2015 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Can #1 Colorado Hold Off #2 Syracuse And #3 Stanford And Three-Peat?

By LetsRun.com
November 17, 2015

The months of speculation are almost over. On Saturday, Louisville’s E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park will play host to the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Championships and we’ll finally get answers to the questions that have dominated the 2015 season. Are Edward Cheserek and the New Mexico women untouchable? Can the Colorado men win their third straight title? And what will an NCAA meet look like without the Wisconsin Badgers (the men’s 43-year qualifying streak was snapped last week)?

We’ll do our best to analyze those questions in our previews this week, beginning with this, the men’s team preview.

Event details

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.

Course Map: Men’s 10K *Women’s 6K

All NCAA Regional Results *Full NCAA Coverage

Colorado Shoots For The Three-Peat

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Any discussion of the men’s team race has to begin with the Colorado Buffaloes. CU has won the past two NCAA titles and has been ranked No. 1 all season long in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll. The Buffs haven’t lost a meet in over two years (Northern Arizona was the last team to knock them off, at the Mountain Regional in 2013) and their top seven contains four athletes who have finished in the top 25 at NCAAs — including the #2 and #3 returners from last year in senior Ammar Moussa (5th) and junior Ben Saarel (7th).

Can the Buffs make it three straight on Saturday? Can the Buffs make it three straight on Saturday?

All of that suggests that Colorado should waltz to a third consecutive NCAA crown, something no team has achieved since Arkansas from 1998-2000. And while Colorado remains the favorite, the situation has changed from a year ago. Last year, CU dominated from start to finish, running outrageously fast at the Rocky Mountain Shootout, scoring a minuscule 35 points at Pre-Nats, rolling through PAC-12s (five in the top eight) and capping it off with a 65-point showing at NCAAs, the lowest score since 2005.

This year has been a different story. Unlike in 2014, Colorado had shown a hint of weakness.

Colorado still won Pre-Nats comfortably, 89-151 over Oregon, and though the Buffs put four in the top 15, they had to rely on true freshman John Dressel at #5. Dressel was 46th overall, 20 seconds back of Colorado’s #4.

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CU won its next race, PAC-12s, and while it was an objectively great performance — Colorado defeated the teams currently ranked No. 3 (Stanford), No. 9 (Oregon) and No. 11 (Washington) in the coaches’ poll — it did not suggest Colorado was unbeatable. The Buffs’ winning score (46 points) was higher than in either of its two previous NCAA title seasons (28 in 2013, 30 in 2014), with Stanford lurking just 11 points back — the closest any team has come since Colorado’s winning streak began. Colorado received a fine run from Dressel (sixth overall) but once again held out Ben Saarel, who at that point appeared likely to redshirt. Without Saarel, (who was 8th at NCAAs in ’13 and 7th in ’14), Colorado would have little margin for errors at NCAAs as they’d be relying on a true freshman in their top five — albeit a very good one in Dressel (the Foot Locker runner-up in 2013 as a junior in HS) — with what could be a significant drop-off to #6.

Speculation flew about whether Buffs coach Mark Wetmore would redshirt Saarel. Last year, Wetmore redshirted a healthy Morgan Pearson (17th at NCAAs in ’13), believing that his team could win a national title without him. But that squad was a juggernaut even without Pearson. The 2015 edition is good, but Wetmore isn’t taking any chances: he ran Saarel at the Mountain Regional, where he finished as CU’s #6 runner (21st overall).

“All along, the decision has been: Can we win the nationals without him?” Wetmore told Runner’s World. “And I decided that, with the national championship, a lot of people never have a chance to win one at all, so it’s a little bit a violation of the gods to hold out a pretty good guy. So we decided to plug him in.”

Colorado, of course, won the Mountain Regional (putting seven runners in the top 23) but don’t read much into that performance, even when it comes to Saarel. The Buffs have done this dance before, and Wetmore knows that it’s asking a lot from his men to run two 10ks in a nine-day span, with the first coming at over 5,000 feet of elevation. Wetmore’s men did what they had to do to qualify, and that’s it.

So Is Colorado Vulnerable?

