NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: Edward Cheserek Shoots for NCAA Title #5
By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2014
*Men’s Team Preview Here: LRC NCAA XC Men’s Preview: Mark Wetmore & Colorado Go for the Program’s First Repeat
For a journalist, facts are huge. Good journalists try not to deal in rumors or half-truths, and instead present what is known and draw conclusions. So if I told you there’s a male Division I runner who is undefeated this season, won at the Notre Dame Invitational and Pre-Nats, won his conference meet by 53 seconds and won his Regional meet last weekend, it would seem logical to conclude that he is the favorite for NCAAs.
Facts can also be deceiving. The credentials listed in the previous paragraph belong to Elon’s Luis Vargas (he won the B races at Notre Dame and Pre-Nats) and very few people expect him to be the NCAA champion on Saturday. Likewise, if I told you that there’s a guy out there that was upset in his most recent track race last spring, ran a combined 42 seconds slower this year on the same courses in two major invitationals and lost at Regionals to a guy that finished ninth in their conference meet, you might not feel that confident about the man. Well those are the credentials of Edward Cheserek, the runner whom most of America (or at least the small portion that cares about college cross country) expects to win his second straight NCAA XC title on Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Facts can be used to create all sorts of false narratives; a journalist’s job is to select the relevant ones for any analysis. I’ve done my best to achieve that in this preview. Without further ado, a look at the top 10 men’s runners on Saturday, in predicted order of finish.
What: 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course, Terre Haute, Indiana
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When: 12 p.m. ET (women’s race); 1 p.m. ET (men’s race)
How to watch: In person ($10 admission) or streaming online on NCAA.com
If you like fantasy football: LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson participated in a fantasy draft for the men’s race at the NCAA Championships. That draft was part of the USTFCCCA’s QA2 Max podcast, and the link can be found here. Robert’s went with the Big 10 as his team is as follows (he had the second pick in a six-team draft): Anthony Rotich, UTEP; Kirubel Erassa, Oklahoma St.; Mason Ferlic, Michigan; Matt McClintock, Purdue; Caleb Rhynard, Michigan St.; Sam McEntee, Villanova; Matt Fischer, Penn St. He said he’s likely to drop Fischer for Wisconsin’s Michael Van Voorhis if he finds out he’s healthy.
1. Edward Cheserek, sophomore, Oregon
Previous NCAA finish/PBs: 1st, 2013. 3:36/13:18/28:30.
2014 results: 1st Dellinger Invite, 1st Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, 1st Pre-Nats, 1st Pac-12s, 2nd West Regional
Why he should win: Cheserek has been near-perfect in championship races. He’s won four of his five NCAA finals, the lone exception being June’s epic 5000 meter final at Hayward Field. In that race, Cheserek, then a freshman, lost by 0.35 seconds to a senior with a 13:00 pb and eight NCAA titles. This fall, Cheserek has won four of his five races, including big wins at Pre-Nats and Pac-12s. He finished second to Stanford’s Maksim Korolev at the West Regional on Friday, but the guess here is that Cheserek left something in the tank with the knowledge that he had another 10k race in eight days. Throughout his brief career, Cheserek has shown that he doesn’t care about time, just place, and that he only cares about place when he’s in an important race. For Cheserek, the West Regional wasn’t important. All he needed to do was place highly enough for the Ducks to qualify as a team, which he did. The result of Friday’s race may come as a confidence boost to Korolev but I doubt it will affect Cheserek’s confidence at all.
Finally, Cheserek has the ultimate trump card: the best kick in the NCAA. There might be a few 800/1500 types in Saturday’s race that can physically run the final 200 faster than Cheserek, but they will be nonfactors in the race’s endgame. In terms of functional speed — who can kick the hardest at the end of a 10k race — Cheserek has proven time and again that he is unparalleled in the NCAA. All of his NCAA track titles have come with a remarkable burst of speed that leaves the rest of the field in the dust. He closed his NCAA 10k victory in 24.8 for the final 200 and powered Oregon to victories at the Penn Relays by anchoring the distance medley relay and breaking open the 4xmile with the day’s fastest split (3:56.4).
