years. 14:13/29:28.
Christopher Luciano64th and 69th at Heps last two years. 14:25/30:06.
Chris Hatler72nd and 75th at Heps the last two years. 72nd is highest finish in 3 Heps. 3:43/8:23.
Ross Wilson – 21st and 49th at Heps the last two years. 8:24/14:23.
Patrick Hally – 30th at Heps last year. 8:15/14:45.
Kevin Monogue – 48th at Heps last year. 14:32/30:37.

Tuck and Shearn were both top 15 last year, are dependable and give Penn the best 1-2 punch in the league. Penn is likely very confident in them. Penn’s #3 and #4 have never brought the goods at Heps XC before. That would make me nervous if I was Steve Dolan but they do have some track credentials behind them. Offsetting that is Penn likely gains confidence in that their #5 and 6 were both top 30 at Heps last year.

Conclusion: Penn hasn’t won Heps since 1973. That should change on Saturday if they do what they’ve done all year – run solid and don’t get frazzled. If they do that, it will take a really strong race from someone else to beat them.

However, Columbia’s 4-5-6-7 were right with Penn’s at Wisco and Columbia is much better at 8-9-10-11-12. If a few of Penn’s top guys have off days, they don’t have all that much room for error and all of the pressure in on the Quakers.

LRC Prediction: Not sure if there is any point in making a prediction as hopefully I’ve angered all the teams equally with this preview and inspired them to prove me wrong.

Look for two long streaks to be broken. Penn (hasn’t won since 1973) and Randon (Yale hasn’t had individual champ since 1989) FTW.

Talk about the Heps on our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Official Heps 2016-2017 XC/TF Discussion Thread.


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