2015 Men’s Cross Country Preview: #6 Oregon,#5 Villanova, #4 Wisconsin and #3 Syracuse

By LetsRun.com
September 22, 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.

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

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

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Men’s previews: *2015 Men’s XC Preview: #10 Virginia, #9 Ole Miss, #8 Iona, #7 Oklahoma State

The rest of the preview will be as follows:

Wednesday: #1-2
Thursday: Top 10 Individuals 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.

6. Oregon: King Ches, then who?

2014 results: 6th NCAAs, 1st West Regional, 2nd Pac-12 2nd Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #2, #3, #4, #5 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Edward Cheserek JR 1 3:36/7:47/13:18; NCAA champ in XC, indoor mile, outdoor 5k/10k
Travis Neuman SO 95 13:55/29:09
Matthew Melancon SR 99 14:09/29:10
Blake Haney SO 3:40; 3rd in NCAA 1500
Jake Leingang JR 7:53/13:46; 149th in ’13
Jeramy Elkaim SR 3:59/7:48/13:39; 159th in ’12
Sam Prakel SO 3:41/8:12; 10th in NCAA 1500 in ’14
Tanner Anderson FR 4:09/8:56; NXN champ
Matthew Maton FR 19th FL (3rd in ’13); 6th US HSer to break 4:00 in mile
Ryan Gil SR   Transfer from Georgetown; 8:15/8:42 SC

No team suffered a bigger loss from last year than Oregon did when Eric Jenkins graduated this spring. Though he may have only been the Ducks’ second-best runner, he was also the second-best runner in the entire NCAA last year. When you factor in that Oregon’s 3-4-5 finishers from NCAA XC have also departed Eugene, it seems odd that we’re picking the Ducks to repeat their sixth-place finish from a year ago.

This is Oregon, though. For every All-American that leaves, another five-star recruit or impact transfer is there to take their place. The sting of losing Jenkins and Daniel Winn is dulled significantly when you can replace them with NXN champ Tanner Anderson and sub-4:00 high schooler Matthew Maton.

P1070042 Despite effectively scoring three runners last year (thanks to Cheserek and Jenkins’ 1-2 finish), the Ducks finished just sixth in the team standings

Distance coach Andy Powell has several other mega-talents on the roster, but the challenge will be getting the most out of them in cross country. Sophomore Blake Haney finished third in the NCAA 1500 last year and will be counted on to make a significant jump in XC after finishing 33rd (UO’s #8 man) at Pac-12s in 2014. Jake Leingang ran 7:53 and 13:46 on the track this year but didn’t make Oregon’s top seven at NCAAs after finishing 57th at the West Regional. Senior Jeramy Elkaim has sparkling PBs (7:48/13:39) but entering his fifth year in Eugene, he’s run at NCAA XC just once, taking 159th as a sophomore in 2012. Matthew Melancon (13:52/29:10) has been a consistent cross country runner for the Ducks, but in three trips to the Big Dance he’s finished 97th, 239th and 181st.

No coach recently has been better than Powell  at peaking his runners for NCAAs on the track, but he hasn’t been able to find the same success in cross country as Oregon hasn’t finished on the podium since 2009. There are several reasons for that, from personnel (Powell didn’t have Parker StinsonWill Geoghegan or Johnny Gregorek available for XC last year) to Oregon’s recent emphasis on winning track titles. But with the country’s top runner in Edward Cheserek and the talent on hand in Eugene, the Ducks will want to get on the podium this year.

How Oregon fares in 2015 will be dependent on how quickly the prodigious Anderson and Maton adjust to Powell’s system and the 10,000-meter distance, and whether several of the program’s biggest talents can get it done on the cross country course. Melancon and Travis Neuman (13:55/29:09) are both good XC runners, but they don’t have the same upside as Elkaim, Leingang (third at FL in ’12) or Haney (second at NXN in ’13).

It took 188 points to get on the podium last year, and it’s not hard to see a way where Oregon betters that total. Here’s one possible scenario (with athletes’ team points in parentheses).

