November 3, 2014
NCAA Conference weekend is always one of the most exciting/action-packed weeks of the NCAA cross-country season, with 31 Division I meets on the schedule. Don’t worry, we won’t attempt to recap them all here. We aimed to keep this column shorter than our epic 7,000-word Heps men’s preview and we’re successful as this baby is “just” 3,500 words.
Without further ado, here ten thoughts on the weekend’s action.
1. Colorado and Michigan State should start clearing room in their trophy cabinets.
After Colorado and Michigan State both handily won their last meets two weeks ago (Pre-Nats for CU, Wisconsin for MSU), we gave both teams a lot of praise. After another round of domination this weekend, it’s clear that there’s a big gap between these two schools and the rest of the NCAA. They still have to run the nationals on November 22 in Terre Haute, but, barring a major upset, the only interesting battle for #1 will be for the women’s individual title (as we are assuing Oregon’s Edward Cheserek will defend his individual crown).
What made CU and MSU’s victories this weekend so impressive weren’t just the extremely low scores (30 points for the Buffaloes; 26 for the Spartans) — it was the fact that both victories came in the strongest conferences in the country (PAC-12 for the men, Big 10 for the women).
It’s amazing to think that Colorado, which went 4-5-6-7-8 on Friday at PAC-12s at the Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, Calif., actually scored fewer points last year (28 to 30), but that goes to show you just how dominant the Buffaloes have been since joining the PAC-12 in 2011. The CU men have won the conference title all four years and will be favored to do so again in 2015 with a strong returning core (the Buffaloes lose Blake Theroux and Jake Hurysz but return everyone else, including Morgan Pearson, who was 17th at NCAAs last year but hasn’t raced for CU in 2014). Last year, after Colorado dominated Pac 12s, some said it was the result of the meet being at altitude. This year, there are no excuses as the meet was at Cal. The Buffs are just much better than the rest of the PAC-12 in cross-country (although fans of the full programs rightfully can point out that the Buffs were dead last in track last spring).
Michigan State is starting to approach the CU level of dominance in the Big 10. The Spartans’ win at the Ashton Cross Country Course in Iowa City on Sunday was their fourth conference title in five years, and by far their best performance. MSU had three of the top four and five in the top 11; take away the Spartans’ top two runners and they still win the title over a very good Wisconsin team.
MSU’s transformation into a national power is a credit to its current fifth-year seniors, especially Sara Kroll, Leah O’Connor and Julia Otwell, Michigan natives all. When those women set foot on campus in 2010, the Spartans were coming off a fifth-place finish at Big 10s and hadn’t won a conference title since 2001. That fall, MSU won Big 10s (Otwell was the fifth scorer) and repeated in 2011, with Otwell and Kroll finishing as the team’s top two scorers. Otwell and Kroll redshirted last year because coach Walt Drenth promised that the class would be able to graduate together, but MSU still managed to win Big 10s behind O’Connor’s second-place finish. Now the Spartans have a fourth title in five years, with O’Connor (individual champion), Otwell and Kroll all scoring for Michigan State on Sunday. There are obviously other factors in MSU’s rise — the development of sophomore Rachele Schulist and Drenth’s coaching and recruiting — but it all started with the class that will graduate this spring.
2. The loss of Erin Finn dooms Michigan’s title hopes.
Finn didn’t run Big 10s with a foot injury and we’re guessing her season is done (we reached out to Michigan coach Mike McGuire but he has not responded yet — if anyone has a definite status on Finn, please let us know). If that is indeed the case, the Wolverines become the second major program to have their national title hopes derailed by injury, after Stanford lost Aisling Cuffe and Cami Chapus earlier this season. Even with a healthy Finn, Michigan wouldn’t have touched Michigan State at Big 10s (USTFCCCA’s Kyle Terwillegar pointed out that the scores would have been Michigan State 31, Wisconsin 60, Michigan 70 even if you give Finn first — the place she got last year).
