September 3, 2014
The 2014 cross country season is already underway (yes, there were a few meets last weekend) and Friday brings the most interesting race yet, with the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Eugene, Ore. The marquee matchup is on the women’s side, which features No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 Michigan State (Oregon was 7th in our rankings, MSU 2nd), but the biggest name is in the men’s race, as defending NCAA champion Edward Cheserek will make his season debut in front of the home crowd on Pre’s Trail.
With Cheserek’s opener in mind, we’ve put together a list of who we think the top 10 male finishers will be at NCAAs in November (our top 10 women will go up tomorrow). This list is certainly subject to change — did anyone expect Maksim Korolev to finish third this time last year? — but it’s our best guess right now based on last year’s results, track accomplishments and gut feeling.
In case you missed any of our 2014 XC preview coverage, here it is:
1. Edward Cheserek, sophomore, Oregon
Previous NCAA finishes: 1st (2013)
Track credentials: 2x 2014 NCAA indoor champ (3,000/5,000); 2014 NCAA outdoor 10,000 champ; 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000 runner-up; PRs of 3:36 (1500), 7:47 (3,000), 13:18 (5,000), 28:30 (10,000)
Like Lawi Lalang two years ago and Kennedy Kithuka last year, Edward Cheserek, the defending NCAA champion enters as the heavy favorite after a dominant victory at the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Of course, Lalang and Kithuka did not defend their crowns.
“We’ve had freshmen win before,” says one coach of a top-10 program. “Bob Kennedy won as a freshman and didn’t win again until his fifth year. We always think, ‘Well that guy’s invincible and he’ll never lose again.’ But there’s always the next guy coming along. On any given Saturday in Terre Haute, anything can happen. [Cheserek] is the favorite for sure, but you’ve still got to go out and run the race.”
Indeed, it’s possible that someone out there could emerge to challenge Cheserek. It’s just hard to imagine right now.
After his breakthrough win at NCAAs last fall, only one man beat Cheserek in a race that he was actually trying to win. That was Lalang, one of the all-time greats in the NCAA, and it took Herculean efforts at Pac-12s (meet-record 3:36 for 1500) and outdoor NCAAs (meet-record 13:18 for 5,000) for him to do so. In his other big races (3,000 and 5,000 at indoor NCAAs, 10,000 at outdoor NCAAs), Cheserek looked like a man among boys as he used his devastating closing speed to pull away for convincing wins. With Lalang gone, there doesn’t appear to be anyone in the NCAA capable of challenging Cheserek.
In addition to Lalang’s departure from the collegiate ranks, the runner-up at the NCAA XC, Kennedy Kithuka, is gone, as are the second (Shadrack Kipchirchir), third (Mo Ahmed) and fourth placers (Kithuka) from the NCAA 10,000. Cheserek’s main rivals are all gone.
Another reason why Cheserek should continue his dominance of the NCAA — and possibly become the first to win four XC titles — is his closing speed. Though XC is more about strength (the men’s race hasn’t come down to a kick since 2010), a kick is still important in a championship race, and Cheserek has one of the best in NCAA history. Cheserek closed out his 10,000 victory on the track in 24.8 seconds for his last 200 and ran similarly quick last laps of 25.90 (indoor 5,000) and 25.79 (indoor 3,000) in his other NCAA victories. Even the 3:33 1500 man Lalang didn’t have that kind of closing speed.
Okay, well if no one can outkick Cheserek, they should try and break him, right? This is cross country, after all. Unfortunately for the rest of the NCAA, that’s not a viable strategy either as Cheserek hasn’t been dropped in a race he was trying to win since Pre-Nats last October (he was only a fraction of a second behind in his two losses to Lalang). Cheserek is really strong and really fast and that makes him really hard to beat.
We don’t know who — if anyone — will be able to challenge an in-form King Ches, but if a challenger does emerge, he’s very likely to be Kenyan. Kenyan-born runners have won the last five NCAA XC races and swept the long-distance events at indoor (3,000/5,000) and outdoor NCAAs (5,000/10,000) in 2013 and 2014. The last non-Kenyan to win an NCAA championship in a flat race longer than a mile was Canadian Cam Levins, who pulled off the 5,000/10,000 double at outdoor NCAAs in 2012. The last American to win one was Elliot Heath, who took the indoor 3,000 in 2011 (Donn Cabral also won the 3,000 steeplechase in 2012).
To be honest, the person most likely to defeat Cheserek, if Cheserek doesn’t end up the champ in November, would be Cheserek himself. Can he stay healthy? How does he handle the success he had last year? Even someone of Cheserek’s immense talent has to be in form to win an NCAA title.
