By Jonathan Gault
October 13, 2018
That’s the only way to describe the men’s races at the 2018 Pre-Nationals today in Madison, Wisconsin. Northern Arizona, the two-time defending NCAA champions, got things started by putting all seven finishers in the top 21 to win the Cardinal race with 41 points. Barely half an hour later, BYU one-upped the Lumberjacks, putting four men in the top seven to win the White race with 29 points (the teams were split into two roughly even races based on national ranking, meaning No. 1 NAU and No. 2 BYU avoided each other). Thirty-five days from now, the two schools will return to the Zimmer Championship Course in Madison for a head-to-head showdown at NCAAs. And if today’s action was any indication, it is going to be a race worth watching.
Veteran fans may want to take today’s results with a hint of caution — after all, LetsRun hyped NAU vs. BYU at NCAAs last year as a “Clash of the Titans” only for the Lumberjacks to run away with the title as the Cougars slid to third place. But BYU coach Ed Eyestone has changed things up this year, holding off on the hard stuff in training early on with the hopes that BYU can peak better in 2018 than it did a year ago. Will that be enough to unseat NAU? No one can know for sure until November, but today’s results show that the Cougars have a chance.
Individually, both men’s races were extremely tight affairs, though it took a while for them to get going as the meet was delayed 30 minutes due to frost on the course (it was 38 degrees in Madison when the first race was supposed to go off at 10:00 a.m.). Stanford’s Grant Fisher appropriately won the Cardinal race in 23:48.8, the fastest time of the day, but did so by the skin of his teeth as NAU’s Tyler Day was credited with the same time (electronic timing had Fisher .04 ahead). The White race looked to be a two-man affair between BYU’s Conner Mantz and Washington’s Tibebu Proctor, who together had a gap of around 15 meters on the chase pack entering the uphill home straight. But they were eventually reeled in by several men, with Mantz’s teammate Rory Linkletter ultimately emerging from a furious group of kickers to win in 23:54.4 over Syracuse’s Aidan Tooker (23:54.9). It was Linkletter’s second straight victory at Pre-Nats.
On the women’s side, No. 7 Arkansas made a statement, putting four in the top 10 to upset No. 4 Oregon to win the Cardinal race with 51 points. The Ducks did gain a slight measure of revenge in the individual battle, however, as NCAA 1500 champion Jessica Hull (20:03.2) beat out the Razorbacks’ Katrina Robinson (20:09.4) for the win. The women’s White race was all about New Mexico, as the reigning NCAA champs went 1-2 thanks to Weini Kelati (19:33.3) and Ednah Kurgat (19:45.5) and rolled to the team title with 67 points.
Wisconsin stars Morgan McDonald and Alicia Monson — both of whom won on their home course at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational two weeks ago — were nonfactors today. McDonald did not race at all, while Monson elected to run with her teammates in the White race rather than contend for the win (the Badgers’ top four finished 32-33-34-35, all crossing within .3 of a second of each other).
Quick Take #1: How do NAU and BYU stack up against each other?
This is the big question, of course, and even though the two schools ran the same course on the same day, it’s still tough to answer.
BYU obviously scored fewer points. But even though the entrants were divided as to create two theoretically even races, NAU’s race looked slightly tougher. NAU had to face No. 5 Stanford, No. 9 Colorado State, and a No. 11 Colorado team that was underrated because it ran the Nuttycombe Invite without top man Joe Klecker (who was back and finished 5th overall today). Meanwhile BYU’s toughest foes were No. 8 Syracuse, No. 10 Air Force, and No. 12 Washington. It’s worth noting that both No. 3 Wisconsin (in NAU’s race) and No. 4 Portland (in BYU’s race) ran B teams today.
Eyeballing the two races, it seems as if there was more individual talent in NAU’s race, but even if that was the case, was that worth an extra 12 points?
Another way to compare the schools is to score them head-to-head. Here’s a dual meet between the two schools would look:
1. Tyler Day NAU 23:48.8
2. Matt Baxter NAU 23:49.4
3. Rory Linkletter BYU 23:54.4
4. Conner Mantz BYU 23:55.5
5. Clayson Shumway BYU 23:55.7
6. Connor McMillan BYU 23:56.9
7. Peter Lomong NAU 23:57.2
8. Clayton Young BYU 24:03.7
9. Jacob Heslington BYU 24:10.8
10. Geordie Beamish NAU 24:10.9
11. Luis Grijalva NAU 24:12.4
Final score: BYU 26, NAU 31
But there are flaws in that approach as well. First, NCAAs isn’t a dual meet. Second, the two races played out differently — put the NAU guys in BYU’s race and maybe they run slower but place higher head-to-head.
