November 20, 2015
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The traditional pre-race press conference was held this afternoon on the grounds of the E.P “Tom” Sawyer State Park, home to tomorrow’s 2015 NCAA DI Cross Country Championships. Five women’s individuals (Erin Finn of Michigan, Courtney Frerichs of New Mexico, Allie Ostrander of Boise State, Dominique Scott of Arkansas and Molly Seidel of Notre Dame) then four men’s individuals (Edward Cheserek of Oregon, Martin Hehir of Syracuse, Pierce Murphy of Colorado and Patrick Tiernan of Villanova), and then five coaches (Mark Wetmore of Colorado, Lance Harter of Arkansas, Joe Franklin of New Mexico, Chris Fox of Syracuse and Chris Miltenberg of Stanford), went up on the dais to the face the media.
To be honest, most of the time the people at the press conference don’t reveal too much as it’s rarely their first rodeo, particularly the coaches. So if you want insight into the team battle, you have to really probe and maybe ask something specific about an individual or two and then try to read the tea leaves to see what that response means for the team title. We did our best to get that type of insight. We share the eight most interesting things we learned below.
Before we get into that, however, a programming note. On Saturday morning, we’ll be airing a live, pre-race Internet radio show from the NCAA course starting at 11 a.m. ET (races start at noon), so be sure to check out the homepage as we will analyze the races and update you on the conditions in Louisville.
1) Chris Miltenberg says Jim and Joe Rosa are the keys for Stanford but added “they aren’t in a position now to have huge individual expectations.”
The fifth-year seniors from New Jersey are huge talents (Joe has run 13:31 for 5,000; Jim was 5th in this race two years ago) but both have battled injuries this season. “We have had more adversity dealt out way than we could have anticipated,” said Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg about The Cardinal who were without both Rosas at Wisconsin where they plummeted to #21 in the team standings.
The twin brothers both ran at Pacs 12 and both looked good at the West Regional, going 6-7-8 with teammate Sean McGorty, but exactly where they’ll finish in Louisville is the source of great debate. Miltenberg admitted that the Rosas will be the keys to Stanford’s performance tomorrow and shared just how much of a struggle it has been for them to get on the line at NCAAs. Jim had knee surgery last fall, causing him to redshirt, and when he underwent the procedure, Stanford’s team physician warned him that it was likely he would have to undergo the same surgery on the other knee at some point.
Flash forward to August 15. The Rosas were training together in Boulder when Jim’s knee (the one he didn’t have surgery on) began to bother him. A week later, he was on the verge of season-ending surgery when he and Miltenberg decided to rethink things.
“We said ‘Let’s take one more shot,’” Miltenberg said. “He got one injection and [the doctor said] take two and a half, three weeks off. We were in the middle of September, he ran 15 minutes and said ‘it’s not that bad.’” And he’s just gotten better each day as we’ve gone and knock on wood. I haven’t asked about it in a couple weeks on purpose.”
Joe, who has raced four times this season compared to two for Jim, hasn’t been 100% after dealing with a hamstring strain after the Washington Invitational on October 2. Miltenberg said the hamstring bothered Rosa last year as well when he ended up 33rd at NCAAs.
Miltenberg seemed optimistic about the brothers’ progress.
“If this meet was two weeks ago, we wouldn’t be very good,” Miltenberg said.
That could be scary for the rest of the country. Three weeks ago, Stanford finished just 11 points behind Colorado at Pac-12s. If the Cardinal have progressed as Miltenberg hopes, it could be enough to dethrone the two-time defending champion Buffs at NCAAs.
That being said, the Rosas won’t be 100%. “They aren’t in a position now to have huge individual expectations,” said Miltenberg which is fine for the Cardinal as the team battle is clearly their #1 focus.
As for 2013 and 2014 Foot Locker champ Grant Fisher, Miltenberg said he’s experienced in big races (though obviously never at NCAAs) and expected him to be the hunt for top 40.
2) Wetmore: “I’d like to see [Ben Saarel] in the top 30 for sure. We need him to be.”
Wetmore was cautiously optimistic with Saarel, who has finished 8th and 7th at the last two NCAA meets. Saarel had been ill for a good chunk of the fall but Wetmore elected to run him at the Mountain Regional, where he finished 21st overall (6th for the team).
