NCAA XC Weekend Recap: Grant Fisher Doesn’t Need To Redshirt, The Boise State Women Are For Real And The NCAA 1,500 Champs Struggle

September 28, 2015

The first major weekend of college cross country is in the books, and though we’re still eight weeks away from the NCAA Championships in Louisville, we’re starting to learn more about which teams and individuals will play a major role in that race. On Friday, we were onsite to see the No. 3 Syracuse men and No. 8 Providence women stake their claims as podium contenders with dominant victories at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown. The next day, the No. 25 Michigan State men and No. 20 Boise State women captured wins at the Roy Griak Invitational while Grant Fisher impressed in his collegiate debut at the Stanford Invitational. We already offered analysis and interviews on the Battle in Beantown (LRC No. 3 Syracuse Men And No. 8 Providence Women Crush Competition At 2015 Coast-To-Coast Battle In Beantown) so this article will largely deal with the implications of the rest of the weekend’s action. Below, four thoughts on what we learned.

Full weekend results

1. Stanford is going to need Grant Fisher to beat Colorado

The No. 2 Stanford men earned the win at Saturday’s Stanford Invitational, and while that was obviously nice for the program — especially after losing to Washington State and UC Santa Barbara last year — it doesn’t mean much considering the Cardinal were severely shorthanded. The more important results came in the individual race, which couldn’t have gone any better for Stanford. Up front, junior Sean McGorty won handily, running 23:07. Freshman phenom Grant Fisher, running unattached, was second in 23:33.

Let’s start with McGorty. It can be dangerous to compare times in cross country, but given that conditions are almost always nice for this early-season meet, it says something that McGorty’s winning time was the fastest since the meet became an 8k race in 1989. The current layout has been in place since 2010, so with the caveat about times in place, let’s see how McGorty’s 23:07 stacks up to some recent Cardinal performances.

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Year Athlete Time Margin of victory NCAA finish
2015 Sean McGorty 23:07 26 seconds ???
2014 Joe Rosa 23:16 0 seconds 33rd
2014 Maksim Korolev 23:16 N/A 4th
2011 Chris Derrick 23:15 6 seconds 2nd
2011 Jake Riley 23:21 N/A 18th
2010 David McNeill 23:18 4 seconds 123rd
2010 Elliott Heath 23:22 N/A 42nd
2010 Jake Riley 23:22 N/A 6th
2010 Chris Derrick 23:22 N/A 5th
McGorty winning the U.S. junior XC title in 2014 McGorty winning the U.S. junior XC title in 2014

Look at the table and you see the issues with comparing times — a 23:22 running with three teammates isn’t the same as a 23:22 running alone. Likewise, McGorty’s 23:07 doesn’t note that he was told to sit on the leader until 5k before ratcheting the pace down to the finish. But when we add in the context we do know — McGorty was 20th at NCAAs in 2014 and, unlike last year, he had a healthy summer of training in 2015 — it says the junior could be a top-10 talent in Louisville.

Remember, this is a guy who ran 8:45 for two miles in high school, who broke Andrew Bumbalough‘s Foot Locker South course record and who would have been Foot Locker national champion were it not for a guy by the name of Edward Cheserek. We’ve yet to see the Rosa brothers race all-out this fall, but McGorty is looking like Stanford’s #1 man right now.

Whether the No. 2 Cardinal can topple two-time defending Colorado could come down to the man who took second behind McGorty on Saturday, Grant Fisher. When we spoke to Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg earlier this month, he said that he would wait to see what Fisher did at the Stanford Invitational before making a decision about whether to redshirt him. In our season preview, we said we didn’t need to see Fisher race and we advised Miltenberg to 100% race Fisher this year in xc. Well now given how Fisher ran on Saturday, it seems obvious how to proceed: replace the redshirt with a red Stanford jersey and let the kid race.

Think of it this way: if you went to hunt buffalo in the wild, you wouldn’t leave without a full round of ammunition. The same logic will apply when the Cardinal go out to hunt Colorado Buffaloes in Louisville on November 21; they may not succeed in bringing down their quarry, but with Fisher in the fold, they can at least say they gave themselves every advantage possible.

