September 13, 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
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
6. Colorado: The Buffaloes go for their 7th straight Pac-12 title and look to return to the NCAA podium
2016 results: 6th NCAAs, 2nd Mountain Regional, 1st Pac-12, 3rd Pre-Nationals
Key returners (lose #1 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Joe Klecker||SO||11||4:01/7:51/13:42; 4th NCAA 3k; 7th NCAA 5k|
|John Dressel||JR||15||7:51/13:44/29:20; 4th NCAA indoor 5k; 8th NCAA 5k|
|Zach Perrin||SR||62||3:59/7:55/13:46; 11th NCAA 5k|
|Adam Peterman||SR||N/A||8:43 SC; 202nd in ’14|
|Ethan Gonzales||JR||N/A||14:05/29:33; 54th Pre-Nats, 52nd Pac-12s|
|Mark Tedder||SR||N/A||3:44/8:02/13:57; 5th year from Cornell won Heps 10k|
|Eduardo Herrera||RS FR||N/A||4:04/8:04; 5th at 2015 NXN|
|Phillip Rocha||RS FR||N/A||4:11/8:59 3200; 2nd at 2015 FL|
Despite losing four of their top six from a squad that came up nine points short of the NCAA title in 2015, the 2016 Colorado Buffaloes performed better than anyone could have expected. John Dressel built on his sensational freshman year by finishing as an All-American for the second year in a row, while Joe Klecker joined him at the front of the pack, taking 28th at NCAAs. And though Colorado entered the Pac-12 meet ranked behind both Stanford (No. 2 at the time) and Oregon (No. 3 at the time), the Buffs earned their sixth straight conference championship, preserving their perfect record since joining the conference in 2011.
CU loses four-time All-American Ben Saarel, and that hurts, but Klecker and Dressel got even better on the track last year (both were All-Americans indoors and out) and give the 2017 Buffs two reliable low sticks at the front of the pack. Behind them, Colorado also returns Ryan Forsyth (13:57, 74th NCAAs) and Zach Perrin (13:46, 11th NCAA 5k), giving CU a solid front four. The fifth-man battle is wide-open, however.
“We’ll have to see out of the rest of the team who’s ready to move up a step,” said Colorado coach Mark Wetmore. “It’s kind of a peloton of five or six guys that will be fighting for the remaining positions.”
Two guys who could fill those spots are Eduardo Herrera and Phillip Rocha, two big-time recruits from the high school class of 2016. Both men redshirted the cross country season last year (Herrera did run 8:04 for 3k indoors), and Wetmore said it’s too early in the season to tell what kind of impact they’ll make on this year’s team.
“Neither of them throughout last year looked like someone that could help a contending team in the NCAA Division I but maybe they’ve taken a step in the last few months,” Wetmore said. “They’re healthy and training fairly well.”
For what it’s worth, junior Ethan Gonzales (14:05/29:33) and Herrera finished as Colorado’s 1-2 at its season opener at Colorado State, with both men finishing ahead of Klecker, Perrin and Forsyth. Given that the race was a 5K that took place on September 1, we’re not going to read too much into the result, but it certainly wasn’t a bad sign.
Grad student Mark Tedder is another guy who could step in as a potential scorer; he ran 13:57 in 2016 and was the Heps 10,000 champ for Cornell last spring. If he does contribute in cross country, it’s a testament to Wetmore and the Colorado culture as XC has never been a strong point for Tedder. His highest finish at the Ivy League XC champs was just 44th despite his lofty track credentials.
Wetmore knows that with Oregon and Stanford returning strong squads, winning a seventh straight Pac-12 title will be a challenge, especially with Oregon hosting this year’s meet. But the Buffs are up for it.
“Someone looking from afar would presume that our roster is either the third or the fourth best in the conference, but we’re working hard and hoping to repeat if we can,” Wetmore said.
Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith, who coached against Wetmore for years back when CU was in the Big 12, thinks Colorado has the potential to be extremely good this year.
“He is pretty cyclical, most of the time, Wetmore,” Smith said. “He’ll get a group of four or five guys and bring them in, and as 4th- or 5th-year guys, they’re rocking and rolling. And it seems like they might really compete for a year or two and maybe drop off a year or two while the next group comes up. And it seems like, in Dressel and Klecker and some of those guys he’s got, those are guys who have been working pretty hard three or four years and I imagine they’re pretty good.”