Closing speed isn’t always as relevant in cross country as the winner often tries to break the field before the final 200. But Cheserek is content to wait for his opponents to move, confident that no one will be able to break him until he decides to move. That’s smart, because it makes Cheserek’s greatest strength — his kick — even more valuable. It would seem that the way to beat Cheserek would be to break him earlier, but since he started winning NCAA titles, no one has been able to truly do that in a big race. Even when Lawi Lalang beat Cheserek at the Pac-12 1500 and NCAA 5000, Cheserek was right there with him at the end. He didn’t so much break as buckle. So if Lalang, a 3:33/13:00 guy and one of the NCAA’s greatest-ever runners, can’t gap Cheserek, what chance does the rest of the NCAA have? They can try to use Lalang’s strategy — push Cheserek from the gun and hope to sap his kick enough to make him mortal in the final 200 — but that still requires a really hard close, one that almost everyone in the NCAA won’t be able to provide on Saturday (with one possible exception, which I’ll get to later). Realistically, Cheserek’s foes have to pray for him to be less than 100% — either sick or injured — if they are to beat him on Friday.
Why he could lose: Kennedy Kithuka was viewed as an unbeatable favorite prior to last year’s NCAA championship but Cheserek beat him anyway. A year earlier, few expected Kithuka to defeat the previously-invincible Lawi Lalang, but that’s exactly what happened. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, and after his win at the West Regional, Korolev may have the confidence necessary to really take a shot at Cheserek over the last 2k. But as a writer, when you start using phrases like “nothing is guaranteed,” it’s another way of saying that someone would have to really, really screw up not to win.
2. Maksim Korolev, senior, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 3rd, 2013; 201st, 2012. 13:42/29:13 pbs.
2014 results: 2nd Stanford Invitational (crossed with teammate Joe Rosa), 1st Wisconsin, 9th Pac-12s, 1st West Regional
Why he could win: Korolev was third last year, won the loaded Wisconsin Invitational and is the only runner to defeat Cheserek in a cross country race this year. The only runner with a more impressive cross country resume over the past two years is the guy ranked ahead of him. After beating Cheserek last week, he’ll be confident and unafraid of taking the necessary risks at the end of the race to defeat his rival.
While my second pick, even if Cheserek falters, Korolev may not be the winner. In the Ivy League, he only won a grand total of two conference crowns. He seems to have put that behind him now.
Why he could finish out of the top 10: The ninth place at Pac-12s wasn’t an encouraging result, but Korolev has looked great in his other three races this season. Obviously I have to mention Korolev’s history of blowups (201st at 2012 NCAA XC; 33:55 at the 2013 NCAA 10k final; poor races at Heps XC in 2012 and outdoor Heps in 2013), but I feel pretty good about Korolev in second because it’s been 17 months since he had a real disaster of a race (2013 outdoor NCAAs). Korolev’s chances of finishing in the 200s are low, but they’re still better than the combined odds of everyone else on this list. If Korolev finishes outside the top 10, I’m guessing it’s because he has a race like he did at Pac-12s and not a massive blowup, as was the norm from 2012-13.
PS. We don’t know how to spell his name. Harvard had it as Maksim. Stanford lists it as Maxim.
3. Patrick Tiernan, sophomore, Villanova
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 9th, 2013. 7:57/13:31.
2014 results: 1st Washington Invitational, 1st Big Easts, 2nd Mid-Atlantic Regional
Why he could win: Tiernan pasted the field at Washington, beating last year’s NCAA fourth-placer, Futsum Zienasellassie, by 20 seconds. Given the quality of the opposition and the margin of victory, that’s the single most impressive performance in the NCAA this season (just ahead of Cheserek’s win at Pac-12s). He won Big Easts as well, and looks to be a lot stronger than last year, when he finished ninth overall.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: Tiernan was only second in a weak region to Penn State’s Matt Fischer. I’m not terribly worried about that considering that Tiernan’s place at NCAAs was never in doubt, but I wasn’t at the race so I can’t tell you exactly how hard Tiernan was running. The other knock on Tiernan is that he hasn’t raced any top-tier individuals since Washington so it’s tough to tell how he stacks up against the cream of the NCAA crop. That makes Tiernan something of an unknown quantity on Saturday, though that could end up working in his favor.
4. Eric Jenkins, senior, Oregon
Previous NCAA finish/PBs: 67th, 2011. 13:18.
