2015 NCAA XC: Men’s Individual Top 10 Preview: Can Anyone Beat King Cheserek?

By LetsRun.com
September 24, 2015

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been previewing the top men’s and women’s teams for the 2015 NCAA cross country season, with the New Mexico women and the Colorado men earning the #1 spots. Now it’s time to take a look at who the top individuals might be when the NCAA Championships are held in Louisville on November 21.

This isn’t an easy article to write as we’re effectively trying to forecast the results of a race that will be held two months from now. So consider this our best guess about what will happen as of right now.

At the very top, the men’s forecast is much easier than its women’s counterpart. As long as Oregon’s Edward Cheserek makes it to the starting line in Louisville healthy, he should cruise to his third straight NCAA XC title. Beyond that, though, anything can happen. Last year’s #2 returner, Futsum Zienasellassie, will redshirt this fall, making spots #2 through #10 even tougher to predict. We take a crack at it below.

In case you missed any of our 2015 XC team previews, here it is:

Women’s team 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 team previews: #10 Virginia, #9 Ole Miss, #8 Iona and #7 Oklahoma State * #6 Oregon, #5 Villanova, #4 Wisconsin and #3 Syracuse * #2 Stanford and #1 Colorado

Women’s individual preview

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Honorable mentions
As we mentioned above, these lists are incredibly hard to compile as someone good is always going to be left out. You could make a case that any of the guys on the list below should be in our top 10 and we wouldn’t argue with you. Here, in no particular order, are some of the men who just missed the cut in our top 10 but who could still be major factors in Louisville.
  • Malachy Schrobilgen, junior, Wisconsin — 10th a year ago, Schrobilgen is an exceptional cross country runner (he won Big 10s as a freshman and a sophomore) and is coming off his best-ever track season (Big 10 10,000 champ, 8th at NCAAs).
  • Mason Ferlic, senior, Michigan — Last year’s Notre Dame Invite champ, Ferlic was 22nd at NCAAs in 2013 and 13th last year. After running PBs of 13:46 and 8:35 (steeple) in the spring, he has a great chance to improve on that in 2015.
  • Morgan Pearson, senior, Colorado — Pearson ran faster than any Buff on the track in 2015 (7:51/13:36) and though his NCAA performances were slightly disappointing (5th in indoor 3k but 17th in outdoor 5k and 14th in indoor 5k), he could easily be Colorado’s #1 when all is said and done.
  • Marc Scott, senior, Tulsa — The Englishman was a man for all seasons in 2014-15, taking 14th at NCAAs in cross country and running PBs of 7:55, 13:36 and 28:30 on the track. He should become an even bigger threat as a senior.
  • Martin Hehir, senior, Syracuse — The ACC champ, Hehir was 7th at the Wisconsin Invite and looked poised for a top-20 finish but wasn’t quite on his game in Terre Haute, finishing 38th. He responded with an outstanding track season (3:59/7:53/13:35/28:27), taking 7th in the indoor 3k and 13th in the outdoor 10k. His teammate Justyn Knight has the higher ceiling, but Hehir could easily be SU’s #1 once again in 2015.
  • Connor Winter, senior, Colorado — A consistent member of the Buffaloes, Winter scored at NCAAs in 2012 and 2014 (when he was 24th).
  • Grant Fisher, freshman, Stanford — In the past six years, only one American freshman has finished in the top 10 at NCAAs — Colorado’s Ben Saarel in 2013. But if anyone can match that feat, it’s Fisher, who could be a generational talent. A two-time Foot Locker champ in high school (Dathan Ritzenhein is the only other American to accomplish that feat), Fisher is also blessed with tremendous speed (he and Lukas Verzbicas are the only high schoolers to win a Foot Locker title and break 4:00 in the mile). Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg has committed to bringing Fisher along slowly — redshirting him is still an option — but if he does race, we could be in for something special.

