2018 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Can Anyone Dethrone Northern Arizona As The Lumberjacks Chase A Three-Peat?

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By Jonathan Gault
November 13, 2018

Within a few hours of the conclusion of last year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, the words “three-peat” and “dynasty” were already starting to trickle out. Northern Arizona had cruised to their second consecutive team title in Louisville, scoring just 74 points, and scrolling through the results, it was already clear they would be a serious threat to win again in 2018. The Lumberjacks graduated just one of their top six runners, and brought back three top-10 finishers in Matt Baxter (2nd), Tyler Day (3rd), and Peter Lomong (8th). This is a team so strong that its fourth guy at NCAAs last year, Andy Trouard (who has since graduated), beat out Justyn Knight and Grant Fisher to win the NCAA 3,000-meter title in March.

Now the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships are nearly upon us, and we’re exactly where we expected we’d be 12 months ago. NAU has been ranked #1 in the national coaches’ poll since September 2016 and has not lost a race since 2015. That includes two major victories in 2018 at the site of this year’s NCAA meet in Madison, Wisconsin: the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on September 28, and the Pre-Nats Cardinal race on October 13. The Lumberjacks are heavily favored to win their third straight national title this weekend, a feat unmatched since Arkansas pulled it off from 1998-2000.

And yet…

This is NCAA XC, a meet where anything can happen. The last time Wisconsin hosted the NCAA cross country championships, in 1978, the world’s greatest distance runner, Henry Rono (that summer, he had set world records at 3k, 5k, 10k, and the steeple), finished 237th. At this meet in 2009, US distance star Jenny Simpson ran her last race as Colorado Buff. She was a fifth-year senior and had finished 5th at Worlds that year in the steeple. She finished 163rdEdward Cheserek was unbeatable, until Patrick Tiernan beat him in 2016.

Will NAU raise another trophy in 2018?

Will NAU raise another trophy in 2018?

“Dream Teams” have lost as well. No one was supposed to be able to beat the Colorado women two years ago. They finished third. Jerry Schumacher is probably still wondering how his comically loaded 2004 Wisconsin men’s squad (Matt TegenkampChris SolinskySimon Bairu) lost to Colorado.

(Related: MB: Solinsky admits 2004 Wisco XC team “kind of choked” while Bairu says “we were overly confident and maybe not as focused”)

The best recent comparison to this NAU team is the 2015 Colorado men. Like the Lumberjacks, the Buffaloes had won the last two NCAA titles, the latter in dominant fashion (they scored 65 points at NCAAs in 2014). Colorado returned four All-Americans (including two from the top 10) and added Morgan Pearson, who had finished 17th in 2013. They appeared unbeatable, right until Syracuse upset them to win the program’s first NCAA title since 1951.

NAU is already a great program, but a win on Saturday would vault them to a different historical level. Repeats are not uncommon — 11 different schools have done it, including four in the last 10 years. But only four programs — Drake (’44-’46), Villanova (’66-’68), UTEP (’78-81), and Arkansas (’90-’93, ’98-’00) — and have ever won three in a row since the first NCAA meet was held 80 years ago. Should NAU win again, this is a team we’ll be talking about for a very long time.

And should the Lumberjacks lose? Well, any outcome would make for a great story. #2 BYU has never won NCAAs. Neither has #4 Portland, last year’s runners-up. #3 Wisconsin is trying to win it all on their home course — something that hasn’t been done in 59 years. Should any other school win, it would make for an upset the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades — no men’s team ranked outside the top four has won NCAAs for 20+ years (the USTFCCCA poll archive only dates back to 1998).

It’s going to be a great race in Madison. Now it’s time to really dig in and analyze the men’s team race. There are two teams that could realistically win it in NAU and BYU. We’ll take a look at them in detail before quickly hitting some of the other podium contenders at the end of the article.

***

NAU vs. BYU, Part II

Last year, we hyped up NAU vs. BYU as a “Clash of the Titans,” but it totally fizzled. The Lumberjacks ran incredibly — Cougars coach Ed Eyestone admitted that they would have had to “pull the rabbit out of the hat to beat them that day” — while BYU struggled, running its worst race of the year to finish third.