2014 results: 8th Dellinger Invite, 2nd Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, 3rd Pre-Nats, 2nd Pac-12s, 3rd West Regional
Why he could win: The dream scenario for Ducks coach Andy Powell is a 1-2 finish from Cheserek and Jenkins. Cheserek probably won’t cede the individual title to his teammate, but finishing second behind Cheserek is probably the closest Jenkins can get to an individual title. After a rough start to the season, Jenkins has been every bit as good as I thought he could be in the preseason (he ranked #4 on LetsRun.com’s preseason list and is #4 on this list as well), finishing second behind Cheserek at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown and Pac-12s. He was third in his other races, Pre-Nats and the West Regional, and has proven himself to be among the nation’s elite in his first cross country season in three years. Jenkins has great wheels, so he can always move over the last few kilometers of a race, and he’s been training with Cheserek all season. It’s easy to forget, given the embarrassment of riches in Eugene the last few years, but Jenkins is a truly great NCAA runner — his 13:18 5k pb is faster than Cheserek’s and #9 in NCAA history.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: I don’t see Jenkins slipping that low, but it’s possible that he loses to a few guys he hasn’t raced yet (Zienasellassie, Kirubel Erassa, Stanley Kebenei) and a few other guys ranked behind him have good days. Perhaps the conditions make it tough and favor longer-distance guys rather than the 1500/5k runners like Jenkins (although LetsRun got an email from an ex-teammate who said he views Jennkins as a 5k/10k guy). Maybe a guy like Korolev pushes the pace from the get-go and Jenkins can’t handle it. All these scenarios are possible, but I think Jenkins is a safe bet for top-10.
5. Anthony Rotich, junior, UTEP
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 19th, 2013; 4th, 2012. 4:01, 8:21 st, 13:34.
2014 results: 2nd Chile Pepper, 7th Pre-Nats, 1st Conference USA, 1st Mountain Regional
Why he could win: Remember how I said earlier that even if the pace is quick, Cheserek will still have a fast enough kick to take down almost everyone in the NCAA? Rotich is the possible exception. In March, he used a 27.9 last 200 to run away from Lalang and Mac Fleet and win the NCAA indoor mile title. Rotich’s championship credentials (he’s won the past two NCAA steeplechase titles) and the fact that he’s already pulled off a major upset at NCAAs give him arguably the best chance of anyone of knocking of Cheserek.
Rotich was fourth as a freshman in 2012 and ran his best race of the season at the Mountain Regional, defeating runner-up Zienasellassie by 10 seconds. He’s also beaten Cheserek before (2013 Pre-Nats).
A total gamer. Think about, he’s the NCAA mile champ and has never broken 4:00 in the mile.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: Rotich was only 19th last year in the cold slop of Terre Haute and with rain in the forecast for Saturday, the conditions may not favor him. He was also only seventh at Pre-Nats and is two years removed from his best XC season.
6. Futsum Zienasellassie, junior, Northern Arizona
Previous NCAA finishes: 4th, 2013; 31st, 2012
2014 results: 2nd Washington Invitational, 2nd Wisconsin, 1st Big Sky, 2nd Mountain Regional
Why he could win: Zienasellassie hasn’t finished outside the top two in a race this season and has a history of performing his best at NCAAs. In 2012, he was 33rd at Wisconsin and 31st at NCAAs; last year he was sixth at Wisconsin and fourth at NCAAs. This season, he was second at Wisconsin, so…
Why he could finish outside the top 10: This scenario is unlikely, as Zienasellassie isn’t the kind of guy to take a big risk and he’s too important to NAU in the team race to risk blowing up by taking a shot at Cheserek. Everyone has bad days, so perhaps Zienasellassie finishes 11th or 12th, but it’s hard to imagine someone as consistent as Zienasellassie (lowest finish in a race in the last two years is sixth) falling outside the top 10.
7. Blake Theroux, senior, Colorado
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 23rd, 2013; 39th, 2012; 183rd, 2011. 8:49 st, 13:57.
2014 results: 1st Rocky Mountain Shootout, 2nd Pre-Nats, 4th Pac-12s
Why he could win: Though Korolev is the only man to beat Cheserek this season, it was actually Theroux who made King Ches work the hardest, as he really had to get moving to hold off Theroux at Pre-Nats, 24:04.5 to 24:06.1 (I’m discounting Korolev’s victory because I’m not sure how much Cheserek cared about getting beat at Regionals). It’s easy to lump the Colorado guys together because they were seemingly interchangeable last year (four different #1s in the last four races), but in 2014, Theroux is clearly the Buffaloes’ top dog. He ran the third-fastest time in course history at the Rocky Mountain Shootout (24:23); the only two men to run faster were Adam Goucher and Jorge Torres, both of whom went on to win the NCAA individual title later that season. He was second at Pre-Nats, fourth at Pac-12s and has been the Buffs’ top finisher in all three of the major races he’s run. Theroux is also well-rested after skipping Regionals; his coach Mark Wetmore says that he’s fully healthy and that he only missed the meet to rest up for NCAAs. History says you need at least one top-10 runner to win and NCAA team title (the last time it didn’t happen was 2006) and Theroux is more likely than anyone to be CU’s #1 on Saturday.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: Perhaps Wetmore instructs his team to run a low-risk race and pack-run it in the teens as opposed to letting Theroux run his own race and chase the top five. Perhaps Theroux needed to rest at Regionals because he was fatigued or dinged up. Perhaps a couple of the guys below him — and there are about 20 guys capable of finishing in the top 10 on a good day — run well and relegate him to 12th.