The Top 10

10. Jim Rosa, senior, Stanford

Previous NCAA finishes: 5th (2013), 166th (2012)

Track credentials: 6th in 2014 NCAA outdoor 10,000; PBs of 13:50/28:57

Rosa missed almost all of 2014-15 recovering from a knee injury sustained in the cross country season, but he was terrific in 2013-14, placing fifth at NCAA XC and sixth at NCAA outdoors in the 10,000, running 28:57. With an entire year to recover, expect Rosa to rebound and run near the front of the pack at NCAAs this fall.

9. Joe Rosa, senior, Stanford

Previous NCAA finishes: 33rd (2014), 112th (2012), 154th (2011)

Track credentials: 7th in 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000; PBs of 13:31/29:16

Rosa, who redshirted the track season, was Stanford’s #1 runner three years ago and ran with Maksim Korolev for most of last season before dropping back to 33rd at NCAAs. But he was 8th at Wisconsin and 3rd at Pac-12s (behind only Edward Cheserek and Eric Jenkins); Rosa is battle-tested against the nation’s best runners, and his 13:31 PB suggests that he can go toe-to-toe against any of them. Historically, Joe has been a bit better than Jim, hence why we rank him ninth and Jim tenth.

8. Ammar Moussa, senior, Colorado

Previous NCAA finishes: 5th (2014), 95th (2013), 88th (2011)

Track credentials: 10th in NCAA indoor 5,000; Pac-12 10,000 champ; PBs of 7:53/13:41

7. Pierce Murphy, senior, Colorado

Previous NCAA finishes: 35th (2014), 39th (2013), 45th (2012)

Track credentials: 5th in NCAA outdoor 10,000; 6th in NCAA indoor 5,000; PBs of 7:59/13:37/28:52

Moussa left and Murphy should have reason to celebrate again in 2015 Moussa (left) and Murphy (right) should have reason to celebrate again in 2015

If Murphy and teammate Ammar Moussa score for the Buffs at NCAAs and Colorado lands on the podium, they’ll become the latest members of an exclusive club: runners to have scored for a podium team four times. Take a look at the guys to have done it in the past decade. You’ll probably recognize a few of their names.

Name School Years
Tom Farrell Oklahoma State 2010-13
Harbert Okuti Iona 2005-08
Mohamed Khadraoui Iona 2005-08
Andrew Ledwith Iona 2005-08
Chris Solinsky Wisconsin 2003-06
Simon Bairu Wisconsin 2002-05

We’re putting Murphy ahead of Moussa since he had the best track season of any Buff, highlighted by an eye-popping 13:37.05 5,000 at Payton Jordan and two top-six finishes at NCAAs. But you could easily argue for Moussa seventh (or higher) considering he’s the #2 returner from NCAAs last fall and won the Pac-12 10,000 in May (though he failed to make NCAAs on the track). Last year, Moussa was CU’s #3 at Pac-12s and Ben Saarel was their #5. At NCAAs, Moussa was their #1 (5th overall) and Saarel was their #2 (7th overall). Colorado’s pack is so tight that their running order really comes down to who is feeling good on the day. Last year it was Moussa and Saarel; this year it could be Murphy and Morgan Pearson. It’s very likely that Colorado will have two or three in the top 10 at NCAAs (they had three in 2014) but even Nostradamus would have trouble pinning down exactly who will pop one at NCAAs when the meet is still two months away.

6. John Mascari, senior, Indiana State

Previous NCAA finishes: 8th (2014), 32nd (2013), 60th (2012)

Track credentials: 11th in 2014 NCAA outdoor 10,000; PBs of 13:54/28:38

Mascari wont have home-course advantage in 2015, but that shouldnt prevent him from finishing in the top 10 again Mascari won’t have home-course advantage in 2015, but that shouldn’t prevent him from finishing in the top 10 again

Mascari has only been to NCAAs once on the track, but the guy has always been a stud in cross country. As a sophomore in 2013, he won the always competitive Great Lakes Regional before finishing 32nd at NCAAs. Last year, he put together the following line:

Notre Dame Invite: 3rd
Pre-Nats: 5th
Missouri Valley Conference Championship: 1st
Great Lakes Regional: 1st
NCAA Championship: 8th

It’s hard not to think he’s in even better shape this fall after smashing his 5,000 (from 13:59 to 13:54) and 10,000 (from 29:10 to 28:38, #3 among returners) PBs in 2015. He may not have home-course advantage as in years past (Mascari, a Terre Haute native, has been racing on the LaVern Gibson Championship Course since he was in sixth grade), but Mascari acquitted himself nicely with a 60th-place finish in Louisville as a freshman three years ago — among first-years, only Anthony Rotich, Futsum Zienasellassie and Pierce Murphy finished higher in that race. With Zienasellassie redshirting, it’s not hard to imagine Mascari finishing as the top senior in November.

5. Justyn Knight, sophomore, Syracuse

Previous NCAA finishes: 143rd (2014)

Credentials: 6th in NCAA outdoor 5,000, 25th in World XC jr. race; 8th at 2014 World Juniors in 5,000; PBs of 3:39/13:34

Knight could be the most improved runner in the NCAA in terms of bettering his place at nationals. Knight flashed tremendous potential by finishing 14th at Wisconsin, but he fell ill after ACCs and struggled to a 143rd-place finish at NCAAs in his first collegiate 10k, losing 81 places over the final 2k.

True freshmen rarely step in and dominate at the NCAA level, so Knight’s poor performance at nationals was understandable. But it only took him a few months to figure things out. Knight was already a big-time recruit entering last year (he ran 14:08 for 5,000 a week after turning 18 years old) but he truly broke out during the outdoor season, running 3:39 and 13:34, winning the ACC 1500 title and recording a sixth-place finish in the 5,000 at NCAAs. Of the men who beat him in that race, only Edward Cheserek returns this fall.

Knight has always had the talent to succeed, and with a year in the NCAA system under his belt, now he’s got the experience. Add in a strong supporting cast of training partners, particularly Martin Hehir, who has run 13:35 and 28:27, and Knight has all the tools to notch a top-10 finish this fall. If someone from North America somehow beats Cheserek, we think it will actually be Knight and not our #3 pick (Saarel) given Knight’s superior track pb.

4. Patrick Tiernan, junior, Villanova

Previous NCAA finishes: 18th (2014), 9th (2013)

Track credentials: 10th in NCAA outdoor 5,000 in 2015; 6th in NCAA outdoor 5,000 in 2014; PBs of 7:57 and 13:31

Tiernan wasn’t fully healthy last season, but still produced one of the most impressive performances of 2014 with his 23:00 victory at the Washington Invitational on October 4, a race in which he dusted one of the country’s best cross country runners, Futsum Zienasellassie, by 20 seconds.

With this ranking, we’re banking on Tiernan returning to his 2013-14 form (9th at NCAA XC, 7:57/13:31 on the track) as opposed to 2014-15 (18th at NCAA XC, 8:18/13:54). So far, the signs are good: Nova coach Marcus O’Sullivan said that Tiernan is even stronger than he was last year. If that’s the case, the 21-year-old Australian, who debuted with a win at Haverford’s Main Line Invitational on September 18, should be among the very best runners in the country this fall.

3. Ben Saarel, junior, Colorado

Previous NCAA finishes: 7th (2014), 8th (2013)

Track credentials: Made NCAAs in 1500 in 2014 and 2015 (did not advance to final either year); 3rd in NCAA indoor 3k in 2014; PBs of 3:41/7:52/13:48

Saarel has come up huge for the Buffs two years in a row at NCAAs Saarel has come up huge for the Buffs two years in a row at NCAAs

Saarel has been hit or miss on the track through two years at Colorado, but he came up huge at NCAAs in cross country in 2013 and 2014 and there’s reason to believe he’ll be even better this fall. Last year, Saarel was CU’s fifth man at Pac-12s (8th overall) and the Mountain Regional (13th overall) before stepping up to finish as the Buffs’ #2 (7th overall) at NCAAs. It’s similar to what happened in 2013, when he was CU’s #3 at Pac-12s and #2 at Regionals before finishing as their #1 at NCAAs.

