Forget About the Winners: The Biggest Surprises and Underperformers at NCAA Cross

November 25, 2015

The 2015 NCAA cross country season is in the books. We’ve got a separate article, “Our Final Look at NCAA Cross: Was Syracuse Winning NCAAs Was The Most Significant Development In a Generation?” here, with our six final takeaways from the NCAA meet.

While they award the trophies to the first people across the finish line, often the NCAA discussion centers on who exceeded or fell short of expectations.

Sure, Edward Cheserek winning his third straight NCAA cross country title was impressive, but everyone expected so it doesn’t get a ton of publicity.

With that in mind and the two threads: Who Are Your Biggest Positive Surprise at NCAAs? and Who Was the Biggest Disappointment at NCAAs?, we analyze some of the individuals and teams to exceeded or came short of expectations.

Biggest surprises (individuals)

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There are a ton of athletes who really stepped it up at NCAAs and there is a whole discussion on the forums on this topic: Who Are Your Biggest Positive Surprise at NCAAs? We want to focus on two athletes:

  • Jack Bruce, Arkansas (23rd)Bruce gained 22 places over the final 2k, most of anyone in the top 50, and the result was the first All-American honor for the Australia native.
    Bruce came out of nowhere to take 23rd at NCAAs Bruce came out of nowhere to take 23rd at NCAAs

    Nothing Bruce had done to this point suggested this kind of leap. In 2014, he was 21st at the Sun Belt Conference meet for Arkansas-Little Rock and 63rd in the South Central Regional, the NCAA’s worst region. He ran 1:52/3:50/8:22 on the track before transferring to Arkansas this fall. He improved in his first year as a Razorback, but until Saturday never finished higher than the team’s fourth man (he was 67th at Pre-Nats, 10th at SECs and 13th at the South Central Regional). Yet on Saturday, he finished as the top man on the #6 team in the country. What a performance.

  • Allie Buchalski, Furman (7th) — Buchalski, who owns modest track PBs of 9:32, 17:08 and 10:13 (steeple) flew under the radar this year before running the race of her life at NCAAs. In her first major race of the season, Buchalski was 10th at the Panorama Farms Invitational, 34 seconds back of winner Iona Lake. She responded by winning her next two races, the B race at Pre-Nats and the SoCon champs, and though she was fourth at the Southeast Regional, no one considered her a serious top-10 threat at NCAAs. But the Georgia native came through big-time on Saturday, defeating a slew of more heralded runners to take seventh overall.Freshman Brenna Peloquin of Boise State in 9th was an honorable mention. As noted on the forums she was a 4:50/10:30/18min HS runner last year and then was 27th at the adidas Wisconsin meet, 8th at the Mountain West meet, and 9th at NCAAs.
  • Related Discussions: MB: Who Are Your Biggest Positive Surprise at NCAAs?  *MB: Who Was the Biggest Disappointment at NCAAs?

Biggest Individual Disappointments: It’s Thanksgiving Week so we’ll just direct you to: Who Was the Biggest Disappointment at NCAAs?

A note on Aisling Cuffe. The Stanford senior is a stud, and was the Pac 12 champ this year. She was picked to finish 3rd in the LRC Running Warehouse NCAA Prediction Contest. Yet she finished 117th. On paper, that is by far the biggest disappointment for a favorite. However, Cuffe was battling injuries this year and from what we understand running very little. All things considered it  might be more of a surprise that she won Pac 12s than finished 117th at NCAAs.

Teams: Who met/came up short of expectations at NCAAs this year?

One way of determining whether a team over/underperformed is to evaluate how a squad fared compared to its pre-NCAA ranking. We do that below, showing the biggest losers and gainers, starting with the women.

School Coaches’ poll rank NCAA finish Difference
Notre Dame 15 8 +7
Syracuse 18 12 +6
Minnesota 18 23 +5

(NC State, Oklahoma State and Michigan State all moved up four spots)

School Coaches’ poll rank NCAA finish Difference
Virginia 7 15 -8
Iowa State 16 24 -8
Penn State T-9 16 -7

(Arkansas and Georgetown both dropped six spots)

There were bigger shakeups on the men’s side.

School Coaches’ poll rank NCAA finish Difference
UCLA 28 14 +14
Boise State 26 16 +10
Oklahoma 23 15 +8


School Coaches’ poll rank NCAA finish Difference
Oklahoma State 4 18 -14
NC State 17 28 -11
Virginia 12 22 -10

Season Long Teams: Who met/came up short of pre-season expectations at NCAAs this year?

Let’s go back further. Which teams did the best job of meeting preseason expectations? Here are the biggest losers and gainers based on the preseason polls, starting with the men. For unranked teams, we’ve assigned them a preseason ranking based on votes, if they received any.

Men’s Preseason Overperformers*
School Coaches’ poll rank NCAA finish Difference
Oklahoma Unranked 15 N/A
Louisville 37 7 +30
Boise State 41 16 +25

*(must have finished top 20 at NCAAs)

Ironically UCLA, which was the biggest gainer based on the pre-meet poll, actually underperformed based on the preseason poll. That’s because the pre-meet poll placed a lot of emphasis on the Bruins’ regional finish (7th) and not their other results (such as their 9th at Wisconsin).

Rather than make a chart for underperformers, we’ll simply list the preseason top 20 teams that missed NCAAs. Teams on that list include No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 7 Villanova, No. 10 Northern Arizona, No. 11 Indiana and No. 19 North Carolina. Obviously Wisconsin was hurt this year by injuries, while the NAU was misranked at No. 10 because at that point it had not come out that Futsum Zienasellassie and Nathan Weitz were redshirting. Among top-20 preseason teams that did make NCAAs, No. 4 Oklahoma State (18th) and No. 15 Ole Miss (30th) underperformed the most.

On the women’s side, here were the biggest positive surprises:

Women’s  Preseason  Overperformers*
School Coaches’ poll rank NCAA finish Difference
Oklahoma State 30 7 +23
Mississippi State 34 17 +17
NC State 18 5 +13

*must have finished top 20 at NCAAs

Top 20 preseason teams that didn’t make NCAAs included No. 10 West Virginia (top runner Jillian Forsey never ran due to injury), No. 11 Wisconsin (redshirted last year’s runner-up Sarah Disanza), No. 13 Iona (Kate Avery and Rosie Clarke turned pro in September), No. 14 William & Mary (top runner Emily Stites didn’t run regionals) and No. 19 North Carolina. Among teams that did make the meet, the biggest underperformers were pre-season No. 1 Iowa State (24th), No. 5 Georgetown (20th) and No. 3 Michigan State (13th). All three of those squads lost one or more of their projected top women this season, so it’s no surprise that they struggled to live up to preseason expectations.

Erin Finn Finished 19th With No Shoes (Click for an NCAA Photo Gallery)
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