Of course they are. No team is invincible, even though the New Mexico women are trying their best to disprove that. And as Wetmore himself told us earlier this month: “there have been unbeatable teams that have lost in the past.” He knows firsthand — Wetmore’s Buffaloes shocked Wisconsin’s Dream Team to win NCAAs in 2004. (MB: NCAA 2004 XC how did wisconsin lose? *More details on Dream Team here)

The main concern about Colorado is that the Buffs aren’t dominating as they did a year ago. Let’s examine this more closely. There are four guys on this year’s CU team that played a major role on last year’s squad: Murphy, Moussa, Saarel and Connor Winter. It’s very tough to compare each athlete to his former self because our data points are limited. Aside from a few second-tier local teams, Colorado only races itself at the Rocky Mountain Shootout, so places aren’t really relevant there. And regionals doesn’t mean much considering CU doesn’t go all-out in that race. That leaves us with two races to compare: Pre-Nats and PAC-12s. So let’s take a look at how CU’s top guys stack up compared to last season.

Murphy has put together an outstanding 2015 season Murphy has put together an outstanding 2015 season

Pierce Murphy

Meet 2014 result 2015 result
Pre-Nats 12th 5th
PAC-12s 7th 4th

Ammar Moussa

Meet 2014 result 2015 result
Pre-Nats 8th 14th
PAC-12s 6th 7th

Connor Winter

Meet 2014 result 2015 result
Pre-Nats 14th 9th
PAC-12s 5th 15th

Murphy did better in both meets this year, Moussa did worse in both meets and Winter did better in one and worse in another. Average everything out and these guys are about the same as last year. Add in Pearson (15th at Pre-Nats, 14th PAC-12s) and you’ve got another experienced, dependable scorer.

But you score five in cross-country, and that’s where the only real question lies for Colorado. You’ll notice that there’s no table comparing Saarel from this year to last year and that’s because Saarel missed both Pre-Nats and PAC-12s after battling an illness all fall. Saarel was only the team’s sixth man (21st overall) at the Mountain Regional and the worry is that he won’t be the same top-10 guy he was at nationals in 2013 and 2014. Fortunately for Colorado fans, there are a ton of reasons to be confident:

  • The same thing happened last year. Saarel battled a virus all fall in 2014. “Honestly the best day he had of the whole 100 days [that fall] was the day of the NCAAs,” Wetmore said. Saarel has peaked perfectly for NCAAs each of the last two years (8th in ’13, 7th in ’14) even if he wasn’t 100% during the season. If there’s any athlete who knows how to get the most out of himself at NCAAs, it’s Saarel. And if there’s any coach who knows how to get the most out of his athlete, it’s Wetmore. In 2014, Saarel finished higher at NCAAs than he did at PAC-12s and the Regional (Saarel was 8th at PAC-12s, 13th at the Regionals and 7th at NCAAs). That’s good news for Colorado fans, but the bad news is Saarel was only 21st at Regionals this year.
    (Related: MB: Doctors – What is the ‘particular sickness’ that Ben Saarel has had but refuses to name? *MB: Be Saarel: where will he finish?)
  • Colorado has viable backup options. CU’s #4 and #5 runners at regionals were redshirt sophomore Zach Perrin and true freshman John Dressel. Neither boasts the championship experience of Saarel, but Colorado could definitely win the title with either of them in the top five. Perrin has worked out with the Buffs’ top group all fall and though his results at Pre-Nats (68th) and PAC-12s (38th) weren’t terrific, he was the team’s #4 at the Rocky Mountain Shootout and has NCAA experience, placing 107th as a true freshman two years ago. Dressel’s season has been far more encouraging as he was 46th at Pre-Nats and a stellar 6th at Pac-12s — ahead of every Stanford runner save Sean McGorty. Yes, Dressel is a true freshman, but so was Saarel two years ago when he finished eighth. Colorado basically needs one out of Saarel, Perrin and Dressel to run well on Saturday. We like those odds.
  • Wetmore’s been here before. With five men’s national titles (and two women’s crowns), Mark Wetmore knows what it takes to prepare his team for NCAAs.

Who Could Beat Colorado?

With all due respect to BYU, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Oregon and the rest of the podium contenders, there are only two teams that can dethrone Colorado: Stanford and Syracuse. Let’s take them one at a time.

The Case for Stanford

Stanford is ranked #3 but they are the team most likely to upset Colorado. Coming into the year, we had Colorado #1 and Stanford #2 and we still feel that’s the case.

Will the Cardinal upgrade last years second-place trophy? Will the Cardinal upgrade last year’s second-place trophy?

