By Jonathan Gault
September 22, 2017
BOSTON — Though today’s varsity races at the 2017 Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown technically took place during the dying moments of summer — the autumn equinox did not officially arrive until 4:02 p.m. Eastern Time, three minutes after the final runner crossed the finish line in the men’s race — it felt a lot like fall at Franklin Park this afternoon. Windy, rainy conditions with temperatures in the high 50s led to a muddy course; I heard the phrase “real cross country” several times as I ran around to follow the races. And though not every team in action was at 100% — NCAA favorite Justyn Knight of #3 Syracuse, still recovering from last month’s World Championships 5,000-meter final ran a workout on the course instead — what actually made it “real cross country” was the fact that six ranked teams (three men’s, three women’s) squared in one of the first meets of the 2017 season actually worth watching.
On the men’s side, #27 Illinois got the two best individual runs of the day as junior Jesse Reiser (3:42/13:54) earned the individual title in 24:12.1 with teammate Jonathan Davis, a sophomore who was 80th at NCAAs last year as a true frosh and made NCAAs in track (13:49 5k pb), outsprinting Syracuse’s Colin Bennie (13:38/28:52) for runner-up honors 24:12.9 to 24:13.2. But the Illini’s two front-runners were no match for the Orange’s depth as Syracuse went 3-4-5-11-12 for a tidy 35 points to easily handle Illinois (56) — and again, this was without arguably the best runner in the country in Knight.
“It went about like we drew it up, I think,” Syracuse coach Chris Fox said. “We were really pleased. We just wanted to run up front as a group, and we did. I was happy with Colin and Philo [Germano, 4th] and [Aidan] Tooker [5th] being right in the front of the race. It would have been great if Colin won, but he’s gonna get outkicked here and there and that’s okay. In a harder race, he’ll run even better.”
#7 Providence won the women’s title for the third year in a row, but the Friars had to work for it as their 71-point total was barely enough to outdistance #18 Indiana and #25 Georgetown. Of the three, Providence had the slowest fifth woman (Mackenzie Barry in 38th, compared to Indiana’s Lexa Barrott in 30th and Georgetown’s Maegan Doody in 24th), but they put three women in the top six (Catarina Rocha, Brianna Ilarda, and Abbey Wheeler), which was enough to carry them to victory. Individually, New Hampshire senior Elle Purrier, who was 7th at NCAAs last year, looked terrific, blowing what was a five-woman race at two miles wide-open by dropping her competition in the Wilderness section of the course and winning by 14 seconds in 16:49. Indiana junior Katherine Receveur (17:03), who was 11th at NCAAs last year, won a tight battle for second, finishing just ahead of Syracuse’s Paige Stoner (17:04) and Providence’s Rocha (17:05).
“I felt great, honestly,” Purrier said. “I like the cool temperature, I definitely think that helped my race, and I felt pretty comfortable throughout the whole first half of the race…I think they said [the time] was 15 seconds faster so that was great. I was happy with that.”
Unlike the women’s race, the men’s race was much tighter throughout, in part due to the conditions. There were a few minutes of heavy rain immediately after the women’s race and a consistent light rain during the men’s; that, combined with the repetitive nature of the Franklin Park layout (several sections are run multiple times during each race) and the fact that the women’s race came first meant that the course was chewed-up by the time the men began, and led to several falls.
The race began conservatively, with a large pack of men passing through one mile in 4:56 and two miles in 9:57. At 5k, the race remained tight as 19 men were within four seconds of the leader, Boston University’s Paul Luevano (15:37). The team race was similarly close; included in that group were six men from Syracuse and four from Illinois, leaving little to choose between the two teams.
The race began to string out as the leaders entered the Wilderness for the second and final time, and by the time they emerged, it was a Syracuse-Illinois battle, with the Orange’s Bennie, Germano, and Tooker battling the Illini’s Reiser and Davis. Bennie, a two-time top-20 NCAA finisher and former Massachusetts high school standout, made his bid for the win on Bear Cage Hill, but he could not drop Reiser, who responded with a move of his own on the final straight and powered home to the victory.
Though Reiser had the best kick in the race, his teammate Davis’ was almost as impressive. Only fifth entering the home straight after falling around 3.5 miles, Davis, whose face, chest, and arms carried generous doses of mud, passed Syracuse’s top three in the final 150 meters, nipping Bennie just before the line and letting out a joyous, “DUDE!” as he celebrated with Reiser in the finish chute.