Baxter and Day dictated the race last year

Baxter and Day dictated the race last year

So we’re a little wary of calling this another Clash of the Titans. But the fact is that both of these teams have been head and shoulders above the competition once again this season, and you can even make the argument that this BYU team has a better chance to knock off NAU than last year’s squad did.

The two teams “raced” each other last week at regionals, where neither was going all-out (NAU won, 42-56). Other than that, they haven’t faced each other, but they did both run on the same course on the same day at Pre-Nats in October. And for those arguing that BYU will spring the upset, that race is their best piece of evidence.

In that meet, the schools were divided into two relatively even fields: NAU won the Cardinal race with 41 points, while BYU won the White race with 29. Obviously, 29 is lower than 41, and if you just plug in the times of each schools’ runners and compare them head-to-head, dual-meet style, BYU would have won, 26-31. But even though they were on the same course on the same day, that’s still inexact — each race had its own unique dynamics that can’t be replicated precisely.

But that race and commanding victories by BYU at Notre Dame (23 points) and the WCC meet (21 points, crushing #4 Portland) suggest that, on their best day, BYU should be able to challenge NAU.

Of course, NAU remains really, really good. In fact, they’re probably a better team than in either 2016 or 2017. The Nuttycombe Invitational is one of the biggest measuring sticks of the regular season, and NAU won that meet with 46 points this year — fewer points than they scored in 2016 (78) or 2017 (50). And they scored those 46 points without Matt Baxter — last year’s NCAA runner-up. NAU’s Nuttycombe score ended up being roughly 65% of their NCAA score the last two years (125 in 2016, 74 in 2017), and if you add in Baxter to the Nuttycombe results, NAU would have scored around 30 points, which would come out to 46 points at NCAAs using that 65% projection. That’s obviously a very rough projection, but it backs up what the eye test also suggests: Northern Arizona could go very, very low on Saturday, and if that happens, no one else has a chance.

Tale of the tape

Here’s how each team’s top seven lines up (order is based on finish at regionals):

 NAUBYU
#1Tyler Day, SRConner Mantz, FR
23rd ’16 NCAAs, 3rd ’17 NCAAs; 3rd Nuttycombe, 2nd Pre-Nats; 13:40/28:044th Pre-Nats; 13:52/28:57, FR label is a bit misleading as the 3-time FL finalist turns 22 next month
#2Matt Baxter, SRRory Linkletter, SR
11th ’16 NCAAs, 2nd ’17 NCAAs; 3rd Pre-Nats; 13:31/28:1032nd ’16 NCAAs, 39th ’17 NCAAs; 1st Pre-Nats (also won last year); 13:37/28:43
#3Peter Lomong, SRConnor McMillan, SR
8th ’17 NCAAs; 7th Nuttycombe, 7th Pre-Nats; 3:46/14:09/30:01129th ’14 NCAAs, 84th ’15 NCAAs, 30th ’17 NCAAs; ’17 WCC champ; 7th Pre-Nats; 13:38/28:09
#4Blaise Ferro, SOClayson Shumway, SO
8th Nuttycombe, 18th Pre-Nats; 13:505th Pre-Nats; 13:54/8:36 steeple; 7th NCAA steeple
#5Luis Grijalva, SOJacob Heslington, JR
60th ’17 NCAAs; 5th Nuttycombe, 15th Pre-Nats; 3:41/13:4920th Pre-Nats; 14:01/8:43 steeple
#6Geordie Beamish, JRClayton Young, SR/Zac Jacklin, FR
97th ’16 NCAAs, 40th ’17 NCAAs; 25th Nuttycombe, 14th Pre-Nats; 3:41/13:53Young: 77th ’16 NCAAs, 105th ’17 NCAAs; 12th Pre-Nats; 13:37/28:27
Jacklin: 53rd Pre-Nats, 24th Mtn Regional
#7Ryan Raff, FRDaniel Carney, SR/Brandon Garnica, FR
52nd Nuttycombe, 21st Pre-Nats; 8:51 HS 2-mileCarney: 42nd ’17 NCAAs; 2nd Notre Dame; 13:39/8:41 steeple
Garnica: 28th Mtn Regional

