September 29, 2014
The 2014 NCAA cross country season really got going last weekend with several high-profile meets taking place across the country. We already recapped the action from Friday’s Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown but now that all the results are in, it’s a good time to what exactly happened last weekend and how it affects the remainder of the season. Here are seven thoughts on XC’s first big weekend.
1. The top teams delivered
There were a total of five teams racing this weekend ranked in the top four on either the men’s or women’s side, and all four squads recorded fairly comfortable victories. Men’s #3 Oregon (won Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown with 24 points), men’s #4 Oklahoma State (won Cowboy Jamboree with 15 points) women’s #1 Michigan (won Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown with 55 points) and women’s #3 Michigan State (won Roy Griak Invitational with 66 points) all looked strong and showed why they have been hyped as national title contenders (the #4 Stanford women scored 71 to win the Stanford Invitational but did not run a full squad).
Of the two men’s performances, Oregon’s was certainly more impressive as the Ducks took down #8 Syracuse and #16 Providence, while the runner-up in Stillwater was Belmont, which didn’t receive any votes in the most recent coaches’ poll.
It’s a little trickier to say which was the more impressive women’s result. The Michigan women scored fewer points, but the field in Boston had fewer ranked teams (six versus seven) and fewer teams overall (21 versus 35). Michigan State probably looked better as the Spartans’ #5 was 22nd overall versus 27th overall for Michigan’s #5. Yes Michigan’s top three finished higher than Michigan State’s (going 2-3-7 in Boston versus 5-9-12 for MSU in Minnesota) but the individual field was stronger at the top at Roy Griak. It wouldn’t have been a shock to see MSU go 2-3-7 in Boston had the two teams switched races. Michigan may have ran slightly worse than MSU, but the Wolverines didn’t do anything that merits being jumped when the new coaches’ poll comes out on Tuesday.
2. The women’s individual race got a lot more interesting
Prior to the season, LetsRun.com felt that there were two women a cut above everyone else in the NCAA: Emma Bates of Boise State, the runner-up at NCAA XC in 2013 and the NCAA 10,000 champ, and Aisling Cuffe of Stanford, who was second in the NCAA outdoor 5,000 and ran 15:11.13, the #3 time ever by a collegian. Cuffe has yet to race this season, but Bates has, and her result at Roy Griak was not a good one by her own lofty standards. She was just sixth, 28 second back of Arizona State’s Shelby Houlihan, who won the race for the second consecutive year.
It wasn’t a shock to see Houlihan win — she won the NCAA 1500 title in convincing fashion in June and was #4 in our preseason rankings — but it was a big surprise to see Bates so far back. Last season, Bates went undefeated versus collegiate competition until NCAAs, but she’s already lost to five runners this year. She would have been Iowa State’s #3 woman on Saturday. While it’s too early to draw conclusions about Bates’ performance, finishing sixth was not a good sign. Take a look at the most recent individual champions and how they performed during their championship seasons.
|2012||Betsy Saina||1 (2nd a Wisconsin)|
|2010||Sheila Reid||1 (2nd at Notre Dame)|
In the last four seasons, the eventual NCAA champ lost a total of two times to a total of two runners. Recent history suggests that another loss by Bates would make her very unlikely to rebound at NCAAs (we’re willing to let her have one off day as for all we know, she could have been sick).
Unlike Bates, Boston College’s Liv Westphal saw her NCAA title hopes skyrocket this weekend after winning the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown in 16:30. Westphal made a big move in the second mile and kept extending her lead all the way to the finish line. She won by 21 seconds, and it could have been more if the race was run at the championship distance of 6K rather than 5K. Her competition wasn’t quite as stiff as at Roy Griak, but she handily beat Michigan’s Erin Finn — a preseason top-10 pick at NCAAs by many, including us — to take the title. This summer was the first time that Westphal, a senior from France, didn’t race track, and her bigger base certainly helped on Friday.
The season is still young, and Cuffe has yet to debut, but Houlihan and Westphal made statements that they must be considered among the favorites for NCAAs right now.
3. Don’t overlook the Providence men
Providence was third in Boston with 79 points behind Oregon (24) and Syracuse (52), but could have been closer had they avoided a few bad breaks. The Friars got a breakthrough race from senior Brian Doyle, who was third behind Edward Cheserek and Eric Jenkins. Shane Quinn (7th) and Benjamin Connor (17th) both had to stop midway through the race to put their shoes back on (h/t Flotrack), which likely cost them a few places. It wouldn’t have been enough to catch Syracuse (Providence’s #5, Liam Hillery, was 35th; he would have been Syracuse’s 11th runner) but they both have the potential to run better than they did on Friday and help an already-strong Friars team.
4. The Southern Utah Thunderbirds pull off the upset of the week
One of the biggest surprises of the weekend was the performance of the Southern Utah men, who won Roy Griak on Saturday. Led by individual champ Nate Jewkes, the unranked Thunderbirds took down three ranked teams, including #19 North Carolina, to take the title. Until now, Southern Utah was best known as the alma mater of 2012 NCAA 5k/10k champ Cam Levins; the Thunderbirds changed that with their win on Saturday.
