2016 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Can Northern Arizona Send Futsum Zienasellassie and Coach Eric Heins Out on Top?
November 15, 2016
One year ago in Louisville, the men of Colorado and Syracuse delivered one of the most exciting NCAA Cross Country Championships in history. Tied at 99 points with two kilometers to go, the Orange picked up 17 places over the final 2k to knock off the two-time defending champs and send the NCAA title back to Syracuse for the first time since 1951. We can’t guarantee that the 2016 NCAA Championships in Terre Haute on Saturday will be as exciting as that, but there are plenty of juicy storylines and no dominant team, which could make for a thrilling race.
No. 1 Northern Arizona has had the best regular season and will be looking to send coach Eric Heins and no. 1 runner Futsum Zienasellassie out on top in their final race. Colorado looked to be embarking on a rebuilding year at the start of the season but won its sixth straight Pac-12 title last month and is now a serious national title contender. Syracuse is coming off strong runs at ACCs and the Northeast Regional and will be gunning for the repeat. Stanford is loaded with talent as always. And don’t sleep on BYU, who has already beaten Syracuse twice this season.
It’s going to be a terrific race for the men’s team title, and we break it all down below.
What: 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, Terre Haute, Indiana
When: 11 a.m. ET (women’s race); 12 p.m. ET (men’s race)
How To Watch: In person ($10 admission). The 2016 NCAA Cross Country Championships will also be streamed online by Flotrack ($). Flotrack subscriptions cost $149.99 per year (recurring) or $19.99 per month (recurring) but there may be a free 7-day trial if you haven’t signed up before.
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Can the Northern Arizona Fairy Tale Come True?
If you were to draw up the ultimate sentimental favorite, it would look a lot like Northern Arizona. Under head coach Eric Heins, the Lumberjacks have been very good (five podium appearances in nine seasons, equal to the amount previously achieved in program history) but NAU has never won a national title in any sport. Three years ago, they came agonizingly close: the Lumberjacks entered the race ranked No. 1 in the country and led Colorado by 12 points with 2k to go, but fifth man Nathan Weitz lost 27 places from 8k to the finish and Colorado won by 20 (the Lumberjacks were also second in 1988 and 1995 under Ron Mann). Weitz is back this year for redemption on the same Terre Haute course, where NAU will try to send Heins — who is leaving the program and moving to Houston after the XC season to spend more time with his family — out as a champion in his final race.
Another man looking to go out as a champion is Futsum Zienasellassie. The Eritrean-born Zienasellassie, now an American citizen, still has eligibility remaining, so this won’t be his final race in an NAU uniform, but this will be his final crack at a team title. And what better place for it than Terre Haute, where Zienasellassie won three state titles as a high schooler in Indiana? Zienasellassie has run three NCAA XC Championships, and each time he’s wound up an All-American with NAU on the podium. Last year, he and Weitz redshirted the cross country season — even though they were 100% healthy — in order to give the Lumberjacks a better chance at winning this year. The Lumberjacks paid a steep price last year – they didn’t even make NCAAs as a team and had no individual qualifiers as well – to be all in this year. It’s not hyperbole to say that this will be the biggest race of his life.
Zienasellassie is a tremendous runner, but, dating back to high school, he’s been overshadowed by rival Edward Cheserek. It was Cheserek who denied Zienasellassie the Foot Locker title in his final high school XC race in 2011, and Cheserek who won NCAA XC in 2013 (when Zienasellassie was 4th) and 2014 (when Zienasellassie was 3rd). Last spring, Zienasellassie posted his highest NCAA track finish of his career — 2nd in the 10,000 — but once again, he finished behind Cheserek. There’s no shame in losing to one of the greatest runners in NCAA history and make no mistake, Cheserek is the heavy favorite to claim the individual title once again on Saturday. But even Cheserek can’t win a team title on his own, and to hear his coach tell it, Zienasellassie would eagerly trade individual glory to see the team win.
“I bet if he finished 25th and the team wins, he would be much more happy than if he won and the team finished 25th,” Heins told the Arizona Daily Sun.