“It was a pretty great feeling swallowing the Syracuse guys up the last 200,” Davis said. “I see my boy Jesse finish in first, and just going 1-2, we’ve been talking about it for a while now, just in summer training, about just bringing it to the season and I think this was a good start for us.”
Syracuse got the last laugh, however, as a great team race (eight men in the top 19) overwhelmed the Illini. And Fox is confident that, later in the season, once the races get longer and faster, his team will be ready to run even better.
“[A kick at the end] is not what we train for,” Fox said. “We train for 10k and we train for a lot harder pace. So the fact that the first three miles were 15:00, that’s really not our game.”
Results and analysis below.
Men’s top 20 results + teams (full results here)
|7||345||Paul Luevano||SO||Boston U.||15:37||24:25||4:55|
|9||349||Alexander Seal||JR||Boston U.||15:38||24:30||4:56|
|14||534||Paul Hogan||JR||UMass Lowell||15:39||24:39||4:58|
1. #3 Syracuse, 35 10. Albany, 261
2. #27 Illinois, 56 11. Harvard, 288
3. #21 Indiana, 106 12. Vermont, 328
4. Brown, 117 13. UMass Amherst, 384
5. Boston University, 131 14. New Hampshire, 435
6. UMass Lowell, 166 15. Maine, 446
7. Providence, 180 16. Boston College, 486
8. Lehigh, 241 17. Rhode Island, 495
9. Dartmouth, 247 18. Northeastern, 532
Women’s top 20 results + teams (full results here)
|1||179||Elinor Purrier||SR||New Hampshire||10:36||16:49||5:25|
|7||258||Heather MacLean||SR||UMass Amherst||10:45||17:23||5:36|
|16||21||Ashbrook Gwinn||JR||Boston College||10:48||17:35||5:40|
|20||267||Kathryn Loughnane||SR||UMass Lowell||10:54||17:39||5:41|
1. #7 Providence, 71 12. Vermont, 359
2. #18 Indiana, 78 13. Illinois, 362
3. #25 Georgetown, 78 14. UAB, 363
4. Dartmouth, 132 15. UMass Amherst, 371
5. Cornell, 143 16. Lehigh, 429
6. Syracuse, 163 17. Albany, 447
7. New Hampshire, 241 18. Rhode Island, 504
8. Brown, 266 19. Rutgers, 521
9. Harvard, 271 20. Boston University, 578
10. Boston College, 321 21. Maine, 646
11. UMass Lowell, 321 22. Northeastern, 672
Quick Take: Syracuse passes its first test
The Orange’s main goal is a trophy at the NCAA meet two months from now, but this race was the first one this season where most of Syracuse’s top guys raced against good competition. The fact that Tooker, in his first varsity race for the Orange, was right with a couple of All-Americans in Bennie and Germano is definitely a good sign, particularly when you consider that Illiass Aouani, someone who many expected to fill that role, has been banged up and did not race today. If Tooker, who ran 8:39 in the steeple last year as a true freshman, can maintain that level of performance, the Orange will be tough to beat once Knight returns to the fold (Fox said it’s 50-50 that Knight runs Wisconsin but assured me that he’ll definitely run ACCs).
“I think we have four guys right now that can finish pretty high up at NC’s and I think we have probably 2-3 guys that I think can finish 50-65,” Fox said. “And with the four guys running well, that should put us in it and then we hope we get lucky.”
Among those in the 50-65 range could be today’s #4 and #5 men, Kevin James and Joe Dragon, though SU’s #6/#7/#8 (Mickey Burke, Simon Smith, and Dominic Hockenbury) were only a few seconds out of the scoring places.
And Knight might not be the only impact addition down the stretch for Syracuse as Fox likes what he’s seen so far from true freshman Noah Affolder. Affolder is a big talent (15th and 6th at the last two Foot Locker finals, 8:46 2-mile), but after running a 14:18 5k in his outdoor track opener in March, he sustained an ankle injury that cost him all of the spring and most of the summer. Affolder began running again in August and is now doing about 80% of the work of the rest of the team, according to Fox, but could be inserted into the lineup late in the season if Fox feels that he will make a difference.
