2016 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: Syracuse #1 in the Nation, but Could Be Challenged by #2 Stanford, #3 Oregon, #4 Georgetown

By LetsRun.com
September 23, 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.

Key dates
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.

Women’s previews: *#10 Michigan State, #9 Oklahoma State, #8 Michigan, #7 Boise State *#6 New Mexico, #5 NC State, #4 Oregon, #3 Stanford * #2 Providence, #1 Colorado

Previous men’s previews: #10 Washington, #9 Wisconsin
*#8 Colorado, #7 Northern Arizona, #6 Arkansas and #5 Iona

Article continues below player.

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.

4. Georgetown: The Hoyas have the talent for their first trip to the podium since 1965

2015 results: 10th NCAAs, 1st Mid-Atlantic Regional, 1st Big East, 5th Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #3 from NCAAs)

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Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Jonathan Green JR  3 13:52/29:06
Michael Clevenger SR  17 Notre Dame grad student; 8:06/13:53
Darren Fahy SR  24 14:13/8:35 steeple
Amos Bartelsmeyer JR  70 3:58/7:57/14:04
Michael Lederhouse SR  89 3:58/7:58/14:15
Christian Alvarado SO  105 4:06/8:20/14:23
Scott Carpenter SR 155 14:06/8:40 steeple
Jack Salisbury FR   4:08/9:01; Dream Mile champ
Green will lead the Hoyas in 2016 Green will lead the Hoyas in 2016 (Michael Scott photo)

Georgetown has produced many stellar runners through the years, but only once have the Hoyas stood on the podium at the NCAA cross country championship: they were fourth way back in 1965, a year that saw six men disqualified for cutting the course. Georgetown was 10th last year, its first appearance in the top 10 since 2008, and the bulk of that squad returns intact, led by junior Jonathan Green, who was fifth overall a year ago. In all, six of the top seven return (third man Ahmed Bile is no longer listed on the team’s roster; there is speculation that he has turned professional) and the Hoyas will add a big-time weapon in All-American Michael Clevenger, who was 38th last year for Notre Dame.

The main issue that first-year head coach Brandon Bonsey will have to overcome is getting his mid-distance runners ready to extend their success up to 10,000 meters. Green, Clevenger and third man Darren Fahy all finished in the top 50 last year in Louisville, but the Hoyas didn’t put anyone else in the top 100 despite sending three guys (Amos BartelsmeyerMichael Lederhouse and the now-departed Bile) who would run under 4:00 in the mile and under 8:00 in the 3,000 indoors. The team’s top recruit, Jack Salisbury, is also an accomplished miler (he used a devastating kick to win the adidas Dream Mile in June) but it will be a challenge for him to contribute right away to a potential podium team.

We’re betting that the Hoyas will figure it out. Green can’t get much better, and if the #4 and #5 spots improve (sophomore Christian Alvarado also looks promising, as he took 4th at last week’s Spiked Shoe Invite behind three Syracuse guys), the Hoyas will be scary good.

3. Oregon: Even without Drew Hunter, the Ducks are ready to take flight

2015 results: 4th NCAAs, 3rd West Regional, 3rd Pac-12, 2nd Pre-Nats, 1st Washington Invite

Key returners (lose #6 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Edward Cheserek SR 1 3:36/7:40/13:18; NCAA 5k/10k champ
Travis Neuman JR  22 13:55/29:09
Jake Leingang SR  25 13:43
Tanner Anderson SO  29 14:00; 2014 NXN champ
Matthew Maton SO  42 3:39/7:53
Ryan Gil SR  66 4:01/8:42 steeple
Sam Prakel JR 3:38; 4th NCAA mile, 5th NCAA 1500
Blake Haney JR 3:56; 2nd NCAA mile
Bryan Fernandez JR 14:08/29:37
Tim Gorman SR   5th year from Dartmouth; 4:01 mile
Levi Thomet FR   8:48 2 mile
Austin Tamagno FR   4:01/8:54 3200
Cheserek earned a three-peat in 2015 and will go for four in November back in Terre Haute Cheserek earned a three-peat in 2015 and will go for four in November back in Terre Haute

Oregon returns all five scorers from a team that finished fourth a year ago and essentially only has to score four runners thanks to Edward Cheserek. We won’t bore you by listing Cheserek’s accomplishments; suffice it to say that, if healthy, he’s a lock to win his fourth straight NCAA cross country title. Generally when you return five guys from a podium squad, you have a great chance to win the national title, and though Oregon does have a chance, Stanford and Syracuse have slightly better chances. You could make a case that with Drew Hunter, one of the best prep recruits ever, Oregon would have been favorites, but that ship has sailed.