Cheserek (1); one of the Elkaim/Haney/Leingang trio (20); Anderson or Maton (30); Neuman (60); Melancon (65)

That comes to 176 points, which would have been good for fourth (just one point out of third) at NCAAs last fall. But everything’s simpler in September. The Ducks have the talent to make some noise in Louisville, but we’ll have to wait two months to see if they deliver.

5. Villanova: Led by Aussie Patrick Tiernan, the Wildcats could be even better than last year

2014 results: 7th NCAAs, 1st Mid-Atlantic Regional, 1st Big East

Key returners (lose #3, #5 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Patrick Tiernan JR 10 13:31
Robert Denault SR 25 3:58/8:15
Jordy Williamsz SR 26 3:56/8:04
Harry Warnick JR 63 4:07/8:08
Kevin Corbusier JR 82 14:39/31:10
Robert Hurlbut SR 14:30/29:58

The last time the Villanova men finished on the podium at NCAAs, in the fall of 1992, only two members of the current roster had been born (Jordy Williamsz and Tom Trainer). Ask members of the current team about Louie Quintana and Terrence Mahon and they’d be likely identify them as prominent coaches (Quintana coaches at Arizona State and Mahon at the BAA) rather than the ’92 Wildcats’ top two runners on that day in Bloomington, Ind.

The podium drought in Philly may not last much longer, however, as coach Marcus O’Sullivan (himself a Villanova legend) has put together one of the best teams in the country. Last year’s bunch finished seventh at NCAAs, the program’s best finish in 14 years, and though the Wildcats lose two scorers from that team, O’Sullivan believes he has the pieces to replace them. Harry Warnick, Nova’s #6 at NCAAs last fall, has run 8:08 on the track and should slot into the #4 spot behind Patrick TiernanRob Denault and Jordy Williamsz. The fifth man battle should come down to Robert Hurlbut (Big East 10,000 champ) and Kevin Corbusier (the team’s seventh man a year ago).

The Wildcats were seventh a year ago and could be even better in 2015 (photo courtesy Villanova Athletics) The Wildcats were seventh a year ago and could be even better in 2015 (photo courtesy Villanova Athletics)

“I think that between Robert and Kevin, I’m hoping that they can come through with a good strong fifth position to cover where we lost last year with Brian Basili and Sam McEntee,” O’Sullivan said.

Another area where Villanova could pick up ground is at the #1 spot. The Aussie Tiernan was ninth at NCAAs as a freshman in 2013 but he was never 100% healthy last fall and regressed to an 18th-place finish in Terre Haute. If that was the case, Tiernan — whom O’Sullivan said is stronger than he was two years ago — could be scary good this fall. Remember, in 2014 Tiernan pasted eventual NCAA third-placer Futsum Zienasellassie at the Washington Invitational on October 4, running 23:00 to win by 20 seconds. If Tiernan can hold that kind of form all the way through NCAAs, he could find himself in the low single digits in Louisville.

Though a better run from Tiernan won’t make a massive difference on its own in the team score (he scored only 16 team points in ’14), those points add up. Villanova finished 42 points off the podium last season. If every guy can move up eight to ten places in the team standings, the Wildcats could find themselves on the podium in 2015.

“Am I expecting any massive improvements from any one particular person?” said O’Sullivan.”Probably no. But am I expecting a contribution from everybody to marginally improve? Yes. So I think that’s where the difference is going to be.”

O’Sullivan believes that both Williamsz and Denault, both primarily middle-distance guys, can be top 30 at NCAAs this fall, but said that just because Louisville is flatter than Terre Haute doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easier on his milers.

“You could see the course suiting somebody like Jordy and Rob [but] I’ve been on the course,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a little funky. There’s a lot of tight turns back and forth. As much as you may think you might get rhythm on the flat course, it’s a fragmented course where there’s turns. Being flat doesn’t do it justice in a sense that you could be lulled into thinking that it’s a much faster course than it really is…I’m hoping it will benefit us but I wouldn’t overestimate what the course is going to do for you.”

So if Williamsz and Denault are to up their placing (they were 58th and 56th a year ago, finishing within a second of each other), it will likely be a product of increased fitness rather than two milers benefiting from a fast course.