None of this is meant to demean what BYU accomplished today. 29 points is a stellar score, and the Cougars sent a clear message that they’re not just going to roll over and cede the national title to NAU. But there’s not much point trying to use today’s results to predict the outcome of a race a month from now.
Quick Take #2: Grant Fisher is back, but the men’s individual title remains up in the air
Fisher, now a senior at Stanford, won his season opener today, but admitted afterwards that he mistimed his kick. Fisher took the lead from NAU’s Matt Baxter midway down the home straight but was tying up by the time he hit the finish line and barely held on for the win over a hard-charging Tyler Day.
“I thought I had it when I made the move, but I went way too early,” Fisher told Flotrack after the race.
It was a good sign for Fisher that he was able to beat both Baxter and Day (who went 2-3 at NCAAs last year), though it should be noted that he beat both of those men in a kick at the Nuttycombe Invite last year but lost to them in a faster race at NCAAs. With Wisconsin’s McDonald resting this weekend, it’s hard to declare anyone the prohibitive NCAA favorite at this point, but that should make for a compelling race at nationals.
Quick Take #3: The Arkansas women make a statement
Before the season started, Arkansas coach Lance Harter told me he was considering redshirting Lauren Gregory, believing the Razorbacks could have a very strong team in 2019. Harter elected against it, and after the Razorbacks’ win today (Gregory was the fourth scorer in 10th place), it’s clear that Arkansas has a very strong team right now. Freshman sensation Katrina Robinson of New Zealand led the way, placing second overall, with Taylor Werner (6th), Carina Viljoen (8th), and Gregory all joining her in the top 10 (fifth woman Sydney Brown finished 25th).
Could Arkansas contend for the national title? It will still be difficult. The Razorbacks beat a strong team in Oregon, but four teams beat Arkansas at the Nuttycombe meet (Colorado, Boise State, New Mexico, and Villanova), and Arkansas faced none of them today. Still, this could certainly be a podium squad, particularly now that Gregory, who did not race at Nuttycombe, is in the fold.
Quick Take #4: Did New Mexico get better?
New Mexico was only third at the Nuttycombe meet two weeks ago, dragged down by a 36-second gap between their fourth and fifth runners. And while New Mexico was able to get the win today, the problem at #5 completely go away; it was merely masked because the field was not as deep. Check out the chart comparing New Mexico’s top five at the two Wisconsin meets this season.
|#1||Weini Kelati, 19:35.9||Weini Kelati, 19:33.3|
|#2||Ednah Kurgat, 19:38.8||Ednah Kurgat, 19:45.5|
|#3||Charlotte Prouse, 19:55.0||Charlotte Prouse, 20:18.4|
|#4||Adva Cohen, 20:28.1||Adva Cohen, 20:35.5|
|#5||Hannah Nutall, 21:04.7||Hannah Nutall, 21:05.9|
With that said, there are reasons for optimism. UNM has two of the top runners in the country in Kelati and Kurgat — no one else (in either race) came within 10 seconds of them today. Kelati, in particular, made a big statement with her win today, running the same time as Alicia Monson did to win Nuttycombe but winning by a much larger margin (12.2 seconds vs. 2.6 seconds). Plus the Lobos are a team that traditionally makes a jump late in the season.
“I’m very pleased with where we were [today],” Lobos coach Joe Franklin told me after the race.
Quick Take #5: Several top teams and athletes sat this one out
The No. 1 Colorado women, No. 3 Wisconsin men, and No. 4 Portland men all sent out B teams in this meet. That means that entering the final weekend of October — a mere three weeks before nationals — many of the top athletes on those teams (Dani Jones, Morgan McDonald, Oliver Hoare, Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse) will have only run one cross country race this season.
Quick Take #6: Is Wisconsin ready for snow in November?
The meet was delayed 30 minutes today due to frost on the course. What’s going to happen if there is snow when Madison hosts NCAAs a month from now?
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