Patrick Tiernan Stuns Edward Cheserek as NAU Wins First Crown to Send Coach Eric Heins Out On Top

November 19, 2016

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — It finally happened.

For the past three years, Oregon’s Edward Cheserek has come to the NCAA Cross Country Championships, run 10,000 meters, and left with a national title. But on a cold, windy Saturday at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course, Cheserek finally met his match in Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan. The lanky Australian took off at eight kilometers and for the first time in an NCAA XC championship since 2013, Cheserek could not respond. But unlike that race, in which Cheserek reeled in Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka to spring the upset, there would be no comeback. Tiernan, along with Syracuse’s Justyn Knight, were well clear of Cheserek by the time they entered the long finishing straight, and ultimately it was Tiernan who won the battle to the line, crossing in 29:22.0, to claim his first NCAA title in his final collegiate race. Knight, who, like Tiernan, had never beaten Cheserek before today, wound up second in 29:27.3, as Cheserek took third in 29:48.0.

screenshot-2016-11-19-at-12-10-50 Tiernan claimed a well-earned NCAA title in his final collegiate race

Like Tiernan, coach Eric Heins went out on top, as his No. 1-ranked Northern Arizona men delivered the school’s first national title in any sport, scoring 125 points to outdistance runner-up Stanford (158) and defending champ Syracuse (164). Heins, who announced before the season that this fall would be his last as the Lumberjacks’ coach, will be moving to Texas to spend more time with his son and support his wife, who took a position with the Space Center in Houston. NAU’s score was the fourth-highest by a winning team in meet history, but, thanks to All-American performances by Futsum Zienasellassie (4th), Matthew Baxter (11th), Tyler Day (23rd) and Andy Trouard (37th), it was enough to get it done.

In part due to strong cross winds, the race went out conservatively (15:17 at 5k) and only eight men wound up breaking 30:00. In the past, that sort of race has played into Cheserek’s hands, as he won after a similarly slow opening half on this same course two years ago. But Tiernan had other plans, and he gradually ratcheted up the pace over the final two kilometers, a long, sustained move that Cheserek could not match. The only guy to go with him was the precocious Canadian Knight, but even he broke in the finishing stretch as the Aussie powered home for Villanova’s first individual title since Victor Zwolak in 1963.

Behind them, a wild team race was unfolding. At 8 kilometers, NAU led Syracuse, 108-123. Which school would pick up the most places over the final 2k? Well, as it turned out, neither. The top four schools at the 8k split (Stanford was 3rd at that point with 150, Colorado 4th with 221) would lose places between 8k and the finish, but it was NAU that stemmed the bleeding the best, winding up with 125 points.

Syracuse was undone by transfer Iliass Aouani, who slid all the way to 128th after hitting the 8k split in as the squad’s third man in 51st place. NAU lost spots too, but a strong close from fourth man Andy Trouard helped make up for it, and in the end the Lumberjacks ended up on top, one year after failing to qualify for the meet. Stanford ended up second (158) and Syracuse (164) wound up on the podium for the second year in a row, while Mississippi, who until 2014 had never qualified for NCAAs, closed best of any podium team to finish fourth with 196 points.

Top Results (Full 2016 NCAA Cross Country results here)

Athlete Yr. # Team Score Time
1 TIERNAN, Patrick SR 691 Villanova 29:22.0
2 KNIGHT, Justyn JR 601 Syracuse 1 29:27.3
3 CHESEREK, Edward SR 452 Oregon 2 29:48.0
4 ZIENASELLASSIE, Futsum SR 399 Northern Arizona 3 29:49.8
5 FISHER, Grant SO 583 Stanford 4 29:57.9
6 ERB, MJ SR 326 Mississippi 5 29:58.5
7 MCDONALD, Morgan JR 742 Wisconsin 6 29:59.2
8 KIBICHIY, Edwin SR 253 Louisville 29:59.5
9 MONTANEZ, Nicolas SR 95 BYU 7 30:02.3
10 CARPENTER, Scott SR 180 Georgetown 8 30:03.0



Final Standings Score Scoring Order Total Avg. Spread
1 Northern Arizona 125 3-9-18-29-66(75)(77) 2:31:16 30:16 0:56.6
2 Stanford 158 4-19-32-45-58(67) 2:31:58 30:24 0:44.3
3 Syracuse 164 1-14-27-37-85(92)(101) 2:31:27 30:18 1:28.3
4 Mississippi 196 5-30-42-48-71(132)(198) 2:32:26 30:30 0:50.5
5 Arkansas 206 12-16-36-53-89(143)(163) 2:32:31 30:31 0:48.0
6 Colorado 223 17-22-26-59-99(160)(181) 2:32:37 30:32 0:53.0
7 BYU 247 7-25-62-73-80(84)(87) 2:32:47 30:34 0:49.6
8 Wisconsin 256 6-20-51-52-127(180)(190) 2:32:50 30:34 1:19.5
9 Oregon 282 2-23-54-82-121(157)(204) 2:32:53 30:35 1:27.0
10 Iona 319 34-50-68-74-93(140)(164) 2:33:47 30:46 0:31.1

Patrick Tiernan delivers a legendary performance in his NCAA finale

Edward Cheserek is as close to Superman as an NCAA cross country runner can get, and after winning this race as a freshman, sophomore and junior, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would close out his collegiate career with an unprecedented fourth cross country title. But Tiernan though about winning this race every single day this fall and never allowed himself to lose hope despite loss after loss to Cheserek.