Wetmore said that Saarel has looked pretty good in practice all season but like every athlete on his team, he went through a rough patch at some point.
“We decided we would be gambling too much to not use him,” Wetmore said. “He ran last week, I would say carefully. I was happy with it as an opening and I’d like to see him in the top 30 for sure. We need him to be.”
Indeed, Saarel could be the key for Colorado. NCAA vets Pierce Murphy, Ammar Moussa, Connor Winter and Morgan Pearson have been rock-solid and if Saarel can finish in the top 30, he’ll likely put them over the top for their third straight title. If Saarel runs poorly, CU has options — true freshman John Dressel was 6th at Pac-12s and could finish as CU’s third or fourth man with a great race. But, as in the past two years, how Saarel runs on Saturday should have a major impact on the team race.
3) Aisling Cuffe has been battling a calf injury
Miltenberg has handled Cuffe with great caution this season. The 15:11 5,000 runner (who was third at NCAAs two years ago) missed all of 2014-15 with a stress fracture and Miltenberg wanted to ensure she avoided a similar fate this year, resting her at Pre-Nats. Cuffe has won both of her serious races this fall (Washington Invite and Pac-12s) but her absence at the West Regional last week raised more injury concerns.
Miltenberg admitted that Cuffe has been battling a strained calf but was very pleased with where Cuffe is at saying, “She’s definitely healthy going into tomorrow.”Miltenberg said her calf has been feeling a lot better for the last week and a half.
4) Dominique Scott is happy the meet is in Louisville — and the fans should be too (due to the weather)
The Arkansas senior said she was initially disappointed that the meet would be in Louisville this year as she wouldn’t be able to use her experience on the Terre Haute course to her advantage (her three previous NCAA XC appearances all came in Terre Haute). But then she arrived in Louisville to sunny, mid-50s weather and changed her mind.
“I’m so excited to be racing here,” Scott said. “The weather’s amazing. There isn’t almost that depressed kind of feeling that you get in Terre Haute. I think it has something to do with the cold and just all the thousands of runners that have run there. I think my teammates used to get freaked out by the course at Terre Haute. This year, the sun’s shining, the course isn’t muddy, there aren’t any frozen puddles.”
That’s not entirely true. We ran the course today and there are a few muddy patches, but the grounds crew are confident that today’s wind and sunshine will have them mostly dried out by race day. It’s taken a big effort to get the course in that condition though, as one groundsman we spoke to estimated they’ve had to vacuum about 2,500 gallons of water off the course due to rain earlier this week. The course’s first major turn (about 800 meters into the race) was still blocked off today (the entire course was closed on Thursday) so that a machine could blow air onto a wet spot, but overall the mud shouldn’t be much of a factor on race day.
Wet spots aside, spectators should be happy the meet is in Louisville. Though it’s only about 150 miles southeast of Terre Haute, but that can make a big difference. Weather.com’s forecast calls for 38 degrees and rainy in Terre Haute at race time tomorrow (with rain starting at 5 a.m.). In Louisville, it’s supposed to be 52 degrees, with rain holding off until later in the afternoon. Most of the runners should appreciate that — with a few notable exceptions…
5) If Colorado loses, blame the weather gods — Wetmore wants it as bad as possible and said he’d welcome fire on the course
We spoke to Wetmore briefly as he was leaving the press conference and he told us that he’d like to see horrible weather tomorrow — wind, rain and even fire (is that possible?). That’s logical as Wetmore’s teams generally run well in poor conditions. In 2006, when the winning time on a sloppy Terre Haute course was 30:44, the CU men emerged victorious. On another bad-weather day in 2013 (cold and windy with a muddy course), Colorado again won the team title, with a roster that included several key pieces of this year’s team.
That’s not to say Colorado can’t win in good conditions, but they may benefit from poor weather more than anyone. We spoke to one NCAA coach who thought that, in particular, Stanford’s Grant Fisher may be affected by a wetter course as he believes Fisher is more of a rhythm runner. Fisher was 11th on a rainy day at Pac-12s, so it’s not as if he can’t run in the rain, but the coach feels Fisher has top-20 potential if the rain holds off in Louisville — which the current forecasts say it will.
