Pre-Nats Preview: No. 1 Colorado And King Ches Should Roll In The Men’s Race; No. 2 Colorado, No. 4 Oregon And No. 5 Michigan Duke It Out In Women’s Race

October 15, 2015

In four weeks, NCAA cross-country teams can actually qualify for the NCAA championships at the Regional Championships. There, a school needs to come up with a solid performance to either qualify automatically or make use of their at-large points and make it to the Big Dance eight days later. But this upcoming weekend runs a close second in terms of NCAA qualifying ramifications, for it is where the majority of schools will acquire the majority of their at-large points this season. Just as a good race at Wisconsin/Pre-Nats can be negated by a bad one at Regionals, a good race at Regionals can also be negated by a bad day at Wisconsin/Pre-Nats. Only a handful of schools have the ability to sleepwalk to a top-two spot in their region, and most of those squads will still compete this weekend to see where they stack up among the nation’s elite.

This weekend’s Wisconsin adidas Invitational (Friday) and Pre-Nationals (Saturday) will feature 56 of the 60 ranked teams from the most recent USTFCCCA coaches’ poll. The only teams missing? No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 12 Villanova on the men’s side and No. 28 Oklahoma State and No. 30 Alabama on the women’s side.

More than at-large points, this weekend will serve as a key checkpoint for the nation’s top teams and individuals. How important? Check out the track record of recent NCAA champs on this weekend:

Year Men’s Team Champ Men’s Individual Champ Women’s Team Champ Women’s Individual Champ
2014 Colorado (won Pre-Nats) E. Cheserek (won Pre-Nats) Michigan St. (won Wisco) K. Avery (did not race)
2013 Colorado (won Pre-Nats) E. Cheserek (4th Pre-Nats) Providence (3rd Wisco) A. D’Agostino (won Wisco)
2012 Oklahoma St. (won Chile Pepper) K. Kithuka (won Chile Pepper) Oregon (2nd Pre-Nats) B. Saina (2nd Wisco)
2011 Wisconsin (won Wisco) L. Lalang (won Wisco) Georgetown (2nd Pre-Nats) S. Reid (won Wisco)
2010 Oklahoma St. (won Chile Pepper) S. Chelanga (won Pre-Nats) Villanova (won Penn St. National) S. Reid (won Penn St. National)

So of the past 20 champs, team and individual, 15 of them (75%) won this weekend. And of those wins, nine (60%) came at Wisconsin or Pre-Nats. Obviously, winning this weekend doesn’t guarantee anything (between the men’s and women’s races, four teams will win this weekend but only two can become champions) but it’s a sign that things are on the right track.

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You can find our Wisconsin preview here: Wisconsin adidas Invitational Preview: Can The Syracuse Men Repeat? How Low Can The New Mexico Women Go?

Below we take a detailed look at Pre-Nats.

Pre-Nationals (Louisville, Ky., Saturday, 9:30 a.m. ET) * Meet website/entries

Ranked teams (men’s race): No. 1 Colorado, No. 3 Oregon, No. 10 Georgetown, No. 13 Arkansas, No. 13 UTEP, No. 17 Louisville, No. 22 California, No. 23 Colorado State, No. 25 Southern Utah, No. 29 Air Force, No. 30 Texas

Men’s Team Race: It’s Colorado’s To Lose

Since the start of 2013, the No. 1 Colorado men have lost precisely one cross country race: the 2013 NCAA Mountain Regional, where, considering they still finished second to automatically qualify for NCAAs (which they would win eight days later), that defeat meant absolutely nothing. The Buffaloes will be expected to keep that run of dominance going on Saturday, where they’ll aim to win their fifth consecutive Pre-Nats title in Louisville.

There are 10 other ranked teams in Saturday’s field, but only one has a realistic shot to bring down Colorado. That would be No. 3 Oregon, led by the nation’s best runner, Edward Cheserek. It’s a matchup that pits the two most high profile schools in collegiate men’s distance running, the kings of cross country (Colorado) vs. the kings of the track (Oregon). Unfortunately for Oregon, this race will take place on a cross country course — the Ducks haven’t beaten the Buffs in XC since the two became conference rivals in 2011.