“[I came] into it with the mentality that I wasn’t coming second again,” Tiernan said. “Came second last year and as good as it was, you always want to go one better. Last race, you can’t leave the NCAA without a championship. That was my mentality and nothing was going to get in my way.”

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Last year, Tiernan earned respect from the fans for his brave front-running effort, but ultimately the outcome was the same as always: a Cheserek victory. Today, Tiernan chose a more patient approach and became an NCAA legend, knocking off arguably the most dominant runner in collegiate history in a performance that will be talked about for decades to come.

“It started getting quick about 6k,” Tiernan said. “2k to go, I wasn’t really intending on making a move but found myself moving away a little bit so I just figured I’d make the most of it and get after it.”

Both Tiernan and his coach, Marcus O’Sullivan, knew Tiernan was in fantastic shape heading into the race, better even than his 2015 form, and his win today was no fluke. We said before the race that the only way to beat Cheserek was to become fitter than him, and that’s exactly what the Australian did. After his defeat last year, Tiernan improved his endurance, but more than anything, he worked to develop the tools that would allow him to close well. In workouts such as mile repeats, he’d throw in a hard kilometer to work on his speed, and he trained with Villanova’s sprint coach to refine his technique, aiming to relax his upper body and drive his knees more late in the race. All that work paid dividends on the NCAA’s biggest stage.

With a 13:20 5k personal best and an Olympic berth and now NCAA title on his resume, the 22-year-old has a bright future ahead of him. Tiernan said he will return to Australia to run the national 10k championships on December 8th and get his affairs in order, but his plan is to continue training with O’Sullivan in Philadelphia for at least one more year.

“We’ve come such a long way in the last 18 months and I feel like we’ve got a lot more to do.”

O’Sullivan, a Villanova alum himself, was incredibly proud of Tiernan’s run today. He didn’t tell Tiernan much before the race, but during the race he was yelling at his star to make it hurt the last 1000-1200 meters, as he knew Knight and Cheserek both had dangerous kicks. Tiernan did just that and the result was a national title.

Edward Cheserek was understandably frustrated after the race, but no one has had a better NCAA cross country career than him

Cheserek spoke briefly with the media after the race and was at a loss to explain his defeat.

“What happened?” Cheserek said. “You see what happened. I think you see what happened on the course.”

He said his hamstring felt a little tight, but more than anything he ran out of gas late in the race. Though Cheserek was the heavy favorite coming in — he’s the only man to have won three straight NCAA DI XC titles — big favorites have lost at NCAAs before, whether it was Lawi Lalang falling to Kennedy Kithuka in 2012 or Kithuka losing to Cheserek the following year.

Cheserek’s run today was a reminder of just how impressive his three straight victories were. To win an NCAA cross country title, you have to be in terrific shape and bring your A game in the race. To do that three times is incredibly tough. To do it four times…well, there’s a reason no one’s ever won four.

Cheserek finishes his Oregon XC career with three 1st’s and a 3rd: the exact same results posted by another Duck legend, Steve Prefontaine. He’s just the seventh man to post four top-10 finishes at NCAAs (table courtesy Track & Field News).

Name, School Years Finish Places Cumulative score
Edward Cheserek, Oregon 2013, 14, 15, 16 1, 1, 1, 3 6
Steve Prefontaine, Oregon 1969, 70, 71, 73 3, 1, 1, 1 6
Bob Kennedy, Indiana 1988, 89, 90, 92 1, 5, 3, 1 10
Adam Goucher, Colorado 1994, 95, 97, 98 2, 6, 4, 1 13
Nick Rose, Western Kentucky 1972, 73, 74, 75 9, 2, 1, 2 14
Chris Derrick, Stanford 2008, 09, 10, 11 7, 3, 5, 2 17
Kevin Sullivan, Michigan 1993, 94, 95, 97 4, 3, 8, 2 17

Eric Heins, Futsum Zienasellassie and Northern Arizona get the storybook ending

One year ago, Eric Heins took a gamble. After making the podium three years in a row, he redshirted his two best runners, Futsum Zienasellassie and Nathan Weitz, with the hope that, by the time they returned in 2016, Northern Arizona would have the pieces in place to mount their most serious challenge yet on the national title. One of those dominoes fell when Matt Baxter transferred in from the Auckland University of Technology last year (Baxter was 11th today, the fastest #2 man in the field).

The 2015 season was rough. NAU failed to win the Big Sky Conference and failed to make it to NCAAs, the first time they’d missed out on either of those honors since 2006. But the group that returned this fall was hungry and motivated to win it for Heins in his final season.