Aside from Pac-12s, we’ve only seen glimpses of what Stanford is capable of, and that’s exactly how Cardinal coach Chris Miltenberg likes it. The NCAA system does not require teams to run their top athletes in every race, and that plays into the hands of Miltenberg, who has had to balance injury concerns with Jim and Joe Rosa and handle the decision about whether to redshirt freshman phenom Grant Fisher. His plan has always been to take things slowly with the intention of getting his top guys to NCAAs healthy and ready to go. So far, so good — McGorty and the Rosas looked comfortable cruising to a 6-7-8 finish at the West Regional.

With Fisher in the fold — he debuted by taking 11th at Pac-12s but sat out the West Regional — Stanford has the potential to challenge Colorado. Take a look at how they stack up with the Buffs 1 through 6 (#1 through #5 based on place at Pac-12s):

Colorado Stanford Edge Diff Time Pac 12s
#1 Pierce Murphy (4th PAC-12s, 13:37/28:52, 35th NCAAs in ’14) Sean McGorty (2nd PAC-12s, 13:37, 20th NCAAs in ’14) Stanford 1.5 seconds
#2 John Dressel (6th PAC-12s, 8:50 2-mile in HS, 27th at World XC Jr race) Joe Rosa (8th PAC-12s, 13:31, 33rd NCAAs in ’14) Even^ 4.1 seconds
#3 Ammar Moussa (7th PAC-12s, 7:53/13:41, Pac-12 10k champ, 5th NCAAs in ’14) Grant Fisher (11th PAC-12s, 3:59/8:42 in HS, 2-time FL champ) Colorado 6.2 seconds
#4 Morgan Pearson (14th PAC-12s, 7:51/13:36, 17th NCAAs in ’13) Garrett Sweatt (16th PAC-12s, 25th Wisconsin, 13:54/28:51; 68th NCAAs in ’14) Colorado 10.3 seconds
#5 Connor Winter (15th PAC-12s, 8:02/13:55/8:48 SC; 24th NCAAs in ’14) Jim Rosa (20th PAC-12s, 13:50/28:57; 5th NCAAs in ’13) Stanford by a lot^^ 13.1 seconds
Wildcard Ben Saarel (3:41/7:52/13:48; 7th NCAAs in ’14) Sam Wharton (43rd PAC-12s, 14:04/29:23, 39th NCAAs in ’14) Colorado by a lot^^^ NA

^Yes, Dressel won the battle at PAC-12s but was only mediocre at Pre-Nats. Rosa has run 13:31.
^^Yes, Winter won handily at PAC-12s but that was Jim Rosa’s first meet of the year.
^^^Saarel is way better on paper.

Strictly by PRs, Colorado is better, and when you factor in XC experience, the Buffs have a healthy lead. But Stanford should have the edge at #1, Fisher was better than Dressel in high school (though he obviously lost head-to-head at PAC-12s) and both Rosas have top-10 potential at their best. The key for Stanford, as simple as it seems, is for Jim Rosa to return to his 2013 form and for five guys to all run well on the same day.

“If you get five guys on the right day who are tough that can do that, that’s your only shot to beat them,” Miltenberg told us before the season.

Obviously that’s a tough ask. Stanford ran great at NCAAs in 2014 but if you type into the words “Stanford” and “Choke” into google (and limit the search to LetsRun), you get a lot of results. And even if Stanford gets five good races, that still may not be enough. Last year, the Cardinal scored 98 points, a total good enough to win NCAAs many years, and still came up 33 points short. That’s because no team is better at putting together five good races than Colorado. There’s a reason why these guys are so hard to beat: you rarely see a blowup from one of Colorado’s top guys, and on the rare occasion that does happen, another guy is there to pick up the slack.

That being said, it won’t take much of a slip-up to put the Cardinal in contention. Let us change that. That being said, Colorado could run well and still lose. Stanford wasn’t far behind at Pac-12s. If you slot Jim Rosa, who was 5th at NCAAs in 2013 and was making his seasonal debut at PAC-12s, directly behind his brother in that race, then both teams would have had 48 points. Jim can certainly make up that differential in three weeks. We saw signs that he may already have done so as he was Stanford’s #1 guy at the regional.