The first thing you’ll notice: we listed two athletes for BYU at #6 and #7, the reason being there is still some uncertainty about who will run for BYU on Saturday. Eyestone told LetsRun.com that the top five from regionals — Mantz, Linkletter, McMillan, Shumway, Heslington — will all be running. Eyestone said that he’s 99% sure about who his #6 and #7 will be, but declined to name them.

Linkletter will have to finish higher than 39th this year if BYU is to knock off NAU

Linkletter will have to finish higher than 39th this year if BYU is to knock off NAU (Mike Scott photo)

The two guys that are questionable are Clayton Young and Daniel Carney. Young was BYU’s #5 guy at Pre-Nats (12th overall) but dropped to their #7 at WCCs (11th) and did not run regionals. Carney was BYU’s #2 guy at Notre Dame on September 28 and has not raced since, though Eyestone said that he will be making the trip to Madison. Eyestone admitted Carney has been battling an injury but declined to go into specifics.

BYU can still be a podium team without Young and Carney — they would have scored 36 points at Pre-Nats if you remove Young from the results (Carney didn’t race there either) — but their absences would cut down on BYU’s margin for error and lower their ceiling. And even if they do race, it’s hard to imagine Young and Carney will be at 100%.

(Side note: It would be interesting to see how this BYU squad looked with Casey Clinger — the two-time NXN champ who finished 24th at NCAAs last year — and Aidan Troutner, the 2017 NXN champ, but both men are currently serving Mormon missions.)

There is no uncertainty around NAU. Lumberjacks coach Mike Smith confirmed that the seven men listed above will race on Saturday (Beamish and Raff sat out regionals) and said that injuries have not been a problem at all this year.

“The biggest thing for a coach, you get to this time of year, you look back on the last three months, the biggest thing is we’ve kept everybody healthy,” Smith says. “If you go through our top seven, number of days missed from August 1 to wherever we are today, you’re talking barely anything. We haven’t had anything come up.”

And if you compare the healthy guys, NAU has the edge. On the whole, BYU has slightly stronger times on the track. But track times only matter so much: Lomong, for example, has modest track PRs of 14:09 and 30:01, but he finished 8th at NCAAs last year and has continued to run like a stud this fall. We’d rather have that than a gaudy track PR. In addition, NAU has more wiggle room if one of their guys has an off day — their sixth man is either going to be Blaise Ferro (8th at Nuttycombe), Luis Grijalva (5th at Nuttycombe, 60th at NCAAs last year), or Geordie Beamish (40th at NCAAs last year). We like their depth more than BYU, who could be in trouble if someone has an off day.

NAU also has a big edge when it comes to NCAA experience: they return five men from the top 60 last year, including three of the top 10. Meanwhile, none of BYU’s guys have ever finished higher than 30th at NCAAs; Linkletter underperformed at NCAAs last year (39th), and Young bombed (105th). If Young and Carney don’t run, it’s quite possible that only two of BYU’s top seven will have previous NCAA XC experience.

Experience isn’t everything — NAU won the title two years ago with a group with very little NCAA experience — but it’s nice to have it. The most impressive thing about NAU’s run is that, since rising to the #1 ranking midway through the 2016 season, they’ve come out and crushed it every time they step on the line. Try to find a bad race of theirs. You can’t do it. BYU may have had only one bad race over the past two seasons, but it was a big one.

One thing BYU has going for it this year: the pressure is off. Last year, there were a lot of expectations placed on BYU, both internally and externally. Nothing exemplified that more than the slogan jotted on Eyestone’s whiteboard throughout the 2017 season: “Win this flippin’ thing.”

This year, the Cougars are taking a different approach, and the slogan has changed accordingly. Now Eyestone’s whiteboard reads: “Lay low, finish high.”