2. Anthony Rotich, junior, UTEP
Previous NCAA finishes: 19th (2013), 4th (2012)
Yes, it’s a little presumptuous to put Rotich at number 2 when there are 12 returners who finished higher than he did at NCAAs in 2013. But it doesn’t make sense to judge Rotich on only one meet, even if that was the most important meet of the year. Here’s what Rotich did in his other big races last year:
Notre Dame Invitational: 1st
Pre-Nats: 2nd (behind only Kithuka; beat Cheserek)
NCAA Mountain Regional: 2nd (behind only Kithuka)
NCAA indoor mile: 1st (beat Lalang and Mac Fleet)
Rotich also had a stellar XC season in 2012, winning Pre-Nats and placing 4th at NCAAs in his first collegiate season. When you analyze his career as a whole, it becomes apparent that NCAA XC last fall was an aberration. Maybe you penalize Rotich a few spots this fall if the weather looks bad again on race day, but based on his career accomplishments, he’s a strong pick for second behind Cheserek.
And Rotich has pulled off big stunners before. At the NCAA indoor meet earlier this year, Rotich stunned both Lawi Lalang and Mac Fleet to win the men’s mile.
3. Futsum Zienasellassie, junior, Northern Arizona
Previous NCAA finishes: 4th (2013), 31st (2012)
Track credentials: 13:50 5,000 PR
Zienasellassie doesn’t have the strongest track credentials — he was hurt last year outdoors — but his XC record is strong and he has a history of improving as the season goes on. As a freshman in 2012, Zienasellassie was 33rd at the Wisconsin Invitational and moved up to 31st at NCAAs; last year he was 6th at Wisconsin and 3rd at the Mountain Regional but finished 4th at NCAAs. Zienasellassie has always been a great XC runner (3-time Foot Locker finalist in HS; 2011 NXN champ) and should be at the very front of the pack once again in 2014.
4. Eric Jenkins, senior, Oregon
Previous NCAA finishes: 67th (2011)
Track credentials: 4th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000; PRs of 7:50 (3,000) and 13:18 (5,000)
Jenkins is a huge talent, as evidenced by his 4th-place finish in the NCAA 5,000 in June and his runner-up finish in the indoor 3,000 in 2013 (though he was later DQ’d). It’s a bit of a gamble to pick someone to finish this high up when they haven’t run a cross country race in three years, and have never even been an NCAA All-American in xc, but Jenkins ran great at NCAAs last spring and will benefit from training with the best runner in the country. And, in case you forgot, Jenkins’ 13:18.57 5,000 PR is the fastest of any runner in the NCAA (yes, even faster than Cheserek) and makes him #9 all-time. The Northeastern transfer should transition back to the grass just fine.
The question though is, how high does he finish? Some on the letsrun.com staff wanted Jenkins in the top 5 while others didn’t want him in the top 10. Remember, Oklahoma State had a 13:15 man last year, Tom Farrell, and he only ended up 16th. Cross country and track are two different things and Jenkins has a 1500 background.
5. Ben Saarel, sophomore, Colorado
Previous NCAA finishes: 8th (2013)
Track credentials: 3rd at 2014 NCAA indoor 3,000; PRs of 7:52 (3,000) and 13:48 (5,000)
Last year, Saarel finished 8th as a true freshman. How rare is that? This century, only three other American-born runners have finished top 10 at NCAA XC as a true freshman. You may have heard of them:
Performances at NCAA XC
|Dathan Ritzenhein||4||N/A||1||Turned pro|
It’s rare enough for an American-born runner to place in the top 10 at any age (there were just three combined between 2012 and 2013) but to do it as a true freshman is truly outstanding. Recent history suggests that Saarel should be a fixture in the top 10 for the next three years, should he stay healthy.
6. Patrick Tiernan, sophomore, Villanova
Previous NCAA finishes: 9th (2013)
Track credentials: 6th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000; 7th at 2014 indoor 5,000; PRs of 7:57 (3,000) and 13:31 (5,000)
Tiernan excelled in his first cross country season in 2013, winning the Big East and Mid-Atlantic Regional titles. He was 9th at NCAAs and had a fine track season, running well at NCAAs indoors and out. At age 19, still has plenty of room for improvement, so look for him to make a leap in 2014.
7. Jim Rosa, senior, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes: 5th (2013), 166th (2012)
Track credentials: 6th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 10,000; PRs of 13:50 (5,000) and 28:57 (10,000)
Rosa had a great championship portion of his 2013 XC season, placing 2nd at Pac-12s and the West Regional (only losing to Cheserek each time) and finishing 5th at NCAAs. He didn’t run indoors but had a strong performance at NCAA outdoors, taking 6th in the 10,000 (#2 returner behind Cheserek). With his brother Joe healthy this fall as a training partner — not to mention Maksim Korolev and Sean McGorty — Rosa is primed for another big year in cross country.