In the end, it’s logical to bet on consistency. Jim Rosa was 5th at NCAAs two years ago, but he’s run just two cross country races since then. Fisher is one of the most talented runners in the NCAA, but you can’t count on him to go from 11th at PAC-12s to top-20 at NCAAs in his first-ever 10k. It’s fun to pick Stanford to end CU’s streak, but Colorado remains the logical choice.

That being said, Saarel’s absence for much of the year should make Buff fans pretty nervous.

The Case for Syracuse

Syracuse’s chances of upsetting Colorado aren’t as good as Stanford’s, and coach Chris Fox knows that. When asked what would have to happen for the Orange to beat the Buffs in Louisville, Fox responded: “a big epidemic of flu in Boulder County.”

Fox is saying all the right things leading up to NCAAs. The Orange were upset to leave Terre Haute without a trophy last season, and above all else, their goal is to finish on the podium on Saturday.

Knight was 143rd a year ago; it wont take much for him to top that this time out Knight was 143rd a year ago; it wont take much for him to top that this time out

That goal is firmly within reach. SU’s front three are so strong that the Orange merely needs to run an average race (for them) to finish on the podium for the first time in 58 years. And while Syracuse will certainly need some help to claim its first NCAA title since 1951, there are non-flu scenarios that could see the Orange emerge victorious in Louisville.

Syracuse is arguably the strongest team in the nation through three runners. Sophomore Justyn Knight, who ran a Canadian junior record of 13:34 last year as a true frosh, has taken the expected leap in his second year, winning the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, finishing second at Wisconsin and ACCs and winning the Northeast Regional. Senior Martin Hehir (13:35/28:27) long the leader of this team, has put together another outstanding season (4th Wisconsin, 5th ACCs, 3rd Northeast Regional) and should finish much higher than his 38th-place NCAA showing from a year ago. And red-shirt sophomore Colin Bennie (13:53/29:50) has emerged as a dependable third ace, taking 6th at Wisconsin and finishing as the team’s second man at ACCs (4th) and the Northeast Regional (2nd). If Syracuse is to win, those three have to run like the studs they are. Colorado and Stanford have low sticks of their own in McGorty and Murphy, so it may be tough for Knight to put much ground on them at #1. But it’s vital that Bennie and Hehir create some breathing room at the #2/#3 spots because Syracuse is not as strong as Colorado or Stanford at #4/#5.

The good news is that the two men expected to fill the #4/#5 roles are coming off their best races of the season. Junior Joel Hubbard (4:00 mile/14:06) was 11th at the Northeast Regional after taking 28th at Wisconsin and 35th at ACCs; senior Dan Lennon was right behind Hubbard in 12th after finishing 61st at Wisconsin and 20th at ACCs.

61st at Wisco? 20th at ACCs? Yes, we know what you are thinking, ‘They’ve got no shot if that’s their fifth man.’

Well, consider this. Lennon is a 28:46 10k man. Thus he could finish in the top 30 on the right day as he was 45th last year as a junior and has been trending upwards this year. Hubbard is more of a question mark in cross-country as he was only 165th at NCAAs last year, but finishing 28th at Wisconsin suggests that an All-American performance is conceivable in Louisville.

For Syracuse to win, they’ll have to do something like this (team points in parentheses):

3. Knight (3)
11. Hehir (9)
18. Bennie (13)
38. Lennon (30)
50. Hubbard (40)

That gets them to 95 points. That’s not a total that wins every year, but it’s enough to give Syracuse a shot. There’s only so much the Orange can control. Colorado and Stanford both have higher ceilings — on their best days, those schools could score in the low 70s, a number Syracuse can only dream of. If the Orange are to win, they’ll will have to run a great race themselves and hope that neither Colorado nor Stanford hits it out of the park. Or hope that Boulder County suffers from a flu epidemic this week.

Before we make our prediction, we want to encourage you to make your predictions. You could win $200,015 by doing so: LRC $200,015 LRC Running Warehouse NCAA XC Prediction Contest.

LRC Prediction
1) Colorado.
The Buffs are talented, consistent and experienced. That’s a recipe for a third straight NCAA title.
2) Stanford. The Cardinal give it their best shot but come up just short once again.
3) Syracuse. Led by their killer top three, the Orange stand on the podium for the first time since 1957.

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*Men’s Individual Preview Here: LRC 2015 NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: Edward Cheserek Looks to Make History with Third Consecutive Title

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