November 18, 2015
At the start of this season, it looked as if the men’s individual race at the 2015 NCAA Cross Country Championships was going to be a snoozefest. Oregon’s Edward Cheserek was coming off his second straight title, and his main challenger on the track last year, teammate Eric Jenkins, turned pro over the summer. Then in September, we broke the news that the top returner from last year’s meet behind Cheserek, Futsum Zienasellassie of Northern Arizona, would be redshirting this fall.
The picture isn’t dramatically different now — Cheserek remains a strong favorite — but as we approach Saturday’s NCAA Championships in Louisville, the chances of him being upset are greater than they were in September. Cheserek has already lost once this fall — Virginia Tech’s Thomas Curtin pulled off the stunner at Pre-Nats on October 17 — and alongside Curtin there are two men with undefeated records (Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan and Tulsa’s Marc Scott) who will be keen on dethroning the king. A win would make Cheserek the first man in NCAA history to win three straight XC titles; a loss would send shock waves around the collegiate running universe. We break down the chances of each outcome below as we take a look at the top individual men’s contenders.
What: 2015 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville, Kentucky
When: 12 p.m. ET (women’s race); 1 p.m. ET (men’s race)
How to watch: In person ($10 admission). The 2015 NCAA cross country championships will also be streamed online for free.
If you like fantasy football: LetsRun.com’s Jonathan Gault participated in a fantasy draft for the men’s race at the NCAA Championships. That draft was part of the USTFCCCA’s QA2 Max podcast, and the link can be found here. Jonathan’s team is as follows: Thomas Curtin, Virginia Tech; Sean McGorty, Stanford; Colin Bennie, Syracuse; Ammar Moussa, Colorado; Jacob Burcham, Oklahoma; Chartt Miller, Iona; Grant Fisher, Stanford.
Edward Cheserek, junior, Oregon
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 1st, 2013; 1st, 2014. 3:36/7:47/13:18/28:30.
2015 results: 1st Dellinger Invite, 1st Washington Invite, 2nd Pre-Nats, 1st Pac-12s, 1st West Regional
Cheserek is the best runner in the field and if he runs smart on Saturday, he’s almost unbeatable. The gaudy PRs tell only half the story. Through two-plus years at Oregon, Cheserek is 9 for 11 in NCAA Championships (counting Oregon’s DMR at NCAA indoors this year, on which Cheserek ran anchor). His two losses? A superhuman effort from 3:33/13:00 man Lawi Lalang in one of the NCAA’s all-time greatest races and a defeat to teammate Eric Jenkins in the 3,000 this year at NCAA indoors (Cheserek later said he let Jenkins win) after doubling back from the DMR the night before and the mile final earlier that day.
There are no 13:00 guys in this year’s NCAA XC field and as far as we know, Cheserek will only be running one race in Louisville. So how does he lose? We see two main ways.
- It goes really fast. Last time NCAAs were in Louisville, the Tom Sawyer course ran like a track on grass. Lawi Lalang, who dominated the previous year, entered as the favorite, but Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka pressed from the gun and dismantled the field by running 28:31, the fastest time at NCAAs since Henry Rono‘s legendary 28:19 at Lehigh in 1979. Cheserek has plenty of strength — his 13:18 5k pb is tops in the NCAA by 13 seconds, and his 28:30 10k is #2 behind Syracuse’s Martin Hehir (28:27). If you push the pace on Cheserek, two things can happen:
1. He could let you build up a lead, and if you’re strong enough, you can protect that lead and win the race. Considering Curtin used this exact strategy to defeat Cheserek at Pre-Nats, it’s unlikely he’ll spot anyone any ground in Louisville.
2. You tire Cheserek out and dull his kick. This strategy is rarely used against Cheserek because few athletes believe they are strong enough to exhaust someone of his caliber. But if you’re truly focused on beating Cheserek, you have a better chance of doing so using this strategy than allowing it to come down to a traditional sit-and-kick — because no one is beating Cheserek in a 2k race. The problem is, several of the top athletes (Anthony Rotich, Marc Scott, Thomas Curtin) are all running as part of a team and may be unwilling to risk blowing up and taking their team score, although non of their teams are in contention so we hope that doesn’t stop them from being bold.