All of this makes for a good story, but what makes it a potentially great story is that NAU has a legitimate shot to win on Saturday. The Lumberjacks have been ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll since September, and they won the biggest meet of the regular season, the Wisconsin Invite, in convincing fashion. NAU showed a formidable blend of front-running and depth in that race, putting two runners in the top 10 and all seven finishers in the top 60. The Lumberjacks’ 78 points were 40 fewer than runner-up Stanford and were the lowest total by a men’s team at the meet since Wisconsin scored 66 in 2011 (the Badgers went on to win NCAAs that year). Since that meet, NAU perfect-scored its conference meet (going 1-2-3-4-5-6) and won the Mountain Regional, which featured No. 2 Colorado and then-No. 3 BYU. It’s hard to say exactly how much those last two results are worth considering the Big Sky isn’t very strong (though it does contain No. 25 Southern Utah) and teams often leave something in reserve at regionals. But there’s not much to dislike about how NAU has run this season.
The big question is whether NAU can repeat its performance from Wisconsin. If the Lumberjacks run like they did in Madison on Saturday in Terre Haute, they will probably win it all. But NAU will be relying on several guys with little to no NCAA experience. Here’s a look at their top eight (of course, only seven can run at NCAAs):
|Name||Year||Season results||PRs||NCAA XC experience|
|Futsum Zienasellassie||RS SR||2nd Wisco, 1st regionals||7:53/13:37/27:52||31st in ’12, 4th in ’13, 3rd in ’14|
|Matt Baxter||RS JR||8th Wisco, 22nd regionals||14:10/29:19||none (Transfer from N. Zealand)|
|Tyler Day||SO||17th Wisco, 7th regionals||8:14/14:05/29:06||none|
|Cory Glines||RS JR||20th Wisco, 6th regionals||13:58/29:11||197th in ’13|
|Geordie Beamish||RS FR||31st Wisco||8:24/14:10||none|
|Andy Trouard||RS JR||44th Wisco, 36th regionals||4:03 mile/13:56||200th in ’13|
|Peter Lomong||SO||59th Wisco||3:56 1500||none|
|Nathan Weitz||RS SR||3rd Wisco B race, 24th regionals||7:56/13:55||80th in ’12, 76th in ’13, 118th in ’14|
Zienasellassie is clearly a stud and should finish in the low single digits. Weitz is also experienced, and though it took him a little time to come around this year (he ran in the B race at Wisconsin), he was NAU’s fifth man at regionals. But of the remaining six, only two have run at nationals, and that was three years ago. The other issue is that besides Zienasellassie, NAU doesn’t have a clear #2. Baxter was their #2 at Wisconsin and conference but was their #4 at the Mountain Regional. Since 1989, every NCAA champ has had at least two finishers in the top 20. Over that span, 19 of 27 champions (70%) have had two in the top 10. With four guys in the top 20 at Wisconsin, Northern Arizona has several candidates to finish in the top 10/20 alongside Zienasellassie, but none of them are anywhere close to being locks. The flip side is that Northern Arizona has terrific depth, so they may be able to make up the points they lose at #2 with a strong run at #5.
Who Else Could Win?
In our minds, there are three other schools with a chance to win on Saturday: Stanford, Syracuse and Colorado. Those are the three schools, besides NAU, that could score under 100, which is usually the magic number at NCAAs. Since 1989, only two teams (Colorado in 2013, and Oklahoma State in 2009) have scored more than 100 and won. And in the past 11 years, only two schools have scored under 100 and lost — Colorado last year and Stanford in 2014. If it’s a wonky year and a score of 100+ ends up being enough to win, teams like BYU, Arkansas and Iona could enter the conversation as all three have solid depth but are unlikely to score really low. Let’s run through the top three contenders below.
