October 16, 2014
Sadly, much of the NCAA college cross country’s regular season is meaningless. By rule, all meets before September 26, had zero bearing on the NCAA championships. The three official big meets of the season are conference, regionals and NCAAs. However, only 18 teams make it to NCAAs automatically (13 of the 31 teams at NCAAs get their thanks to at-large points), and if you’re not one of those 18, you need to run well in the regular season – which for many teams comes down to just this weekend – (or have a great day at regionals) to go to the big dance.
For teams on the bubble, this weekend might be the most important meet of the season as Friday’s adidas Wisconsin Invitational and Saturday’s Pre National Invitational represent the two best chances to acquire at-large points for the NCAA Championships. For evidence of how a strong run can impact a team’s season, look no further than last year’s Harvard men. The Crimson ran great at precisely one meet — Wisconsin, where they beat six teams that would qualify for the NCAA Championships. Thus, despite only finishing fourth in the Ivy League and 6th in the Northeast Region, Harvard still advanced to NCAAs, pushing 5th-place Dartmouth in along with them. You could certainly make the argument that too much emphasis is placed on this weekend’s action — that a failure to run well can doom a team on the bubble or a team that has one good meet can make NCAAs even though they don’t necessarily deserve it (Harvard ended up finishing second-to-last at NCAAs). On the other hand, one could say it seems appropriate for a sport that determines its end-of-season rankings using one do-or-die race.
In the future, we may talk more about ways to reform the sport of cross country. This week, we talked to a coach of a top-10 team who said the current system may result in the elimination of NCAA cross country all together (ADs want to cut costs and they have hard time understanding why they should spend money on a meaningless regular season). He dismissively referred to this weekend’s action as being the “lottery” as you get into NCAAs by beating teams that have an awful day, yet you don’t get punished if you lose to a ton of teams. But we don’t have time for a longer discussion right now. Below, we preview Saturday’s Pre National Invitational. Click here to read our preview of Friday’s adidas Wisconsin Invitational.
Pre National Invitational (Terre Haute, Ind., Saturday, 11 a.m. ET)
Ranked men’s teams (9): #1 Colorado, #2 Oregon, #21 Southern Utah, #22 Colorado State, #23 Indiana (split squad), #26 Furman, #28 NC State, #29 Tulsa, #30 Texas
Ranked women’s teams (6): #1 Michigan, #3 Oregon, #4 Georgetown, #7 Colorado, #22 Baylor, #29 NC State
Pre-Nats lacks the depth of Wisconsin, so the action in Terre Haute will be focused on a couple of key matchups at the top: #1 Colorado vs. #2 Oregon on the men’s side and #1 Michigan vs. #3 Oregon vs. #4 Georgetown on the women’s side.
Men’s Team Race: Colorado vs. Oregon
We are excited to see the battle between the nation’s top two teams. There is no doubt that both teams are legitimate national title contenders.
Two weeks ago, we spent a considerable amount of time quantifying #1 Colorado’s dominant performance at October 4’s Rocky Mountain Shootout. Based on times (four of the seven fastest times in Colorado history were run), we concluded that this year’s Colorado has a chance to go down as the best in the Buffaloes’ storied history.
Now, at the time, we warned you that it’s very dangerous to use times when comparing cross country performances as course conditions can change times by minutes on some courses. Well, in the last two weeks, we’ve had time to do a little research and our hesitations have been confirmed – the results at the Rocky Mountain Shootout were indeed misleading.
Here is how much faster the first five finishers on the CU team at the Rocky Mountain Shootout ran as compared to last year (looking at only people who raced both years):
Name – School – 2014 Time – 2013 Time – Improvement
1 Theroux, Blake SR-4 Colorado 24:23 25:34 71 seconds faster
2 Murphy, Pierce JR-3 Colorado 24:24 25:42 78 seconds faster
3 Pearson, Morgan 24:32 25:57 85 seconds faster
4 Saarel, Ben SO-2 Colorado 24:43 25:35 52 seconds faster
5 Hurysz, Jake SR-4 Colorado 24:51 25:56 65 seconds faster
The CU Buffs, who won NCAAs last year, improved by an average improvement 70.2 seconds per man.
That’s incredible! Raise the white flag, you say?
Well before you do that, consider this. Here is the average improvement of the first five non-Colorado finishers that also ran the race in 2013.
Name – School – 2014 Time – 2013 Time – Improvement
1 Butler, Ian SR-4 Western State 25:02 27:14 132 seconds faster
2 Patterson, John SO-2 Western State 25:51 27:04 73 seconds faster
3 Williams, Nathanael SO-2 Colorado Mines 25:56 27:18 82 seconds faster
4 Sinda, Adam SR-4 Western State 26:05.3 26:51 46 seconds faster
5 Saiz, Tyler JR-3 Western State 26:06 26:08 2 seconds faster
These 5 men improved by an average of 67.0 seconds per man – very similar to Colorado.
So what does it all mean? The course conditions were clearly MUCH better this year as compared to last. Even though the Buffs return everyone form last year’s championship team, we want to see how they stack up with a top team before we anoint them as the 2014 champions. Thankfully, we’ll get to see that this weekend.
Regardless, even if the fast times were a little misleading, when we spoke with Wetmore on Tuesday (before we’d done our research), it was clear that he is very pleased with where the team is right now (he admitted that the course conditions were “better than average and quite a lot better than a year ago”). Wetmore said that he believed that was the best performance ever by a Colorado team at the Shootout and that compared to last year, the 2014 Buffaloes are “a little bit better and a little bit deeper.”
