By Jonathan Gault
November 14, 2018
The men’s individual race at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships can go one of two ways. We could see a win by one of the “old guard” (at least by NCAA standards), where Stanford’s Grant Fisher, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald, or Northern Arizona’s Matt Baxter and Tyler Day could finish out their careers with a victory in their final NCAA cross country race.
The experience in that group is strong. All four are seniors — Fisher and Day are in their fourth year, McDonald is in his fifth year, and the 24-year-old Baxter, who transferred from Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, is the age of a sixth-year senior (some would say seventh-year as he has an early August 1994 birthday) — and together, they’ve racked up eight All-American certificates in cross country alone. A win by any of them would also make history. Baxter would be the first Kiwi to win the title; Fisher would be first man or woman ever from Stanford to win the NCAA XC title (hard to believe, right?), Fisher and Day would be the first American men to win since Oregon’s Galen Rupp in 2008, and McDonald would be the first man to win on his home course since Indiana’s Bob Kennedy in 1992.
A win by one of those four men would be similar to what we saw from Rupp in 2008, Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan in 2016, or Syracuse’s Justyn Knight in 2017: decorated runner goes out on top after coming close in past years.
Or the race could go the other way: we could witness the birth of a new star. That would mean a win by a guy like Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat of Kenya, a sophomore, or Eastern Kentucky’s James Sugira of Rwanda, a red-shirt freshman. If one of those two wins, it will be reminiscent of the wins by Arizona’s Lawi Lalang in 2011, Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka in 2012, or Oregon’s Edward Cheserek in 2013 — a guy who wasn’t anyone’s preseason pick but announced themselves as a star by winning NCAAs.
If we had to pick, we think it goes the first way: one of Fisher, McDonald, Day, or Baxter will win the race. But before we dismiss Kurgat and Sugira, let’s address them quickly. Kurgat, who finished 21st last year for Tennessee-Martin, transferred to Iowa State for the 2018 track season and dropped his PRs from 8:29 and 14:27 to 7:56 and 13:41, eventually finishing 7th at NCAAs in the 5,000. He’s only lost one of his three major races in 2018 — he won Big 12s and the Midwest Regional and was second at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational in September, losing only to McDonald. The knock on him is that his past accomplishments don’t quite measure up to those of Fisher/McDonald/Baxter/Day, but based on 2018 results alone, he certainly could contend for the win (he beat Day at Nuttycombe). Like Kurgat, Sugira, a 21-year-old freshman, has only lost one major race — also Nuttycombe, where he finished fourth behind McDonald, Kurgat, and Day. But he has run 13:46 for 5,000 meters at altitude, and this is his first year in the NCAA system, which gives him a tremendous upside.
Who is most likely to win out of the Fisher/McDonald/Baxter/Day group? Well of those two, Fisher and McDonald are the only guys who haven’t suffered a true defeat in 2018 (both were beaten in their regional meet, but neither was trying to win). Both Fisher and McDonald have wins on the Wisconsin course already this year (Pre-Nats for Fisher, Nuttycombe for McDonald), and both won their conference meets. It is tempting to overlook Baxter and Day and declare this a two-man race; after all, Fisher beat both Baxter and Day at Pre-Nats, while McDonald beat Day at Nuttycombe (Baxter sat that one out).
But that would be a mistake. Last year, we declared it a two-man race between Fisher and Justyn Knight and were made to look silly by Day and Baxter, who grabbed the race by the scruff of the neck and called it to heel. While Justyn Knight prevailed in the end, the NAU duo earned the respect of everyone who watched that day. Even a year later, the NCAA XC community is still in awe. Earlier this week, New Mexico coach Joe Franklin called it “one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in college cross country,” and we’ve spoken to other coaches who share that sentiment (Editor’s note: Yes it was impressive, but have they already forgotten that Patrick Tiernan pushed the pace and gapped third place by 42 seconds by 8k in 2015?). So to boil this down to McDonald vs. Fisher would be a mistake.
