September 21, 2016
Cross country is back, and while the season is not yet in full swing, we’ve already reached the point in the season where meets count for at-large qualifying purposes for NCAAs. A new rule this year means that you can get points at any meet held September 9 or later but for the most part that has meant next to nothing as most coaches are still running B teams. Between the Summer Olympics and the Diamond League, we didn’t have any time to focus on collegiate XC, but given that basically nothing has happened of yet, we have little reason to apologize for being a little late to the party. Now it’s time to get ready for the season. We’re doing that by rolling out previews for the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in the country.
Our pre-season rankings are only a rough estimate of what will happen this fall. While we did correctly predict the top two women’s teams last fall in order (#1 New Mexico and #2 Colorado), we only predicted six of the top 10 teams on the women’s side and five of the top 10 teams on the men’s side, with two of our preseason top five — the Wisconsin and Villanova men — failing to qualify for NCAAs entirely. A lot can change between now and November 19, when the NCAA championships return to Terre Haute, Ind., and while it’s usually easy to predict the top teams, places six through 15 can often be interchangeable depending on who runs well on the day. That’s what happens when you’ve got roughly two guys crossing the finish line every second in the main pack. So consider these rankings a starting point for the national title conversation; we’ll check in periodically throughout the fall and offer analysis as the season unfolds.
September 9: Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
October 14: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wis.
October 15: adidas Pre-National Invitational, Terre Haute, Ind.
October 28-30: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 11: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 19: NCAA championships, Terre Haute, Ind.
Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2015 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.
10. Washington: Can the Huskies improve on the program’s best NCAA finish in 22 years?
2015 results: 8th NCAAs, 1st West Regional, 4th Pac-12, 13th Wisconsin Invite, 6th Washington Invite
Key returners (lose #1, #7 from NCAAs last year)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Colby Gilbert||JR||14||3:59/7:49/13:35; Pac-12 5k champ|
|Andrew Gardner||JR||50||13:59/8:44 steeple|
|Blake Nelson||SR||4:00 mile|
The Huskies started slowly in 2015 but came on strong late in the season, winning the West Regional at home and taking eighth at NCAAs — the first time in 19 years under head coach Greg Metcalf that the men had finished in the top 10. While Washington loses #1 man Izaic Yorks, the bulk of the roster remains intact, led by Pac-12 5,000 champ Colby Gilbert, an All-American last fall. Gilbert, plus fellow juniors Andrew Gardner, Fred Huxham and Johnathan Stevens, have the Huskies poised to become a fixture in the top 10, though their fate in 2016 depends on the fifth man — which looks, at the moment, to be 4:00 miler Blake Nelson. Nelson was 14th at the Sundodger Invitational on Saturday, UW’s third man (Huxham and Stevens did not run), but he was 47 seconds behind Gardner in that race. Gardner is good, but that gap needs to come down by November.
Gilbert should reprise his All-American status and top 10 isn’t out of the picture on a good day; his 7:49 3k pb is #5 among NCAA returners and his 13:35 5k is #6. Huxham ran 13:44 last spring and could be an All-American as well. If Gardner and Stevens can improve from last year, Nelson (or whoever wins up being the fifth man) merely needs to be competent for UW to finish in the top 10.
With Oregon, Stanford and Colorado all in-conference, the Huskies will have trouble bettering their fourth-place finish at Pac-12s last year, but they’ll be battle-tested by the time they get to Terre Haute.