With a viable star in Tiernan and some impressive talent behind him, the Wildcats will be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams this fall.

4. Wisconsin: The Baby Badgers are growing up

2014 results: 10th NCAAs, 1st Great Lakes Regional, 1st Big 10, 3rd Wisconsin Invite

Key returners (lose #5 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Malachy Schrobilgen JR 5 13:51/29:17
Morgan McDonald SO 35 4:03/7:55
Ryan Kromer SO 49 14:31
Carl Hirsch SO 53 1:50/3:45
Joe Hardy SO 55 3:43; Big 10 1500 champ
Joe McAsey JR 66 1:47/4:12/8:32
Kai Wilmot FR 8:57; ’13 NXN champ
Olin Hacker FR 8:58; 2nd NXN/FL in ’14

Despite a top seven consisting of four freshmen, two sophomores and just one senior, coach Mick Byrne‘s Badgers were able to regain the Big 10 title after Indiana halted their conference win streak at 14 years in 2013. At NCAAs three weeks later, Wisconsin kept another impressive streak going, notching its 19th consecutive top-10 finish.

“Finishing 10th at the national championship with such a young team I thought was a good accomplishment,” Byrne said. “You always want to be better but when you look at Wisconsin’s record at the national meet, it was pretty cool to walk out of there with such a young crew and say ‘Hey, we’re in the top 10 in the nation.'”

Schrobilgen will be counted on to lead the Badgers again in 2015 Schrobilgen will be counted on to lead the Badgers again in 2015

That’s something Byrne should be able to say for some time as Wisconsin is loaded. Everyone except Michael VanVoorhis (fifth man at NCAAs) is back and the Badgers add freshmen Kai Wilmot (2013 NXN champ) and Olin Hacker (2nd at NXN and Foot Locker in ’14, son of form NCAA/USA champ Tim Hacker) into the fold.

Junior Malachy Schrobilgen, who has won the past two Big 10 XC titles, is a true low stick and will look to improve on his 10th-place finish from a year ago. But the biggest jumps should come from a trio of sophomores, all of whom ran for the Badgers at NCAAs last year — Carl HirschMorgan McDonald and Joe Hardy (Big 10 1500 champ).

“Obviously it’s very early and we’re training them very hard right now [but] I just really love where they’re at,” Byrne said about those three. “I see a huge improvement and hopefully we’ll see that once the season comes around.”

Another sophomore, Ryan Kromer, was Wisconsin’s third scorer at NCAAs last year (99th overall) and rounds out a formidable top five. Hacker and Wilmot could also wind up scoring for the Badgers, but it all depends on how they progress this year. Hacker may end up redshirting if he’s not needed; for Wilmot, the biggest concern is health.

“Kai had a very difficult freshman year dealing with injuries,” Byrne said. “Right now he’s healthy. The goal is just try to keep him healthy, that’s obviously the key. Get consistency in his training, which he’s had now through the entire summer.

“His pedigree is pretty well-documented…he’s a stud, everybody knows that. He’s got an amazing engine, it’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”

Indeed, health is of paramount concern to Byrne, who must have mentioned it 10 times over the course of a 14-minute interview. But of course he’s right. When you get to the level Wisconsin’s at now, nothing is more important. An injury to Stanford or Colorado and suddenly the Badgers could be battling for a national title. An injury to one of their own and Wisconsin will have to fight just to get on the podium.

Wisconsin may still be a year away from being true national title contenders, but if this crew makes it to Louisville in one piece, they’re going to be very, very good, especially if the sophomores can make a jump to the next level. It’s a good time to be a Badger — but then again, when hasn’t it been over the past 20 years?