Results: 2nd Wisconsin, 2nd Pac-12s, 1st West Regional
Probable top 7
|Name||Year||PRs||Season results||NCAA XC experience|
|Grant Fisher||SO||3:42/13:30||4th Wisco, 2nd Pac-12, 11th regionals||17th in ’15|
|Sean McGorty||SR||3:53 mile/13:24||6th Wisco, 7th Pac-12, 9th regionals||161st in ’13, 20th in ’14, 7th in ’15|
|Thomas Ratcliffe||FR||4:01 mile||1st Stanford Inv., 8th Pac-12||none|
|Jack Keelan||RS JR||13:45/29:13||35th Wisco, 39th Pac-12, 10th regionals||100th in ’14, 231st in ’15|
|Garrett Sweatt||RS SR||13:54/28:51||32nd Wisco, 14th Pac-12, 23rd regionals||195th in ’13, 68th in ’14, 64th in ’14|
|Steven Fahy||RS SO||8:07/14:00/8:46 SC||93rd Wisco, 16th Pac-12, 22nd regionals||none|
|Sam Wharton||RS JR||14:03/29:23||41st Wisco, 47th Pac-12, 42nd regionals||39th in ’14, 207th in ’15|
Fisher, a HS phenom, has really blossomed in his second year at Stanford and is a near-certainty to finish in the top 10 (ignore the 11th at regionals; he pack-ran it with McGorty and Keelan). McGorty has slipped slightly from his otherworldly 2015-16 form, but he’s proven himself to be a reliable championship competitor and should finish in the top 20. Stanford’s fate rests on its #3/#4/#5 runners, and they’re about as volatile as they come (the exception is Garrett Sweatt, who has finished in the 60s at NCAAs the past two years and figures to finish around that range again in 2016). The Cardinal may have the most talented roster in America, and it’s tempting to look at their roster and think: “A 13:45 guy at #4 and a 28:51 guy at #5? How do they lose?” But the fact is, Stanford has already lost twice this season — to NAU at Wisco, and to Colorado at Pac-12s — because they’ve yet to have five guys run great on the same day.
Just look at the names behind McGorty and Fisher and you see why it’s hard to trust Stanford. Ratcliffe is super talented, but he’s a true freshman who didn’t even run high school cross country. He’s run great in his first two races, but this is his first 10k ever and just his third XC race since middle school. Keelan was right with Fisher and McGorty at regionals but he struggled at Pac-12s and bombed at NCAAs last year. Fahy was 93rd at Wisco and has never run at NCAAs. Wharton was an All-American two years ago but bombed at NCAAs last year and has struggled in 2016. If three of Stanford’s bottom five knock it out of the park, Stanford wins (though that is the case with most of the teams in this preview).
The past two years, Stanford has run its best race of the season at NCAAs and finished 3rd (2015) and 2nd (2014). But in head coach Chris Miltenberg‘s first two years, the Cardinal entered NCAAs ranked highly (2nd in 2012, 4th in 2013) only to bomb at nationals (16th in 2012, 19th in 2013). It will be very interesting to see which Stanford squad shows up on Saturday.
Results: 4th Wisconsin, 1st ACCs, 1st Northeast Regional
Probable top 7
|Name||Year||PRs||Season results||NCAA XC experience|
|Justyn Knight||JR||3:39/13:26||1st Wisco, 1st ACC, 1st regionals||143rd in ’14, 4th in ’15|
|Colin Bennie||RS JR||13:38/28:52||14th Wisco, 5th ACC, 2nd regionals||95th in ’14, 8th in ’15|
|Iliass Aouani||SO||8:05/13:55||86th Wisco, 6th ACC, 7th regionals||185th in ’15|
|Philo Germano||RS JR||14:00/29:04||28th Wisco, 9th ACC, 9th regionals||39th in ’15|
|Joel Hubbard||RS SR||3:58 mile/14:06||38th Wisco, 8th ACC, 10th regionals||165th in ’14, 47th in ’15|
|Adam Visokay||RS SR||7:54/14:07/29:11||87th Wisco, 19th ACC, 15th regionals||226th in ’14, 222nd in ’15|
|Griff Molino||RS FR||4:09 mile/8:29||41st ACC, 32nd regionals||none|
The defending champs lost a top-10 guy in Marty Hehir from last year, but the Orange remain very, very good. Though the Orange were only 4th at Wisconsin, they’ve been as good or better than the ’15 title team in their last two races. At ACCs, Syracuse went 1-5-6-8-9 to score 29 points — 17 points less than they scored in 2015. Even adjusting for the fact that the ACC isn’t quite as strong in 2016 as it was in 2015, that’s a mighty fine performance. And at the Northeast Regional, Syracuse went 1-2-7-9-10 to score 29 again — exactly the same as their point total in 2015 (plus sixth man Adam Visokay wasn’t far back in 15th).