Note: The coaches association reports that Jim has never beaten brother Joe in a cross country race but that’s not true. In 2012, Jim beat Joe at Wisco. Joe normally does come out on top and thus he should probably be #7 with Jim #8 but LetsRun.com’ co-founder Robert Johnson, himself an identical twin who was overshadowed athletically by his brother, is editing this piece and he’s partial to the ‘lesser twin’ and his conscience won’t let him put a guy who was #5 behind a guy who didn’t run last year.
8. Joe Rosa, junior, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes: 112th (2012), 154th (2011)
Track credentials: 7th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000; 5th at 2014 NCAA indoor 5,000; PRs of 13:31 (5,000) and 29:16 (10,000)
Rosa missed most of last season and didn’t run NCAAs but he was very good on the track, taking 5th in the indoor 5,000 (#2 returner behind Cheserek) and 7th in the outdoor 5,000. Two years ago, he was Stanford’s #1 man in cross and the strides he made on the track last year suggest that he could get there again in 2014. He would have been a top-10 threat last year in cross country had he ran; he’ll get there this year.
9. Kirubel Erassa, senior, Oklahoma State
Previous NCAA finishes: 83rd (2013), 102nd (2012)
Track credentials: 2nd at 2014 NCAA indoor 3,000; 3rd at 2013 NCAA indoor 3,000; PRs of 7:49 (3,000) and 13:27 (5,000)
On the track, Erassa has been one of the most dangerous men in the NCAA the last two years. Among current NCAA runners, only Cheserek has a better 3,000 PR than Erassa’s 7:49; his 13:27 5,000 PR is third-best behind Jenkins and Cheserek. He’s finished in the top three at the indoor 3,000 in each of the past two years. But he has yet to translate that success to cross country.
Erassa was 102nd as a sophomore. After finishing 2nd at Big 12s last year behind Kithuka, Erassa seemed poised for a big jump, but he fell early in the race at NCAAs and could only make it up to 83rd by the finish line. This will be Erassa’s last shot in cross country. The talent is there; the question is whether Erassa can put it all together on November 22 in Terre Haute.
10. Stanley Kebenei, senior, Arkansas
Previous NCAA finishes: 6th (2013)
Track credentials: 2nd at 2014 NCAA 3,000 steeple; 3rd at 2013 NCAA 3,000 steeple; PRs of 7:58 (3,000), 13:45 (5,000) and 8:24 (3,000 steeple)
We feel bad ranking Kebenei so low (he’s the fifth returner) but there are so many good guys this year that some runners will inevitably finish lower than last year (you could also make a case for any of Colorado’s top five finishing in the top 10 on a good day). Kebenei was second behind Rotich at NCAAs in the steeple but didn’t run any blazing fast times. He should run well at NCAAs again this fall but Kebenei didn’t PR at all on the track last year and you’ve got to keep improving if you want to place in the top five.
Plus we’re worried that his recent joining of the US Army may impact things. If he wasn’t able to train this summer, good luck finishing in the top 10.
Wild-Card: Maksim Korolev, Grad Student – Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes: 3rd (2013), 201st (2012)
Track credentials: PRs of 7:51 (3,000) and 13:42 (5,000)
Take a look at Korolev’s two previous NCAA XC finishes and you get a sense of what’s in play for him this year at Stanford. Korolev, who competed for Harvard as undergrad but will run for Stanford this year as a grad student, was third last year at NCAA XC, the culmination of a great start-to-finish season for Korolev. Up until that point, Korolev had struggled to find consistency as a runner, as he would mix good performances (20th at 2012 Wisconsin Invite, 2nd at 2012 Northeast Regional) with really bad ones (201st at 2012 NCAA XC, 33:55 at 2013 NCAA outdoor 10,000). His 33:55 10,000 on the track at the 2013 NCAA meet was so amazingly bad it generated a messageboard discussion on Korolev in the middle of the race: Maksim Korolev: Physical or mental?
Last fall, Korolev ran well at every single race and started out indoor really strongly with Ivy League records of 13:42 (5,000) and 7:51 (3,000). But Korolev wasn’t fully healthy at the end of indoors and he ran just one race outdoors, placing 5th at the Heps 10,000. If he’s recovered this fall, Korolev is capable of running with anyone in the country, and his consistent pre-injury performances in 2013-14 are encouraging signs. But his propensity for a major blow-up is still much greater than anyone else on this list. Rotich had a bad day at NCAAs last fall and finished 19th. If Korolev has a bad day, he could finish 219th. He’s a high-risk, high-reward pick.
It will be interesting to see also how Korolev does on the powerhouse Stanford tream. While the braniacs at Stanford are known for some inconsistent performances themselves, one would think being on a top-notch team would help Korolev.
Discuss this preview in our forum: 2014 NCAA XC Men’s Pre-Season Individual Top 10 is now out.
NCAA Team Preview: LRC Notes On The Team Races: Great Lakes Women And PAC-12 Men Lead The Way