2015 Men’s Cross Country Preview: #2 Stanford and #1 Colorado

By LetsRun.com
September 23, 2015

The Diamond League season is over and it’s mid-September, which means it’s time for another collegiate cross-country season. While the 2015 campaign has already begun for most schools, teams can’t earn at-large points to help them qualify for NCAAs until September 25, so we’ll be rolling out our previews between now and then. Over the next two weeks, we’ll count down the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in the country and take a look at the top 10 individuals for each gender as well.

Please don’t take these rankings to whatever fictional casino is offering NCAA cross country betting odds and use them as your guide. There’s always uncertainty in preseason predictions. These previews are intended to serve as a rough outline of where things stand at the moment; a lot can (and will) change between now and the NCAA championships on November 21 in Louisville.

Today, it’s time to look at the top two men’s teams in the country — #2 Stanford and #1 Colorado. The Pac-12 rivals were our top two teams in the preseason last year and that’s exactly how they finished at NCAAs (what do you know, we got one right). We’re betting on history to repeat itself in 2015. If Colorado and Stanford go 1-2 again, it would be the first time any schools have done that in consecutive years since Oregon and Iona went 1-2 in 2007 and 2008.

If you missed any of our earlier previews, you can find them here:

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Women’s previews: #10 Arkansas and #9 Michigan#8 Providence and #7 Michigan State * #6 Iowa State and #5 Oregon * #4 Georgetown and #3 Stanford * #2 Colorado and #1 New Mexico

Men’s previews: #10 Virginia, #9 Ole Miss, #8 Iona and #7 Oklahoma State * #6 Oregon, #5 Villanova, #4 Wisconsin and #3 Syracuse

Tomorrow, we’ll unveil the top 10 individuals for both the men and women.

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking her place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2014 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of her.

2. Stanford: The Cardinal are loaded once again

2014 results: 2nd NCAAs, 3rd West Regional, 3rd Pac-12, 5th Wisconsin Invite

Key returners (lose #1, #3 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Sean McGorty JR 11 3:59/13:48
Joe Rosa SR 13 13:31/29:16
Sam Wharton SO 17 14:04/29:23
Garrett Sweatt JR 32 13:54
Jack Keelan SO 50 13:45
Jim Rosa SR 13:50/28:57; 5th in ’13
Grant Fisher FR 3:59/8:43; FL champ in ’13/’14
Collin Leibold SR   5th-year from Georgetown; 4:03/8:00/13:54

How did Stanford go from third at Pac-12s and the West Regional to second in the entire country at NCAAs last fall? It was all part of the plan.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. The plan never included losing Jim Rosa (5th at NCAAs in ’13) to knee surgery, and it certainly involved a smoother trip to the podium in Terre Haute. But Cardinal coach Chris Miltenberg always has his eye on the long term.

“I think it appears, looking at the results, that we may have hit it on just one day last year but I really felt like with the young guys that we had and the way they were coming together, there was a progression throughout the entire season,” Miltenberg said.

No runner illustrated that better than Sean McGorty. A big-time talent in high school (he was second at Foot Lockers as a senior behind Edward Cheserek and ran 8:45 for two miles), McGorty suffered a back injury at the end of the 2014 outdoor season and Miltenberg carefully managed his recovery, running him in just two races last fall — Pac-12s and NCAAs. Miltenberg’s patience paid off, as McGorty rewarded his coach’s faith with a 20th-place finish at nationals (finishing as the team’s #2 runner).

This year, McGorty is one of several Stanford runners coming off long track seasons. Check it out:

Name Date of last track race
Sean McGorty June 25 (USAs)
Grant Fisher June 27 (USA jrs)
Jim Rosa July 21 (Pan Ams)
Joe Rosa July 25 (Pan Ams)

Racing into the summer is something Miltenberg encourages of his charges, and as a result, he’s never in a rush to bring them back for the fall. Don’t expect to get a read on this team until Pac-12s on October 30.

Once the pieces are in place, though…oh, baby.

As is the case seemingly every year, on paper, Stanford is loaded. Joe (3rd at Pac-12s last year) and Jim Rosa plus McGorty give the Cardinal three studs up front. They’ll be flanked by an embarrassment of riches that includes 2012 NXN champ Sam Wharton (39th at NCAAs last fall), 13:45 man Jack Keelan, 5th-year grad student Collin Leibold (who ran 13:54 for Georgetown last year) and Garrett Sweatt (who has also run 13:54). The prize, of course is Grant Fisher, only the best American high school recruit since Dathan Ritzenhein.

