NCAA XC Weekend Recap: Wisconsin Jeopardized The At-Large Process And Should Be DQed From Louisville + No. 1 Colorado Debuts And The Six-Man XC Team That Beat Everyone At Notre Dame
November 21, 2015
We break down the impressive start to the season for Mark Wetmore‘s Colorado squads, analyze what Oregon’s wins over Stanford mean, and rave about the men’s team that only has six runners on its entire roster, but we save all our passion for ripping Mick Byrne’s Wisconsin squad, who flew to Louisville and didn’t try to win the race. We pull out the NCAA rule book and ask the NCAA track and field team to DQ the Badger men as they clearly violated the honest effort rule. Yes, it exists for XC.
October 6, 2015
(Editor’s note: This article was initially titled: NCAA XC Weekend Recap: Shame On You, Wisconsin – You Disrespected The Sport And Should Be DQed From Louisville + No. 1 Colorado Debuts And The Six-Man XC Team That Beat Everyone At Notre Dame. After some thought, we took out the shame part as we felt it was over the top. Wisconsin wasn’t acting in a clear-cut shameful manner. They were acting in their own self-interest but failed to consider the ramifications those actions would have on others)
Things are about to get serious in the world of college cross-country. NCAA teams have been able to acquire at-large points for the last two weeks, and during that span almost every top team has raced. We know more than we did a month ago, but many teams still haven’t laid all their cards on the table. Some haven’t raced top competition yet (Colorado, Oklahoma State). Some have rested top runners (Stanford). And some have traveled across the country for what amounted to a glorified tempo run (Wisconsin).
This week will be a quiet one with no major races on the schedule, but starting with next week’s Wisconsin adidas Invitational (October 16) and Pre-Nationals (October 17), every meet is serious. A few of the very top teams may have the luxury of resting runners in those races, but almost everyone else will be at full strength in search of those precious at-large points. From there, it’s conference, regionals and NCAAs.
We’re about to hit the meat of the season, so let’s take this moment to savor the final morsels of the appetizer. Here’s what we learned from last weekend.
*Rocky Mountain Shootout results *Greater Louisville Classic results *Princeton Inter-Regional results *Washington Invitational results *Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational results* Paul Short Run results *All results
1. No. 1 Colorado debuts
The two-time defending national champion No. 1 Colorado men debuted over the weekend, sweeping the top seven places at the Rocky Mountain Shootout in Boulder. Conditions were good for running fast, and that’s what several members of the Buffaloes did, with Pierce Murphy (1st, 24:26), Morgan Pearson (2nd, 24:31) and Connor Winter (3rd, 24:35) leading the way. Despite similar conditions, the times weren’t as fast as last year (see table below) but overall it was a solid performance by CU’s top five, including true freshman John Dressel (who competed unattached).
|#1||Pierce Murphy, 24:26||Blake Theroux, 24:23|
|#2||Morgan Pearson, 24:31||Pierce Murphy, 24:24|
|#3||Connor Winter, 24:35||Ammar Moussa, 24:28|
|#4||Zach Perrin, 24:53||Morgan Pearson, 24:32|
|#5||John Dressel, 25:16||Ben Saarel, 24:43|
|#6||Ben Saarel, 25:18||Jake Hurysz, 24:51|
|#7||Ryan Forsyth, 25:19||Connor Winter, 24:52|
|Top 5 average||24:44||24:30|
|Spread||50 seconds||29 seconds|
Breaking 25:00 on CU’s home course at 5,400 feet of elevation is no small task and the fact that the Buffaloes had four men under that time on Saturday is a very good sign. However the results did produce a few questions.
Why was Ben Saarel, a guy who was seventh at NCAAs last year, only the sixth guy on the team? And why was he competing unattached?
“[Ben] is a little behind what he ran a year ago,” CU coach Mark Wetmore said to us earlier today. “He’s got a little cold. Nothing big.”
Additionally, you may want to take another look at the table above. Saarel was only CU’s fifth man last year. (His 2015 time of 25:16 was faster than anyone ran in 2013, a year that Colorado also went on to win NCAAs).
Wetmore added that they’re just being patient and there is no hurry to put Saarel in a CU uniform considering he hasn’t redshirted before (he said the same for Dressel).
So is Wetmore worried about Saarel this year?
“I’m always worried about everything,” he deadpanned.
Given that statement, one might think that Wetmore would be worried that Ammar Moussa, Colorado’s #1 man at NCAAs last year and the #2 returner in the NCAA behind Edward Cheserek, was missing from the results, but Wetmore didn’t seem too concerned about his absence.
“Our race course is very hilly with uneven footing, occasional rocks and cacti,” Wetmore said. “We only run guys who are totally perfect. Ammar is less than perfect right now.”
