September 21, 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.
With the men, we’ll start by releasing four teams as we want to finish before the meets start to count on Friday. So the release schedule will be as follows:
Thursday: Top 10 Individuals Men and Women
If you missed our women’s previews, you can find them here:
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.
10. Virginia: Cavaliers primed for first top-10 finish since 1984
2014 results: 21st NCAAs, 1st Southeast Regional, 4th ACC
Key returners (return entire top seven from last year at NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Kyle King||SR||43||4:02/8:06/13:55/8:39 SC; 18th in ’13|
|Adam Visokay||JR||127||7:57/29:11/8:43 SC; 123rd in ’13|
|Will Gray||SR||8:13/14:13/8:47 SC|
|Alex Corbett||FR||4:10/8:58/17th NXN|
When Virginia coach Pete Watson took over for the departed Jason Vigilante in 2012, the cross country program was coming off a bad year. The previous fall, the Cavaliers had finished just ninth at the Southeast Regional and missed NCAAs for the first time since 2004. In Watson’s first year, he took UVA back to the Big Dance, where his men finished 14th. The Cavs improved to 13th the next year but that progress skidded to a halt in 2014 when Virginia regressed to 21st place. With all seven runners back from that squad this fall, however, the Cavs have a shot to record the program’s first top-10 finish in 31 years.
A big reason for UVA’s disappointing showing at NCAAs last year was Kyle King. 18th overall in 2013, King battled an Achilles injury all fall and wound up just 88th at nationals. After a strong track season that included PRs at 3,000 (8:00) and in the 3,000 steeplechase (8:39), King should be back to his top-20 form in 2015.
Behind King, UVA has one of the deepest squads in the country, one through seven. The team’s top returner from 2014, Zach Herriott, ran 29:08 on the track in the spring and came within two spots of qualifying for NCAAs in the 10,000; classmate Connor Rog was just a second back of Herriott at NCAA XC. Junior Thomas Madden has run 13:57 for 5,000 and versatile Adam Visokay (7:57/29:11/8:43 steeple) is unlikely to repeat his 226th-place finish from a year ago. When you factor in new additions Brent Demarest (2014 redshirt who has run 8:09/14:14) and Will Gray (a grad student from the University of Birmingham who boasts PRs of 14:13 and 8:47 for the steeple) plus mid-d studs Mike Marsella (3:59 mile) and Henry Wynne (3:41 1500), the Cavaliers are overflowing with candidates who could make the leap from solid runner to All-American this fall.
Just how good UVA can be is yet to be determined. If King is back to his old self and the rest of the pack runs tightly behind him, the Cavaliers could put a scare into Syracuse at ACCs should easily break into the top 10 at NCAAs. Even in a worst-case scenario, it’s hard to imagine a team with this depth falling out of the top 15 in the country. With King (and maybe Gray — his eligibility is unclear) the only senior on the roster, the future is bright in Charlottesville.
(Editor’s note: If you are a fan of the UVA program, we think this article is a must read for you: LRC University Of Virginia Employing Banned Doper Martin Maric As Throws Coach; Coaches Association Honors Him As Regional Coach Of The Year)
9. Ole Miss: The best Rebels squad every is poised to break into the top 10
2014 results: 29th NCAAs, 1st South Regional, 2nd SEC, 8th Pre-Nats
Key returners (lose #3 from last year at NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|MJ Erb||JR||15||Transfer from Syracuse; 8:07/14:05|
|Ryan Manahan||SO||Transfer from Georgetown; 1:47/3:58/8:01|
Last year coach Ryan Vanhoy engineered one of the great turnarounds in the NCAA, taking the University of Mississippi — 10th at SECs and 9th at the South Regional in 2013 — to the Big Dance for the first time in school history. Though Ole Miss finished a disappointing 29th in Terre Haute (it didn’t help that Sean Tobin, the team’s #2 runner, broke his foot during the race and did not finish), it was a year of tremendous progress for the Rebels, who won their first-ever South Region title and finished second at SECs — the program’s first finish in the top four in 30 years.
When a team makes a breakthrough like that, it can be hard to match it the following year, but with the talent on the roster, it will be a disappointment if Ole Miss doesn’t make another jump.
“We were second at SECs last year by six points,” Vanhoy, entering his third season as coach, said. “When you finish second, you don’t go back hoping to finish second again…If we could finish in the top 10 nationally, that would be a nice step for us.”
Perhaps Vanhoy’s greatest achievement — and the key to the program’s success — has been making Oxford, Miss., an attractive place to distance runners. Ole Miss’ rise has been powered by transfers, but it’s not as if Vanhoy has been cold-calling teams looking for runners on their way out.