Wetmore didn’t mention any specific goals in terms of place or a team score at Pre-Nats, but he believes that Colorado, already very good, still has room for improvement.
“[At the Shootout,] we were in the middle of a block of hard training, there were a couple of colds on the team and for most people it was their first race of the year, so there’s lots of things that could be improved upon,” Wetmore said.
Since Pre-Nats shifted to a one-race format in 2011, the Buffaloes have dominated, winning all three editions of the race and they’ll be heavy favorites to four-peat in Terre Haute on Saturday. The only team with a chance of stopping Colorado is #2 Oregon, which put on an impressive display of its own in winning the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown on September 26. The Ducks scored just 24 points, less than half that of runner-up Syracuse, a very good team in its own right.
When Colorado beat Oregon at Pre-Nats a year ago, the difference was at the #4 and #5 spots as Oregon led through three runners (35 to 38) but was outscored at #4 and #5, 52 to 78. In order for the Ducks to pull the upset, they’ll need Eric Jenkins and Edward Cheserek to maximize every place up front (going 1-2, as they did in Boston, is possible and may be necessary for the Ducks to win) and hope that #3/#4/#5 runners Daniel Winn, Sam Prakel and Matthew Melancon don’t lose too much ground to the Colorado pack. That’s certainly possible as Winn and Prakel both beat Providence’s Shane Quinn in Boston. Quinn was 42nd at NCAAs last year, three seconds back of Colorado’s #4, Pierce Murphy. If Jenkins and Cheserek beat Colorado’s #1 and Winn and Prakel beat Colorado’s #4, the Ducks will have a great chance at an upset as the field in Terre Haute isn’t super-deep, thus minimizing the damage if their #5 is a bit behind Colorado’s #5.
Of course, this is easier said than done as the on their best day, the Buffaloes could do something ridiculous like put four in the top 10. Winn, Prakel and Melancon are good runners, but it’s unlikely that Oregon could do the same even at their best. With seven other ranked teams, there should be several at-large points on the line in Terre Haute, but Colorado vs. Oregon, Part I is clearly the main storyline.
Top Individuals: Edward Cheserek Is the Heavy Favorite
Obviously defending NCAA champion Edward Cheserek is the heavy favorite in the men’s race. We only see two ways he doesn’t win: 1) He and Jenkins go 1-2 and cross the the line together but Jenkins technicallly crosses first; 2) Cheserek is hurt. Apart from that, it’s hard to envision any scenario in which the Oregon sophomore doesn’t take the victory.
Obviously Colorado’s top seven — Blake Theroux, Pierce Murphy, Ammar Moussa, Morgan Pearson, Ben Saarel, Jake Hurysz and Connor Winter — are all a threat to score in the single-digits, though it’s impossible to tell who their #1 will be on any given day. UTEP’s Anthony Rotich beat Cheserek in this race last year (Cheserek’s last loss in an XC race) and should be in the lead group. The home state will be represented well by Butler’s Erik Peterson (2nd Notre Dame) and Indiana State’s John Mascari (3rd Notre Dame), who are both capable of top-10 finishes.
Women’s Team Race: A Three-Way Slugfest Between Michigan, Oregon and Georgetown
#1 Michigan passed its first test at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, dispatching Georgetown to claim the title. The best sign for the Wolverines in that one was that they managed to put two runners in front of Georgetown’s #1. The bad news is that Georgetown had six in before Michigan’s #5 and the Hoyas didn’t run Haley Pierce, who projects as their #5/#6 runner (she ran Paul Short). Michigan coach Mike McGuire said that the gap between Michigan’s #4 and #5 (it was 16 seconds over 5,000 meters in Boston) should close if the Wolverines run as a team. If that gap does close (or remains the same), Michigan has the firepower up front in Erin Finn, Shannon Osika and Brook Handler (2-3-7 in Boston) to hold off Georgetown and Oregon. If the gap widens, the Hoyas and Ducks will both have a chance to sneak in ahead.
Oregon is coming off a win of its own at the Washington Invitational. Though the Ducks ran well there (putting six in the top 15, with a top-five spread of 20 seconds), there’s been no sign of Waverly Neer or Sarah Baxter so far this year, and without one of them providing a crucial low stick at NCAAs, it’s difficult to see Oregon contending for the national title. Georgetown could be in a similar situation as Samantha Nadel has yet to race in 2014 either. Though the Ducks and Hoyas have both run well short-handed, if none of those three suit up this weekend, Michigan should have enough to pull off the victory.
Top Individuals: Who Can Move Up to First?
Three of the top runners in the field all took second in their first major race of the season. Baylor’s Rachel Johnson (Roy Griak), NAU’s Melanie Townsend (Washington) and Michigan’s Erin Finn (Battle in Beantown) were all runners-up a few weeks ago and will look to move up one spot in Terre Haute. Johnson should probably be the favorite considering she was second to Shelby Houlihan, the women’s favorite for NCAAs right now. Townsend lost to Cranny (also seven seconds back), while Finn was 21 seconds back of Westphal even though her race was a 5K and the other two were 6Ks. Finn’s teammate Shannon Osika and Georgetown’s Katrina Coogan, third and fourth, respectively, at the Battle in Beantown, should also run with the lead group.
What do you think will hapen? Discuss it in our fan forum: Official 2014 Pre-Nats Discussion Thread.