Wetmore said, per CU policy, he couldn’t go into further detail on why Moussa wasn’t 100 percent, but added that if he needed to race on Saturday, he could have.
No one should be panicking in Boulder. Would it have been more encouraging to see Moussa in action and Saarel further up the pack? Obviously. But what the results did show was that CU has an extremely fit top three, a very solid #4 in Zach Perrin and three serviceable replacements in Dressel, Saarel and freshman Ryan Forsyth should Moussa’s return be delayed (Moussa has already redshirted so he’ll be doing whatever he can to get back this fall).
Beyond that, it’s hard to say anything definitively about Colorado. Obviously, it will be harder to beat teams like Stanford if Moussa can’t go or if Saarel isn’t himself. But one race tells us little about where Moussa or Saarel will be in November, and Stanford also has questions. Where is Jim Rosa (who has not raced yet this fall)? Will Grant Fisher redshirt?
It’s still too early to compare the top two teams in the nation head-to-head at this point in the season.
Some quick-hitting notes on the No. 2 CU women, who also scored a perfect 15 at the Rocky Mountain Shootout:
Erin Clark‘s 20:13 winning time was the fastest on the course since 2009. Only four women have run faster: Jenny Simpson, Kara Goucher, Amy Morton and Sara Slattery…Freshman Brianna Schwartz, last year’s Foot Locker Northeast champ, didn’t race and will redshirt this year…CU freshman Tabor Scholl was third overall in 21:04 but ran unattached. Wetmore said he hopes to have her on the roster by January. He wouldn’t share why she wasn’t on the roster but a messageboard poster says it’s an eligibility issue related to her being homeschooled and the credits not transferring correctly…Carrie Verdon, Melanie Nun and Tayler Tuttle did not race the RMS, instead racing at the Roadrunner Invitational in Denver (they went 1-3-4; fellow CU athlete Lucy Cheadle was 2nd, but Cheadle only has outdoor track eligibility remaining). Wetmore felt they weren’t 100 percent ready to race on CU’s rocky home course and elected to play it safe on a flatter, softer layout. Verdon broke her foot during last year’s Rocky Mountain Shootout.
2. Wisconsin men should be DQed at Louisville
Two weeks ago, Wisconsin flew across the country to New York to race at the Iona Meet of Champions. The No. 4 Badgers didn’t race all-out, but they didn’t have to. They worked on running as a pack went 3-4-5-6-7 to cruise to the team title with 25 points. What they did in Louisville on Saturday was different.
Against a field at the Greater Louisville Classic that included four other ranked teams, Wisconsin packed it up once again, going 39-40-41-42 (their fifth man was further back in 65th). Despite running an “A squad” on paper, the Badgers only finished in seventh place.
After the race, Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne confirmed to Flotrack that the main purpose of the race was to get a look at the course (which will host NCAAs next month) and that he instructed his team not to go all-out.
“It’s just way too early,” Byrne said. “In two weeks’ time [at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational] it’s a different beast. You’ve got 26 of the top 31 teams in the country coming in for both genders and that race is going to be completely different. Guys will get the green light then. That’s enough racing, between adidas and what comes after that. There’s a lot of racing to be done yet. You’ve gotta have confidence in your training and continue training. We’ll back off the week of adidas but we’re not backing off until then.”
So basically Wisconsin forfeited to six teams in Louisville. People can defend it all they want but that’s bad for our sport. No ifs ands or buts. Can you imagine the outrage if the Wisconsin basketball coach flew to a game and didn’t try to win it?
What Wisconsin did in Louisville underlines the problem with the NCAA system (and this includes track as well): for the biggest schools, the only meet that truly matters is the NCAA championship. Byrne knew that his team didn’t need to run well in Louisville to earn an NCAA bid, and because he had no incentive to win the race, he elected to have his athletes train through it. From his perspective, one could say it’s a logical decision: Byrne believes the best way to maximize his squads’ NCAA performance is to train through this race, and that’s what he did.
But just because Byrne thinks his decision was right for his team doesn’t mean that it was right for the sport. The purpose of a race is to determine which teams and athletes are the best. By sending his athletes out there and telling them not to try their hardest, Byrne disrespected the competition and the sport. This isn’t like when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich benches his top players during the regular season. When he does that, he still tells the players that are playing to try to win the game. The proper equivalent would be Popovich keeping Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the game but telling them to only give 75 percent effort.
And the biggest problem here is there are serious repercussions to Wisconsin’s actions. By running their regulars but not trying to win, Wisconsin is likely going to impact the NCAA at-large bids that go out at the end of the season as the computer only counts wins; it doesn’t factor in whether a team was trying or not. The top six teams in Louisville – teams like Louisville, Illinois and Eastern Kentucky – all just earned an at-large point to NCAAs by beating Wisconsin (to earn a point, four of the seven runners from that race must compete at Regionals; that will likely be the case with UW’s squad at the Greater Louisville Classic).