Quick Take: The rebirth of the Illinois cross country program continues
The 1990s and 2000s were rough decades for the University of Illinois as the program never finished higher than 4th at Big 10s (including a stretch of 8th or worse from 1997 to 2006), and while the Illini still have some work to do to be considered among the nation’s elite, head coach Jake Stewart, who took over in 2012, has been making progress in Champaign. It began with a runner-up finish at the 2015 Big 10 meet, and continued last year when Illinois made it to nationals for the first time in 30 years (they finished 23rd). With a convincing win over #21 Indiana today, the Illini could crack the top 20 in the USTFCCCA poll for just the second time in the USTFCCCA database era (dating back to 1995).
It certainly helps to have two blue-chippers leading the way in Reiser and Davis. Both were big-time studs as Illinois high schoolers (Reiser ran 4:09/8:49 and was 6th at NXN and 8th at FL; Davis ran 4:03/8:51 and was 13th at FL) and both decided to stay in-state to help rebuild the Illinois program. The team should be even better next year as none of the team’s top seven today were seniors.
This year, Davis said the team would like to try to win Big 10s — something the program hasn’t achieved since 1984 — and better their 23rd-place finish at NCAAs. Knocking off #7 Wisconsin will be a challenge, but the NCAA target seems very doable. Illinois will be back in action again next weekend as they will preview the NCAA course at the Greater Louisville Classic.
Quick Take: We need to stop having so many cross country meets on Fridays
I ran into a buddy of mine at the meet today and he is something of a unicorn these days at a running event: he didn’t have any ties to any of the athletes, coaches, or schools competing today. He just wanted to watch some good racing. He didn’t mind the rain, but he did tell me that he had taken off work that afternoon to watch the meet, which reminded me of one of the biggest problems with NCAA cross country: there are too many meets on Friday.
Look, cross country isn’t football, and it’s never going to be. But this is a sport that is already struggling for fans, and now we’re going to decrease that number further by holding a significant number of major meets on Friday mornings and afternoons? It’s nuts. A Saturday race will always outdraw a Friday race, and it also cuts down on the amount of class athletes have to miss and the amount of work fans have to miss. Sadly, Friday meets are all too common. Just look at Syracuse’s 2017 schedule:
Saturday, September 2: Harry Lang Invitational
Friday, September 8: Harry Groves Spiked Shoe Invitational
Friday, September 22: Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown
Friday, October 13: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational
Friday, October 20: John Reif Memorial
Friday, October 27: ACC Championships
Friday, November 10: NCAA Northeast Regional
Saturday, November 18: NCAA Championships
That’s six out of eight meets held on a Friday. I understand that in some cases there are logistical issues with the host school/site. Maybe there’s a big football game that weekend that would stretch a school’s operations staff and local officials too thin (that’s the reason Stanford provided for canceling this year’s Stanford Invitational). But the whole point of logistics is to come up with a time, date, and location that works for everyone. Most schools don’t host more than one high-profile cross country meet per year. If the sport’s administrators want the sport to grow (and quite frankly, I’m not convinced that they do), they need to do a better job of shifting meets to a time when it’s easier for fans to attend them: the weekend.
Surely if the University of Lousiville can figure out how to host THREE high-profile XC meets on the same day as home football games this year (the Greater Louisville Classic, Pre-Nats, and NCAAs are all on the same day as U of L home games), every other school can figure out how to do it once.
Quick Take: A great run from Elle Purrier, who looks like a top-10 threat at NCAAs once again
Purrier won this meet in 17:04 last year and ran 15 seconds faster today despite a soggy course and a windy day. Indeed, Purrier said she felt stronger than she did a year ago, when she went on to finish seventh at NCAAs. But taking the next step, from seventh to NCAA champion, is a hard one as five of the six women in front of her in 2016 return this year, including Karissa Schweizer, Anna Rohrer, and Katie Rainsberger. Plus 2015 runner-up Allie Ostrander returns (if she can stay healthy). So when I asked Purrier if she thought she had a chance to win this fall, she dodged the question, simply stating that her goal was to improve on last year’s finish.
“I mean, I have a lot of really great competition,” Purrier said. Definitely true.
Quick Take: The Providence women looked good up front but will have to shore up the gap to #5
Providence was expected to win the women’s race, and they did, but Indiana and Big East rival Georgetown came within seven points of springing the upset, in part due to the 25-second gap from Providence’s #4 to #5. If that gap remains that large, the Friars could have trouble cracking the top 10 at NCAAs. The good news is they have two months to work out the kinks. The better news is that Catarina Rocha, the last remaining tie to Providence’s 2013 title team (she was their fourth scorer in that race), looked like her old self today as she finished fourth overall after missing last year with injury. They’ll need her at the front of the pack if they’re to do any damage on the national stage.