Plus his 13:57 pb is very poor for a potential top 10 guy.
8. Kirubel Erassa, senior, Oklahoma State
Previous NCAA finishes/Pbs: 83rd, 2013; 102nd, 2012. 7:49/13:27/29:02.
2014 results: 1st Cowboy Jamboree, 1st Big 12s, 1st Midwest Regional
Why he could win: Aside from Luis Vargas, the only undefeated male runner in Division I is Erassa. He has yet to face any of the individuals on this list, but his 13:27 5k pb and wins at the Cowboy Jamboree, Big 12 Championships and Midwest Regional make him a formidable foe for anyone. His coach Dave Smith said before the season that “it’s time for him to see himself as what he is, which is a guy that’s running in the top five or 10 at the NCAA championships,” adding that his 2014 indoor season was the best indoor season of anyone he’s coached except German Fernandez. Erassa has certainly looked like a top-5/10 guy so far this season.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: Refer to the “Previous NCAA finishes” section. Eighty-third last year was poor for someone who ran 13:27 on the track, though it didn’t help that Erassa fell in the first five meters of the race and had to work his way up from the 200s. Still, it figures to be muddy again on Saturday, so Erassa will have to stay on his feet. His 102nd-place finish in 2012 wasn’t great, either. Can Erassa finally run well at NCAAs in his final XC race for Oklahoma State?
9. Scott Fauble, senior, Portland
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 13th, 2013; 26th, 2012; 99th, 2011. 13:00/28:43.
2014 results: 4th Wisconsin, 2nd WCCs (finished with teammate), 4th West Regional
Why he could finish higher: It’s a stretch to say that Fauble or the guy ranked #10 could win even with a DNF from Cheserek, but Fauble has had a terrific senior season in leading his Pilots to a #7 national ranking. He was fourth at Wisconsin, fourth at the West Regional and ran great last year (seventh returner). Fauble isn’t the first guy you think of when it comes to the NCAA’s top individuals (he probably isn’t even the 10th), but it’s hard to find anyone below him that has the combination of NCAA experience and regular-season success. He should be in the top 10 on Saturday.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: As I wrote with Theroux, there are several guys not on this list that could break through with a good race. If Fauble runs his best, he finishes in the top five. If he runs poorly, he could be in the 20s.
10. Stanley Kebenei, senior, Arkansas
Previous NCAA finish/PBs: 6th, 2013. 8:24 steeple, 13:42, 29:33.
2014 results: 1st Chile Pepper, 6th Wisconsin, 1st SECs, 1st South Central Regional
Why he could finish higher: He beat Rotich at Chile Pepper and looked great in winning SECs and the South Central Region. He was only sixth at Wisconsin, but he was 23rd at Wisco last year and bounced back to take sixth at NCAAs. Plus this summer, he barely could train as he had duties to take care of with the US Army.
It’s hard to say that Kebenei’s a worse runner than he was a year ago, so finishing in the top 10 is certainly realistic.
Why he could finish outside the top 10: Kebenei was sixth at Wisconsin, but there were four other guys that finished a within a second of him. One of them (Oklahoma’s Abbabiya Simbassa) won’t be running NCAAs, but Syracuse’s Martin Hehir, Stanford’s Joe Rosa and Providence’s Shane Quinn don’t need to change much to move past Kebenei (to say nothing of the NAU’s Matt McElroy, who was a spot ahead of Kebenei at Wisconsin). Kebenei’s 2013 performance and his dominance at SECs and Regionals gives him the nod, but the top 10 at NCAAs always comes down to who runs their best on the day.
Want Info on Guys That Didn’t Make the Top 10?
There are a slew of talented guys who didn’t make the list, but if you enter the LetsRun.com NCAA Prediction contest, you’ll get info on every runner that was in the top 10 at their regional. It’s free and you could win more than $200,000.
Editor’s note: We know fans of American distance runners will be saying, “But what about Ben Saarel? He was 8th last year.”
Sorry guys, nothing he’s done this year indicates he’ll be in the top 10 on Saturday. Don’t despair, he could step it up like last year. If not, there are still three American-born runners in our top 10 (Jenkins, Theroux, and Fauble) and two more naturalized citizens (Korolev and Erassa). So five of the top 10 are Americans.
*Men’s Team Preview Here: LRC NCAA XC Men’s Preview: Mark Wetmore & Colorado Go for the Program’s First Repeat