By Jonathan Gault, with additional reporting by the LetsRun.com staff.
November 24, 2014
The 2014 NCAA cross country season is in the books (unless you’re a Division II runner, in which case there are two weeks to go) and on the men’s side, the champions came as no surprise: both Edward Cheserek and Colorado were heavy favorites in the preseason and both dominated all fall before capping the campaign with repeat titles. On the women’s side, at the season’s outset, the championship picture was less clear, but by the final week of the season, Kate Avery and Michigan State had emerged as favorites and both delivered in Terre Haute on Saturday.
Cheserek and Avery will both be favored to win again next fall, as will the Colorado men, who return four of their top five and get back 2013 17th-placer Morgan Pearson, who redshirted this season, as well as Zach Perrin who was 107th in 2013 as a true frosh (another redshirt this year). The Michigan State women’s chances aren’t as good, as the Spartans lose their 3-4-5 runners from NCAAs, but led by Rachele Schulist and Lindsay Clark (both of whom finished in the top 11 on Saturday), they will be formidable once again in 2015.
We already posted a bunch of coverage from NCAAs on the site over the weekend, but we couldn’t get all our thoughts out over the weekend, so we’ve got seven more thoughts listed below.
In case you missed our previous coverage, you can find it all in our 2014 NCAA XC Champs special section.
1. Futsum Zeinasellassie is tired of getting beaten
I feel bad for the Northern Arizona junior, who was third on Saturday after taking fourth last season. He’s one of the country’s most consistent runners but his career has overlapped with two of the NCAA’s greatest-ever talents in Edward Cheserek and Lawi Lalang. Next year, Zeinasellassie has a chance to become only the ninth man ever to post three top-four finishes, but all the attention will go to Cheserek, who can get one step closer to an unprecedented four individual titles. Zeinasellassie should be used to being overshadowed by now; if it wasn’t for Cheserek and Lukas Verzbicas, Zeinasellassie would be a two-time Foot Locker champ and regarded as one of the greatest high school runners of all time. Instead, he’s a two time Foot Locker runner-up, a historical footnote to greatness (it should be pointed out that he won NXN in 2011, though).
I mention all this to explain why it was a sullen Zeinasellassie that granted me an interview in the makeshift media shed/barn 100 meters left of the finish line in Terre Haute on Saturday. For 9800 meters, Zeinasellassie followed his race plan to a T, waiting, waiting, waiting to finally make his move. It takes a patient and confident man to hold off until the final 100 meters of a cross country race, and during the final 400 — especially in Terre Haute, where you can see the finish line about 90 seconds before you actually get there — every stride is filled with temptation. “I feel good. Why not go now? It’s only half a lap.” At 9800, Zeinasellassie couldn’t resist. He went for it, but he moved too early and Jenkins passed him just before the line to take second by 2.1 seconds. It was a decision that will haunt Zeinasellassie for 12 months.
“With about 200 meters [to go], I looked to the side and I saw Edward,” he said after the race. “He wasn’t moving too fast so I thought maybe if I start pushing, maybe I could get really close to him. That’s when I made the mistake which I wasn’t really happy about. All season long, I just seem to be making small mistakes, where at the end, if everything went right, I could have actually gotten a better place.”
2. West Coast, Best Coast
After the NCAA outdoor championships last spring, I compiled a table explaining the Pac-12’s dominance in the men’s distance events (runners from the conference scored 73 points in the 1500, steeple, 5k and 10k; no other conference had more than 18). Since it’s the best distance conference on the track, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Pac-12 once again dominated in cross country at NCAAs.
The top two teams on Saturday, Colorado and Stanford, both hail from the Pac-12, as does sixth-placed Oregon. Six of the top nine individual finishers were from the Pac-12; of the 40 All-American finishers, 15 were from the Pac-12. No other conference had more than four All-Americans.
Here’s how 2014 NCAAs would have gone if each conference was a seven-man team:
1. Pac-12 A, 19 points
2. Pac-12 B, 127 points
3. Big Sky, 140 points
4. Big 10, 149 points
5. Big East, 152 points
6. ACC, 172 points
7. WCC, 210 points
8. Pac-12 C, 242 points
9. Big 12, 277 points
10. MAAC, 322 points
That’s not even close. In fact, both Colorado (80 points under this scoring) and Stanford (125) would have outscored all-star teams from every other conference.
Look for the trend to continue. This year’s crop of high school seniors — one of the best in recent memory — is paying attention. The top three from last year’s Foot Locker finals, all current seniors, have committed to three different Pac-12 schools (Grant Fisher, Stanford; John Dressel, Colorado; Matthew Maton; Oregon).
