The Coaches Praise Colorado, Futsum Prays for Rain and Chris Fox Explains Syracuse’s Rise: Six Takeaways from the Men’s Press Conference

November 21, 2014

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Less than 24 hours before the 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, several of the top men’s coaches and athletes gathered in the Chestnut Room of the Holiday Inn to talk about tomorrow’s 10,000-meter race. We’ve culled the highlights below and have six thoughts one day out.

The men’s coaches in attendance were:

Mark Wetmore, Colorado
Dave Smith, Oklahoma State
Chris Fox, Syracuse
Marcus O’Sullivan, Villanova

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The men’s athletes in attendance were:

Futsum Zienasellassie, Northern Arizona
John Mascari, Indiana State
Anthony Rotich, UTEP

The invited coaches who didn’t attend were:

Ricardo Santos, Iona
Robert Johnson, Oregon

The invited athletes who didn’t attend were:

Edward Cheserek, Oregon
Maksim Korolev, Stanford

1. As expected, the Colorado men were the center of attention

The men’s head coaches were the most interesting group of speakers of the afternoon. Their press conference began as a lovefest for Wetmore — going for his seventh NCAA title as a coach — as the Denver Post’s John Meyer asked the others to assess what Wetmore has accomplished at CU. Yes, you read that right. A major newspaper flew a reporter out to NCAAs (the Boulder Daily Camera split the costs of travel).

Here’s what they had to say about Wetmore:

O'Sullivan, Smith and Fox all had kind words for Wetmore O’Sullivan, Smith and Fox all had kind words for Wetmore

Dave Smith: “Colorado is obviously one of the premier programs in the country in cross country. When you think cross country, you think Colorado and you think Mark Wetmore. Legendary coach, historic program and a team of guys right now that are hungry and trying to establish their own history and tradition. That’s a powerful combination of factors that makes them what they are — a unanimous #1-ranked team.I think we’ve all read Running with the Buffaloes and it’s shaped the way we think and the way we train.”

Chris Fox: “Obviously that program is kind of the standard-bearer for our sport since he’s been there. We kind of gently, and in a most sane way, stalk Coach Wetmore. We stand in the same place he stands at Foot Locker. I kind of stand near him at meets and see if there’s any magic I can pick up — I haven’t so far…We look at that program a lot and probably bring up Colorado in our office every day.”

Marcus O’Sullivan: “I don’t read too many books in track and field, but Running with the Buffaloes was one of those books that I did take the time to read. And I have to say, for me it was one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. When I got done in high school, I wasn’t deemed to go to college. I wasn’t good enough as a runner. I was a 4:25 miler coming out of high school. That one year where I trained at night, I would train with a guy called Donal Walsh (Editor’s note: Walsh ended up second at 1970 NCAA XC behind Steve Prefontaine). We would train from 8-10 at night and it was after work and after the whole day was done. That whole year was a spiritual transformation and it was a coming of age. When I read Running with the Buffaloes, that’s exactly what I was thinking about.”

2. The best Colorado team ever?

We asked Wetmore at the press conference where his current squad would rank if they won tomorrow. Wetmore donwplayed the talk of history as he told us that they would definitely be in the top five (CU has won four men’s titles so far).

“It’s a good team but it’s definitely a beatable team,” Wetmore said at the press conference. “There’s no 13:20 runner; I don’t think we have a contender to win the race. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t have anybody in the top 10. If we win tomorrow, our fifth, sixth and seventh runners are better than we’ve ever had, I’m willing to say that.”

Wetmore was unwilling to hype his team on the eve of the championship, but in October, Wetmore told Meyer that “if I manage this group of young men and they run what they probably can run, it will be the best team we’ve ever had.

Yesterday, one of the greatest runners in program history went a step further.

“In my opinion, they’re easily the best men’s team CU has ever had, without a doubt,” Adam Goucher told Meyer. “They’re stronger this year even than they were last year.”

What do the other coaches think of Colorado?

Fox said that he felt it would take a “very nice” effort for Syracuse to win the championship.

Smith said that it would take each of his guys having the race of their lives to slay the Buffaloes and win the title.

“In my mind, Colorado’s been the best team in the country every week since September 1st of last year,” Smith said. “Every single week if we were to line up and run the nationals, they were probably going to win in the last two years. But this is a new week. And you’ve got to be the best team this week.”

One thing we thought was interesting was that Wetmore said he thinks his fifth, sixth and seventh runners are better than he’s ever had. CU’s top six has been incredible this season, but their seventh man (Adam Peterman), was only 28th at Pac-12s and 64th at Regionals (technically he was their #6 there but CU rested Blake Theroux and only ran six guys). Perhaps Wetmore believes Peterman is the best seventh man in CU history. Or perhaps Wetmore has confidence in his #7 because he’ll be racing Morgan Pearson this year, a guy who was 17th last year and is totally healthy but has yet to race in a CU uniform this year (many suspect he will redshirt)?

When we spoke with Wetmore earlier this week, he said that Pearson was available to race on Saturday. Will we see him in a CU uniform tomorrow?