The Cardinal will look to bring home another trophy in 2015 The Cardinal will look to bring home another trophy in 2015

Unless this is your first time on LetsRun.com, you’ve likely heard of Fisher, the two-time Foot Locker champ who in June became the seventh U.S. high schooler to break four minutes in the mile (Want more on Fisher? Here’s our profile of him from 2014). More than anyone on the star-studded Stanford roster, he’s the man fans will be watching this fall, though they may have to wait a while to catch him in a Stanford uniform.

Fisher will run this weekend’s Stanford Invitational unattached, and depending on his result there and his progress this fall, Miltenberg will make a decision about whether to redshirt him or not.

“Most likely if we were gonna run him, we would wait until around the Pac-12,” Miltenberg said (Stanford’s other superfrosh, Foot Locker Northeast champ Alex Ostberg, is definitely redshirting).

Miltenberg knows how special Fisher is, and he’s spent a lot of time over the past year picking the brain of Fisher’s high school coach, Mike Scannell, in order to make the transition to college as smooth as possible.

The best advice Miltenberg’s received?

“Don’t kill him,” Miltenberg said. “He’s a great competitor, he’s really tough and he loves to race, so don’t let him run himself into the ground in practice. Pick and choose when you let him go to the well.”

Our unsolicited advice to Miltenberg is simple. Don’t over think this. Back in 2004, Wisconsin had a “Dream Team”  with Chris Solinsky, Matt Tegenkamp, Simon Bairu, etc and they lost in part because they redshirted freshman Foot Locker champ Matt Withrow, who would make the US xc team a few months later (MB: NCAA 2004 XC how did wisconsin lose?). If Fisher is as a good as people expect him to be, there’s only a tiny chance he’d be running xc in 2009 anyway so a redshirt year is likely just a wasted year. And if you are going to race him, take him to to the Wisconsin invite two weeks before Pac 12s. Fisher, like Alan Webb in HS or German Fernandez, is used to dominating races. He needs to have some experience of not panicking if he’s in 50th at the mile of a large invite (Plus it’s so lame for the fans that coaches are afraid to race their guys more than twice a year).

With or without Fisher, the Cardinal should be a podium team this fall, but a strong year from him could make a major difference at NCAAs, especially with Leibold and Wharton (stress fracture this spring) combing back from injuries. Miltenberg knows that it is going to take a great performance, one through five, to dethrone Colorado in October at Pac 12s or November at NCAAs.

“It would take a lot [to beat them],” Miltenberg said. “I think there’s no question it’s theirs to win. They’ve certainly figured out how to race great as a team. And I think that’s what it would take…if you get five guys on the right day who are tough that can do that, that’s your only shot to beat them.”

But if the Cardinal can’t beat Colorado — and no one has over the past two years — he won’t be going home devastated.

“I think in the growth and evolution of our program in the four years I’ve been here now, looking at where we were year one (16th at NCAAs) [and year] two (19th), how we ran last year [in] year three, we’re putting the pieces together of a great culture, a great group of guys who know how to fight and scrap for each other even when things aren’t going perfectly on an individual level. That’s what I want. I want to leave Louisville feeling we raced the best we could, we fought as hard as we could…To us, it’s much more important as we rebuild this program…that we’re shaping it to keep building and going forward each year.”

1. Colorado: Can anyone stop Buffaloes from three-peating?

2014 results: 1st NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 1st Pac-12, 1st Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #3, #6 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Ammar Moussa SR 3 13:41/29:34
Ben Saarel JR 4 7:52/13:48
Connor Winter SR 12 13:55/8:48 SC
Pierce Murphy SR 14 13:37/28:52
Adam Peterman SO 112 8:48 SC
Morgan Pearson SR 13:36/29:41; 17th in ’13
Zach Perrin SO 3:42; 107th in ’13
John Dressel FR 4:10/8:57; 3-time FL finalist (2nd in ’13)
Joe Klecker FR 4:04/8:50

If you’re a fan of sequels, you’ll love the 2015 NCAA men’s cross country season. All year long in 2014, two questions dominated conversations about the sport: Can anyone beat Edward Cheserek? And can anyone beat Colorado? On November 22, both Ches and the Buffs showed everyone that the answer to both questions was a resounding no. And as we head into a new season, the same two questions will be on everyone’s lips. Don’t expect the answers to change.

