2017 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #4 BYU & #3 Arkansas
September 14, 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 that have a shot at the title, 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
Women’s previews: #10 Providence & #9 Arkansas * #8 Penn State & #7 San Francisco * #6 NC State & #5 Michigan * #4 Oregon & #3 Stanford
Previous men’s previews: #10 Oklahoma State & #9 Iona * #8 Oregon & #7 Wisconsin * #6 Colorado & #5 Stanford
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
4. BYU: With a returning stud and freshman phenom, this may be Ed Eyestone’s best team ever
2016 results: 7th NCAAs, 3rd Mountain Regional, 1st WCC, 3rd Wisconsin Invitational
Key returners (lose #1, #6 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Rory Linkletter||JR||14||13:49/28:58; 2nd NCAA 10k|
|Connor McMillan||JR||N/A||13:53/29:13; 84th in ’15|
|Jacob Heslington||JR||N/A||14:09/8:43 SC; 10th in NCAA steeple final|
|Conner Mantz||FR||N/A||7th + 10th at FL in ’13/’14; starting frosh yr after 2-year mission|
|Casey Clinger||FR||N/A||4:02/8:44, 2-time NXN champ|
|Patrick Parker||FR||N/A||4:03/9:08; 20th NXN; won adidas Dream Mile|
Most teams don’t lost a top-10 guy at NCAAs (Nico Montanez) and get better. But most teams don’t have the depth of this BYU squad.
“In 2011 [and] 2013, we had fourth-place teams and so we kind of know what’s required,” said Ed Eyestone, entering his 18th year as BYU coach. “We’ve been a pretty consistent top-10 team since about 2010, 2011. But as good as those teams were, I think this is as good, on paper, a team as I’ve had.”
It starts with Canadian Rory Linkletter, who was terrific on the track last year, running 13:49 indoors and taking second in the NCAA 10,000 final thanks to a huge kick that saw him roll up seven guys over the final 500 meters. He was 32nd last year in Terre Haute and will be expected to go even higher in Louisville in November.
“I think the sky’s the limit with Rory,” Eyestone said. “He’s a great, great competitor.”
Linkletter is one of four guys in BYU’s top group right now, according to Eyestone, which also includes Clayton Young (who ran big PRs of 13:50 and 28:45 last year) and Connor McMillan (13:53/29:13), who redshirted last year but finished as BYU’s third man at NCAAs in 2015.
The fourth member of that group is the most intriguing: freshman Casey Clinger. The Utah native made history by becoming the first boy to win two NXN individual titles and he posted some incredible times on the track, including 8:44 for 3200 meters at the Arcadia Invitational.
I asked Eyestone, who has coached Olympian Jared Ward, among others, if Clinger was the best recruit he’d ever brought to BYU.
“[2006 NCAA XC champ] Josh [Rohatinsky] was very, very good, but I would put Casey, certainly, in his category,” Eyestone said. “I think he’s gonna have an impact. I don’t want to heap all kinds of pressure on him, but I think he’s a somebody who’s gonna step into the college ranks and certainly have a nice shot at being an All-American his freshman year.”
BYU has a few other high school studs on the roster, but they may not use a couple of them. 4:03 miler Patrick Parker, Clinger’s high school teammate, will run this fall, though McKay Johns (8:51 3200), who, like Clinger and Parker, went to American Fork (Utah) High School, is going on a mission and won’t be back for two years. Two more Utah natives will likely redshirt: Garrett Barton, another 8:51 3200 runner, and Conner Mantz, a two-time top-10 finisher at Foot Lockers who spent his last two years on a mission.
Even still, BYU returns five guys who finished in the top 110 places last year and adds in another sub-14:00 guy in Dallin Farnsworth (74th at NCAAs in 2015, BYU’s top finisher) and an NCAA steeple finalist in Jacob Heslington. One through seven, this may be the deepest roster in America.
“Anything less than a podium finish this year, we would kind of consider a disappointment, quite frankly,” Eyestone said. “And I think you have to have that belief, you have to have those high goals or it’s difficult to achieve that.”