Part of that pinballing is due to CU’s embarrassment of riches up front. Saarel has finished in the single digits in all but one of the cross country races he’s run in a Colorado uniform; he just happens to run for a team that has won the national championship in both of his seasons as a member. It’s also possible that Saarel’s tough academic load (he carries a 3.885 GPA as an engineering physics major) has eaten into his sleep.

More than anything, though, Buffaloes coach Mark Wetmore attributes Saarel’s inconsistent 2014 XC season to the fact that he was battling a virus all fall; it’s tough to kick a bug like that when you’re training hard every day. Saarel remains a supremely talented runner who’s demonstrated an ability to run his best when it matters most. We’re banking on that proving true once again in 2015.

2. Anthony Rotich, senior, Texas Tech

Previous NCAA finishes: 11th (2014), 19th (2013); 4th (2012)

Track credentials: Three-time NCAA steeple champ (2013, 2014, 2015); 2014 NCAA indoor mile champ; PBs of 3:59/7:53/13:31/8:21 (steeple)

Rotich is only the #6 returner from 2014, but there’s a lot to like about the UTEP senior. He’s won four NCAA titles (three steeple, one indoor mile) and has also run extremely fast — among active NCAA runners, only Cheserek has bettered his 13:31.59 5,000 PB. Then there’s this: the last time NCAAs were held on this course, in 2012, Rotich finished fourth overall as a freshmen. The three men he lost to? Kennedy KithukaStephen Sambu and Lawi Lalang. No shame in that.

Rotich should also benefit from the venue change, especially if it’s a warm day in Louisville on November 21. Rotich was only 19th in Terre Haute two years ago on a cold, sloppy course, and explained at last year’s pre-race press conference that he doesn’t enjoy running in the cold. Louisville is only about 150 miles southeast of Terre Haute, but its average November high is three degrees warmer (57.9 vs. 54.9, per Wikipedia) and the high was a balmy 61 degrees the last time it hosted NCAAs, per Weather Underground. The average high in Louisville on November 21 (the date of NCAAs) from 2010 to 2014 was 60.8 degrees. Terre Haute? 52.4. Louisville’s not El Paso, but when you factor in marginally better weather and a course where Rotich has had success before (in addition to his 4th at NCAAs, he also won Pre-Nats there in 2012), the venue change should be a boon to Rotich.

1. Edward Cheserek, junior, Oregon

Previous NCAA finishes: 1st (2014), 1st (2013)

Track credentials: NCAA outdoor 5,000/10,000 champ; NCAA indoor mile champ; anchored Oregon DMR to victory at NCAA indoors; 8 total individual NCAA titles between XC/indoor/outdoor; PBs of 3:36/7:49/13:18/28:30

Twice is nice -- Cheserek won NCAAs handily in 2014 and should do the same in 2015 Twice is nice — Cheserek won NCAAs handily in 2014 and should do the same in 2015

Expect anyone different? Calling Cheserek a man among boys might not be enough. With Eric Jenkins gone, the more apt analogy might be a god among men. His closing speed is phenomenal (he covered his final 1k of the NCAA mile final in 2:19) but he’s so strong (13:18/28:30; he’s yet to run an all-out 10k but could certainly manage something well under 28:00) that it’s basically impossible to shake him at the end of a race. He’s the Mo Farah of the NCAA.

Almost all of his recent losses come with a caveat. Jordy Williamsz outkicked him in the Penn Relays 4 x mile because Cheserek elected to turn it into a 400-meter race against a 1:46 guy. Twenty-five men beat him in the 10,000 at the Stanford Invitational, but Cheserek merely jogged that race to record an NCAA qualifier. His loss to Jenkins in the 3,000 at NCAA indoors was his fourth race of the weekend (and second of the night) whereas Jenkins was one race #1 of the day and #2 of the weekend; Cheserek later said he let Jenkins win.

