September 12, 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
Previous men’s previews: #10 Oklahoma State & #9 Iona
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
8. Oregon: The Ducks begin the post-Cheserek era
2016 results: 9th NCAAs, 4th West Regional, 4th Pac-12, 1st Pre-Nationals, 1st Washington Invitational
Key returners (lose #1, #6 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Tanner Anderson||JR||31||13:51/29:21; 13th NCAA 10k|
|Sam Prakel||SR||50||3:37/8:08; 7th at USAs in 1500|
|Connor Clark||SR||115||8:09/14:10; 5th year from Dartmouth|
|Blake Haney||SR||N/A||3:56 mile|
|Austin Tamagno||SO||N/A||4:01 mile; 5th at FL in ’14|
|James West||SR||N/A||3:39/7:58/14:01; transfer from Loughborough (UK)|
|Reed Brown||FR||N/A||3:59/8:51; FL champ|
Won Arcadia 3200 (8:41); ran between 4:00 and 4:02.56 4 times last spring
The bad news for Oregon? Edward Cheserek finally graduated, and he will be sorely missed. Cheserek scored a total of five team points across four NCAA XC meets, giving the Ducks the tremendous advantage of essentially scoring four runners to everyone else’s five. And while Cheserek’s heroics carried Oregon to five NCAA team titles on the track, the Ducks made it onto the podium at NCAA XC just once in his career, finishing fourth in 2015. Now that he’s gone, reaching the podium will be an even tougher task.
The good news? This is Oregon, which means that coach Andy Powell dealt with Cheserek’s graduation by bringing in another Foot Locker champion (Reed Brown of Texas, also a sub-4:00 miler) and Californian Cooper Teare, who ran 8:41 to win the prestigious Arcadia Invitational 3200 and ran between 4:00 and 4:03 four times last spring (including 4:00.16 at Mt. SAC). Obviously, neither will be able to fill Cheserek’s shoes, but both are super talents who could make an impact as soon as this fall.
For Oregon to sniff the podium, either Brown or Teare will likely have to finish in the top 20, but even if they redshirt, there’s plenty of talent on the roster. Matthew Maton blossomed in his second year in Eugene, finishing 29th at NCAAs, and former NXN champ Tanner Anderson made strides on the track last year by running PRs of 13:51 and 29:21 and taking 13th in the NCAA 10k final. Travis Neuman (13:55/29:09) has never been a star, but he was 46th in 2015 and has run for the Ducks at NCAAs each of the past three years. Dartmouth 5th year Connor Clark (8:09/14:10) will be looking to follow the path of fellow Big Green alums Matt Miner, Will Geoghegan and Tim Gorman and reach a new level of performance in Eugene, but he’ll have to improve a ton to have an impact as his highest finish at the Ivy League xc champs was just 37th.
The big question about this team is whether athletes like Sam Prakel (7th at USAs in the 1500), Blake Haney (3:56 mile, 2016 NCAA mile runner-up), Levi Thomet (8:06/13:59) and British transfer James West (3:39/7:58/14:01) can translate their track success to cross country. Oregon is a track program first and foremost, but if those guys run to their potential in XC, this squad could contend for a podium spot. In that respect, the flat Louisville course suits Oregon better than the hillier Terre Haute layout — perhaps it’s no surprise that Oregon’s only podium appearance in the last seven years came in Louisville.
With Brown and Teare in the fold, this squad could be very dangerous in 2018, but considering the Ducks were 9th last year with Cheserek, matching that performance in 2017 would be an impressive accomplishment.
7. Wisconsin: A potentially dangerous Badgers team…if Morgan McDonald runs
2016 results: 8th NCAAs, 1st Great Lakes Regional, 1st Big 10, 11th Wisconsin Invitational
Key returners (lose #2 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Morgan McDonald||SR||3||3:55/13:15; ran at Worlds for Australia|
|Olin Hacker||SO||29||4:06/8:11/13:59; 2nd at NXN/FL in ’14|
|Finn Gessner||FR||N/A||4:12/9:06; 2nd FL|
|Seth Hirsch||FR||N/A||4:14/8:54; 3rd FL, 4th NXN|
|Noah Jacobs||FR||N/A||8:55; 14th FL|
After a year from hell in 2015, which saw Wisconsin’s record streak of 43 straight NCAA appearances snapped and the team finish an embarrassing 8th at Big 10s, it was a return to normalcy in Madison last fall as Wisconsin reclaimed the Big 10 title (its 48th overall) and returned to the top 10 at NCAAs.
“It was, I would certainly say, a highlight of my 30-odd years of coaching, just to be able to come back and prove the naysayers [wrong],” said Wisconsin head coach Mick Byrne.
Though the Badgers lost three-time All-American Malachy Schrobilgen to graduation, they brought in three Foot Locker finalists to replace him, including Madison native Finn Gessner (2nd at FL) and Seth Hirsch (3rd at FL).
Byrne is high on his freshman class, which also includes Noah Jacobs (8:55/14th FL), and though he hasn’t made a decision about whether to run any of them this fall, he feels that they may be able to step in and contribute right away.
“Even in the recruiting process, we said they were college-ready,” Byrne said.
Uncertainty is the theme on this team. Olin Hacker, who was an impressive 66th as a redshirt freshman last year, will run, but beyond him, nothing is set in stone. Byrne said that there is one “significant” injury on his team right now but declined to share the identity of that runner.
“I don’t think it’s important right now,” Byrne said, when pressed for an answer.
Then there’s Morgan McDonald. The 21-year-old Aussie was 7th last year and has only gotten better since. He owns the fastest 5,000 pb in the NCAA thanks to his 13:15 in Heusden in July, and he made it all the way to the World Championships in London, where he came .37 of a second short of making the 5k final. McDonald began running again two weeks ago, but his status for the 2017 season is uncertain. If he runs, he’s a national-title contender and makes the Badgers a podium threat. If he doesn’t, Wisconsin is a completely different team — and with McDonald on the sidelines, Byrne may also elect to keep the redshirts on Gessner, Hirsch and Jacobs, saving their eligibility for a year where the Badgers may be more competitive.
“The roster is a fluid situation right now,” Byrne said. “[Redshirting Morgan] is on the table. We’ll see how he progresses, we’ll see what the makeup of the team is. We do host the national meet next year at home, so we’re going to take that into consideration.”
Byrne said he will sit down with McDonald at the end of the month and make a decision. Most coaches could use several words to describe that decision: important, difficult, stressful. Byrne chose a different one: fun.
“If he’s in, that’s awesome and we’re a better team,” Byrne said. “If he’s not in, we’ve got him next year, and next year we host the national championships. It’s black and white, we’re not gonna agonize over it.”
If McDonald is out, we don’t expect Wisconsin to finish as a top-10 team, but given his potential — and the fact that he is back training right now after his post-Worlds break — we’ll put the Badgers at No. 7.
Talk about 2017 NCAA xc on our messageboard / fan forum: Official 2017 NCAA XC Preview Discussion Thread.