When asked about the potential of having to race in bad weather, Syracuse’s Martin Hehir cracked, “We’re from Syracuse. We have no problem with it (bad weather). ”
As for Hehir, Fox said he’s key for Syracuse having a successful day, “I think the key is Marty Hehir – he’s the heartbeat of our team. He’s had a couple of bad ones here (Hehir has finished 38th, 113th and 122nd the last 3 years). As he goes, our team will go.”
6) Molly Seidel doesn’t want to talk about the Foot Locker curse.
Notre Dame’s Molly Seidel didn’t want to talk about the “Foot Locker curse” – the fact that no female winner of the Foot Locker high school national championships in cross country has ever won the NCAA cross country title – and whether that was something she thought about as she prepared for the championship.
When asked about it, Seidel (who won Foot Lockers in 2011) politely responded that she would have “no comment” on the matter. Seidel wasn’t the only individual trying to avoid the pressure of being a contender for the individual title. See point #7.
7) On the men’s side, neither Edward Cheserek nor Patrick Tiernan wanted to talk about going for the title either.
If Edward Cheserek wins tomorrow, he’ll be the first man in history to have won three straight NCAA cross country crowns (Sally Kipyego won three women’s titles in a row from 2006 to 2008). While Cheserek said he was aware his win would be historic, he didn’t want to talk about history. He’s focused on his team. He said he wants to run with his teammates “as long as I can” and then score as “low as possible.” Cheserek wouldn’t even confirm that given what happened at Pre-Nats that he’d learned a lesson and definitely wouldn’t let a runner like Thomas Curtin get an early lead.
As for Tiernan, we asked him if he’d be going for the individual title, particularly since Tiernan doesn’t have a team race to worry about as Villanova didn’t qualify as a team for tomorrow’s race.
“I’ve got no expectations out there for myself for tomorrow [except] just go out there to have some fun. Last year, I put too much pressure on myself going into it and didn’t enjoy it,” said Tiernan. Even though Nova isn’t officially in the team competition, Tiernan said he would score Nova’s top three against the other school’s top three to see how they stacked up, clearly a tactic that takes a little emphasis off the individual race for Tiernan, who was 18th at NCAAs last year and 9th as a true frosh in 2013.
8) The Coaches Defend Why They Do and Don’t Recruit Foreigners
The local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, had an article out on Thursday on the Louisville program entitled, “Running coaches find shortcut in Kenya,” that focused on how Louisville has a lot of Kenyans on its team. The article greatly angered two coaches that we spoke to who have foreigners on their teams. Colorado coach Mark Wetmore had this provocative quote in the piece, “I believe that I can have a self-respectable level of success while sticking to American teenage recruits. I guess other coaches don’t feel they can. When I was a teenager, the cool guys in town built their fast, sexy cars in their own garages; the dorks had their fathers buy them at the Camaro dealership.”
We felt we needed to ask Arkansas’ Lance Harter and New Mexico’s Joe Franklin for their thoughts about the quote as foreigners play a key role for both coaches (Harter’s #1 woman is a foreigner, and five of New Mexico’s top 7 are foreigners).
Harter said his focus in recruiting was always to get the best Americans that he can first. If he can’t fill out the class that way, then he thinks a “sprinkling of them is a good experience for the whole group” but that he wouldn’t want a team full of foreigners. He also added that star Dominique Scott is on her way to becoming a US citizen.
New Mexico’s Franklin said his #1 recruiting priority is to try to get the best people from New Mexico to attend. After that, ”the door is open”. He said the “mission of our university is to be an internationally diverse university” but added that he didn’t have any problem with Wetmore’s comments.
As for Wetmore, he said this: “People say to me you don’t recruit internationally [and] and I [tell them] I only don’t recruit from countries who don’t have a reciprocal system [with the United States],” said Wetmore. Of course, when they then ask Wetmore what countries have a reciprocal system, Wetmore tells them none.
In the Courier-Journal article, Wetmore expanded on this idea: “To my knowledge, no other country in the world offers Athletics (Track and Field) scholarships to American athletes. So it seems foolish (maybe ungrateful) to me to give away these opportunities, this value, this Olympic/World Championship development, to our opponents.”
Discuss this article on our fan forum: MB: Where does Milt think the Rosas and Fisher will finish? What about Wetmore and Saarel? Press Conference insights