- It goes really slow. This is how Cheserek lost to Jordy Williamsz and Villanova in the Penn Relays 4xmile in April. Cheserek’s kick is a massive advantage, but the shorter distance you’re kicking over, the more variable the outcome. It’s different in cross country because the positioning is not as important as on the track, but the point stands. If Cheserek lets it come down to the last 800, he might be in for a surprise if he’s kicking against UTEP’s 1:46 800 man Jonah Koech. This scenario is less likely than the first one, however, for two reasons. One, losing a tactical 1600 leg on a DMR to a 1:46/3:36 guy is a lot different than losing a tactical 10,000. Two, Cheserek has the power to change it. If the race goes slowly, Cheserek can take off whenever he likes, and assuming he learned his lesson against Williamsz this spring, that move will likely come around 2k to go as it did last year.
The biggest key to beating Cheserek is to get him out of his comfort zone. If you let Cheserek dictate the race, as so many of his foes have, he’s almost impossible to beat. His absurd combination of strength and speed (think Mo Farah lite) means that he can pretty much choose any point during the second half of the race to attack and no one is going to be able to match his move.
Beating Cheserek to the punch doesn’t always work (see Cristian Soratos at NCAA indoors) but at least it gives you a fighting chance. Cheserek rarely has to worry about anything other than when to make his winning move. If you throw a surprise — a crazy-fast first mile or a few mid-race surges — suddenly Cheserek can’t simply follow his game plan has to start making adjustments. He’s better-suited to make those adjustments than anyone in America (again, see his incredible personal bests or pile of NCAA titles) but the more adjustments he has to make, the more likely he is to make a tactical mistake. And that’s where you pounce.
It would be a big surprise if Cheserek loses on Saturday but it’s not inconceivable. Still if you are asking, ‘Who has a better shot to win, Cheserek or the entire rest of the field?’ (MB: King Ches vs. The Field), without hesitation, we say Cheserek.
But if he’s going to lose, it’s going to be to one of the men below (we break them down by categories).
Marc Scott, senior, Tulsa
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 93rd, 2012; 193rd, 2013; 14th, 2014. 7:55/13:36/28:30
2015 results: 1st Chile Pepper, 1st Wisconsin, 1st AACs, 1st Midwest Regional
The Brit broke out in a big way last spring with PRs of 13:36 and 28:30 and he’s kept that rolling into the cross country season, winning one of the nation’s most competitive races at Wisconsin over Justyn Knight of Syracuse and Sean McGorty of Stanford. The most encouraging thing about that result was the way he won it — a devastating kick that left Knight unable to respond in the final meters. It will be harder to outkick Cheserek (whose 1500 pb is 3:36 to Knight’s 3:39) but Wisconsin showed that Scott, whose mile pb is just 4:11, has some serious wheels.
If there’s an area of concern regarding Scott, it’s that all of his races have been relatively close — his largest margin of victory is 2.8 seconds.
Patrick Tiernan, junior, Villanova
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 9th, 2013; 18th, 2014. 7:57/13:31
2015 results: 1st Main Line Invite, 1st Paul Short, 1st Princeton Invite, 1st Big East, 1st Mid-Atlantic Regional
Tiernan is the opposite of Scott: he’s blown out the competition in his last two races, beating Georgetown’s Jonathan Green (a top-10 contender at NCAAs) by 21 seconds at Big Easts and a whopping 26 seconds at the Mid-Atlantic Regional — by far the biggest margin of victory at regionals (Alabama’s Antibahs Kosgei was next, winning the South by 12 seconds). He has run 13:31 on the track, was 9th at NCAAs last year and was touted as a possible challenger to Cheserek last year before taking a somewhat disappointing 18th in Terre Haute.
There’s a lot to like about Tiernan. He’s got great PRs, he was top 10 in 2013 and he’s undefeated this year (9th), but he’s also untested against the country’s very best (Scott, Cheserek, Rotich, etc.) so we don’t know exactly what to expect.
The Multi-Time NCAA Champ
Anthony Rotich, senior, UTEP
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 4th, 2012, 19th 2013, 11th 2014. 13:31/8:21 SC
2015 results: 6th Texas Tech Open, 3rd Lori Fitzgerald, 1st Notre Dame, 3rd Pre-Nats, 1st Conference USA, 2nd Mountain Regional
Rotich was 4th at NCAAs the last time they were held in Louisville, in 2012 when he was just a freshman (he also won Pre-Nats that year on the same course), and he’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Cheserek. He was just .7 of a second behind him at Pre-Nats in October and beat Cheserek at Pre-Nats in 2013. Aside from that defeat in Louisville, Rotich’s only other loss came at the Mountain Regional, where teammate Jonah Koech edged him by .1.
