2017 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #2 Syracuse & #1 Northern Arizona
September 15, 2017
The track season is over, the days are getting shorter and temperatures are gradually dropping across the United States. Cross country season is here.
The NCAA Cross Country Championship is always one of the best events on the running calendar, and the 2016 edition in Terre Haute, Indiana, was one for the ages. In the men’s race, Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan upset the unbeatable Edward Cheserek of Oregon as Northern Arizona sent coach Eric Heins out as a champion by delivering the program’s first national title. In the women’s race, Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer was the surprising champion, sprinting by Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer and Michigan’s Erin Finn in the home straight. The wildest outcome of all came in the women’s team race as No. 12 Oregon sprung a massive upset, defeating Michigan by one point, in part because Oregon’s Maggie Schmaedick (64th, 20:38.1) beat out Michigan’s Jaimie Phelan (65th, 20:38.2) by one-tenth of a second.
The 2017 edition will have a tough job surpassing that excitement, but with its enthusiastic fans and meritocratic simplicity — everyone runs the same distance, over the same course, at the same time — NCAA XC always delivers.
Below, we’ve done our best to forecast who the top teams will be at the national championships two months from now in Louisville. A lot can change between now and November 18, 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 runners 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 8: Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
October 13: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 14: Pre-National Invitational, Louisville, Kentucky
October 27-29: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 10: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 18: NCAA championships, Louisville, Kentucky
Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2016 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.
New additions in italics
2. Syracuse: Orange hope Louisville is kind to them again in 2017
2016 results: 3rd NCAAs, 1st Northeast Regional, 1st ACC, 4th Wisconsin Invitational
Key returners (lose #3, #5 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Justyn Knight||SR||1||4th + 2nd last 2 years; 3:39/7:47/13:17; 9th at Worlds 5k|
|Colin Bennie||SR||7||8th in ’15; 13:38/28:52|
|Aidan Tooker||RS FR||N/A||4:02/14:04/8:39 SC|
|Joe Dragon||RS FR||N/A||30th FL in ’15; 4:16/9:15|
Eight kilometers into last year’s NCAA championship, Syracuse had 123 points, a total that, had it held for another two kilometers, would have given the Orange two straight national titles (champion Northern Arizona wound up with 125). And it’s not like Syracuse closed that poorly, either: five of the Orange’s seven runners actually picked up places over the final 2k. But Colin Bennie (5th to 17th) and Illiass Aouani (51st to 128th) lost a combined 89 places to sink any chances of a repeat.
“I would say I’m not real pleased that we were third, but I’m not gonna look down upon getting a trophy because I know how hard that is,” Syracuse coach Chris Fox said. “It took us a long time [to get one].”
(Editor’s note: It took Syracuse 10 years under Fox to get on to the podium, but they got there with a splash by winning it all in 2015. For how Syracuse went from a nothing in collegiate xc to a power, see our 6,000-word feature: The Rise of Syracuse: How to Build a Cross Country Powerhouse from Scratch in 10 Years).
Syracuse loses Joel Hubbard, a scorer on its 2015 and 2016 podium teams, and Adam Visokay, who wound up as the fifth man after Aouani’s disastrous final 2k in Terre Haute. But the squad that returns is strong and ready to contend for its second national title in three years.
The leader is senior Justyn Knight, perhaps the best runner in the entire NCAA. He’s the top returner from last year’s meet, finishing 2nd behind the departed Patrick Tiernan, and last month took 9th in the World Championships 5,000 final, the best-ever finish by an athlete coming off a U.S. collegiate season.
“Within 20 minutes of finishing the race in London, [Justyn] was talking about cross country and let’s get ready,” Fox said.
You can debate whether Knight or Grant Fisher should be this year’s NCAA favorite, but, barring a disaster, you’ll be able to count the number of points Knight scores at NCAAs on one hand. Given that he ran Worlds five weeks ago, Knight isn’t going to be racing again anytime soon — Fox said he will likely either debut at Wisconsin (October 13) or ACCs (October 27) — but when he does don the Cuse singlet, he’ll be ready. Remember, Tiernan was coming off the Olympics last year and didn’t race until his conference meet and he still won NCAAs.
Knight is valuable to Syracuse on the course, but he’s almost as valuable as a leader, and coaches around the country have begun to take notice.
“That guy, that charisma alone could lead a team to a title,” said Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith. “The guy is such a good leader and an inspirational dude to have on the team. And I think he can just will guys to better performances just with his personality and persona. The guy’s always got a smile on his face, he’s always got a kind word for everybody he sees. He’s gregarious, he’s charming, he’s super talented, but when it comes time to race, he’s a cold-blooded killer. I mean that guy is really, really good.”