Finally, Wetmore added that, even though several CU runners have finished close together in races this season (1-5 spread 19 seconds at Pre-Nats, 12 seconds at Pac-12s and just 8 seconds at Regionals), that is not by design.

“When [guys runs as a pack on purpose], generally one runs correctly and four or five run poorly,” Wetmore said. “Generally this group runs closely because they’re evenly matched…I won’t instruct them to, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pretty close together…Will we sacrifice perhaps an individual place to be careful for the team? The answer is yes, we will. They get it that this is a team competition and that this is important to us, so I do think they’ll be a little more careful.”

3. John Mascari doesn’t run on the course as much as you might think

Indiana State has hosted 10 of the last 11 national championships, so you’d think a guy that grew up in Terre Haute and goes to Indiana State would be on the course all the time. But that’s not the case with the Sycamores’ John Mascari, who won his second straight Great Lakes Regional title last week. Mascari says that the team only practices there about once a month but that he’s been racing on it since sixth grade.

“I think (that way) when you go out there and race it, it actually feels like a championship race,” Mascari said. “In high school, we practiced there every day and when you got to the state meet it kind of felt like an ordinary practice. You didn’t really get the feeling of it being a big meet. Now we stay away from it so that when we come and compete it feels like more than just a race.”

John Mascari, Anthony Rotich, and Futsum Zienasellassie John Mascari, Anthony Rotich and Futsum Zienasellassie

4. Futsum Zienasellassie is hoping for a muddy course; Anthony Rotich, not so much

Rotich was fourth as a freshman in 2012 but was only 19th last year, in part, he believes, due to the cold, muddy conditions.

“Last year, it was a good race from the beginning but it came some point in the race where I was kind of shivering,” Rotich said. “If you compare El Paso to here, we don’t experience any winter.”

Rotich believes he is better prepared this year, and he’ll have to be if he is to defeat Zienasellassie, an Indiana native who thrives in adverse conditions.

“This is a cross country race,” Zienasellassie said. “I think no matter what conditions we’re going to get, we’re going to race. That’s not going to be a problem…I think it’s just the wind where it becomes a problem. If it rains and it’s muddy, the better it is for me. I run better when the conditions are tough. I’m actually hoping and praying it will rain tomorrow. I personally don’t like the wind, though.”

5. Syracuse’s Chris Fox said that it’s now getting to the point where 9:00 guys will write him expressing interest in Syracuse

When Fox arrived in Central New York in 2005, the Orange hadn’t qualified for NCAAs in 29 years. That drought lasted four more seasons until Syracuse broke it in 2009 and the Orange has been back at nationals every year since. Now the Cuse is ranked #2 in a country and is well-positioned for future success, with just one senior in the top seven.

He said that the team has thrived on an underdog mentality but that the program’s recent success — the Orange’s top-10 finish last year was its first since 1957 — is making it so that more high schoolers are interested in the school.

“We’ll use any chip on our shoulder that we can dig up,” Fox said. “We didn’t expect to be sitting here (at the press conference as a contender) at this point — we’re about a year ahead of where we thought we’d be. We like being the underdog. (Assistant) coach [Brien] Bell really plays with a chip on his shoulder. I think guys kind of respond to that.”

“It’s not hard to recruit in Syracuse. It was hard when we got there. Ten years ago, we had a bunch of 9:50 two-milers. Then we started recruiting 9:10 guys, that became 9:05, 9:05 became 9:00 and instead of getting the guys that were 25th or 30th at Foot Locker, we started to get the guys that were 13th or 15th. Now we occasionally get a bit better than that. It’s been an evolution. Now we actually get letters from 9:00 guys instead of banging on doors all day. It’s become easier each year but we’ve worked really hard to build this base.”

6. Dave Smith is confident about Kirubel Erassa

Erassa is one of just two undefeated male runners in Division I this year (Elon’s Luis Vargas is the other). We asked him what kind of shape Erassa was in compared to last year (where he fell and was 83rd).

“Kirubel is probably one of my favorite athletes I’ve ever worked with,” Smith said. “He’s a really sensitive kid. Kind, soft-hearted. A little bit emotional and sometimes that works against him.”

“He’s exceptionally talented. He’s run 7:49 and 3:58 for the mile and 13:27 for 5,000. I think last year he was very fit. He fell during the race. And that shouldn’t make a difference — it’s three or four seconds. It’s not a big deal in the scope of a 30-minute race. but when you get that radar knocked out and now you’re trying to weave through 250 people, you start to panic and it’s a snowball. For a kid like Kirubel, when things are going really well emotionally, he’s really hard to beat. Right now, emotionally he’s in a good place.”

Smith said that often he’ll tell guys to run together but this year he told Erassa to go for the win in every race if he felt like. Because his finishes at NCAA in xc have been subpar, 83rd and 102nd (2012), Smith felt it was important for Erassa to go out there and prove to himself he can run on the grass. So far, that’s worked out great for both of them as Erassa has won all three of his races — the Cowboy Jamboree, Big 12s and the Midwest Regional.

“There are world-class athletes in the field and I don’t know if he’s there, but he’s certainly a top-10 guy if he has the right day.”

Women’s Press Conference Highlights can be found here:

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