As it stands, the Ducks may be the deepest team in America, #1 through #10, and could put five or six guys in the top 40 in Terre Haute. Behind Cheserek, Travis NeumanJake Leingang and Tanner Anderson all finished in the top 60 a year ago. Anderson, in particular, has room for a big improvement. A cross country stud in high school, he was the fourth freshman at NCAAs last year and looked good in the Ducks’ season opener at the Dellinger Invitational, crossing the line in first/second with Sam Prakel, who’s coming off his best season on the track (3:38, top 5 at NCAA indoors and outdoors in mile/1500). Blake Haney is another ace miler on the roster and was second at NXN in 2013, but he has yet to prove he can run NCAA cross country at a high level. Matthew Maton made big strides on the track last year and should improve on his 85th-place showing last year.

With those guys alone, Oregon would be formidable, but the Ducks have a ton of depth. Ryan GilBryan FernandezTim Gorman and freshmen Levi Thomet and Austin Tamagno (who may redshirt) have all flashed potential at one time or another. It’s a numbers game; head coach Andy Powell doesn’t need all of them to run great, but if one of them does, that gives him a bigger cushion by the time the Ducks get to Terre Haute.

When you’re as good as the Ducks are, it comes down to execution on the day — just look at Syracuse in 2015. The Orange weren’t favorites last year, but had a chance to win if everything broke right at NCAAs and that’s exactly what happened. Oregon is among a handful of teams whose best-case scenario includes a national title, but actually executing the best-case scenario can be very, very tricky.

2. Stanford: Led by two studs, the Cardinal are national title contenders once again

2015 results: 3rd NCAAs, 2nd West Regional, 2nd Pac-12, 21st Wisconsin Invite, 2nd Washington Invite

Key returners (lose #1, #5 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Sean McGorty SR  4 3:53/7:48/13:24; 2nd NCAA 5k
Grant Fisher SO  9 3:59/7:50/13:30; 6th NCAA 5k
Garrett Sweatt SR  34 13:54/28:51
Sam Wharton JR  129 14:03/29:23
Jack Keelan JR  149 7:54/13:40/29:13
Steven Fahy JR 8:07/14:00/8:46 steeple
Tom Coyle SR 3:59/14:17
Patrick Gibson SR 13:58
Alex Ostberg FR 14:08 as redshirt last year
Stanford will go for a third straight podium appearance in 2016 Stanford will go for a third straight podium appearance in 2016

The Cardinal are now in year five of the Chris Miltenberg era and after a two-year adjustment period (16th at NCAAs in 2012, 19th in 2013), Stanford is back where everyone expects them to be: on the podium. The Cardinal were runners-up in 2014 and third last year, and though the Rosa brothers have graduated (and taken 40% of Stanford’s scorers with them), this Cardinal team could be just as good or better than the 2015 edition. Aside from Edward Cheserek, no one had a better 2016 track season than Sean McGorty, who was second in the 3k indoors and 5k outdoors. Grant Fisher adapted to the collegiate ranks extremely well as a true freshman; he was 17th at NCAAs last fall and only got better on the track, running 13:30 to take sixth at NCAAs in the 5,000. Between those two, Stanford should have two in the top 10 and has a 1-2 punch to match Syracuse’s Justyn Knight and Colin Bennie.

Whether the Cardinal can take the next step will depend on its #3/#4/#5 runners. Two of those spots are likely to be filled by Garrett Sweatt (64th last year) and Sam Wharton (39th in 2014). Sweatt has yet to live up to the All-American potential his 13:54/28:51 personal bests suggest, but he’s battle-tested and has been very consistent for the Cardinal over the past two seasons. If he can move up 10-20 spots from a year ago, he’ll have done his job. Wharton, an NXN champ in high school, had a disastrous 2015 season (207th at NCAAs) after taking 39th in 2014 but ran 14:03 and 29:30 on the track. Jack Keelan, who ran 13:40 in June, is another guy who will be looking to rebound after bombing at NCAAs last year (231st). If, between those three, Stanford can put one guy in the 20s, one guy in the 30s and one guy in the 40s, they have a good chance to topple the Cuse.

This is Stanford, so of course there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Steven Fahy and Patrick Gibson have both run 14:00 or faster, Tom Coyle is a sub-4:00 miler, and Alex Ostberg was the Foot Locker Northeast champ in 2014 and ran 14:08 as a redshirt last year. Miltenberg also brought in a terrific recruiting class in 4:01 miler Thomas Ratcliffe, Isaac Cortes and NXN third placer Alek Parsons, but all three will redshirt to preserve their eligibility.