There is an argument to be made to redshirt Fisher — the Stanford Invitational is just one race, and not a very competitive one at that — but this isn’t a decision that needs to be made immediately. Miltenberg said that if Fisher is to run for Stanford this fall, it likely won’t come until Pac-12s on October 30, and if that date rolls around and Fisher is hurt or his training has stalled, it’s still easy to redshirt him. But if everything is still going smoothly, Fisher needs to race. Without him, Stanford is still probably the No. 2 team in the country assuming there are no injuries as they’ve got McGorty, the Rosas, ’14 All-American Sam Wharton and three other sub-14:00 guys — but to beat Colorado, they’ll need all hands on deck.

Stanford should be good again next year, and the year after that, but we know that they are good right now and Fisher could be the guy that puts them over the top to beat Colorado. If they have a chance to win a national title with Fisher, they should take it.

Let’s close this point with an example. Fisher has frequently drawn comparisons to Dathan Ritzenhein, like Fisher a Michigan native and two-time Foot Locker champ in high school. In 2001, Ritzenhein was a true freshman at the University of Colorado. Coach Mark Wetmore elected not to redshirt Ritzenhein, and he wound up finishing fourth at NCAAs, a massive reason why Colorado was able to win its first men’s team title by one point — over Stanford.

MB: GRANT FISHER unattached 2nd at stanford invitational!
MB: D2 Chico almost EMBARRASSES D1 Stanford

2. The Boise State women are very good

When the Broncos qualified for their first NCAA Championship in 2014, it seemed to serve as the fitting crescendo to the careers of two terrific runners in Emma Bates (2014 NCAA 10,000 champ) and Marisa Howard (2014 NCAA steeple runner-up). Led by All-American performances from Bates and Howard in Terre Haute, the Broncos finished an impressive 11th overall.

Both those women are gone now, as is the team’s fourth finisher from NCAAs last year, Tessa Murray. Yet, this year’s Boise State squad, led by coach Corey Ihmels who is in his third year there, could be even better than the 2014 edition, as demonstrated by a commanding 79-point stomping of defending national champion No. 6 Michigan State at the Roy Griak Invitational on Saturday. The Broncos clustered four runners in the top 10 (and six in the top 22) to score just 37 points. That’s 148 fewer than they scored last year, and 29 fewer than Michigan State scored to win Roy Griak in 2014.

This year’s field was not nearly as strong as 2014 (which featured MSU, eventual NCAA runner-up Iowa State plus UNC and Baylor). The last team to score fewer than the Broncos’ 37 points was Iowa State in 2009, and the Cyclones wound up just 17th at NCAAs that year. But Boise State has good reason to think a top-10 finish is possible this year.

 Annie Bothma leads at Roy Griak Annie Bothma (l) at Roy Griak

Cal’s Bethan Knights ran away with the 6k race in 20:53, looking strong in the final kilometer, but the next two finishers behind her were both Boise State freshmen: Allie Ostrander and Annie Bothma. Ostrander, the 2014 NXN champion, ran 9:58 for 3200 last spring and has lived up to the hype by making an immediate impact this fall. An Alaska native, she won the junior race at the World Mountain Running Championships in Wales on September 19 and bounced back very well at Roy Griak. If she can keep rolling until late November, she’ll be a top 10-15 threat in Louisville. Bothma, like fellow South African native Zola Budd, competes barefoot and has run 34:39 for 10,000 on the roads. She was also 48th in the senior race at World XC in March.

Behind the two freshmen, Finnish sophomore Minttu Hukka showed nice progress from last year in finishing 6th while another freshman, Brenna Peloquin, took 10th. The deeper field at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational on October 16 should give us an idea of just how good Boise State is, but the program’s first top-10 finish appears within reach. And with no seniors in their top seven (and just one junior), the Broncos could be podium contenders in 2016 or 2017 if they can keep improving. Still, it’s September, and a lot can change over the next few weeks, months and years. Let’s see how the Baby Broncos handle Wisconsin first.