Quite simply, the Wolverines’ #4 and #5 haven’t been good enough this season compared to some of the teams they’d need to beat at NCAAs. It didn’t hurt them in Boston in a smaller field but they paid for it at Pre-Nats, where their #4/#5 were just 43rd and 48th and they finished third as a team. In that meet, Georgetown’s #4/#5 were 31st and 37th, while Oregon’s were 32nd and 36th; Michigan actually had three in before Oregon’s #2, but the Ducks made it up on the back end and beat the Wolverines by four points. Michigan can be excused a bit for the performance of its #4/#5 at Big 10s — Finn’s absence bumped everyone back a bit, Taylor Pogue (the #5 in Boston) didn’t run and Taylor Manett (#5 at Pre-Nats) blew up and was 54th. But the point is that this isn’t a recent trend — it’s been a problem from the start of the season.
The Wolverines should be good for a few years — four of their top six at Big 10s are underclassmen, including two freshmen (plus Finn is a sophomore) — but a podium finish at NCAAs, which wasn’t hard to imagine a month ago, is now looking like a tall order for Michigan.
3. Speaking of Michigan, their Sports Info department should be ashamed.
One more thing on Michigan: occasionally at LetsRun.com, we point out examples of bad sports journalism – how our beloved sport is routlinely “covered” by college sports information departments across the country in embarrassing fashion.
We’ve got a new winner this week. And there is no excuse for it as it comes from a huge athletic school with a huge budget – the University of Michigan.
In the pre-season USTFCCCA coaches’ poll, the Michigan women were the #1 team in the land. Heading into Big 10s, they were still ranked #4. At Big 10s they were just third, but there was a reason for their sub-par showing. As mentoned above, their star, Erin Finn, didn’t run due to injury.
Guess how many words the Michigan athletics website dedicated to Finn’s absence, her injury and whether she’ll miss regionals and nationals in its recap of Big 10s?
Using a football analogy, this would be like Florida State playing without Jameis Winston and the game recap not mentioning it. Oh and to top things off, Michigan’s recap of Big 10s even misspelled Michigan.
Michigan was spelled M-I-C-H-G-I-A-N.
Our sport clearly deserves better. Sports info people need to learn more about the sport and coaches need to help them. Why wouldn’t a coach wants fans, alums and recruits to know that Finn was out?
4. A promising result by the Stanford men.
Stanford was just fifth at Wisconsin as their fourth and fifth scorers were 78th and 81st, respectively. That problem doesn’t look entirely solved, but the Cardinal ran well on Friday to take third behind the top two teams in the country (according to the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll). A strong run from Joe Rosa (third overall, ahead of the Colorado pack) and Sean McGorty (13th in his season debut) gave the Cardinal 60 points, just three behind second-place Oregon. Stanford has a couple of guys capable of top-10 finishes at NCAAs in Rosa and Maksim Korolev and if their next three runners — McGorty, Michael Atchoo and Garrett Sweat — can win their individual matchups at the #3/#4/#5 spots against Oregon at NCAAs (they did on Friday), they have a great chance to topple the Ducks and/or contend for a podium spot in Terre Haute. Coach Chris Miltenberg believes that McGorty doesn’t need a lot of races to get in shape (he will likely be rested for regionals); how much he can improve between now and November 22 will likely determine whether the Cardinal can finish on the podium for the first time since 2010.
5. The Syracuse men won ACCs comfortably but they’re still a long way behind Colorado.
We expected #3 Syracuse to dominate the ACC Championships in Earlysville, Va., and they did just that, putting five in the top 11 (and eight in the top 19) to handily defeat NC State, 32-90. The Orange aren’t on the same level as Colorado, which won a much tougher conference (PAC-12s had Colorado plus #2, #9, #11, #12; ACCs had Syracuse plus #13, #15, #28) with an even lower score. Consider this, Colorado put six men in front of the runner-up at ACCs, Ernest Kibet, when the Buffaloes faced Kibet’s Louisville squad at Pre-Nats.
The question is, how does Syracuse stack up with the other podium contenders? The Orange beat #5 Iona, #6 Wisconsin, #8 Portland, #9 Stanford and #10 Northern Arizona at Wisconsin. However, they were crushed by #2 Oregon at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, 24 to 52.
