How Low Can Colorado Go, Michigan State Makes A Statement, Syracuse’s Podium Chances And A Wild Women’s Individual Race

October 20, 2014

The 2014 adidas Wisconsin Invitational and 2014 Pre-National Invitational are in the books and there is a lot of data to analyze. In some cases, the results confirmed what we already knew (the Colorado men are good; so is Edward Cheserek) while other results produced a host of new questions. Is Crystal Nelson the favorite for NCAAs? Can the Syracuse men land on the podium? The usual caveats apply when analyzing results from one weekend — it’s a small sample size, we don’t know which teams are in a hard training block or dealing with nagging injuries — but Wisco and Pre-Nats still offer the best view so far of the NCAA picture. We already provided some instant analysis of Wisconsin (men’s race; women’s race) but we have several more thoughts now that we’ve had some time to think.

MB: Official 2014 adidas Wisconsin Discussion Thread

MB: Official 2014 Pre-Nats Discussion Thread

Results: Wisconsin (men) *  Wisconsin (women)Pre-Nats (both genders)

1. How many points will the Colorado men score at NCAAs?

The men of Colorado (photo by Mitch Kastoff) The men of Colorado (from left, Saarel, Hurysz, Perrin, Murphy and Winter). Photo by Mitch Kastoff.

Dominating Pre-Nats doesn’t guarantee a victory at nationals (Stanford went 1-2-3 in its race at Pre-Nats in 2010 and ended up fourth at NCAAs; Colorado did the exact same thing in 2002) but it’s hard to imagine anyone touching the Colorado men at NCAAs next month after the Buffaloes put six runners in the top 14 at Pre-Nats on Saturday. Remember that:

Colorado beat Oregon 35 to 91 at Pre-Nats.
Oregon beat Syracuse 24 to 52 at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown.
Syracuse won Wisconsin handily (85 to runner-up Iona’s 154).

#4 Oklahoma State didn’t race last weekend at Wisconsin or Pre-Nats (they ran their #3 and #4 guys and a bunch of others at Santa Clara) so we can’t totally rule them out, but they certainly aren’t expected to contend for the title since they returned zero cross country All-Americans from last year. As a result, there is no doubt that Colorado is the heavy favorite for NCAAs. Instead of asking who will win nationals, the more interesting question is how many points will Colorado score? The Buffaloes aren’t getting close to the NCAA record (UTEP scored 17 in 1981) but they have a shot to post the lowest score since Wisconsin won with 37 points in 2005. In case you forgot, that Wisconsin team was LOADED, with two-time NCAA XC champ Simon Bairu, Foot Locker champs Chris Solinsky and Matt Withrow and Tim Nelson, who would go on to run for Team USA at Worlds in 2009. It’s hard to make a comparison with the Badgers, however, as they didn’t run Pre-Nats and split their squad for Roy Griak and Notre Dame (they did score 16 at Big 10s though).

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A more appropriate comparison might be between last year’s Colorado squad and this one. This is how the 2013 Buffaloes fared at Pre-Nats and NCAAs.

Athlete Pre-Nats finish NCAAs finish
Morgan Pearson 7th 17th
Ben Saarel 9th 8th
Blake Theroux 22nd 23rd
Pierce Murphy 24th 39th
Connor Winter 28th 177th
Ammar Moussa 54th 95th
Zach Perrin 114th 107th
Team Score 90 points 149 points

Apart from perhaps Morgan Pearson, Colorado’s top four at NCAAs last year all finished higher than their Pre-Nats finish suggested, with Ben Saarel actually finishing higher at NCAAs than at Pre-Nats. Connor Winter had a bad day at NCAAs and underperformed, but Ammar Moussa was about where you would expect and Zach Perrin, like Saarel, actually finished higher at NCAAs than at Pre-Nats (perhaps this was because they were both freshman, enabling them to improve a lot in a short amount of time).

Mark Wetmore‘s teams have a history of improving from Pre-Nats to NCAAs, so let’s assume the 2014 Buffaloes make a similar jump in points. 149/90 is 1.66, and 1.66*35 (Colorado’s point total on Saturday) is 58. This is an admittedly crude metric for estimating points, but the numbers suggest that Colorado could score in the 50s at NCAAs, which would give it the lowest score since Wisconsin in 2005.

It should also be noted that the Buffaloes didn’t even run Pearson on Saturday. If we add him into the results where he finished last year (7th) and correspondingly bump everyone behind Pearson back a spot, Colorado’s total goes down to 32, lowering the Buffaloes’ projected score at NCAAs to 53. Running Pearson at NCAAs would actually have a bigger impact than that because he gives them one more stud, lessening the impact of a blowup like Winter’s at NCAAs last year. However, Pearson might end up redshirting if Wetmore figures the Buffs can win NCAAs without him (and based on last weekend, they can). That would give them a top five of Pearson, Murphy, Winter, Moussa and Saarel next year (Theroux and Jake Hurysz graduate), a unit that would be favored to win NCAAs once again in 2015.