5. Stanford: Can the Cardinal reload after losing two key cogs?
2016 results: 2nd NCAAs, 1st West Regional, 2nd Pac-12, 2nd Wisconsin Invitational
Key returners (lose #2, #5 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Grant Fisher||JR||2||7:50/13:30; NCAA 5k champ|
|Sam Wharton||SR||18||14:03/29:23; 39th in ’14; NXN champ in HS|
|Steven Fahy||JR||24||14:00/8:46 SC|
|Thomas Ratcliffe||SO||N/A||4:01/7:53; 8th Pac-12 as a true frosh|
|Alek Parksons||RS FR||N/A||14:10; 3rd at 2015 NXN|
|Callum Bolger||FR||N/A||4:05/8:45; CA state 3200 champ; 10th FL|
|Connor Lane||FR||N/A||8:47 3200, 14:17; 8th FL|
|Michael Vernau||FR||N/A||4:08/8:49; 10th at 2015 FL|
Stanford has finished 2nd, 3rd and 2nd at the last three NCAA meets, so perhaps it’s a little unfair to drop them down to 5th in our 2017 pre-season rankings. But aside from Ole Miss, which graduated four of its top five, no contender lost more from last year than Stanford, which lost three-time All-American Sean McGorty and Garrett Sweatt, who finished in the top 75 in each of the past three NCAA XC meets.
This being Stanford, there is plenty of young talent on the roster, but no one had been more reliable for the Cardinal over the past four years than McGorty and Sweatt. Stanford’s best race is still good enough to win the national title, but there is more uncertainty around this roster than in years past.
That said, the guy at the top, Grant Fisher, is as reliable as they come. Just try and find a bad race by Fisher. He didn’t make it out of the Pac-12 1500 prelims as a true freshman in 2016. That’s the only “bad race” we can find for the guy in the past four years, going back to his final two years in high school, when he won a pair of Foot Locker titles. Last year, he demonstrated exceptional speed on the track by winning his first NCAA title at 5,000 meters and he enters the 2017 XC season as one of the favorites for the individual title. It would be a shock if he finishes outside the top five in Louisville.
“Grant Fisher is one of those guys that, nothing rattles that guy,” said Dave Smith, who has won three national titles as the coach at Oklahoma State.
Behind him, Stanford could easily have five or six more All-Americans if things break right. Thomas Ratcliffe was a revelation as a true freshman last year, taking 8th at Pac-12s in his first year of XC since middle school. But he dug deep in that race and even though head coach Chris Miltenberg held him out of regionals, Ratcliffe struggled at NCAAs and wound up dropping out. With another year of training under his belt, he could be a top-20 guy at NCAAs if all goes well as he’s a massive talent.
The supporting cast is talented but inconsistent. Steven Fahy was 93rd at Wisconsin last year but 59th at NCAAs. Sam Wharton was 47th at Pac-12s but 41st at NCAAs. Jack Keelan has run 13:40 on the track but his best finish in three NCAA appearances is 86th. Also look out for Alek Parsons, who ran 14:10 last year as a redshirt freshman after finishing 3rd at NXN in high school. If they all come through at nationals, this is a title team. If not, the Cardinal could find itself off the podium.
“Guys at Stanford, as much as anyplace, have to be able to deal with pressure,” said Smith. “I think it’s probably ratcheted up a little higher there than it is a lot of places, just with the academic setting, all the championships in every sport, the expectation there is pretty high.”
As usual, Stanford brought in a stellar recruiting class, with three guys who have finished in the top 10 at Foot Lockers (Callum Bolger, Connor Lane and Michael Vernau) and 4:00 miler DJ Principe. If one is ready to contribute right away, a la Ratcliffe last year, expect him to run. If not, Miltenberg will likely redshirt them.
While this squad will be thinking of an NCAA title, it may want to start with the conference title first. Colorado has won the Pac-12 meet every year since it joined the conference in 2011.
Talk about 2017 NCAA xc on our messageboard / fan forum: Official 2017 NCAA XC Preview Discussion Thread.