What Wisconsin did over the weekend may be the most extreme example, but it’s far from the only case of coaches devaluing the regular season. Stanford didn’t race a full squad at the Washington Invitational on Friday; neither did Portland. There are many more examples, in 2015 and in years past. But that’s a lot different than not trying to win with the guys you do line up.
For coaches of top programs, there’s simply little incentive to run all their top guys all-out at any race other NCAAs and conference (and even the latter can be avoided if the conference is weak). Those two meets are the ones that athletes and alumni care the most about, and they’re also the ones tied to a coach’s contract bonuses. As long as that remains the case, many coaches are going to do what they feel gives them the best chance of succeeding at conference and (especially) NCAAs and that doesn’t always mean running their best athletes every time out — or telling them to race all-out when they do.
If college cross-country were a revenue sport, this problem wouldn’t exist — there would be too much backlash from fans and administrators. But because the college cross country’s fan base is tiny, resting top runners (or telling them to tempo races) isn’t a problem for schools. The outcry is minor and the impact on their bottom line is zero. Surely though, it’s not too much to ask for a team to give its best effort when it actually does toe the line? Training through regionals is one thing — athletes have to run another 10k race eight days later. But in Wisconsin’s case, if you’re going to travel 450 miles to run on the Louisville course, why not race the thing?
We have a solution to the problem. The NCAA Track and Field/Cross-Country Rules Committee needs to get together and DQ Wisconsin from the Louisville results. They clearly violated the NCAA rules governing cross country.
The NCAA rule book states the following (bold added by LetsRun.com):
Athletes—Asking no unfair advantage, resorting to no questionable practices and doing nothing small or mean to gain an end. Athletes should display sportsmanship in the finest sense, always honoring teammates and opponents with their best effort, accepting victory with pride and humility, while accepting defeat with goodwill. Acts of dishonesty, unsporting conduct or unprofessional behavior are unacceptable and subject to warning, disqualification and/or removal by the referee or meet management.
The Wisconsin athletes, by Byrne’s own admission, didn’t honor the competition with their best effort. There is no doubt – they violated the rules of the sport and need to be DQed as it’s wrong for the NCAA at-large process to be impacted by their half-effort.
Discuss this topic on our world famous messageboard: MB: NCAA at-large bids are at stake and the NCAA Cross Country Rules Committee needs to remove Wisco from Louisville results.
3. Could a freshman woman win the women’s NCAA individual title?
Since the first NCAA women’s cross country championship in 1981, only one freshman has won the individual title: North Carolina State’s Suzie Tuffey in 1985. Thirty years on, another Wolfpack first-year, Ryen Frazier, has a chance to match Tuffey’s feat.
The odds are against Frazier — betting one athlete against the field rarely makes sense, unless that athlete’s name is Edward Cheserek — but she couldn’t have imagined a better start to her college career. On September 18, she blitzed a 16:06 5k to win her NC State debut at the adidas XC Challenge. Then, on Friday, she notched the most impressive win by any woman in 2015, taking down Courtney Frerichs, Molly Seidel and Rhona Auckland (all of whom were ranked in LRC’s preseason individual top 10) to win the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite by four seconds in 16:22.9.
Frazier was one of the nation’s most coveted recruits coming out of high school (she was second at Foot Lockers last year and pulled off the mile-2 mile-5k triple at New Balance Outdoor Nationals) but no one predicted this kind of success so soon. Like her sister, Wesley, who transferred from Duke to NC State this year, Frazier is still trained by her father, Timothy. That sort of arrangement doesn’t always work, but in this case Frazier, a Raleigh native, would be foolish to change things up.
So could Frazier actually pull it off and win NCAAs as a true freshman? She has to be taken seriously — the women she beat at Notre Dame weren’t exactly scrubs. Frerichs is the fourth-fastest collegiate steepler of all time, Seidel is an NCAA champ on the track and Auckland was 19th at World XC in March. Maintaining her form all the way through November will be difficult for the freshman as many frosh burn it too hot too early, but two wins in two races is obviously a good sign. Frazier will face her toughest test yet in two weeks at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational. If she can win there against athletes like Arkansas’ Dominique Scott and Stanford’s Aisling Cuffe, she won’t just have a chance to win NCAAs — she’ll be the favorite.
Speaking of Scott and Cuffe, both of them earned victories over the weekend. Scott cruised to a season-opening win at the Chile Pepper Festival, winning by 21 seconds in 16:07. Cuffe took on tougher competition out west, winning the Washington Invitational in Seattle in 19:41 to show that she is very much back from the stress fracture that caused her to miss all of 2014-15. It’s too early to give either of them the edge, but we’ll know a lot more after Wisconsin in two weeks.