This is far from a one-man team, however. Colin Bennie has finished 8th and 17th at the last two NCAA meets while Philo Germano was an All-American in 2015 and came five seconds away from another All-American honor last year. Aidan Tooker was spectacular on the track last year, running 14:04 and 8:39 for the steeple as a true freshman and should move into the scoring lineup this fall, and Fox feels that Kevin James (116th last year) made a nice jump in fitness over the summer and could be a factor in 2017.
Once again, however, this team’s fate likely rests on the shoulders of Illiass Aouani. He’s got the talent to be an All-American — he ran 13:55 as a freshman at Lamar before transferring to Syracuse — but in his two biggest races of the year in 2016, he faded badly down the stretch, going from 13th at 6k to 86th at the finish at Wisconsin and 51st at 8k to 128th at the finish at NCAAs.
“I think he learned from last year,” Fox said. “He just ran a little too hard too soon. If he’d have just sat with Philo [at nationals], been a little bit more patient, I think he would have got through the 10k fine. But he got excited, his first time running [on a stage] like that, and he ran a little bit too hard from three miles to five miles and he ended up paying the price.”
Syracuse is no stranger to the Louisville course, the site of its NCAA triumph in 2015, and the Orange will get a sneak preview three weeks before nationals when Louisville also hosts the ACC meet. If Aouani learns how to run a 10k and Tooker and James take the expected steps forward, the pieces are certainly in place for the Orange to take another run for the national title in 2017.
1. Northern Arizona: New coach Michael Smith tries to lead the Lumberjacks to a repeat
2016 results: 1st NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 1st Big Sky, 1st Wisconsin Invitational
Key returners (lose #1, #6 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Matt Baxter||SR||4||13:44/28:48; 7th NCAA 10k|
|Tyler Day||JR||10||13:49/28:46; 8th NCAA indoor 5k; 9th USAs 10k|
|Andy Trouard||SR||16||3:38/13:36; 11th USAs 5k|
|Blaise Ferro||RS FR||N/A||14:09; 9:03/20th NXN in HS|
|Luis Grijalva||FR||N/A||4:02/8:45; CA state champ in 1600/XC; 13th FL|
Northern Arizona’s 2016 season played out like something ripped from a dream or an inspirational sports movie script. After years of near-misses at NCAAs, the Lumberjacks won the school’s first national title in any sport to send coach Eric Heins out as a champion in his final race at the head of the program.
“They had a perfect season and a perfect day at nationals, and they can repeat that, but it’s really hard to do,” said Dave Smith, whose Oklahoma State team repeated in 2009-10. “That kind of performance is hard to repeat. And even if they just go out and have really, really good seasons, they won’t win. They’ve gotta have another perfect season.”
In addition to Heins, who gave way to former Georgetown coach Michael Smith at the end of 2016, NAU also loses its best runner in Futsum Zienasellassie, a three-time top-four finisher at NCAAs. Those two will be hard to replace, but NAU returns three All-Americans in Matt Baxter (11th last year), Tyler Day (23rd) and Andy Trouard (37th), and if the track season is any indication, the transition to Smith’s program was seamless as all three men improved significantly. Baxter went from 14:10 and 29:19 to 13:44 and 28:48 and took 7th in the NCAA 10k final. Day went from 14:05 and 29:06 to 13:49 and 28:46 and finished 9th in the USA 10k final (third U.S.-born finisher). The biggest improver was Trouard, who went from 3:43 and 13:56 to 3:38 and 13:36.
Considering how well those guys ran in XC, it wasn’t shocking to see them run PRs on the track. But having the potential to run those times and actually running them are two different things, and Smith and the athletes deserve credit for backing up their fitness.
In Baxter, Day and Trouard , NAU has a strong front three, and it has two more top-100 finishers from a year ago in Cory Glines and Geordie Beamish, who have both broken 14:00 on the track. We should note that in NAU’s first meet on September 2, Glines was only 11th and was not close to the Lumberjacks’ top group (who went 1-2-3-4-5), but we won’t read too much into that given how early in the season that race came.
Should one of them falter, Northern Arizona could call upon Blaise Ferro, who ran 14:09 as a freshman last year, or true freshman Luis Grijalva, who ran 8:45 for 3200 on the track last year. Neither of those guys ran in NAU’s season opener, however.
Even without Zienasellassie, Northern Arizona has the potential to be as good as any team in America this fall — remove the non-returners from last year’s meet and re-score it, and NAU still wins handily. And given how well their studs ran on the track, they’ve earned the No. 1 ranking for now. But to win the NCAA title, you need a great team and a great performance on race day at NCAAs. We’ll have to wait 64 days, until November 18 in Louisville, to find out if this group has what it takes.
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