Rotich has big-time PRs and some serious NCAA hardware; he’s the three-time defending steeple champ and won the 2014 indoor mile title over studs Lawi Lalang and Mac Fleet. Assuming he’s given the green light by coach Paul Ereng (UTEP is a podium contender), Rotich is one of the few guys with the skill set to actually take it to Cheserek.
He’s Already Beaten Cheserek This Year
Thomas Curtin, senior, Virginia Tech
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 88th, 2012, 69th 2013. 7:52/13:38
2015 results: 14th VT Alumni Invite (VT pack-ran this race), 2nd Princeton Inter-Regional, 1st Pre-Nats, 1st ACCs, 1st Southeast Regional
Curtin is the only man in the country to have beaten Cheserek this fall and that is certainly a confidence-booster. As we noted above, his front-running strategy is less likely to work this time around, but his run in Louisville at Pre-Nats was no fluke. It takes a rare combination of fitness and toughness to get a lead on Edward Cheserek and hold it, and he beat top competition to win ACCs (Justyn Knight) and the Southeast Regional (Shaun Thompson).
The Dark Horse
Jonah Koech, freshman, UTEP
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: NCAA debut. 1:46
2015 results: 3rd Texas Tech Open, 6th Lori Fitzgerald, 3rd Notre Dame Invite, 4th Pre-Nats, 2nd Conference USA, 1st Mountain Regional
Koech is perhaps the most intriguing athlete in the entire NCAA field. A freshman from Kenya, Koech ran 1:46 for 800 in February and took silver in that event at the African Junior Championships the following month. Since then, he and Rotich have been inseparable at every cross country race, finishing within 1.2 seconds of each other in all six outings.
Though Rotich is not the only runner to have beaten Koech this fall (he lost to Purdue’s Matt McClintock at Notre Dame and both Curtin and Cheserek at Pre-Nats), his proximity to Rotich suggests that the NCAA rookie still has some untapped potential. And a runner with untapped potential is always dangerous. When Kithuka and Cheserek pulled their NCAA upsets, both were first-year NCAA runners who had yet to show their full potential. Koech fits the bill. The 10k distance could expose the 800 man (though he seemed to handle it fine — at altitude — at regionals) but it could also reveal just how talented Koech is.
Being new to the NCAA system could also help Koech. While the rest of these guys were getting the crap beaten out of them on the track by Cheserek, Koech was likely oblivious to it all back in Kenya. Mentally, Cheserek shouldn’t hold the same air of invincibility to Koech, especially considering he was only 1.5 seconds back of him at Pre-Nats.
One final fun fact: if Koech wins on Saturday, he’d be the second man with his name to win an NCAA XC title. Jonah Koech also won NCAAs for Iowa State in 1990.
- Justyn Knight, sophomore, Syracuse. The super-talented Canadian ran 3:39 and 13:34 at age 18. He could well win an NCAA title one day, but after losses to Scott (Wisconsin) and Curtin (ACCs), his chances of upsetting Cheserek are almost non-existent.
- Sean McGorty, junior, Stanford. In October 2013, it looked like McGorty and Cheserek were set to be rivals for years. McGorty finished six seconds behind Cheserek at Foot Lockers in 2012 and that margin was the same at Pre-Nats as Cheserek was fourth in 23:33 with McGorty fifth in 23:39. Since then, Cheserek has left McGorty — and the rest of the NCAA — in the dust, but McGorty has developed into a fine runner himself, taking third at Wisconsin and second (to Cheserek) at Pac-12s.
Want Info on Guys We Didn’t Mention?
There are a slew of talented guys who didn’t make our preview, but if you enter the $200,015 LRC Running Warehouse NCAA XC Prediction Contest, you’ll get info on every runner that was in the top 10 at their regional. It’s free and you could win more than $200,000.
1. Cheserek. Until he gives us a compelling reason not to, it’s foolish to pick against this guy at NCAAs. A loss at Pre-Nats in which Cheserek made a tacitcal error is not a compelling reason.
2. Rotich. He has four NCAA titles and he’s had success on this course in the past.
3. Curtin. Replicating his Pre-Nats victory is a tall order, but he’s still had an outstanding season.
*Men’s Team Preview Here: LRC 2015 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Syracuse & Stanford Hope to Derail Colorado’s Three-Peat Hopes