All season long, the Lumberjacks tried to drown out the noise and pressure of winning the school’s first national title. This morning, it finally got to Heins. An hour before the race, he walked over, alone, to the 9k mark on the course to soak up the moment and “got a little choked up because I realized it was my last time doing this.” He returned to the start line feeling calm and ready to coach his squad on to victory.

NAU got great runs up front from Zienasellassie (who posted his third top-four finish at NCAAs) and Baxter, but Heins said the key was fourth man Andy Trouard, who went out slowly but made up a lot of ground over the second 5k. Trouard certainly picked a great time to run his best race of the season. He was 44th at Wisconsin, 36th at regionals and 37th today.

Heins leaves NAU on November 30 (Mike Smith is taking over as his replacement at NAU) and he doesn’t know what the future holds for him in Houston.

“I’m looking for a job, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” Heins said. “I’ve told my team myself all year long that I’m not going to stress about that until November 20. So I’ll start cleaning up the resume tomorrow.”

That resume will certainly look a bit stronger now that he can add “national champion coach” to his accomplishments.

Ole Miss Shocks

The biggest surprise in the men’s team standings was #11 Ole Miss finishing on the podium in 4th, one spot ahead of Arkansas, who beat Ole Miss at SECs. When Ole Miss coach Ryan Vanhoy started coaching at Ole Miss just four seasons ago, the Rebels had never made the NCAA cross country championships. In 2014, they made it but were just 29th out of 31. Last year, they were 30th. Today, the third time proved to be the charm as Ole Miss was near-perfect.

“I’m very happy. Coming in ranked 11th, we just talked about trying to outperform our ranking and see if we could sneak into the top 10. We knew if we had a perfect day we could maybe get on the podium and and honestly it just went our way – we got lucky on the right day,” said the 29-year-old Vanhoy after the race.

Vanhoy thought the keys to the team’s success was the fact that Ole Miss had four seniors in its top five today. That and the fact that he got the track-oriented Ole Miss runners to believe they could be good at cross country.

To finish in the top four when coming in ranked just #11 is very rare. Jesse Squire reported that prior to today, looking at the last 40 NCAA championships (21 women, 19 men), only 10% of the time did a team that was ranked outside of the top 8 end up on the podium.

Who is the favorite for 2017?

Of the podium teams, all lose at least two scorers save for NAU (who lose just one), but that doesn’t mean they’ll be the favorites in 2017 as the man they are losing is their #1.

Here is what the four podium teams lose to graduation:

NAU (#1 and #6)
Stanford (#2 and #5)
Syracuse (#3 and #5)
Ole Miss (#1, #2, #3, #5)

What If for Syracuse?

Syracuse coach Chris Fox certainly is aware that his team will be in the hunt in 2017.

“I’m pleased [with third today]. There were six good teams going into this and I don’t think anyone gave us a chance until later in the year. The kids gathered it up and gave great work in the last month and the last month is all that really matters. Through four guys, I think we were as good as anyone in the country. Our 5th guy had a little trouble coming in the last thousand, but third place (this year) on top of first place (last year) with the whole team back next year, we’re happy,” said Fox.

Syracuse is well-positioned for the future, but it’s hard not to play the what-if game with the Orange. On Saturday, there were two men in the race who transferred from Syracuse (Ole Miss’ MJ Erb in 6th and Iowa State’s Kevyn Hoyos in 58th) and if either one of them had been included in the Orange’s team score, Syracuse would have won. Of course, there’s no guarantee that if either of those guys were running in a Syracuse uniform they would have finished in the same spot they did today. Team culture is also important in cross country and if Erb and Hoyos had been unhappy, but stuck around at Syracuse, there’s no telling what effect that would have had on SU’s other runners today.

Chris Miltenberg Post-Race

Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg was pleased with his team’s effort and happy to be on the podium for the third consecutive year — an accomplishment he was more proud of than simply winning one title and fading away. Star freshman Thomas Ratcliffe was only five seconds off the lead at 5k but wound up dropping out, which really hurt the Cardinal’s title hopes. Miltenberg said that Ratcliffe really went to the well at the steamy Pac-12 meet and that “I don’t know if he ever fully recovered from that, to be honest with you.”

5th Placer Grant Fisher of Stanford Post-Race

Also see: Grant Fisher will be XC national champ in 2017

Chris Fox Post-Race

Justyn Knight Post-Race

“I’m happy but not satisfied. Second is better than fourth last year and it gives me room to improve,” said Knight, who called today’s race a “good run” for him. More: Justyn Knight Pure Talent

Overachievers and Underachievers

The national rankings were pretty accurate today as shown by the stats below.

The 5 teams that finished at least 5 spots better than their national ranking
Ole Miss – finished 4th (ranked 11th)
Tulsa – finished 11th (ranked 16th)
Iowa State – finished 16th (ranked 23rd)
Boise State – finished 19th (ranked 29th)
Providence – finished 24th (ranked 30th)

The 5 teams that finished at least 5 spots worse than their national ranking
UCLA – finished 15th (ranked 10th)
Michigan State – finished 20th (ranked 15th)
Middle Tennessee State – finished 28th (ranked 22nd)
UTEP – finished 29th (ranked 19th)
California – finished 31st (ranked 26th)

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