Still, Fisher and McDonald are the two most credentialed guys in the field. Fisher has a lot going for him. He is an NCAA champion on the track — the only man in the field who can say that — and is extremely accomplished in cross country. In high school, he won two Foot Locker national titles and in college he has finished in the top five at NCAA XC two consecutive years (also the only man in the field who can say that).
On the track, McDonald has the fastest PRs in the field — 3:55 for the mile, 13:15 for 5,000. The last two times they raced at NCAAs, it was very close. McDonald beat Fisher by .34 of a second in the 2016 NCAA 5,000 final, only for Fisher to return the favor by beating him by 1.3 seconds at NCAA XC that fall. In the ensuing two years, they’ve avoided each other. Which one of them deserves to be called the favorite on Saturday?
If this were a track race, the answer is clearly Morgan McDonald. McDonald’s personal best of 13:15 is 15 seconds better than Fisher’s 13:30, and he has broken 13:30 four times in his career. You could argue that Fisher has the slight advantage in a kick (he closed in 51 to win the Pac-12 1500 title in 2017), but McDonald has tremendous speed as well, as his 3:55 mile pb attests.
But the biggest reason we’re in the McDonald camp is because of a race that took place nine months ago on a track 8,800 miles from Madison. It was the 5,000-meter final at the Australian Athletics Championships. It was an AWESOME race, and if you don’t have time to watch all of it, you should at least watch the final mile (starting at the 9:28 mark):
Morgan McDonald won that race. Here’s who he beat:
David McNeill — 2010 NCAA indoor/outdoor 5,000 champion. PRs of 13:18/27:45. 2012 and 2016 Olympian.
Stewart McSweyn — PRs of 3:34/7:34/13:05.
Patrick Tiernan — 2016 NCAA XC champ. 13th at 2017 World XC (top non-African-born). PRs of 3:41/7:37/13:13.
Even more impressively, that race was contested in BRUTAL conditions — 81-degree heat, 77-degree dew point, 80% humidity. To run 13:19 in that is some feat.
As good as Fisher, Day, and Baxter are — and they are very, very good — if McDonald is at his best, as he was in Gold Coast, no one can touch him. Only McDonald could have won that race.
But the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships will be contested in polar opposite conditions. Instead of a 5k track race in hot weather, it will be a 10k cross country race in cold weather. And that favors the NAU duo of Day and Baxter — both of whom are true 10k guys, and both of whom are much better runners in cross country than on the track.
Consider their results against Fisher since the start of 2017 (he’s a better measuring stick than McDonald, who hasn’t raced at any NCAA championships since 2016).
|Stanford Cardinal||4/22/17||5k||Track||1st, 13:37.77||7th, 13:46.24|
|Nuttycombe XC||10/13/17||8k||XC||2nd, 23:39.1||5th, 23:42.0||4th, 23:41.9|
|NCAA XC||11/18/17||10k||XC||5th, 29:12.1||2nd, 29:00.8||3rd, 29:04.6|
|Iowa State Classic||2/10/18||3k||Track||2nd, 7:48.56||6th, 7:53.57||7th, 7:54.59|
|NCAAs Indoors||3/10/18||3k||Track||4th, 8:06.52||11th, 8:10.28|
|Pre-Nats XC||10/13/18||8k||XC||1st, 23:48.8||3rd, 23:49.4||2nd, 23:48.8|
Clearly, Fisher is the better track runner: in four NCAA track finals, he has finished 6th, 1st, 4th, 3rd. Meanwhile, Baxter has finished 14th, 7th, 11th, and 5th; Day has finished 8th and 4th. But Baxter, Day, and Fisher have been close to equal over the last two XC seasons (Fisher barely outkicked them at Pre-Nats this year), and the move up to 10k at NCAAs can only help Baxter and Day, who went 4-5 in the NCAA 10k final this year (Fisher has never run a 10k on the track).