 Meet Colorado Oregon
2011 Pac 12s 1 3
2011 NCAAs 3 DNQ
2012 Pre-Nats 1 3
2012 Pac 12s 1 3
2012 NCAAs 3 20
2013 Pre-Nats 1 2
2013 Pac 12s 1 2
2013 NCAAs 1 5
2014 Pre-Nats 1 2
2014 Pac 12s 1 2
2014 NCAAs 1 6
Moussa will make his 2015 debut at Pre-Nats Moussa will make his 2015 debut at Pre-Nats

While there were a couple of concerns after Colorado’s opener at the Rocky Mountain Shootout, overall the Buffaloes look to be as formidable as everyone expected them to be this year. Ammar Moussa, the #2 returner from NCAAs in ’14, wasn’t 100% two weeks ago and sat out the Rocky Mountain Shootout, but he will be back in action on Saturday. Oregon faces bigger questions; the roster is chock full of talent but much of it is either young or unproven in cross country. The Ducks passed their first test, winning the Washington Invitational in Seattle on October 2, but even a perfect race by Oregon might not be enough to beat Colorado in Louisville. The Ducks went 1-3 last year at Pre-Nats only for the Buffs to answer by going 2-4-8-9-12-14, pasting UO, 35-91.

To understand how hard it will be for Oregon to topple Colorado, consider that Oregon’s #2 at Washington, freshman Matthew Maton, was eighth overall. In that race alone, he lost to three Stanford runners, even though the Cardinal didn’t run big guns Sean McGortyGrant Fisher or Jim Rosa. So realistically, Oregon’s #2 right now is on par with Stanford’s #5 or #6 — and most people believe that Colorado is better than Stanford. The Ducks are still a very good team, and if they can add in 13:46 man Jake Leingang (who sat out Washington after missing a few days of training) and NCAA 1500 3rd placer Blake Haney (whom the Ducks are taking it slowly with this fall following a track season that stretched into August) at Pre-Nats, they’ll be even better than they were in Seattle. But that still won’t be enough to topple Colorado, who are loaded with proven XC studs such as Moussa, Pierce Murphy (35th at NCAAs in ’14), Morgan Pearson (17th at NCAAs in ’13), Connor Winter (24th at NCAAs in ’14) and Ben Saarel (7th at NCAAs in ’14).

Beyond Oregon, no one poses a threat to Colorado as the next-best team on paper is No. 10 Georgetown, which took down No. 12 Villanova to win the Paul Short Run two weeks ago. No. 13 UTEP should run well with serious low sticks in Anthony Rotich and Jonah Koech (1-3 at the Notre Dame Invite) but depth is a concern for the Miners, especially with only six men on the roster.

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Men’s Individual Race: Can Rotich Challenge King Ches?

As he is in every race, Edward Cheserek will be the favorite at Pre-Nats, but there is reason to believe that one man could challenge him. In 2012, UTEP’s Anthony Rotich won Pre-Nats and placed fourth at NCAAs, both on the same E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park course that will host Saturday’s race.

Rotich was the surprise winner at the NCAA indoor mile in 2014. Re-live that race here. Rotich was the surprise winner at the NCAA indoor mile in 2014. Re-live that race here.

Rotich is a stud. He is one of a select few to have beaten Cheserek in a cross country race, taking him down at Pre-Nats two years ago. He’s also won three NCAA steeple titles (PBs of 8:21 steeple and 13:31 for 5k) and has big-time wheels — he’s the 2014 NCAA mile champ, beating both Lawi Lalang and Mac Fleet in that race.

Of course, Cheserek has wheels too (he beat Rotich to win the 2015 NCAA mile title), but if there’s any guy that could beat Cheserek, it’s Rotich, and if there’s any course to do it on, it’s Louisville.

The reason to be skeptical of Rotich’s chances — aside from Cheserek’s overwhelming dominance over the past three years — is that he barely won his last race at the Notre Dame Invitational. In South Bend, Rotich beat Purdue’s Matt McClintock and teammate Jonah Koech by just .4 of a second. While that’s evidence that Rotich can win a close race, it’s also not the dominance you’d like to see from a legitimate challenger to Cheserek. McClintock and Koech are both extremely good but it’s unlikely Cheserek would have let either of them come that close to him. Of course, Rotich may have had more in the tank as he seemed content to run with Koech most of the way before kicking late in the race.

Both McClintock and Koech will be on the line in Louisville as well, and Koech’s performance, in particular, will be fascinating to watch. In all four of his races this year, he’s run with Rotich and/or teammates for essentially the entire race. That’s easy to do at the Texas Tech Open, but a lot tougher to do in a race that contains Colorado and Oregon. Koech, who has run 1:46 for 800, is still discovering his potential as a cross country runner, and Saturday will offer our best glimpse yet at how good he can be.

Other men to watch include Indiana State’s John Mascari (only 10th at ND, but 8th at NCAAs in ’14), Duke’s Shaun Thompson (1st at Princeton Inter-Regional), Louisville’s Edwin Kibichiy (2nd at Greater Louisville Classic), Campbell’s Lawrence Kipkoech (2nd at Virginia/Panorama Farms Invite) and Colorado’s entire top five.

Official LRC prediction: Colorado and Cheserek cruise to the titles.