3. The Gregg Popovich of college cross country
Colorado coach Mark Wetmore has received a lot of praise this season for the quality of his team, and it was certainly earned considering the Buffaloes scored 65 points to win NCAAs on Saturday — the fewest since 2005. The more I think about it, the more similarities I recognize between Wetmore and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Both are the most successful active coaches in their respective sports: Wetmore has five NCAA men’s cross country titles, Popovich has five NBA titles. Both prefer to stay out of the spotlight (once again, Wetmore chose not to go up to the podium with his victorious CU team on Saturday; Popovich is almost as famous for his terse between-quarter interviews as he is for his coaching acumen). Both have been blessed with incredible talent (Adam Goucher, Jorge Torres and Dathan Ritzenhein for Wetmore; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for Popovich) and have maximized that talent by surrounding it with the right supporting cast; Wetmore and Popovich’s teams are seemingly always better than the sums of their parts.
Wetmore also reminds me of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick due to the belief he instills in his athletes. The following quote from Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis in last week’s issue of Sports Illustrated could just as easily describe Wetmore:
“We do our jobs. We win games. Because all we have to know is that Bill has the formula to win. All we have to do it follow it.”
Wetmore won’t go down in the pantheon of great coaches like Popovich or Belichick due to cross country’s status as a fringe sport, but make no mistake: he’s the Popovich of the college cross country.
There were several firsts at this weekend’s NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. I’d like to use this section to highlight the performances of some teams and individuals that made history on Saturday.
- Elon’s Luis Vargas was the first-ever runner from his school to participate in the NCAA XC meet and he delivered an All-American finish, placing 25th overall. Vargas, who was undefeated this season prior to NCAAs, only ran a best of 9:32 for two miles in high school, so it’s pretty incredible that he’s now 25th in the country. For perspective, the guys who finished right behind him — Shane Quinn of Providence and Thomas Awad of Penn — had high school pbs of 8:15 for 3k (converts to 8:54 two mile) and 8:59.
- The New Mexico women got on the podium at NCAAs for the first time ever, as the Lobos finished third after entering the meet ranked just ninth in the USTFCCCA poll. UNM got out conservatively (they were 19th at 2k), but ran great over the second half of the race, moving up to fifth (250 points) at 4k and finishing third with 188 points. Big credit goes to fourth runner Tamara Armoush (gained 40 places over last 2k) and fifth runner Heleene Tambet (gained 21 places). Head coach Joe Franklin has a history of success with British runners dating back to his Butler days and five of his top six on Saturday hail from the United Kingdom (the other is from Estonia). New Mexico has now finished in the top 10 for five straight years, the longest active streak in the NCAA (h/t Jesse Squire).
- Portland was essentially the men’s version of New Mexico, as the seventh-ranked Pilots got on the podium for the first time in their history by taking third. Like the Lobos, Portland picked up a ton of places over the final 2k, moving from seventh (224 points) at 8k to third (175) by the finish. Each of the Pilots’ scorers gained more places than the man who crossed before him, #1 man Scott Fauble only moved up one spot over the final 2k, #2 man Reid Buchanan (moved up 5), #3 Timo Goehler (moved up 9), #4 Danny Martinez (15) and #5 Woody Kincaid (31) combined to gain 45 places.
- There was one men’s team making its NCAA debut on Saturday: Ole Miss, which finished 29th out of 31. Just qualifying for the meet was huge for the Rebels, and they’ll have a good shot to be back in 2015 as they return five of their six finishers from NCAAs. #2 man Sean Tobin didn’t finish on Saturday, which hurt the Rebs’ team score; with him in the fold, Ole Miss could have cracked the top 25. The knock on Mississippi this year was that it was the beneficiary of a weak region and may not have otherwise made the meet. Next year, the Rebels have a chance to knock off Arkansas in the SEC and make it to the top 20 at NCAAs. If they can accomplish that, no one will care what region they’re from.
- The only women’s team that had never been to NCAAs before was Boise State, and the Broncos almost cracked the top 10 in their first try, finishing 11th. Led by All-Americans Emma Bates (3rd) and Marisa Howard (28th), Boise State beat several big programs (Florida State, Providence, Stanford, Michigan) in its second year under coach Corey Ihmels. Graduation will hit the Broncos hard in June (three of the top five are gone, including Bates and Howard) but Ihmels should be able to use this year’s finish as a recruiting tool to secure future recruits.