9. Wisconsin: After a disastrous 2015, the Badgers look to start some new streaks
2015 results: Did not qualify NCAAs, 6th Great Lakes Regional, 8th Big 10, 17th Wisconsin Invite
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Malachy Schrobilgen||SR||N/A||7:56/13:51/29:17; 10th NCAA XC in ’14|
|Morgan McDonald||JR||N/A||7:52/13:29; 5th NCAA 5k|
|Joe Hardy||JR||N/A||3:43/14:00; 10th Big 10 XC ’15|
|Olin Hacker||FR||N/A||14:18; 2nd NXN/FL in ’14|
|Carl Hirsch||JR||N/A||3:45; 107th NCAA XC in ’14|
From 1972 to 2014, there was one constant at the NCAA cross country meet: the Wisconsin Badger men, who set a record by qualifying for 43 consecutive championships. For the last 19 of those years, Wisconsin finished in the top 10, a staggering level of consistency. But both of those streaks came to an end in 2015, as the Badgers finished just sixth at the Great Lakes Regional and eighth at Big 10s — the program’s worst result in its 108-year history. Down years do happen in collegiate cross country in the past five years perennial powers Oregon (2011), Arkansas (2011) and Georgetown (2013) have all missed NCAAs as well.
Despite its history of success, Wisconsin was not able to rebound when disaster struck last fall. That disaster came in the form of a sacral stress fracture for top man Malachy Schrobilgen the week of Big 10s. Schrobilgen tried to run on it but DNF’d and the team’s hopes went down with him.
“I think when we lost Malachy Schrobilgen, the heart and soul went out of our program,” Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne said. “I think the other guys were too young to absorb that. We lost a leader, we lost a two-time Big 10 champion, someone that was the leader of the program, a great teammate. He had a great way with the younger guys. The wind went out of our sails.”
Schrobilgen’s injury wasn’t the only problem for a team that we projected to finish on the podium at the start of last season. Carl Hirsch and Ryan Kromer, both of whom scored for the Badgers at NCAAs in 2014, combined to finish just two cross country races. 2013 NXN champ Kai Wilmot, who battled injuries in his first year, could not get healthy (he has since left the team though remains enrolled at Wisconsin).
“We had two pretty good freshmen (Olin Hacker and Zack Snider) and we made the decision not to run them and you have to live with those decisions,” Byrne said. “Some guys that we were depending on from the year before just weren’t able to step up…That’s the past and it’s over. You can spend all day crying about it but that’s just the way it is. Nobody died and life goes on. Maybe it was a good thing, maybe it’s a reality check. And when I look at this group now, I think there’s been a tremendous amount of growth and a lot of learning. Sometimes you have to fall and hit rock bottom to climb back up.”
The Badgers certainly have the pieces to return to the top 10. Schrobilgen is healthy and Morgan McDonald, the sole bright spot of last year’s lost campaign, continued to get better on the track (13:29 5k, 5th at NCAAs). McDonald is a BIG talent. He was a low-mileage guy in Australia high school (but still managed to run 14:07 for 5000) and was only running 40 miles per week when he ran his first NCAA XC champs in 2014. Under Byrne’s tutelage, he’s gradually added miles to become stronger and now ranks among the best runners in the country. Joe Hardy (2015 Big 10 1500 champ, 10th Big 10 XC ’15) and Russell Sandvold (8:02/14:08) add veteran depth.
Hacker – the son of 1985 NCAA XC champ Tim Hacker – and Snider are the wildcards. Both men are supremely talented — Hacker was second at NXN and Foot Locker as a senior in 2014; Snider ran 14:06 last year and qualified for the World U20 Champs alongside Hacker last summer — but inexperienced at the collegiate level. If the redshirt freshmen can handle the pressure of NCAAs right away, Wisconsin could be a podium team this year, but Byrne is keeping expectations modest for this fall.
“We have some good young guys but I’d prefer that we just leave them alone and let them get better,” Byrne said. “Just because you’re a superstar in high school, nobody respects that when you get to November at the NCAA cross country championships…I’m not gonna put pressure on our young guys. Throw too much at them, history shows that a lot of kids can’t handle that.”
Still, Byrne and his athletes are feeling good about this season and are ready to get back to business. Schrobilgen told Byrne this year’s squad is the best group of guys he’s been around in a long time and Byrne said that when the team returned from its preseason camp, “the excitement on the team was evident. It was awesome to be around. We missed that last year.”