“Last year we got a little too focused on the NAU-BYU battle and we forgot about taking care of business ourselves,” Eyestone said. “And I think we’re in a better place this year going in with the guys just saying I’m gonna do whatever I can do to maximize my own potential, and I’m gonna worry about myself and let other people worry about themselves and at the end of the day we’ll see how things sort out.”

Weather

Ever since Wisconsin was awarded this meet last year, there has been one question on everyone’s minds: what is the weather going to be like in Madison on November 17, 2018? The meet hasn’t been held this far north since Milwaukee hosted in 1985, and the last two times the meet was farther north than Terre Haute (Ames, Iowa, in 2000, and Waterloo, Iowa, in 2003), it was bone-chillingly cold.

(Fun fact: while Madison is, according to Google, slightly farther north than Milwaukee — 43.0731 degrees latitude vs. 43.0389 — this meet will actually be farther south than in 1985, as the 1985 host, Dretzka Park, is on the north side of Milwaukee while the Zimmer Championship Course is on the south side of Madison)

As of Tuesday evening, the forecast, per Weather.com, calls for a high of 33 and low of 18 on Saturday. The women’s race goes off at 10:45 a.m, with the men following at 11:45 a.m., so expect temps in the 20s during the race. There are also snow showers in the forecast. It doesn’t look like it will be that much, but we won’t know for sure how it will impact the race until Saturday. But generally, unless the weather is totally awful (see: 2018 Boston Marathon), the best athletes will still come out on top. We don’t envision the weather determining the outcome of this race.

Who wins?

BYU is a great team, with a roster that, in many years, would be capable of winning this meet. But this is a special year and NAU is a special team. Remember, their top two guys totally dominated this race last year and both are realistic contenders for the individual title. Both Day (13:40/28:04) and Baxter (13:31/28:10) have run fast times on the track, but they’re cross country guys at heart: tough, fearless, and willing to take it to the best guys in the country in the biggest race.

So NAU has the best low sticks, they’re more secure at the #5/#6 spots, they’re more experienced, and they’re healthier. Oh, and they’re the two-time defending champions who never run a bad race. Let’s not overcomplicate this: NAU is our pick.

Hoping to spring the upset

While BYU looks like the only team capable of beating NAU, NAU is not the only team that can beat BYU. One only need look back to last year, where Rob Conner‘s Portland Pilots surprisingly finished second, the program’s best finish ever. So with that in mind, here are some other teams — podium contenders all — that will be hoping to steal second place (or even first — you never know).

McDonald was 7th in his last NCAA XC appearance in 2016

McDonald was 7th in his last NCAA XC appearance in 2016 (Mike Scott photo)

Wisconsin
National rank: 3   Results: 2nd Nuttycombe, 1st Big 10, 1st Great Lakes Regional

The Badgers have the individual favorite in Morgan McDonald (who won the Nuttycombe meet in September; more on him in our individual preview) and a very capable #2 and #3 in Oliver Hoare, another Australian who won the NCAA 1500 title in June and finished 15th at Nuttycombe, and Olin Hacker (19th Nuttycombe), son of 1985 NCAA XC champ TimBen Eidenschink was 4th at Big 10s and is another potential All-American. Plus the Badgers work out on the course once a week and will have a legion of fans supporting them — head coach Mick Byrne says that almost every prominent Wisconsin XC alum will be in Madison this weekend for the meet.

It would be quite a story if Wisconsin could go from not qualifying for the meet in 2017 to making the podium in 2018, but with the talent on hand, it’s more than possible, we think it’s probable.

Portland
National rank: 4   Results: 3rd Nuttycombe, 2nd WCC, 1st West Regional

The Pilots were second last year and have been running well again in 2018: they were third at Nuttycombe (five points behind Wisconsin) and won the West Regional last week. Nick Hauger has run like a stud all year and should finish in the top 10 at NCAAs — he was 6th at Nuttycombe, beat all the BYU guys on their home course to win the WCC title (at altitude, no less), and won the West Regional last week. The question is what Portland gets from the rest of their guys. If they all run to their potential — as they did last year — this is a podium team, perhaps even the runner-up again.

