2018 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #10 Syracuse & #9 Boise State

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By LetsRun.com
September 17, 2018

Cross country is back, and the 2018 season promises to be a historic one.

In the team competition, a pair of teams are chasing dynasty status: the Northern Arizona men will be trying to become the first team to win three straight titles since Arkansas from 1998-2000, while the New Mexico women will be gunning for their third title in four years.

Individually, the big story on the men’s side is whether the American drought can end: no U.S. man has won the NCAA individual title since Oregon’s Galen Rupp did it 10 years ago. Northern Arizona’s Tyler Day and Stanford’s Grant Fisher — both top-five finishers a year ago — will look to end that streak. Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald will be looking to end a drought of his own: no man has won the NCAA title on his home course since Indiana’s Bob Kennedy in 1992, but the Aussie will have a chance this fall as the NCAA championships will be staged at the Zimmer Course for the first time.

That course is another reason to be excited for the season. From 2004-2017, only two cities (Terre Haute and Louisville) hosted NCAAs. But over the next four years, four cities will host, beginning with Madison on November 17 (Terre Haute, Stillwater, Okla., and Tallahassee will follow in 2019, 2020, and 2021). Start planning those itineraries.

For the fifth year in a row, we’re counting down the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in America. These aren’t meant as definitive predictions — there are too many variables to accurately forecast the results of a race two months from now — but consider this a starting point for the national title conversation.

Key dates
September 7: 
Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
September 28: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 13: Pre-National Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 26-28: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 9: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 17: NCAA championships, Madison, Wisconsin

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2017 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.

New additions in italics

10. Syracuse: The post-Chris Fox era begins

2017 results: 13th NCAAs, 1st Northeast Regional, 1st ACC, 3rd Wisconsin Invitational

Key returners (lose #1, #2, #4 from NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Aidan TookerJR577:56/13:52/8:30 steeple; 4th NCAA steeple
Joe DragonSO9414:24/29:55
Dominic HockenburySO10914:29/29:36
Iliass AouaniSR1277:57/13:55/29:19
Noah AffolderSON/A14:07/8:40 steeple; 9th NCAA steeple
Kevin JamesJRN/A14:09/29:17
Nathan HendersonRS FRN/A3:50
Dragon is one of the guys Syracuse will be counting on to offset the losses of the graduated Knight, Bennie, and Germano

Joe Dragon is one of the guys Syracuse will be counting on to offset the losses of the graduated Knight, Bennie, and Germano (Michael Scott photo)

Not many teams can finish 13th at NCAAs, lose three of their top four guys — and their head coach — and finish higher at NCAAs the following year. But we’re getting a similar vibe from this team as we did from the 2014 squad, which lost its top two guys from a 10th-place team in 2013 and proceeded to finish 5th in the country. This team’s upside isn’t as high, and it will be difficult to replace the graduated trio of Justyn KnightColin Bennie, and Philo Germano. But Aidan Tooker (4th NCAA steeple, 8:30 pb) looks ready to lead the team after two years in the Cuse system, Noah Affolder (9th NCAA steeple, 8:40 pb as a true freshman) is a talented #2, and they’ll have a group of sub-30 10k guys to back them up, including 13:55/29:19 man Iliass Aouani and 14:09/29:17 guy Kevin James. Watch out too for redshirt freshman Nathan Henderson, a 9:01 3200 guy in high school who has made great strength gains over the summer.

Aouani is particularly important. His track PRs say All-American potential, but he has finished 128th and 234th in his two NCAA XC appearances. Aouani was inexperienced in 2016 and not 100% healthy last year. There will be no excuses this fall.

We have really good talent,” says new head coach Brien Bell. “We’re in that really unique situation where I think that we’re sneaky good but we don’t have to read our name on LetsRun as much anymore, we can just go about our business for a little bit. But we also believe as a group that we’re setting the table for another nice run here in several years…[where we hope to] continue being in the top 10, if not making runs in the next couple years for top 5 or higher.”

Head coach Chris Fox may be gone, off to start a pro team with Reebok, taking assistant Adam Smith with him but that doesn’t mean big changes are in store for the Orange. Bell was with Fox since Day 1 in Syracuse, and still talks to him daily — up to 15 times a day, according to Bell. While Bell is constantly tweaking the system — something he and Fox would do even before Fox’s departure — the program’s foundation remains the same.

“There’s always been the evolution of the model but I was really fortunate that Chris respected my opinion and empowered me, so the model that we have is the model that we created together,” Bell says. “I think this is probably as little of a transition as the [student-athletes] could have probably experienced.”

There are several teams capable of earning this spot — Boise State, Southern Utah, and Oregon, to name a few — but Syracuse has as good a shot as any of them to return to the top 10 in 2018. To do that, the Orange will have to keep the momentum rolling from last year’s track season, where they sent nine men to regionals between the steeple, 5k, and 10k (six of them return) and went 1-2-3-4-6-7 in the ACC 5k. We’re betting they do.

9. Boise State: Could this be the best Broncos team ever?

2017 results: 19th NCAAs, 6th West Regional, 3rd Mountain West, 21st Wisconsin Invitational

Key returners (lose #4, #5 from NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Addison DeHavenSR177:54/13:58
Miler HallerJR2114:07/29:08
Ahmed MuhumedJR598:17/14:06
Yusuke UchikoshiSR12214:09/8:38 steeple; 18th at ’16 NCAA XC
Andrew RaflaSR1317:57/14:01
Elijah ArmstrongSON/A8:09/14:16; 70th at ’15 NCAA XC
DeHaven was the Broncos top finisher at NCAAs in 2017, placing 31st

DeHaven was the Broncos’ top finisher at NCAAs in 2017, placing 31st (Michael Scott photo)

Prior to coach Corey Ihmels‘ arrival in 2013, the Boise State men had qualified for NCAAs just once, back in 1996. The women had never qualified.

Now both programs are regular guests at the big dance. The women were 11th in their first appearance in 2014, 11th again in 2015, and 6th last year. And after an 18-year drought, the men have qualified for the last three editions, finishing 16th in 2015 and 19th in 2016 and 2017.

The 2018 men’s squad figures to be even better. Miler Haller and Addison DeHaven, son of 2000 Olympic marathoner Rod DeHaven, are both returning All-Americans. Yusuke Uchikoshi finished higher than either of them back in 2016 (he was 18th), and though he finished a disastrous 199 places lower last year, he appears to be back to form as he won the Broncos’ season opener at the Sundodger Invitational on September 8.

And don’t forget Andrew Rafla (7:57/14:01) or Elijah Armstrong, the team’s top finisher at NCAAs three years ago (70th) who recently returned from a two-year Mormon mission to London (he appears to be fit as he was just six seconds behind Uchikoshi at Sundodger). If all of those guys run to their potential at NCAAs, Boise State could have as many as four All-Americans, which could be enough to sneak onto the podium. Of course, it’s rare for everyone to run their best race on the same day, but there is enough talent on this roster for Boise State to challenge its best men’s finish ever, 8th back in 1996.

Coach Corey Ihmels did not respond to LetsRun.com’s interview request.


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