3. Syracuse: With two studs up front and a deep supporting cast, the Orange expect to land on the podium for the first time since 1957

2014 results: 5th NCAAs, 1st Northeast Regional, 1st ACC, 1st Wisconsin Invite

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

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Martin Hehir SR 38 3:59/7:53/13:35/28:27
Dan Lennon SR 20 14:12/28:46
Colin Bennie SO 46 4:04/8:07/13:53
Justyn Knight SO 75 3:39/13:34
Joel Hubbard JR 91 4:00/14:06
Adam Palamar JR 110 Transfer from Tulsa; 3:38
Mickey Burke FR 4th at ’13 FL

When head coach Chris Fox arrived in Syracuse in in 2005, the Orange had never won a conference title and were 31 years removed from their last trip to the NCAA championships. In the ensuing decade, Syracuse has made steady progress. They won their first Big East championship in 2009 (and have won conference every year since except for 2011) and then broke into the top 10 at NCAAs in 2013. But no one outside of Central New York expected the kind of jump the Orange made last year, coasting to the title at the Wisconsin Invite title with 85 points (well ahead of runner-up Iona’s 154).

“We went [to Wisconsin] thinking we were going to try to win, that’s for sure,” Fox said. “Did we expect that we’d crush? No.”

Syracuse took home a trophy at Wisconsin last fall; it will look to do the same in Louisville in November (courtesy Syracuse Athletics) Syracuse took home a trophy at Wisconsin last fall; it will look to do the same in Louisville in November (courtesy Syracuse Athletics)

And while the Orange’s ultimate 5th-place finish was its best result at the nationals in 57 years, given the team’s success last fall (Syracuse entered NCAAs ranked #2 in the country), it was a little disappointing not to get on the podium.

“We certainly had higher expectations and hopefully it’s motivated us for the last 300 days,” Fox said.

While it’s not exactly podium or bust for the Orange this fall — several strong recruiting classes have the Orange well-positioned for the future — this should be SU’s best team under Fox, who knows what the expectations are for his program.

“We can talk big stuff about a lot of things, but we need to get a trophy and we haven’t got one yet,” Fox said.

For the first time since taking over, Fox believes his team has a true low stick that can run in the front pack at NCAAs. Actually, make that low sticks. Sophomore Justyn Knight (3:39/13:34) and senior Martin Hehir‘s (13:35) 2015 5,000 SBs put them #4 and #5 among NCAA returners at 5000 (Hehir’s 28:27 10,000 SB is #1). Neither ran to their potential at NCAAs a year ago (Hehir was 38th after taking 7th at Wisconsin; Knight lost steam last fall after getting sick after ACCs and wound up 143rd at NCAAs). Both are capable of posting top-10 finishes in the team standings in Louisville this fall.

If they can do that, it won’t take much for Syracuse to land on the podium. If Knight ran even an average race at NCAAs last year (say in the 40-50 range), SU would have moved up from fifth to third. It’s unlikely Knight bombs again this fall. He’s gained a ton of big-race experience this year, finishing 25th (top non-African-born finisher) in the junior race at World XC for Canada, winning ACCs in the 1500 (despite finishing with one shoe) and finishing 6th in the NCAA 5,000 as a true freshman.

SU two very capable runners in the #3/#4 spots in senior Dan Lennon (45th last year, 28:46 PB) and sophomore Colin Bennie, who was 14th in the NCAA 5,000 in June and won the Harry Groves Spike Shoe Invitational at Penn State on September 11.

“[Colin] has improved since tremendously since the [spring] so he’s gonna be a big player for us,” Fox said. “He’s gonna be a difference-maker, for sure.”

The #5 spot is more open — this is where having MJ Erb, Syracuse’s top finisher at NCAAs last year who transferred to Ole Miss, would come in handy. Right now the favorite to assume that role is junior Joel Hubbard (4:00/14:06), though he’ll be pushed by redshirt freshman Mickey Burke (4th at Foot Locker finals in 2013). Tulsa transfer Adam Palamar, who ran 3:38 for 1500 at age 19, could also be a factor down the road.

“I haven’t been able to tell yet if he can help us at cross country,” Fox said of Palamar. “This is a pretty elevated group and I think it’s taken a while to get used to the way we train.”

Syracuse won’t need a great day to get on the podium, but even Fox acknowledges that it will take something special to take down Pac-12 powers Stanford and Colorado at NCAAs.

“We’ve gotta get a little lucky one way or the other,” Fox said. “Either we run out of our heads or maybe they (are) off a little bit. But like I said, I’m not saying we’re gonna win nationals. I’m saying we’re gonna try and win a trophy.”

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