4. UTEP is about to be ranked in the top 20 in the country — despite having just six men on their cross country roster
The unranked UTEP men won the Notre Dame Invitational on Friday, defeating five ranked squads despite entering just six runners in the Men’s Blue Race. That in and of itself is odd, but not totally out of the ordinary. What pushes this story from odd to fascinating is that the Miners couldn’t have entered another runner, even if they wanted to — they only have six men on their official roster. All six men hail from Kenya (five from the city of Eldoret) and together they beat everyone else in South Bend, powered by a 1-3 finish from Anthony Rotich and Jonah Koech.
There are plenty of different ways to build a program, but the approach head coach Paul Ereng (1988 Olympic 800 champion) is taking in El Paso is risky. Rotich and Koech are studs, and UTEP should qualify for NCAAs for the second straight season — assuming everyone stays healthy. But lose one guy and you’re down to five, slashing the margin for error in a race to zero. Lose two guys and that’s it — no team score.
This problem is not unique to the UTEP men, either. Ereng’s women’s squad also numbers just six (four from Kenya and two from El Paso).
5. A great day for Oregon in Seattle — particularly the women
Oregon swept the team titles at Friday’s Washington Invitational. Though this wasn’t a “must-win” race, it was certainly a positive sign, even if the Stanford squads the Ducks defeated weren’t at full strength.
Edward Cheserek won the men’s race. We’ve seen that before. What we’re not used to seeing is Cheserek playing the role of veteran, but that’s what the junior did as Oregon’s four other scorers were all freshmen and sophomores. Ordinarily it might be a problem when your #2 and #3 scorers are true freshmen, but Matthew Maton (8th in 23:27) and Tanner Anderson (12th in 23:32) are not your average freshman. Maton has already broken 4:00 for the mile while Anderson won Nike Cross Nationals last fall. Though each finished behind a trio of Stanford runners (a problem considering the Cardinal didn’t run Jim Rosa, Sean McGorty and Grant Fisher), Maton explained to Runner’s World last week that coach Andy Powell has confidence that Maton (and presumably Anderson) can get better with every race, just as freshmen Luke Puskedra (5th at NCAAs in 2008) and Cheserek (1st in 2013) did before them.
The Ducks could stand to improve by adding in Blake Haney and Jake Leingang (neither raced in Seattle) but it’s still hard to imagine them beating Stanford at season’s end. Joe Rosa ran spectacularly in his first major XC race of 2015, taking second behind Cheserek in 23:20, and Jack Keelan (4th in 23:22) and Garrett Sweatt (7th in 23:27) also finished ahead of Oregon’s #2, Maton. Apart from Jim Rosa’s mysterious absence (he hasn’t run an XC race since November 2013), everything is looking up for the Cardinal. Based on 2015 form, they have two potential top-10 guys in Joe Rosa and McGorty and a few more with top-10/20 potential in Fisher, Jim Rosa and Keelan. We’ll get a more accurate read at Pac-12s, when Stanford faces Colorado head-to-head, but coach Chris Miltenberg couldn’t have asked for a much better start to the season.
While Stanford will likely overhaul Oregon on the men’s side, the same can’t necessarily be said when it comes to the women. The UO women beat the Cardinal 36-60 on Friday (Stanford was actually third as Washington scored 59) and though Stanford was without Elise Cranny, it wouldn’t have mattered. Slot Cranny in second (she won this race a year ago) and Oregon still takes it, 41-45. Stanford has the advantage at the top, but Oregon’s not far away (three in the top six at UW, including runner-up Alli Cash) and the Ducks’ depth is much better (they had five in before Stanford’s #3).
Last year, Oregon’s top five was interchangeable (they had a different #1 in each of its final four meets) but things have been more consistent (at least through two races) in 2015. Cash, Waverly Neer and Frida Berge, UO’s top three at the Bill Dellinger Invite on September 11, finished in the same order in Seattle (though Maggie Schmaedick, who didn’t race Dellinger, finished between Cash and Neer). It’s not necessarily good or bad that the order was the same, but if Cash has made a significant leap in fitness — and based on Friday’s result, that’s certainly possible — that’s a boon to Oregon’s podium chances. UO lacked a clear frontrunner in 2014 and that hurt its chances to get on the podium.
No women’s team has made the podium without someone in the top 30 overall since Arizona State in 2007. In the seven meets since then, only four of 28 podium teams (14%) have lacked a top-20 finisher. The Ducks have the depth to buck the trend, but it sure would help if Cash (or another UO athlete) could finish in the top 20 in Louisville.