Though Colorado loses two runners from what head coach Mark Wetmore dubbed the best CU team ever, the Buffaloes are hardly hurting for talent in 2015. Yes, losing a guy who was 9th at NCAAs last fall (Blake Theroux) hurts. It hurts significantly less when he was your #3 scorer. The other casualty is sixth man Jake Hurysz, who came closer to All-American honors (he was one spot away) than he did scoring for the Buffs last fall.

Colorado on top of the podium has become a familiar sight Colorado on top of the podium has become a familiar sight

A core of Ammar Moussa (5th), Ben Saarel (7th), Connor Winter (24th) and Pierce Murphy (35th) is scary enough, but what makes CU the odds-on favorite is the return of senior Morgan Pearson, who redshirted last fall. Normally, a team can’t afford to sit out a guy who finished 17th the year before and still score 65 points at NCAAs, but nothing about the 2014 Buffaloes was normal.

All of the Buffaloes ran well on the track in 2015 as well. Pearson finished 5th at NCAA indoors in the 3,000, Saarel made it to NCAAs in the 1500 for the second consecutive year and both Moussa (10,000) and Winter (steeplechase) won Pac-12 titles. Murphy was the best of the bunch, taking 6th in the indoor 5,000 and 5th in the outdoor 10,000. It’s not inconceivable that Colorado could put five guys in the top 20, something no team has done since Wisconsin in 2005 (the Badgers added a sixth for good measure).

So can the 2015 Buffaloes be even better than last year’s outfit?

“Maybe,” said Wetmore. “[It would require] them to stay calm and highly motivated and healthy and for me to stay calm and not get greedy or foolish.”

Moussa and Saarel ran so well at NCAAs that it will be difficult for them to improve much from last year, though Saarel has the potential to move up a spot or two given he was battling a virus for most of last season.

“It’s awful hard to get rid of anything when you’re training hard and running races,” Wetmore said. “Honestly the best day [Ben] had of the whole 100 days was the day of the NCAAs.”

Another thing working in Saarel’s favor is that Wetmore believes that athletes in his program tend to make the biggest jump entering their third year. That means that redshirt sophomore Zach Perrin could be in for a big season. Perrin finished in the top 10 at Foot Lockers as a senior in high school in 2012 and finished as the sixth man (107th overall) on CU’s 2013 title team as a true freshman (he ran 3:42 on the track that spring). Perrin’s classmate and fellow Montana native Adam Peterman, the Buff’s seventh man in 2014, is also entering his third year in Wetmore’s system.

Additionally, Colorado brought in one of the nation’s top recruits in John Dressel, a three-time Foot Locker finalist (Grant Fisher narrowly outkicked him for the title in 2013) who finished as the top American in the World XC junior race in March, two spots behind Syracuse stud Justyn Knight of Canada. Considering that both the U.S. trials and World XC were at altitude, Dressel should adapt to Boulder’s 5,400-foot elevation just fine.

“It is a rare true freshman that can have an impact on an NCAA contender team,” Wetmore said. “My plans with [John] are to train him soundly, bear in mind that he’s young, try not to make any mistakes with him…If he can affect our team score at the NCAA, we would suit him up as we did Ben two years ago.”

Realistically though, Perrin, Peterman and Dressel (plus true freshman Joe Klecker, a 4:04 miler) are insurance policies. Assuming the top five stay healthy, Colorado should become the first school to win three consecutive titles since Arkansas from 1998 to 2000. Wetmore has consistently shown that he knows how to mentally prepare his team to run their best in the championship portion of the season; not that this battle-tested group will need much of a confidence boost after winning the past two NCAA titles. Perhaps Moussa (who overperformed with a 5th-place finish last year) slides back a little, but aside from that it’s hard to see Colorado dropping many points.

“On paper right now, I don’t know if there’s anyone in the country that can match Colorado,” Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne said. “Of course, you have to run the race in November and they’ve got to through the season healthy… They’ve done a good job with that over the last two years. It’s going to be very difficult to knock them off their pedestal.”

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