#9 Stanford has clearly improved since Wisconsin, and we didn’t learn much from the other squads as all won their conference meets fairly handily, just like Syracuse (#8 Portland beat #19 BYU by just three points at WCCs but still only scored 28). Right now, Syracuse still looks like a good bet to get on the podium and with its fantastic depth, won’t be as reliant on any one individual in order for the team to perform well. Teams like Oregon, Stanford certainly have higher upsides than the Orange but must get big improvements from inconsistent or unproven guys at #4 or #5.
What about #4 Oklahoma State you say? See below.
6. OK State shows its cards.
The #4 Cowboys didn’t run at Wisconsin or Pre-Nats and entering November, it still wasn’t clear who their top five guys were going to be. We got a much better picture of the 2014 Oklahoma State squad at the Big 12 Championships in Lawrence, Kan., on Saturday, as the Cowboys easily defeated #26 Oklahoma, 27-65, to win their seventh consecutive conference title. OSU had four in before any other school had two and demonstrated impressive depth by taking seven of the top 12 spots. The problem is the Big 12 isn’t strong on the men’s side this year but if you use the old transitive property, once can believe the Cowboys project as a podium team.
The Big 12 individual champ, OSU’s Kirubel Erassa, is a top-10 threat at NCAAs as he beat Oklahoma’s Abbabiya Simbassa by three seconds at Big 12s. Simbassa was ninth at Wisconsin — if Erassa was three seconds in front of him there, he’d have been fourth.
OK State’s next three runners — Fabian Clarkson, David Osborn and Shane Moskowitz — beat Oklahoma’s Brandon Doughty by 10, 1 and 0.5 seconds, respectively. Doughty was 40th at Wisconsin, and if you use the same gaps as Big 12s, OSU’s #2 through #4 would have been 14th, 38th and 39th. OSU’s #5 was three seconds back of Doughty; that translates to 44th at Wisconsin. Add those places up and it comes out to 139, which would have been second behind Syracuse (85) but ahead of Iona (154). Obviously this is a rough estimate — Wisconsin was a slow race with smaller gaps than usual between the top places, and we’re assuming Doughty ran at the same level in both races. But there’s no doubt that OK State ran well on Saturday and Dave Smith has generally gotten his team to perform well on the day at NCAAs (the Cowboys had an off day last year but still finished in the top three for the fifth straight year).
Another podium finish this year would be a real testament to Smith as the Cowboys returned zero All-Americans from last year’s meet.
The most impressive performance in that race was from OSU’s Osborn, a fifth-year senior with PRs of 14:30 and 29:51. Osborn was 33rd at Big 12s as a freshman in 2011 and didn’t race Big 12s in 2012 or 2013. He was OK State’s third man on Saturday (sixth overall).
7. How good can the Iowa State women be?
It was a blowout in the women’s race at Big 12s as well, as #6 Iowa State scored 29 to claim its fourth straight conference title, easily outdistancing runner-up #9 West Virginia, who finished with 58. The Cyclones put Crystal Nelson and Katy Moen in front of Baylor’s Rachel Johnson — who won Pre-Nats two weeks ago — and their #3, fifth-year Margaret Connelly, who ran for Brown as an undergrad — was fourth overall, just two seconds back of Johnson. Iowa State’s #4 and #5, Erin Hooker and Perez Rotich were further back, in 9th and 13th, which didn’t hurt the Cyclones and Big 12s but prevented them from challenging Michigan State or Arkansas, who beat them at Wisconsin.
The good news for Iowa State is that, if all goes according to plan, either Hooker or Rotich won’t have to score at NCAAs. That’s because Bethanie Brown, who finished 37th at NCAAs last year (third among freshmen) is on track to make her return for nationals, according to the Iowa State Daily. Another All-American finish in her first race of the season might be a big ask for Brown, but if she can finish in the 50s or 60s, she’ll really help Iowa State’s team score and could help the Cyclones land on the podium — perhaps as high as second (they won’t touch MSU as the Spartans have a decided advantage at #5).