But there are some question marks. Can Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse reprise his 11th-place finish from 2017 despite some struggles this year (39th Nuttycombe, 26th West Regional)? Will Noah Schutte (148th last year, 46th Nuttycombe) race like the 28:34 guy he is? What can we expect from Logan Orndorf (64th last year), who didn’t race all season until regionals (13th?

And does Rob Conner have another ace up his sleeve? Last year, 5th-year transfer Matt Welch ran his first race of the season at NCAAs and finished as Portland’s fourth man in 46th to cement their second-place finish. This year, the Pilots got another 5th-year transfer in Gabe Arias-Sheridan, who was 47th at NCAAs in 2016 for St. Mary’s. He has yet to race in 2018, but if he’s fit (he wasn’t at the start of the season), he could be a difference-maker.

Best-case scenario: if NAU or BYU slips up, Portland could sneak in for second again. To win, the Pilots would need to run great, and have NAU and BYU slip up. That’s unlikely.

Iowa State
National rank: 
  Results: 4th Nuttycombe, 1st Big 12, 1st Midwest Regional

Iowa State was 7th last year, the program’s first top-10 finish since winning it all in 1994, and this year’s Cyclones should finish even higher after adding a top-10 talent in Edwin Kurgat (he was 2nd behind McDonald at the Nuttycombe meet).

They were only 12 points behind Portland at Nuttycombe (and 17 behind Wisconsin), but making up that deficit could be difficult as their #2 guy in that race, Festus Lagat, was listed as a DNF at Big 12s and did not run regionals. If he doesn’t run, Iowa State’s lack of depth could keep them off the podium.

Stanford
National rank:   Results: 2nd Pre-Nats Cardinal race, 1st Pac-12, 4th West Regional

The Cardinal were only 4th at the West Regional, and while head coach Chris Miltenberg admitted that his plan was for his guys to take that race as easy as possible he felt that he made a mistake by taking that to an extreme.

“The flaw in that is when you go in with that mindset, then you kind of get hung up on trying to make it easy, and the reality is, no matter what, 10k ain’t easy,” Miltenberg said.

But if you look at the results of the races where the Cardinal went all-out, they’re impressive. They were second at Pre-Nats, only losing to NAU, then defeated then #6 Washington, #8 Colorado, and #12 Oregon to win a strong Pac-12 conference.

With individual title contender Grant Fisher up front and Alex Ostberg (16th NCAAs last year, 8th Pre-Nats, 3rd Pac-12), the Cardinal have a 1-2 punch every bit as good as Wisconsin’s McDonald and Hoare. But they could be missing a key piece in Callum Bolger (the Cardinal’s #4 man from Pac-12s), who strained a muscle in his foot trying to dodge a guy who fell at regionals. Miltenberg says that he thinks Bolger will be okay to race by Saturday, but it will depend upon how he feels this week.

The Cardinal have finished on the podium four years in a row, but if they can extend that streak to five, one could argue that would be Miltenberg’s most impressive feat yet. This is a team that lost its #3 guy Steven Fahy (17th last year) early in the season to a hip flexor injury and is still without Thomas Ratcliffe, who has endured a few setbacks in his recovery from knee surgery last year. Neither will race on Saturday. That means the Cardinal’s hopes rest on a banged-up Bolger, Alek Parsons (4th Pac-12), senior Tai Dinger (83rd at NCAAs last year), and redshirt freshman DJ Principe (51st Pre-Nats, 24th Pac-12s, 36th West Regional).

Of course, coming into the year, the NCAA title was the goal for Stanford as if Fahy had stayed healthy, they would have had three returners from last year’s top 20, something only NAU could match.

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Talk about this article on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: Will NAU 3-peat or will they suffer an epic collapse like Henry Rono in 1978? Or The Wisco Dream Team in 04? Or Simpson 09?


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