This was the best performance by American men for some time at the NCAA Championships. Seven of the top 10 finishers were American (we’re counting Maksim Korolev as he was born in Kazakhstan but he’s now a U.S. citizen) and nine of the top 10 went to U.S. high schools (Kenya’s Stanley Kebenei is the only exception, and he’s already on his path to U.S. citizenship after participating in basic training with the Army this summer). The last time there were seven Americans in the top 10 came in 2010 (though that number includes Girma Mecheso, who became a U.S. citizen that same year). Before that, it hadn’t happened since 2002.
6. Maybe winning regionals wasn’t such a good idea.
Remember the hoopla before NCAAs? Some were freaking out that Edward Cheserek had ‘lost’ at Regionals to Maksim Korolev. We told everyone to calm down and said winning the qualifying round wasn’t that important. Boy were we right. We knew ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ at Regionals weren’t important but are stunned that four of the nine Regional winners on the men’s side weren’t even All-American (top 40) at NCAAs. That’s pretty amazing.
Jake Byrne (Iona) – The MAAC and Northeast Region champ was 49th at NCAAs.
Kirubel Erassa (Ok. State) – The Big 12 and Midwest champ was 69th at NCAAs.
Matt Fischer (Penn State) – The Mid-Atlantic champ and Big 10 8th-placer was 167th at NCAAs.
Ty McCormack (Auburn) – The South Region champ (and SEC runner-up) was 204th at NCAAs.
On the women’s side, the regional champs fared much better. Only Southeast Regional champ Annie LeHardy (ACC 4th-placer) of UNC wasn’t an All-American but she was very close (49th).
7. It’s never too early…
The 2014 cross country season may have just finished, and there are a lot of races between now and November 21, 2015, when next year’s NCAA XC Championships will be held in Louisville, Kentucky. Here are next year’s top 10, based on removing the seniors and rescoring (credit to Daily Relay’s Jesse Squire for the legwork).
232 West Virginia
258 Iowa State
320 North Carolina
Those numbers are a starting point, but they’re by no means definitive. On the men’s side, Stanford gets back Jim Rosa (5th in 2013) and Colorado gets back Morgan Pearson (17th in 2013). Aisling Cuffe (4th in 2013) returns for the Stanford women, and there will be a slew of new freshman and redshirt freshmen to account for, most notably Wisconsin’s Kai Wilmot (2013 NXN champ), Oregon’s Sarah Baxter (2011/2012 NXN champ), Penn State’s Tessa Barrett (2013 Foot Locker champ) and 2013 Foot Locker champ Grant Fisher, who has committed to Stanford.
So how accurate are these rescoring projections? Let’s look at how well the rescored 2013 meet predicted the 2014 results (numbers come from our preseason preview).
|Team||Points/place, based on 2013 rescoring||Actual 2014 points/place||# of same runners|
|Colorado||1st, 90 points||1st, 65 points||4|
|Northern Arizona||2nd, 125 points||4th, 188 points||4|
|Indiana||3rd, 177 points||15th, 416 points||4|
|Portland||4th, 200 points||3rd, 175 points||3|
|Stanford||5th, 225 points||2nd, 98 points||3|
|Team||Points/place, based on 2013 rescoring||Actual 2014 points/place||# of same runners|
|Michigan||1st, 138 points||18th, 474 points||2|
|Michigan State||2nd, 174 points||1st, 85 points||3|
|Florida State||3rd, 182 points||12th, 393 points||3|
|Georgetown||4th, 183 points||4th, 189 points||4|
|Oregon||5th, 229 points||6th, 249 points||2|
Note: # of same runners refers to how many of the team’s projected top five based on 2013 scoring actually finished in their top five in 2014
The men’s rescoring was actually very accurate. It correctly predicted four of the top five teams (though not in the correct order) and each team had at least three of its projected top five from 2013 finish in its top five for 2014 (for NAU, Portland and Stanford, that included new additions Tyler Byrne, Reid Buchanan, and Maksim Korolev, who ran in the 2013 meet for different schools). The women’s was not as accurate, as it only called two of the top five teams and only one team had more than three of its projected top five finish in its top five in 2014. Michigan certainly threw the projections off because its top two runners from the 2013 meet, Erin Finn and Shannon Osika, didn’t run the 2014 meet due to injury. Oregon’s prediction appears close (off by one spot and 20 points), but that’s more due to chance as only two of the runners from the projection finished in the Ducks’ top five in 2014.
I don’t have enough time to look at how the rescored projections for every meet actually panned out, but I would pay attention to the men’s rankings as the projected top five (Stanford, Colorado, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Villanova) lines up nicely with who I actually expect to be in the top five in 2015.
More: A Look At The Biggest NCAA Underachievers/Overachievers: Who Over/Underachieved at the 2014 NCAA XC Championships?
*2014 NCAA Cross Country Photos