“Anyone who’s transferred here has sought us out,” Vanhoy said. “[They] see other guys transfer into our program and have success and think, ‘If it worked for them, it can work for me.'”
The first runner to transfer in was Wesley Gallagher, whom Vanhoy coached at Northeastern in 2012-13, and Gallagher’s success last year (he was third at SECs and the South Regional and was Ole Miss’ top runner at NCAAs) has encouraged others to follow him to Oxford. Vanhoy has known NC State transfer Craig Engels, an NCAA qualifier in the 800 this year, since he was in high school (both are North Carolina natives) and key 2015 addition MJ Erb (37th at NCAAs last year) sought out Ole Miss on his own after deciding to transfer from Syracuse last fall. The newest addition to the Rebels squad, indoor 800 All-American Ryan Manahan, already knew Engels and Erb, making the team a natural fit when he decided to transfer from Georgetown following the upheaval in its program.
Whether you’re a fan of the Rebels’ transfer-heavy strategy or not, there’s no denying this team’s talent. Erb finished as the top man on a very good Syracuse squad a year ago and has twice finished at the top 60 at NCAA XC. Gallagher, Tobin and Robert Domanic are all proven cross guys and Trevor Gilley, who ran 14:03 on the track this spring, should be able to make the leap into the Rebels’ top group. That gives Ole Miss five strong guys, but mid-d studs Engels and Manahan could also make an impact. Engels has already run 14:20 for 5,000 and has run two seasons of cross country. Manahan only ran two XC races at Georgetown but Vanhoy is confident he can help the team this fall.
“He’s a sub-4 miler but he’s also run 8:01 [for 3,000],” Vanhoy said. “Everything I’ve seen in practice, our longer runs, our longer tempos, he’s been step for step with all of our top guys who have run cross country…I certainly expect him to play a big role on our team.”
It’s tough to extend that range all the way up to a 10,000-meter cross country race, but even if Engels and Manahan can’t do it, Mississippi has enough depth to excel without them. And that’s a great situation to be in. If Engels, Manahan, or someone else on the roster — Ole Miss returns all but one runner from its top seven in ’14 — can exceed expectations, the Rebels could be very, very good this year. The podium at NCAAs is likely out of reach, but anything after that — from 5th to 15th — is in play.
8. Iona: Gaels shoot for another top-10 finish
2014 results: 8th NCAAs, 3rd Northeast Regional, 1st MAAC, 8th Pre-Nats
Key returners (lose #1, #4 from last year at NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Brandon Allen||SO||14:21/8:52 SC|
|Xavier King||SR||8:49 SC|
Aside from a disastrous 2012 meet where several members of its team were felled by food poisoning on the eve of the race, Iona has finished in the top 10 at NCAAs every year since 2002, a streak that looks set to continue in 2015. Seniors Jake Byrne and Andrew Kowalsky, both of whom scored for the Gaels at NCAAs last fall, are gone. But Iona returns veterans Mike O’Dowd and Kieran Clements (who should be back to his 2013 form, when he was 57th at NCAAs) and should see some nice progress from sophomores Gilbert Kirui and Chartt Miller.
They form a core group of four that head coach Ricardo Santos expects to be even better in 2015.
“Kieran Clements is ready to take that leap,” Santos said. “Last year, he had a stress fracture in the summer so he didn’t start running until a couple days after we had preseason camp. He really wasn’t at full fitness during the cross country season and it showed when he got to nationals (he finished 177th). I think he’s ready to make a big jump. Chartt Miller ran some good races last year but didn’t run as well as he should have at nationals (76th) so I think those two make a jump.”
For Iona to better its eighth-place finish from last year — and contend for a podium spot — it will need a #5 runner to emerge.
“We’ll have a solid four guys with a few others — Brandon Allen, Johannes Motschmann, Xavier King — who can fit in behind them,” Santos said. “Otis Ubriaco has run 7:59 for 3k. We have some talent on the team, they just have to come together.”
If the Gaels stay healthy and one or more of that second group can run consistently well at the #5 spot, they should add another top-10 performance at NCAAs. With some leaps from their top four and a good day at nationals, this could even be a podium team.