Syracuse isn’t going to score 82 at nationals again. Last year, all five of the Orange’s scorers ran great races, and that’s extremely hard to pull off in the biggest race of the season. Plus Colin Bennie has taken a slight step back this year and they don’t have anyone to replace Hehir up top. Bennie was 14th at Wisco compared to 6th last year, but 14th is still very good. He may not be a top-10 guy again, but he should be in the top 20 and with a total stud like Justyn Knight up front (who should be second in the team scoring behind Cheserek), he can be the #2 guy on a title team.
But the good news for Orage is their #4 and #5 runners are better than they were a year ago. In 2015, Philo Germano was 89th at Wisconsin, 15th at ACCs and 15th at regionals before placing 39th at nationals. This year, he was 28th at Wisconsin, 9th at ACCs and 9th at regionals. Last year Joel Hubbard was 28th at Wisconsin, 35th at ACCs and 11th at regionals before placing 47th at nationals. This year, he was 38th at Wisconsin, 8th at ACCs and 10th at regionals. The problem for Syracuse is both of those guys knocked it out of the park last year at NCAAs and finished about as high as one could imagine. So even if they are better this year than last, they likely won’t finish any higher at NCAAs.
The key to Syracuse’s title hopes is Italian Iliass Aouani, who transferred from Lamar before the season. If Syracuse is to win, Aouani has to run well (or sixth man Adam Visokay has to make a major step up). If Germano and/or Hubbard run well at NCAAs, Aouani doesn’t necessarily have to finish as Syracuse’s #3, but he has the highest ceiling of the trio and he can’t afford a bomb like his race at Wisconsin, where he dropped from 13th to 86th over the final two kilometers. Aouani is a top-30 talent (he ran 13:55 as a freshman last year) and he has beaten Germano and Hubbard three times each this season. But this is his first year in coach Chris Fox‘s system and in the race that best simulates NCAAs (Wisconsin), he fell apart late — and NCAAs are two kilometers longer. The good news is that Aouani ran well at both ACCs and regionals (over 10k).
If Aouani comes through for them, the Orange could be as good as anyone. If he doesn’t, Syracuse could still land on the podium but will have trouble winning (the only way we see that happening is if the winning total is over 100, in which case the Orange could win with big races from Knight, Bennie, Germano and Hubbard and a solid run from Visokay at #5).
Results: 3rd Pre-Nats, 1st Pac-12s, 2nd Mountain Regional
8 potential runners
|Name||Year||PRs||Season results||NCAA XC experience|
|Joe Klecker||RS FR||7:59/13:44||24th Pre-Nats, 19th Pac-12, 3rd regionals||none|
|John Dressel||SO||8:00/13:48||27th Pre-Nats, 6th Pac-12, 5th regionals||26th in ’15|
|Zach Perrin||RS JR||3:43/8:12/14:16||30th Pre-Nats, 4th Pac-12, 16th regionals||107th in ’13, 195th in ’15|
|Ben Saarel||SR||3:38/7:52/13:48||28th Pre-Nats, 3rd Pac-12, 25th regionals||8th in ’13, 7th in ’14, 31st in ’15|
|Ryan Forsyth||RS SO||8:08/14:01||15th Pre-Nats, 9th Pac-12, 27th regionals||none|
|Christian Martin||JR||14:36||4th Bradley, 42nd Pac-12, 37th regionals||none|
|Ethan Gonzales||RS SO||14:36||54th Pre-Nats, 52nd Pac-12, 49th regionals||none|
|Reilly Friedman||RS FR||14:48||5th Bradley, 32nd Pac 12s||none|
These guys again? Yes, despite losing four of their top six from last year’s NCAA runner-up squad, Mark Wetmore has taken a team that looked like a rebuilding project in September and fashioned them into national title contenders. Of course, to give all the credit to Wetmore would be to sell the athletes short. Ben Saarel and John Dressel were studs long before they stepped on campus and were both All-Americans last year. Joe Klecker has translated a strong track season into cross country success, but the key to Colorado’s season has been Zach Perrin and Ryan Forsyth, who have reached an entirely new level this season. For Perrin, it was a breakout a long time in the making — he was 107th at NCAAs as a true freshman in 2013 and trained with CU’s top group for much of last year but hadn’t put together a complete season until now. Forsyth is not exactly a scrub (he ran 9:09 in high school), but no one expected him to finish as Colorado’s top guy at Pre-Nats.