None of those circumstances will apply on November 21 in Louisville. Cheserek will run only one race that day, with only one objective: win. Cheserek will hang with the leaders for the first five or six kilometers. At some point before the end of the race, he will take off and that will be that.

Assuming King Ches remains healthy (and he has yet to suffer a significant injury in two years at Oregon), he will become the first man to win three consecutive NCAA XC titles (Washington State’s Gerry Lindgren and Henry Rono and fellow Duck Steve Prefontaine all won three in four years, Rono likely would have won 4 straight had he not run off course one year). Perhaps someone like UTEP’s Anthony Rotich will push the pace early in order to challenge Cheserek. It’s worth a shot, considering Cheserek is rarely forced to run fast from the gun. But the most that will change is when Cheserek chooses to make his winning move. The outcome has already been decided.

We had no trouble coming up with our #1 pick but a lot of trouble coming up with #2-10 for a simple reason. On paper, the gap between #1 and #2 is bigger than the gap between #2 and #10.

Chersek’s pb for 5000 is 13:18. No one else in the NCAA has run faster than 13:31. So he’s got 13 seconds on them. If one considers that Cheserek’s pb is from 2014 and we all know he’s better than Eric Jenkins who ran 13:07 this summer, then it’s reasonable to consider Cheserek as being a 13:05 guy. Under that logic, then the gap is even larger (Tiernan and Joe Rosa’s 13:31 PBs are also from 2014, but unlike Cheserek, they didn’t win come close to winning any NCAA track titles in 2015). But basically Cheserek is roughly 20 seconds better at 5k than everyone else in the NCAA. That’s A TON. The gap between #2 at NCAAs and the last All-American (#40) is only a little larger than that (last year’s #40 had a 13:56 pb). There is a reason why they run the race – a Cheserek loss at NCAAs is possible, but if it happens it will be a monumental upset.

Wild-Card: UETP’s Jonah Koech

Could Jonah Koech (r) turn into the next great thing at the NCAA level? Could Jonah Koech (r) turn into the next great thing at the NCAA level?

If there is a huge upset, remember the name Jonah Koech as he might be the winner.

Who is that, you say? Good question. Koech is an 18-year-old freshman at UTEP. He hails from the famed St. Patrick’s School in Kenya.

When we asked another college coach who recruited Koech about him, the coach said, “He is the real deal. He can do it all.” The coach also claimed Koech has run 1:45 for 800. Maybe that’s true but tilastopaja.org lists a 1:46.8 pb for the 18-year-old, whom we believe took silver at the African Junior champs for 800 earlier this year.

10,000 meters might be far for an 18-year-old 800-meter guy but Koech has showed he’s pretty good at XC already as he won UTEP’s last meet, the 7k Kachina Classic in New Mexico, defeating Anthony Rotich by four-tenths of a second in the process. Now we imagine many of you are saying, “I bet they jogged it in together and Rotich let him win.”

Well we’ve unearthed a video of the finish and they definitely weren’t jogging, though you could argue that Rotich did let up a bit toward the end. Decide for yourself if Rotich let Koech win.

Koech is clearly a stud. Look who he hung out with in Kenya.

Jonah Koech and David Rudisha (photo from Koech's facebook page) Jonah Koech and David Rudisha (photo from Koech’s facebook page)

Jonah Koech and Colm O'Connell Jonah Koech and Colm O’Connell

Mentioning Koech is a great way to end this piece. Before Cheserek, Kennedy Kithuka was viewed as unbeatable. Before Kithuka, it was Lawi Lalang. The history of the NCAA has shown there is always someone new coming onto the scene.

Discuss the individuals at NCAAs on our fan forum: MB: What is your Early Season Individual NCAA Top 15

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