2. Orange crush it

When we praised the Syracuse men’s victory at Wisconsin on Friday, we mentioned that they’ve never really had a superstar up front, which could hurt them at NCAAs. Will it hurt enough to keep them off the podium? To get some insight into how Syracuse could finish at NCAAs, let’s take a look at where their top five finished at Wisconsin and where the runners in those positions at Wisconsin last year finished at NCAAs.

7th (Martin Hehir) — Luke Caldwell was 7th at Wisco last year. He was 10th at NCAAs.
14th (Justyn Knight) — Craig Lutz was 14th at Wisco last year. He was 15th at NCAAs.
17th (Max Straneva) — Brian Shrader was 17th at Wisco last year. He was 28th at NCAAs.
23rd (MJ Erb) — Stanley Kebenei was 23rd at Wisco last year. He was 6th at NCAAs.
24th (Dan Lennon) — Adam Bitchell was 24th at Wisco last year. He was 61st at NCAAs.

If you take the corresponding team places for those athletes at 2013 NCAAs, they would have scored 100 points. That would have won the meet handily. This obviously should be taken with a grain of salt (it’s unlikely Erb will move up to sixth as Kebenei did last year) but finishing top-25 individually at Wisconsin indicates that you have a great chance to finish highly at NCAAs too. Plus Reed Kamyszek, who was SU’s second man at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, had a bad day at Wisco and was 181st. Knight may have surpassed him as #2 man, but Kamyszek can still help the team at NCAAs and his poor performance was actually a testament to SU’s depth — while team’s like Stanford and NAU were hurt by their #4/#5 runners, Syracuse got an awful race from its #2 and still won comfortably. The Orange may lack a true low stick like Maksim Korolev or Futsum Zienasellassie but they more than made up for it with their depth.

How does Syracuse’s team performance compare against past years? Last year, SU was 8th at Wisconsin and ended up 10th at NCAAs. That was an improvement for SU as it beat New Mexico, Columbia and Arkansas at NCAAs after losing to them at Wisconsin (the only team SU beat at Wisconsin that it lost to at NCAAs was Indiana, which didn’t run a full squad at Wisconsin). You could make the argument that Syracuse improves from Wisconsin to NCAAs (it went from 11th at Wisco to 15th at NCAAs in 2012 and 22nd at Wisco to 15th at NCAAs in 2011), but you could just as easily say that SU underperformed at Wisconsin in the past and overperformed on Friday.

Perhaps the best way to visualize SU’s potential is to compare the Orange to past Wisconsin winners. NAU won in 2013 and was 2nd at NCAAs; Stanford won in 2012 and finished 16th at NCAAs; Wisconsin won in 2011 and won NCAAs. The bottom line is this: if Syracuse runs like it did on Friday at NCAAs, the Orange will finish on the podium.

3. The Cheserek factor

Cheserek's wheels have made for some tactical races this fall Cheserek’s wheels have made for some tactical races this fall

It’s hard to remember a time when men’s cross country races have been more tactical. Of the 19 Pre-Nats races at Terre Haute (there were two per year prior to 2011), Saturday’s winning time of 24:04 was by far the slowest (next-slowest was 23:55 in 2011, on an extremely windy day when the course wasn’t mowed). In fact, in the 15 Pre-Nats races in Terre Haute since 2005, the winning time was 23:30 or faster in all but two — 2011 and Saturday.

Pre-Nats wasn’t the only race to go slow. Wisconsin was won in 23:43, the slowest since the inaugural edition of the meet in 2009 (when the field featured just 13 teams). The Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown was slower than Pre-Nats and Wisconsin, as the winner only ran 24:20 — 10 seconds slower than the winning time on the same course at the New England Championships two weeks later, even though the course was wet and muddy at New Englands and totally dry at the Battle in Beantown.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why Wisconsin went slow (perhaps the wind?) but it’s not hard to tell why Pre-Nats and the Battle in Beantown failed to produce fast times: Edward Cheserek. His dominant performance at NCAA XC last year and three titles on the track have made it clear that he is the man to beat in every race, and with his world-class closing speed (he ran 24.8 seconds over the last 200 to win the NCAA 10k this spring), he has no incentive to push the pace. Everyone keyed off him and teammate Eric Jenkins in Boston and again in Terre Haute on Saturday, and the results were two very slow winning times. Perhaps NCAAs will go faster with Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan (who ran 23:00 at the Washington Invitational) in the field.