7. Oklahoma State: Cowboys look to bounce back from disappointing 2014 campaign
2014 results: 9th NCAAs, 1st Midwest Regional, 1st Big 12
Key returners (lose #3, #6, #7 from last year at NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Chad Noelle||SR||3:38/7:56; NCAA 1500 champ didn’t run XC in ’14|
|Vegard Oelstad||SR||3:58/8:04/14:17; 28th at MW regional in ’14|
|Benito Muniz||FR||4:09; 18th at FL|
The Cowboys entered last year riding a streak of five straight top-3 finishes, including three national titles in four years (2009, 2010 and 2012) – a feat unmatched since Arkansas won the last of John McDonnell’s titles way back in 2000. Oklahoma State looked well-positioned to make another podium run in 2014, but that streak skidded to the halt with a ninth-place finish in Terre Haute, the team’s worst NCAA result since 2006.
“I think last year was probably my most disappointing year as a coach,” said OSU head coach Dave Smith. “I think I just didn’t get it done, to be honest. That group of guys had the talent to be a top-four team if we got it together. For whatever reason, we didn’t. It wasn’t one guy failing or one guy not getting it done. Across the board, we struggled, with the exception of Craig Nowak, so that probably comes down to the coach.”
Smith and the Cowboys will be looking for redemption this season as NCAAs return to Louisville’s E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, the site of OSU’s last national title. Four of last year’s top five from NCAAs return (third man Kirubel Erassa, 69th in ’14, is the lone departure), led by Nowak, who timed his peak perfectly with a 16th-place finish. Seniors Fabian Clarkson (52nd last year) and Brian Gohlke (89th) both bring plenty of experience (they’ve raced at NCAA XC a combined five times) and should round out the team nicely. Clarkson and Gohlke will be key early on as Nowak underwent surgery on August 28 (a “very common medical procedure,” according to Smith, who would not share further details), which could keep him out for some time. Nowak had the option of waiting for the surgery, but decided to get it done sooner rather than later.
“The problem with waiting is, you may make it through the season or it may get so bad you can’t run,” Smith said. “The problem with the surgery is, it may take you two weeks to come back to be able to run again, it may take four or five. Some people take six to eight. We’re waiting to see if he’s gonna bounce back or not, we don’t know.”
To make a run at the podium, OSU will need Nowak to recover well and a couple other guys to join him in the top 40. One runner who could make the jump is sophomore Cerake Geberkidane, who was 34th in the junior race at World XC in March. A stud coming out of high school (4th at NXN in ’13, PRs of 4:06/8:50), Smith calls Geberkidane “one of the more talented guys I’ve ever had,” high praise from a man who has tutored Ryan Vail, German Fernandez and Shadrack Kipchirchir. Smith, who generally redshirts freshmen, was so impressed with Geberkidane’s talent that he chose to run him in his first year in 2014, but felt that at times Geberkidane struggled with some of the mental aspects of collegiate running.
“I’ve seen a huge difference in him this year as opposed to this time last year in terms of his focus, his ability to concentrate for longer periods of time,” Smith said. “Not just in a given workout, but in a week or a month or a season, [being] able to see the benefits of hard work now not [necessarily paying off] tomorrow but coming in November possibly and being motivated by that.”
Smith pointed to Nowak as an example of an athlete who’s extremely poised in races, and feels that if Geberkidane can learn from Nowak, “he can be the same kind of athlete this year that Craig was last year.”
Another Cowboy to watch is senior Chad Noelle. The NCAA 1500 champion, there’s no doubting Noelle’s talent, but whether he can get it done in a 10,000-meter race on grass remains to be seen. In two years at Oregon, Noelle never ran a cross country race, and he sat out last fall with an IT band issue (he was 18th at Big 12 XC in ’13).
“Chad Noelle was 10th at Foot Locker as a high school kid and didn’t ever take it the way a guy who’s gonna finish 10th does,” Smith said. “He’s never one to see himself as an cross country guy, he’s seen himself as a miler, but that guy can run. And I keep telling him, ‘Chad, there are plenty of milers — and milers who couldn’t win a national championship — that have run great cross country’…I think Chad is a top-20 guy [at NCAAs].”
Add in potential wildcards in juco transfer Josh Thompson, who has impressed Smith so far (he’s 5’9” and can dunk a basketball) and sophomores Anthoney Armstrong (8:11/9:00 steeple) and Matthew Fayers (4:01 mile) and the Cowboys could have some nice depth, though the Thompson-Armstrong-Fayers trio may need another year to develop.
There are a lot of “ifs” with this team. If Geberkidane takes a step forward. If Noelle can translate his track success to XC. However, the biggest question is can Nowak quickly regain his form after surgery. If everything breaks right and he’s top 25, this is likely a podium team once again. If not, OSU could slip out of the top 10 for the first time since 2004. Having a big question mark about your #1 makes us uneasy but out of respect for what Smith has accomplished at Oklahoma State, we are splitting the difference between podium and out of the top 10.