It’s hard to justify ranking SUU very highly (they scored 142 points, which is a lot to win a major invitational and were just 11 points ahead of fourth-place Minnesota) but this wasn’t a fluke performance. Southern Utah was seventh without Jewkes at the NCAA Mountain Regional last year, but all six teams ahead of it qualified for the big dance. Jewkes (prs of 14:03/29:08), a seventh-year senior who missed the 2009 and 2010 seasons serving a Mormon mission, is a solid #1. #2 man Mike Tate (14th at Roy Griak), a true sophomore who, like Levins, came to SUU from Canada has strong potential. The Thunderbirds aren’t close to being a contender at NCAAs, but a top-20 finish is within the realm of possibility for a team that has only made NCAAs once in its history.
#19 UNC and #24 Texas will both be moving down after Roy Griak as UNC was ninth and Texas sixth against a field that contained just two other ranked teams.
5. Beware of the Furman Paladins
Another team that ran well last weekend was Furman, a team that has never been ranked dating back to at least 1995 (when the USTFCCCA archive begins). At Friday’s Panorama Farms Invitational, hosted by Virginia, Furman finished second, just four points behind #13 Virginia and three points ahead of #12 Iona (though Iona didn’t run Kieran Clements, who projected as its preseason #1, or 7:57 Aussie Chartt Miller). Virginia didn’t run badly (the Cavaliers only scored 47 points), but rather Furman ran well, led by a 5-6-9 finish from senior Tripp Hurt, sophomore Tanner Hinkle and freshman Frank Lara. Because Iona still ran some of its top guys, Furman could end up getting an at-large point from the Gaels since they only need to run four of the same runners at regionals for it to count as a point for Furman.
In 2012, thanks to a big donation from an alum, Furman came up with a lot of scholarships for xc/track and went all-in on the distance side of things, hiring 1996 and 2004 US Olympic steeplechaser Robert Gary to coach the squad.
6. Alexa Efraimson collapses in first race after turning professional
Efraimson, a high school senior, signed with Nike last month and ran her first race as a pro at the Stanford Invitational on Saturday. With no Cuffe, Efraimson figured to win the race handily, and she had the lead for almost all of the 6K race. However, Efraimson’s legs buckled in the final stretch and she collapsed with 80 yards to go and was passed by Washington State’s Abby Regan, who won in 20:31. Efraimson got up, struggled to the finish line and finished third in 20:46 before collapsing again. Efraimson was in good spirits after the race and said that her problems stemmed from struggling to adapt to the longer 6K distance.
It’s early in Efraimson’s career — she’s only 17 — but this is not the first time she’s been exhausted at the finish line. In her 1500 prelim at USAs in June, Efraimson faded badly over the final 200 and had to be helped through the mixed zone by an official as she was so tired. Efraimson can’t be faulted for her trying hard, but she needs to talk with coach Michael Hickey about managing her effort better as it’s not good to be finishing races like that. Collapsing in races is never good.
In the men’s race, Stanford didn’t run its full squad, but Maksim Korolev did make his Cardinal debut, crossing the line with teammate Joe Rosa (who redshirted last fall) to give Stanford a 1-2 finish even though a wrong turn cost Korolev a few seconds (Rosa was officially credited with first; both ran 23:16).
Discuss Efraimson on our world famous messageboard: After collapsing near the finish, Alexa Efraimson finishes third in pro debut.
7. Cowboys open up
One men’s team that ran its full squad on Saturday was No. 4 Oklahoma State, which swept the top 14 places (with three runners competing unattached) at the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater. Though there wasn’t much competition for the Cowboys, the race served as a barometer for where OSU is at right now. As expected, 13:27 man Kirubel Erassa led the way in 24:19, ran nine seconds faster than last year, but the depth behind him isn’t quite the same as in previous years. OSU’s #2, #3 and #4 from the 2013 race are gone. German Fabian Clarkson, who didn’t compete last year, looked good in taking second in 24:35, but Norwegian import Vegard Olstad, who was second at the NCAA Division II XC champs last year, was just OSU’s 11th man (13th including unattached runners). Head coach Dave Smith was likely hoping for more than that from Olstad in his debut. Oklahoma State’s fifth man from last year, Brian Gohlke, also wasn’t great as he was the Cowboys’ eighth man on Saturday (ninth if you count Cerake Geberkidane, who ran unattached), running 31 seconds slower than they year before.
Of course, we guess you could argue the fact that Gohlke and Olstad were so far back is a sign of depth – that the other Cowboys are stepping it up. Time will tell.
It’s hard to judge a team based off one race against bad competition. Often in a meet like that the dominant squad will run as a pack. That drives us nuts so kudos to the Cowboys for not doing a tempo run as a team on the home course and then referring to it as a race. High temperatures, coupled with a 4:30 first mile from Erassa strung out the field quickly. Smith likely felt it was important for some of the Cowboys to see where they really stack up against each other for and for Erassa to stretch his legs a little bit as he’s going to need to be a real low stick for Oklahoma State to excel this year.
Smith said that the next big race for the men will be Big 12s on November 1, and though that’s five weeks away, it’s the first time this season we’ll be able to get a real read on the Cowboys. And even then, we may not learn too much as there isn’t another team in the top 20 in the rankings in the Big 12.