Last year, when Baxter and Day famously pushed the pace in Louisville, Fisher held back and paid for it; he wound up a well-beaten 5th. This year, he’s committed to going with any move that may be thrown at him, and he needs to be, because it would not be a surprise to see Baxter and Day push the pace once again in Madison. While this course may not satisfy the “true cross country” crowd that complain unless every meet is held during a snowstorm on a hilly and soggy course, it’s a tougher test than Terre Haute or the flat Louisville course. The runners must climb from the lowest point on the course to the highest point on the course (a 90-foot elevation difference) three times during the race (at 1k, 3k, and 6.5k), and there’s another 50-foot hill at 8.5k.
NAU coach Mike Smith says that, compared to last year, his guys have done even more strength-oriented training in the thin air of Flagstaff. Expect Baxter and Day to play to their strengths and ensure that McDonald and Fisher feel every 10,000 of those meters they have to run on Saturday.
“We’re prepared for a much longer and harder 10k than perhaps Louisville and Terre Haute,” Smith says. “And when I say longer 10k, of course they’re both the same distances, but I think this is even more of a strength runner’s course, so we’ve extended our September-style training (long, high-volume sessions) and extended our distance aerobic runs, we’ve done a lot more fast running on hills just to prepare for what we expect this race to be like on that course…If you’re hanging on at 8k, this could be a long day for you at the national meet.”
Is that enough to overcome the raw speed deficit that Baxter and Day would face in a tactical track race? Or are they so fit and strong that they will be able to force a pace that no one else in the field can match? We won’t know for sure on Saturday, but we can’t wait to find out.
Other guys to keep an eye on:
- Nick Hauger, senior, Portland: He beat all the BYU guys to win the WCC title on BYU’s home course at altitude and claimed the West Regional title last year. Portland will be counting on him for a very low score, and we expect him to deliver.
- Rory Linkletter/Conor McMillan, seniors, BYU: Linkletter has won Pre-Nats in each of the last two years, and for a 10k guy, he has a terrific extra gear at the end of races (see: 2017 NCAA 10k final, where he closed in 55 to take 2nd, or 2018 Pre-Nats, where he mowed down the field in the final straight). McMillan is BYU’s top returner from NCAAs last year (30th) and was their top finisher at WCCs (2nd behind Hauger).
- Peter Seufer, senior, Virginia Tech: Seufer (pronounced SOY-fer) has wins at ACCs and Paul Short and has only lost to one guy all year: James Sugira of Eastern Kentucky.
- Peter Lomong, senior, Northern Arizona: He didn’t even make NAU’s top seven in 2016 and shocked everyone by finishing 8th last year at NCAAs. He’s been running even better so far in 2018.
- Joe Klecker, junior, Colorado: The Mountain Region champion the last two years, Klecker finished a disastrous 67th last year. Look for him to make up for that in a big way, as the 13:30 5k man has a good shot to finish in the top 10.
LRC prediction: We are split on this one.
One LRC staffer is in love with McDonald, writing, “When in doubt, we like to go with the most talented guy in the field, and that’s McDonald. He’s been planning this race for over a year, ever since he redshirted last fall to ensure that his final NCAA XC race would come on his home course in Madison. He looked very comfortable in pulling away to win Nuttycombe in September, and should only be in better shape now in November.”
Another LRC staffer isn’t so sure and has been editing the crap out of the love for McDonald. When the preview was first written, it initially said McDonald should be the favorite but this skeptical staffer added in “if this was a track race,” so it now reads, “If this was a track race, the answer is clearly Morgan McDonald.” This staffer believes there is a big difference between XC and track and wants to remind people that Grant Fisher twice won Foot Lockers and that every single man who has won two Foot Locker titles that had a full NCAA career has won an individual NCAA XC title as well (meaning Dathan Ritzenhein and Edward Cheserek but ignoring the other two-time FL winners in Lukas Verzbicas and Abdirizak Mohamud).
We’re going to do a pre-race podcast from Madison (time TBD, but maybe we’ll do it right before the race starts on Saturday), so listen to that to get our official picks.
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