4. A few more quick takeaways from the men’s races at Wisconsin and Georgetown

#9 Wisconsin ran an incredible race considering its lineup consisted of one senior, two sophomores and four freshmen. The Badgers finished third and got great runs from true freshmen Joe Hardy (38th) and Morgan McDonald (43rd). Wisconsin could be scary good in a few years as it also has 2013 NXN champ Kai Wilmot and Addison DeHaven (18th at 2013 Foot Lockers, son of 2000 US Olympic marathoner Rod) waiting in the wings…#14 Iona also ran a great race to take second, with clutch performances from fourth man Mike O’Dowd (36th) and fifth man Andrew Kowalsky (61st). There’s still no word on Kieran Clements (57th at 2013 NCAAs), who has yet to race this season. It’s possible the Gaels could finish on the podium at NCAAs without Clements, but it would be a lot easier for them if he is on the line in Terre Haute…#2 Northern Arizona and #7 Stanford, who entered Wisconsin as the favorites, were sixth and fifth respectively and will be moving down when the new coaches’ poll comes out tomorrow. Though each put two runners in the top 8, their #4/#5 spots really cost them as Stanford’s Cameron Miller and Michael Atchoo were 78th and 81st overall (combined 155 team points) while NAU’s Nathan Weitz and Tyler Byrne were 99th and 102nd overall (combined 197 team points). Even if Stanford and NAU only scored their last two runners, they’d still have finished third and fifth on Friday. …Unranked Georgetown was a surprising third at Pre-Nats, defeating six ranked teams in the process. The Hoyas had an incredibly tight pack, with a 10-second spread from #1 (Ahmed Bile, 21st) to #5 (Brian King, 35th).

5. The Michigan State women should be a clear #1 in the new coaches’ poll on Tuesday

After #1 Michigan’s defeat at Pre-Nats, #2 Michigan State should assume the mantle of top team in Michigan — and the country — after a commanding win at Wisconsin. The Spartans scored 87 points to runner-up #5 Arkansas’ 191 and had six runners in before Arkansas’ third. MSU wasn’t as dominant as the Colorado men, but by putting three runners in the top 14 and six in the top 44 against a field that included 22 of the top 30 teams in the country, it made a bold statement on Friday. The Spartans are so good that their #5 runner on Friday, Sara Kroll, was the Big 10 individual XC champ in 2012. MSU also has a couple of really low sticks in Rachele Schulist (2nd at Wisconsin) and Leah O’Connor (9th at Wisconsin, NCAA steeple champ), giving the perfect balance of top-end talent and depth necessary to win an NCAA title.

Michigan State had the best performance of the weekend, but they were hardly the only team to impress. Led by Katrina Coogan‘s (daughter of Olympians Mark and Gynn) third-place finish, #4 Georgetown upset #1 Michigan and #3 Oregon to win Pre-Nats. The Hoyas scored more points than Michigan State (110 vs. 87) against a weaker field, but their performance should be good enough to move them up to #2 in the new coaches’ poll. Whether Georgetown can compete with MSU at NCAAs may depend on Samantha Nadel, who was 47th at NCAAs last year as a sophomore but has yet to race in 2014. If she is healthy, available and, most importantly, in shape at NCAAs, Georgetown could go toe-to-toe with the Spartans and every other team in the country next month in Terre Haute. If not, the Hoyas have some work to do as Michigan State looks to be a cut above the rest of the field as of now.

6. There is no favorite in the women’s individual race

Rachel Johnson after taking third at NCAAs in the steeple this spring Rachel Johnson after taking third at NCAAs in the steeple this spring

As we noted in our instant analysis on Friday, instead of proclaiming someone the favorite for the women’s NCAA title based on this weekend’s results, it’s more accurate to say that there is no favorite. Crystal Nelson of Iowa State, last year’s Midwest Region champ (32nd at NCAAs), pulled a shocker in winning Wisconsin but she was only third at Roy Griak. Baylor’s Rachel Johnson probably has had the most impressive season so far, pairing a second-place finish at Roy Griak with a 15-second win at Pre-Nats. But Johnson still lost to Shelby Houlihan at Roy Griak and the women’s individual field was much stronger at Wisconsin than it was at Pre-Nats. Nelson and Johnson will square off at the Big 12 meet in Lawrence, Kan., on November 1, and the winner there should probably be labeled the favorite for NCAAs. But if Houlihan or Schulist (or Emma Bates? or Kate Avery?) dominate their conference meet, they would have to be considered strong contenders as well. With firm favorites in all of the other disciplines (men’s individual, men’s team, women’s team), it’s good that there’s one title at NCAAs that is still very much up for grabs.