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Ranked teams (women’s race): No. 2 Colorado, No. 4 Oregon, No. 5 Michigan, No. 7 Georgetown, No. 9 Stanford, No. 26 Villanova, No. 27 Texas, No. 29 Cornell

Women’s team race: A Slugfest Between Cross Country Blue Bloods

Of the four men’s and women’s races this weekend, the women’s race at Pre-Nats is by far the most wide-open. No. 2 Colorado (Rocky Mountain Shootout), No. 4 Oregon (Washington Invite) and No. 5 Michigan (Greater Louisville Classic) all won invitationals two weeks ago and all received impressive performances up front. The Buffaloes’ Erin Clark ran 20:13 on CU’s tough home course to win the RMS, the second-fastest time since 2000 (only Jenny Simpson has gone faster in that span). The Ducks got a runner-up finish from Alli Cash at Washington, as her 19:44 was only three seconds back of winner Aisling Cuffe of Stanford, one of the individual favorites at NCAAs. Michigan didn’t get just one great run up front but two, as Erin Finn (16:48) and Shannon Osika (16:50) went 1-2 on the same E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park layout that will host Saturday’s meet (however Pre-Nats is a 6k while the Greater Louisville Classic was a 5k).

Really, there isn’t much to choose among these teams. Cash (PRs of 4:16/10:25 steeple) isn’t as accomplished as Clark (15:57/9:59 steeple) or Finn (15:26/32:41) but based on her run in Seattle, she shouldn’t be that far back of them in Louisville. And all three teams have terrific depth. Oregon put five in the top 13 at Washington and Michigan put six in the top 18 in Louisville. It’s harder to get a read on Colorado right now considering they raced limited competition in Boulder, but they did perfect-score the RMS and have six women (including Clark) who have run 16:17 or better for 5,000.

If one of these three squads spanks the other two and everyone else at Pre-Nats, then No. 1 New Mexico might find itself with some competition when everyone gets together in Louisville at NCAAs. But if it’s close, the result will merely confirm what seems apparent at the moment: Colorado, Oregon and Michigan are all very good and very close in ability, but #1 New Mexico is the favorite for NCAAs.

No. 7 Georgetown and No. 9 Stanford are both solid teams, but it would be a surprise to see either win on Saturday. Georgetown didn’t show all its cards in losing to Providence and Syracuse at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown on September 25, resting Haley Pierce (9:25/16:11), Sarah Cotton (16:14/34:44) and Audrey Belf (7th at Foot Lockers last year). If all three run on Saturday, joining Samantha Nadel (9:05 3k) and Andrea Keklak (2:04/2:17), the Hoyas could make some noise, but right now it’s hard to say how good they will be.

Stanford should not be considered a serious contender for the win. Oregon spanked the Cardinal, 36-60, at Washington and Stanford will run essentially the same squad in Louisville. The only change sees Abbie McNulty replace Catherine Pagano, but Pagano was the Cardinal’s eighth woman in Seattle and teams can only run seven at Pre-Nats. Aisling Cuffe will be favored to win the individual title at Pre-Nats, but without Elise Cranny (whom the Stanford website says “is working through an injury and is hoping to return by the end of the season”), the Cardinal don’t have a chance to win and will be long shots to finish in the top three.

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Women’s individual race

Cuffe took fourth at NCAAs in 2013 Cuffe took fourth at NCAAs in 2013

The winners of those three meets we mentioned above, Aisling Cuffe (Washington), Erin Finn (Greater Louisville) and Erin Clark (Rocky Mountain Shootout) are the leading contenders for the individual title in Louisville. In addition, Cal sophomore Bethan Knights, who ripped apart the field over the final kilometer to win the Roy Griak Invitational by 16 seconds, should be extremely formidable.

Cuffe’s 15:11 5k is the fastest of anyone in the field by a significant margin (it’s also #3 all-time in the NCAA) and on paper she should win handily. Cuffe was fourth at NCAAs in XC two years ago; even her second-best finish (21st in 2012) is better than anyone else has done at NCAAs (Cal’s Kelsey Santisteban was 10th in ’13 but didn’t race Roy Griak; after that, the next-best finish belongs to Mississippi State’s 1500 champ Rhianwedd Price, who was 24th in 2014). However, we still don’t know if Cuffe is back to her spectacular pre-injury form (she missed 2014-15 with a stress fracture in her back). She won Washington but didn’t have to face anyone as good as Finn or Knights, both of whom have taken a step forward this fall. If Cuffe wins again on Saturday, she’ll solidify herself as one of the favorites for NCAAs next month.

Official LRC prediction: We’ll take Colorado in a narrow victory over Oregon and Michigan, but realistically those three could finish in any order. Individually, we’re going with the most talented runner in the field — and that’s Cuffe.

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