Another team in the battle for second is #2 Georgetown, which easily won the Big East meet in Carmel, Ind., with 19 points. A year ago, the Big East was arguably the best women’s conference in the country as Providence, Butler and Georgetown all finished in the top five at NCAAs. It seemed unlikely that any team would be able to score 19 at conference this year, but with Providence getting hit hard by graduation and Butler regressing this season, Georgetown was left all alone at the top. #24 Villanova was the only other ranked team in the meet, so it’s hard to tell exactly what the Hoyas’ domination means, but it’s never a bad sign to score 19 points.
8. Who will be the women’s champion?
It seems fairly clear that Oregon’s Edward Cheserek is going to win the men’s race at the 2014 NCAA Cross-Country Championships. But the women’s individual race, which at the start of the season seemed to be a two-woman affair between Boise State’s Emma Bates and Stanford’s Aisling Cuffe has proven to be totally unpredictable. Shelby Houlihan beat Bates handily at Roy Griak and Cuffe was forced to end her season with a stress fracture, making Houlihan the favorite. Then Houlihan lost to Iowa State’s Crystal Nelson (who was only third at Roy Griak) at the Wisconsin Invitational, while Baylor’s Rachel Johnson (who was second at Roy Griak) won Pre-Nats. Nelson got revenge on Johnson for Roy Griak by beating her at Big 12s on Saturday, where Johnson was only third (Nelson’s teammate Katy Moen took second). Houlihan also got back to winning ways by taking the Pac-12 title on Friday. And Iona’s Kate Avery — third last year — made her season debut, winning the MAAC Championships by 1:42 in a blazing 19:15 for 6k at Holmdel Park in New Jersey (times always have to be taken with a grain of salt, but 19:15 is very quick).
Based on the results so far, it seems likely that either Nelson, Houlihan or Avery will win the title in Terre Haute. But no woman has dominated this year, and if you throw in weather like last year, we could easily end up with a surprise winner at NCAAs. Nelson’s big win at Big 12s (she beat Moen by 10 seconds and Johnson by 27) means that she probably deserves to be the slight favorite, but it’s also hard to go against Avery, who was fourth in the Commonwealth Games 10,000 this summer (hence the late debut). It should be a fantastic race.
9. Bonus Thoughts/Fun Facts About The Women
- Columbia transfer Waverly Neer made her Oregon debut at PAC-12s, finishing 10th (Oregon’s second woman). Neer was 40th at NCAAs in 2011 and adding her increases the Ducks’ chance at taking second in Terre Haute. Still no sign of 2-time NXN champ Sarah Baxter, though.
- The #8 Wisconsin women, who were only ranked 16th in the preseason coaches’ poll, ran their second straight great race, grabbing second at Big 10s. The #6 Wisconsin men get most of the hype in Madison (they won on Sunday to reclaim the Big 10 title after Indiana halted the Badgers’ streak of 14 straight last year) but the women were 4th at Wisconsin two weeks ago and will be in podium contention at NCAAs. The future is very bright in Madison as the women, led by emerging star sophomore Sarah Disanza (second at Big 10s), graduate just one of their top seven and the men have four freshmen and two sophomores in their top seven.
- At ACCS, #15 North Carolina got a surprisingly easy win, defeating #12 Florida State, 52-99. With six ranked teams (and five in the top 18), it figured to be an even race at ACCs, but the Tar Heels ended up running away with it. FSU, which seemed like an NCAA podium threat at the start of the season, seems to be a long way away from that this year. #16 Syracuse could only tie for seventh.
- Miami isn’t the best place to train for a distance runner, but you’ve got to think the University of Miami could put together better XC squads than the ones they currently have. The women’s team was were dead last in the ACC and their top runner was 130th in a 140-person field, behind the #7 runner of all 14 other teams in the conference. Their #5 runner was 2:33 behind the closest non-Miami finisher and they “swept” the bottom five places. Plenty of major-conference teams run uncompetitive XC squads, but if you’re not going to take the sport seriously (the women’s average time was 2:52 behind the next-closest team; it was 1:23 for the men, who were also last), why bother to waste the money on a program? Miami’s men and women have finished last in the ACC every year since 2006, often by comically large margins.