That’s certainly a realistic goal for the Cougars. A title is not out of the question, either, but for that to happen, they’ll need someone to emerge as a true front-of-the pack force. Northern Arizona, Syracuse and Arkansas all return two guys who finished ahead of BYU’s top returner from last year (Linkletter) and recent history has shown that you need at least one — and often two — top-10 finishers to win it all (2006 Colorado was the last team to win without a top-10 guy). Linkletter has the potential to get there; he’ll need to if BYU wants to contend for the win.
3. Arkansas: The best Hogs team since the John McDonnell days?
2016 results: 5th NCAAs, 1st South Central Regional, 1st SEC, 2nd Pre Nationals
Key returners (lose #5, #6 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Jack Bruce||SR||9||4:00/13:38; 2nd NCAA 5k|
|Christian Heymsfield||SR||N/A||170th in 2015|
When Chris Bucknam inherited the Arkansas head coaching job from John McDonnell in 2008, he was faced with an impossible task. McDonnell, arguably the NCAA’s greatest-ever coach in any sport, finished outside the top five at NCAAs just four times in his final 28 years in Fayetteville; during that span, he was more than twice as likely to win a national title (11) than he was to finish outside the top five at NCAA XC. Read that sentence again.
Under Bucknam, Arkansas has remained one of the country’s premier all-around track/XC programs, but he has yet to guide the Razorbacks to the NCAA podium; their last appearance came back in the McDonnell era in 2005. That may change in 2017, however. Arkansas was 6th in 2015, 5th in 2016, and with its top four runners returning this fall, this looks to be the year that the Razorbacks finally break through.
Arkansas likely would have landed on the podium last year were it not for some bad luck. Frankline Tonui, who finished second overall at Pre Nationals, behind only Edward Cheserek, fell during the first mile at NCAAs and, after picking himself up, was knocked down again. He wound up staggering home in 112th. But if you put him just ahead of where the third-placer at Pre-Nats finished (Amon Terer in 35th), Arkansas would have finished with 147 points — good for second overall.
“I really felt like if he hadn’t have fallen down, we would have had a shot at the whole thing,” Bucknam said.
Therein lies the problem. Arkansas has potentially the strongest top five in the country — Alex George was 15th at NCAAs last year, Jack Bruce ran 13:38 and was the NCAA 5,000 runner-up, Andrew Ronoh has run 28:36 for 10,000 and both Cameron Griffth and Austen Dalquist are sub-14:00 guys. But the depth on this squad is lacking and if one guy has a bad day at nationals, Arkansas’ title hopes go up in smoke. And when you only have 12.6 scholarships to go around and are tasked with fielding nationally competitive teams in both track and field and cross country, extra depth in the distance ranks is a luxury the Razorbacks quite literally can’t afford.
“We’re not super deep, we never have been because of the track component of things,” Bucknam said. “Like I said, the last few years, we’ve been able to put good cross teams together even though we have been not especially deep….That’s one of the deals that it’s always the case. You can get one guy back and something else hits you. We need all hands on deck. We need Andrew Ronoh, and all those guys need to be hitting on all cylinders and we need to nail it or it’s not gonna happen.”
The other wild card for Arkansas is Ronoh’s health. Last year, Ronoh entered the cross country season on the back of a left Achilles issue and this year it’s almost the exact same situation as he missed the track season with a right Achilles issue that impacted his summer training as well. Last year, Ronoh ran well at SECs (6th) and regionals (2nd) but faded to 67th at NCAAs. Right now, he’s up to 40 miles per week, but he has a lot of work to do between now and the championship portion of the season.
“We don’t know what we’re gonna get when October/November rolls around,” Bucknam said. “We don’t want to rush anything to the point where, even though the team is good again, we’ve got some good guys, we don’t want to rush him into it and overdo and have an issue on the track because we think we’ve a good track team and he’s gonna be a big part of that.”
Bucknam said that Ronoh won’t race at Iona this weekend or at Chile Pepper on September 30, which means we may not see Ronoh in an Arkansas uniform until Pre-Nats (October 14) or SECs (October 27).
“I think what got him last year at the national meet was he just wasn’t fit enough to string [three races together],” Bucknam said. “Conference, regionals, and nationals, as you know, it’s all pretty close together. If I had to do it over again, I would have taken the chance and not run him at regionals.”
If Ronoh can get back to his 28:36 self — or close to it — and if the rest of the Razorbacks run their A races at NCAAs, this is a title team. Those are two big “ifs,” but every title team needs some luck.
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