7. A few more quick takeaways from the women’s races at Wisconsin and Pre-Nats

#8 Iowa State has the best 1-2 punch in the NCAA in Crystal Nelson (1st at Wisconsin) and Katy Moen (5th) and that allowed the Cylcones to take third at Wisconsin on Friday with 212 points. Iowa State was also missing Bethanie Brown (16th at Roy Griak, 37th at NCAAs last year), and if you slot her in at 37th at Wisconsin, the Cyclones would easily beat runner-up #5 Arkansas (191 points). There’s no guarantee Brown will be back for NCAAs (generally coaches don’t rest a runner of Brown’s caliber for no reason) but if she is, Iowa State has a great shot at the podium and could finish as high as second if everything breaks right…Princeton’s Megan Curham had a breakthrough race to finish second at Pre-Nats. Curham was the second freshman at NCAAs last fall but she’s never broken 16:00 for 5,000. Look for that to change soon — she finished right in front of Katrina Coogan (15:34 pb) and Erin Finn (15:26 pb) at Pre-Nats…Don’t pencil in Elise Cranny as the top freshman at NCAAs just yet. Cranny ran well this weekend (7th at Wisconsin) but so did Cal’s Bethan Knights (5th at Pre-Nats). Cranny is still the favorite to come out on top, but Knights is no slouch — she ran 9:53 for two miles last spring to set a U.S. high school outdoor record (Mary Cain ran 9:38 indoors)… On Friday we mapped out the biggest over/underachievers from the Wisconsin meet, but if you want a quick and dirty summary: #15 Wisconsin (4th), #20 West Virginia (5th), #27 Vanderbilt (9th) and unranked Ohio State (14th) were the biggest overachievers. #17 Boston College (21st), #19 William & Mary (27th), #23 Providence (24th) and #28 Notre Dame (30th) were the biggest underachievers.

8. Which teams did the most to help themselves this weekend?

Colorado and Michigan State may have been the big winners this weekend, but those two schools were already locks to qualify for NCAAs. Wisconsin and Pre-Nats aren’t just about the big schools, though. They’re also the best opportunity for teams on the bubble of qualifying for NCAAs to secure at-large points. We won’t run through all the math, but let’s take a look at some of the teams who took a big step toward NCAAs this weekend.

To assess which teams got points, we first need some auto qualifiers. Let’s assume that the auto qualifiers are the top two teams in each region according to the latest USTFCCCA Regional Rankings, which came out on Monday.

Men’s auto qualifiers

Great Lakes: Wisconsin, Michigan
Mid-Atlantic: Villanova Georgetown
Midwest: Oklahoma State, Tulsa
Mountain: Colorado, Northern Arizona
Northeast: Syracuse, Iona
South: Florida State, Mississippi
South Central: Arkansas, Texas
Southeast: Virginia, Furman
West: Oregon, Portland

Here are the teams that got the most at-large points this weekend (based on beating only the above teams at Wisconsin or Pre-Nats). Obviously the auto qualifiers are subject to change (and teams can also gain points by beating at-large teams that get in ahead of them).

Stanford: 4 points (beat NAU, Michigan, Florida State, Arkansas)
UCLA, Washington: 3 points (beat Michigan, Florida State, Arkansas)
Colorado State: 3 points (beat Tulsa, Texas, Mississippi)
Providence, New Mexico, BYU, Indiana, Michigan State: 1 point (beat Arkansas)

#25 Washington essentially booked its ticket to NCAAs in a deep West Region (with Oregon, Portland, Stanford, UCLA and Washington, it has five teams almost assured of getting in) by finishing eighth at Wisconsin. Unranked Georgetown also made its path a lot easier should it fail to grab an auto spot, with wins over Furman, Colorado State, Tulsa, Texas and Mississippi.

And now the women:

Women’s auto qualifiers

Great Lakes: Michigan State, Michigan
Mid-Atlantic: Georgetown, West Virginia
Midwest: Iowa State, Oklahoma State
Mountain: Colorado, New Mexico
Northeast: Syracuse, Dartmouth
South: Florida State, Vanderbilt
South Central: Arkansas, Baylor
Southeast: Virginia, North Carolina
West: Oregon, Stanford

At-large points (again, only from this weekend’s results and only from wins against the teams listed above).

Wisconsin, 9 points (beat West Virginia, New Mexico, Stanford, Florida State, Virginia, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Syracuse, Dartmouth)
Washington, Ohio State, Minnesota, Arizona State, Boise State, Toledo: 1 point (beat Dartmouth)
North Carolina State, Princeton: 1 point (beat Baylor)

#15 Wisconsin was the biggest surprise of the weekend, taking fourth at its home invitational to beat a slew of teams ranked ahead of it. #20 West Virginia also overperformed, grabbing fifth at Wisconsin (though they’re now projected to get an auto bid in the Mid-Atlantic anyway).

Editor’s Note: We updated the article to say that Oklahoma State didn’t race at Wisconsin or Pre-Nats. Initially, it was written that they didn’t race at all.

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