Stanford faces several tests between now and November 19, starting with Syracuse on Friday at the Panorama Farms Invite. From there, the Cardinal will run Wisconsin before facing a tough Pac-12 field that includes Oregon and Colorado (who has yet to lose the conference meet the Pac-12 came into existence in 2011). Given Stanford’s recent history, it makes sense to withhold judgment until Pac-12s, as Miltenberg doesn’t like to rush his top guys into anything. But make no mistake, the talent is there. This is Stanford’s best shot at a national title since they last won it 13 years ago.

1. Syracuse: The defending champs return four of five scorers and are poised for a long run at the top

2015 results: 1st NCAAs, 1st Northeast Regional, 1st ACCs, 1st Wisconsin Invite

Key returners (lose #3, #6, #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Justyn Knight JR 2 7:48/13:26
Colin Bennie JR 5 7:54/13:38/28:52
Philo Germano JR 18 14:00/29:04
Joel Hubbard SR 23 3:58/14:06
Iliass Aouani SO 110 Lamar transfer; 8:02/13:55
Adam Visokay SR 140 UVA 5th year; 7:54/14:07/29:11/8:43 steeple
Adam Palamar SR 3:38/13:59; 12th NCAA 1500
Mickey Burke FR 8:11/14:15; 4th at 2014 Foot Locker
Aidan Tooker FR   4:09/8:52/9:06 steeple

The Orange upset the form charts to win their first national title in 64 years last November in Louisville. If Syracuse repeats the feat in Terre Haute, it won’t come as a surprise at all. Recent history shows that defending champs do very well at NCAAs the following year:

How the last 10 national champs fared the following year

Year Team # of returning scorers Next year’s result
2015 Syracuse 4 ???
2014 Colorado 4 2nd
2013 Colorado 4 1st
2012 Oklahoma St. 4 3rd
2011 Wisconsin 3 2nd
2010 Oklahoma St. 5 2nd
2009 Oklahoma St. 3 1st
2008 Oregon 3 2nd
2007 Oregon 5 1st
2006 Colorado 3 7th
2005 Wisconsin 3 2nd
Knight and Germano are two of Syracuses key cogs in their repeat bid Knight and Germano are two of the key cogs in Syracuse’s repeat bid

That’s right. Aside from Colorado in 2007, nine of the past 10 national champs followed up their title-winning season by landing on the podium the following year. Considering Syracuse returns four of its top five — including two top-10 finishers in Justyn Knight and Colin Bennie — the Orange are a good bet to continue the trend. Knight is a tremendous runner, and aside from a hiccup at NCAA outdoors (10th), he was brilliant in 2015-16, taking 4th at NCAA XC, 3rd at NCAA indoors and coming just 1.36 seconds shy of hitting the Olympic standard in the 5,000. Bennie built on his XC success by running big PRs of 13:38 and 28:51 and notching top-10 finishes at NCAA indoors (5k) and outdoors (10k). Once again, he should be near the front of the pack in every race he enters.

Philo Germano, last year’s hero at NCAAs, made progress on the track and along with Joel Hubbard gives the Orange nice depth behind the top two. The one hole is the spot vacated by Martin Hehir, who was ninth in 2015. Though it’s unlikely Syracuse can fully replace Hehir (top-10 guys don’t grow on trees), they’ve got several runners who can step in and potentially finish as All-Americans. Chief among them is Lamar transfer Iliass Aouani of Italy. Though he was only 185th last year as a freshman, he’s run 8:02 and 13:55 on the track and beat Germano and Hubbard to win the Harry Groves Spiked Shoe Invite at Penn State on September 10. He may not be on Knight and Bennie’s level yet, but he doesn’t need to be for the Orange to win the national title. Adam Visokay, a 5th-year grad student from Virginia, also has All-American potential as he’s run 7:54, 14:07 and 29:11, but he’s bombed in both of his appearances at NCAA XC (226th in 2014, 222nd in 2015). Senior Adam Palamar, a Tulsa transfer, is even more talented (3:38/13:59), but like Visokay, needs to prove he can run XC (he was 199th in his only NCAAs in 2014). The most intriguing prospect, besides Aouani, is redshirt freshman Mickey Burke, one of Syracuse’s best recruits ever, who was fourth at Foot Lockers in 2014.

Coach Chris Fox has developed a system that produces results and the Orange’s recent success has allowed them to attract freshmen and transfers and keep the talent pipeline flowing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Syracuse is going to repeat this fall, but they’re positioned as well as anybody for the next two years. The gap between the top teams this year is small; right now we think Syracuse is slightly better than Stanford, who in turn is slightly better than Oregon. All that may change over the next two months; heck, it may change in the next 12 hours, as Syracuse faces Stanford at the Panorama Farms Invite today (Friday). But if the Orange run their best race in Terre Haute on November 19, it will be very, very hard to stop them from winning a second consecutive national title.

LRC Miss our Previous NCAA XC Rankings? Check them out here.

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