It’s a bit of cherry-picking to focus on what Colorado did at Pac-12s, but that is clearly the most important race the Buffaloes have run this year. Wetmore rarely has his athletes push themselves at regionals, and the program prides itself on making a big jump from Pre-Nats to NCAAs. And that Pac-12 performance was terrific, as CU put four guys in the top nine in the most stacked conference in America, defeating a full-strength Stanford squad in the process. Individually, if you can finish in the top 10 at Pac-12s, you can finish in the top 40 at NCAAs. And with two proven championship performers in Dressel and Saarel, Colorado likely has the two requisite top-20 NCAA finishers that any title team needs.
We’re not super worried about the other three scorers (Klecker, Perrin and Forsyth) bombing as Wetmore always has his athletes ready to go at NCAAs. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if a couple of them finished in the 50s/60s, and with NAU, Stanford and Syracuse all in the hunt, that could easily kill any title hopes right there. The other big concern is that Colorado only goes five deep. Last year, Colorado had the depth to absorb a bad race. Ammar Moussa, 5th in 2014, didn’t even score for the Buffs last year, but they still tallied 91 points. Granted, they didn’t beat Syracuse, but 91 is a total good enough to win in many years. But if one of their top five falters this year, there’s no cavalry coming; Klecker, Dressel, Perrin, Saarel and Forsyth all need to run well if Colorado is to pull this off.
If Everything Goes Right, They Could Have a Chance
- Brigham Young: BYU is a terrific team, and they’ve beaten Syracuse twice already this season. But unlike Syracuse, who is coming on strong and has a great shot of winning if they run their best possible race, BYU could run their best possible race and still lose. Nico Montanez (9th Wisconsin, 4th Mountain Regional) has emerged as a solid #1 runner, but he was only sixth at the West Coast Conference meet. Can a guy who was 6th at WCCs really be the best guy on an NCAA title team? BYU’s presumptive #2, Jonathan Harper, also doesn’t match up well against the #2 runners of NAU, Syracuse or Stanford. The biggest thing BYU has going for it is its depth: Montanez was BYU’s #4 at WCCs yet they still smoked #9 Portland, while Harper was BYU’s #4 at regionals. But BYU is no deeper than NAU, who beat them at both Wisconsin and regionals, and NAU has a much better #1 in Zienasellassie.
- Arkansas: The Hogs rolled at SECs (25 points) and the South Central Regional (40 points) and while they didn’t face much competition in either (they did beat No. 11 Ole Miss at SECs), they now have four studs up front: 28:36 guy Andrew Ronoh, SEC champ Alex George, Pre-Nats runner-up Frankline Tonui and Jack Bruce (23rd at NCAAs last year). All four of those guys could finish in the top 20 in Terre Haute on the right day. The problem comes at #5. Austen Dalquist was their #5 at SECs (9th) and was their #4 at Pre-Nats (29th; Ronoh didn’t run that race). He didn’t run regionals, but assuming he’s back for NCAAs, he’ll be the guy Arkansas is counting on (and if he’s not back for NCAAs, Arkansas’ title chances are screwed anyway). If he can finish in the top 60 (he was 89th last year), there’s a path for Arkansas to win the national title. Their odds aren’t as good as NAU, Syracuse, Stanford or Colorado, but given how the co-founders of this site are old enough to remember how Arkansas used to always win, the more we look at their stats, the more we think they are a sexy underdog pick to win it all.
Predictions: We’ll hold off on that. We want see your prediction. Enter our prediction contest and you could win $200,016:
We’ll probably do a podcast from Terre Haute and make an official pick.