3. NCAA 1500 champs struggle

Noelle excelled on the track this year but his first XC race didn't go as smoothly Noelle excelled on the track this year but his first XC race didn’t go as smoothly

Both the men’s and women’s NCAA 1500 champions made their cross country season debuts over the weekend and it didn’t go particularly smoothly for either of them. Chad Noelle of Oklahoma State did help the Cowboys to a win at the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Okla., but he was the team’s fourth man, finishing 16th overall in 25:31, a minute back of winner Cerake Geberkidane. The result was a good one for Geberkidane, who ran 41 seconds faster than he did on this course last year, but OSU will need Noelle — whom coach Dave Smith described as a potential top-20 guy at NCAAs at the start of the season — to finish further up the pack if the Cowboys are to return to the podium for the sixth time in seven years. That kind of jump will be hard, but it’s certainly possible: this was Noelle’s first XC race in two years.

There were two other finishers of note behind Noelle. First is the man he outkicked, Peter Lomong of Northern Arizona (17th, 25:32). Lomong, a freshman, is the younger brother of former Lumberjack NCAA champion/two-time U.S. Olympian Lopez Lomong. Lopez had the more impressive prep career, but we’ll keep an eye on Peter in the future. The other is Craig Nowak, OSU’s top man at NCAAs (16th overall) in 2014. Nowak had to miss some time after undergoing a medical procedure in late August, and though he was only 19th on Saturday in 25:47 (competing unattached), the fact that he was back racing was a good sign.

Twelve hundred miles west, in Earlysville, Va., the NCAA women’s 1500 champ, Rhianwedd Price, kicked off her fall by taking 17th (17:41) in the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational, well back of winner Iona Lake of Virginia (16:49). Unlike Noelle, Price ran XC last fall and ran well, taking 24th at NCAAs, so her rough day was more surprising (we ranked her seventh in our preseason top 10). Price did have a long summer — her season didn’t end until the Euro U-23 Champs on July 12 — so perhaps she’s easing her way into the season.

4. There are mixed feelings in East Lansing right now

The No. 25 Michigan State men have to be feeling pretty good about themselves right now. Despite running with top man Caleb Rhynard, the Spartans left Roy Griak with the victory, scoring 74 points to pull out the win over 2014 champs Southern Utah and No. 29 Cal. Missouri transfer TJ Carey led MSU with a 7th-place finish.

No. 22 Colorado State will be kicking itself over this one as the Rams’ Jefferson Abbey and Jerrell Mock went 1-2 but the team only finished fourth as their 3-4-5 were 27th, 31st and 35th. It’s not all bad news for CSU, however. Abbey (a junior) and Mock (a sophomore) were the only non-freshman in the Rams’ top seven on Saturday, so there is definitely room for improvement. Cal should also view this as an opportunity missed as the Golden Bears were third with 94 points, though that was with 3:39/13:34 man Thomas Joyce taking 24th overall. Joyce has a history of underperforming in cross country, but after a breakout year on the track (he set his 5,000 pb by outkicking Syracuse stud Justyn Knight), he can’t be happy with 24th.

On the women’s side, Roy Griak was not a great sign for No. 6 Michigan State, though it’s too early to render a definitive verdict about the Spartans. Yes, getting pasted by Boise State (Michigan State was 2nd with 116, Boise State won with 37) was not a good outcome, but we knew the Spartans wouldn’t be at full strength with Lindsay Clark and Katie Landwehr recovering from injury. Rachele Schulist (5th) and Ali Wiersma (8th) both had solid days and if Clark and Landwehr can get back to their old form (or close to it), the Spartans will only need to find one runner to be competitive, rather than three. Of course, that’s a big if. Earlier this month, Michigan State coach Walt Drenth told us his women could be 25th if Clark and Landwehr don’t come around, and after the Spartans’ performance on Saturday, that seems about right.

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