- No women’s teams perfect-scored their conference meet; #2 Georgetown in the Big East and Eastern Kentucky in the OVC came the closest, scoring 19 points apiece (1-3-4-5-6).
- The fastest winning time in a women’s race was the 16:43 (5k) by Rice’s Cali Roper at the Conference USA Championships at the Eagle Point Cross-Country Course in Denton, Tex. The fastest 6k time was 19:14 by Kate Avery at the MAAC Champs at Holmdel Park in Holmdel, N.J.
- The highest winning women’s score was posted by Youngstown State, which scored 71 points in the Horizon League XC Championships and still won. They could have scored 83 and won.
- The slowest winning time in a women’s race was 21:17 (6k) by Erin Teschuk of North Dakota State at the Summit League XC Championships at the Rose Creek Golf Course in Fargo, N.D. The slowest 5k time was 18:37 by Maryland-Eastern Shore’s Barbora Blahutova at the MEAC Championships at the UMES Cross-Country Course in Princess Anne, Md.
10. Bonus Thoughts/Fun Facts About The Men
- The #20 Indiana men, whom we picked seventh in our preseason rankings (one spot ahead of Wisconsin), continued to disappoint as they were just fourth at Big 10s, behind unranked Penn State. The Hoosiers returned everyone but their #3 and #6 men from their eighth-place team at NCAAs last year but have taken a step back, while Wisconsin and Michiganhave improved.
- The Princeton men dominated Heps, going 2-3-6-7-12 to win with 30 points (Penn’s Thomas Awad was the individual champ, as expected). Cornell was a surprise second, led by freshman Dominic DeLuca, whose fourth place finish was the highest by a male freshman at Heps for a long time. For a more thorough breakdown, check out our analysis in the 2014 Heps XC thread on the MB. The #26 Dartmouth women won their second straight Heps title, led by a 2-3 finish by Dana Giordano and Sarah DeLozier.
- Four men’s teams posted perfect scores: #5 Iona in the MAAC, Central Connecticut State in the Northeast Conference, Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley Conference and #21 Furman in the SoCon (Furman actually swept the top 9 spots).
- The fastest winning time in a men’s race was the 23:15 Syracuse’s Martin Hehir ran to win ACCs at Panorama Farms in Earlysville, Va.
- On the men’s side, the highest winning score was 73 points by Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference (it won in a tiebreaker over Southern Illinois).
- The slowest winning time in a men’s race was 25:53 by Khalil Rmidi Kinini of Maryland-Eastern Shore at the MEAC Championships at the UMES Cross-Country Course in Princess Anne, Md.
More: Key Conference Results
- Big 10s: *Thread *Men’s Results Wisconsin wins *Women’s Results Michigan State wins
- ACCs: Women: UNC Impresses Men: Syracuse Dominates *Discuss
- Big Easts: Georgetown Women (19), Villanova Men (23) Dominate 1-3-4-5-6 for Hoyas.
- Heps: Dartmouth women and Princeton men win. Supposedly Jason Vigilante‘s Tigers were vulnerable but they put on a clinic as they had 9 of the top 25. *Discuss
- Big 12s: Iowa State Women And Oklahoma State Men Win
- PAC-12s: Results – Discussion #1 CU Men put on a clinic, go 4-5-6-7-8 to win with 30 points, Oregon 57, Stanford 60; Women: Oregon wins.
*Edward Cheserek Becomes Third Oregon Runner To Win Two Straight PAC-12 XC Titles
- Patriot: BU Women Win Tie-Break Over Bucknell As Both Have 52 Points; Navy Wins Men’s Title *Discuss
- SECs: Arkansas Men And Women Sweep The women dominated with 32 points whereas the men barely edged Ole Miss, 54 to 60.
- Big Sky: NAU Sweeps Big Sky Champs