November 15, 2017
Next week will mark nine years since Galen Rupp outdueled Sam Chelanga in Terre Haute to win the 2008 NCAA cross country title. Since then, no American man has won the race.
On Saturday, Stanford junior Grant Fisher could change that. A phenom in every sense, Fisher was a two-time Foot Locker champion and sub-4:00 miler in high school and last spring, at age 20, broke through to win the NCAA 5,000-meter title on the track. Now Fisher will try to win the hardest title in collegiate running: the NCAA individual cross country crown — a title that has won by the likes of Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, Bob Kennedy, Meb Keflezighi, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Galen Rupp.
We could go on and on with the big names that have won the race but we stopped with Rupp as Fisher’s chief rival may have more in common with Rupp than Fisher does. As good as Rupp was during his first three years in Oregon, he won exactly zero individual NCAA titles during that span despite a string of near-misses. And that’s the same situation that Syracuse senior Justyn Knight (Canada) finds himself in as he prepares to run his final collegiate cross country race. Between track and XC, Knight has finished 6th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, and 3rd, but never 1st at an NCAA championship. But, like Rupp, Knight headed into his senior year of cross (Knight has an extra year of indoor eligibility in 2019 should he choose to use it) on the back of a stellar performance on the global stage — Rupp was 13th in the 10,000 at the 2008 Olympics, Knight 9th in the 5,000 at the 2017 Worlds — and has gone undefeated so far this fall. Can Knight emulate Rupp in one more way and make his final NCAA XC race his best one?
Fisher-Knight is the headliner, but behind those two there are a slew of Kenyans — led by the Alabama trio of Gilbert Kigen, Alfred Chelanga, and Vincent Kiprop — who will be trying to beat them and extend their country’s rich history at these championships. We break down the men’s individual battle below. If you missed our other previews, catch up now;
What: 2017 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville, Kentucky
When: Saturday, November 18. Due to weather concerns, the race times have been moved up. The women will start at 9:00 am ET with the men following at 10:00 am ET.
How To Watch: In-person, admission is $10 admission. Flotrack will also stream both races live online, but the bad news is that if you are watching online, you’ll have to pay three times as much as the fans who get to see it in person as you can only watch the races with a Flotrack Pro subscription ($29.99/month).
Whether you watch it live or not, we always recommend that you follow/talk about all of running’s biggest live events on our messageboard (and the live timing website).
*NCAA XC men’s team preview: LRC Clash Of The Titans: No. 1 NAU & No. 2 BYU Square Off In Classic Battle In Louisville For The 2017 NCAA XC Title
*NCAA XC women’s team preview: LRC Oregon Tries to Repeat, Colorado Seeks Redemption, & New Mexico Is Loaded Again
Fisher vs. Knight
Both Fisher and Knight have been spectacular in 2017. We already mentioned their track accolades above, but it’s worth mentioning that Fisher (13:30) and Knight (13:17) have the two fastest 5,000 pbs in the field and are also the only returners from the top 10 of last year’s NCAA XC meet (Knight was second, Fisher fifth). Knight has won all three of his races this fall. Fisher has lost just twice — on any surface — since NCAAs last year. One was at this year’s regional meet, which we don’t put any stock into considering the only point of regionals is to qualify for nationals. The other came at the hands of Knight, by 0.2 of a second, at this year’s Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational (video of end of race below). They have truly been a cut above the rest of the competition.
As you can see above, the race at Wisconsin offered a tantalizing preview of the duel to come at NCAAs. Entering the home stretch, it was a five-man race between Fisher, Knight, and the Northern Arizona trio of Tyler Day, Matt Baxter, and Andy Trouard, until Knight decided to make his move. He was able to gap Fisher briefly, only for Fisher to respond and eat into the gap. But as they approached the line, Knight found one more gear and was able to hold on for the win.
Considering how close the two men were in that race, NCAAs looks to be a toss-up. But someone has to win, so let’s see if we can try to figure out who. One thing Knight has going for him: he is a perfect 4-0 against Fisher in cross country. Fisher, meanwhile, is 2-0 against Knight on the track, including the biggest win of all at NCAAs this past spring. Intuitively, this makes sense. Though he has 3:56 mile speed, Knight is known as a grinder while Fisher is known as a kicker. So if you put a grinder and a kicker of equal ability against each other, it’s not surprising that the grinder wins in XC and the kicker wins in track.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Though Fisher’s NCAA win in June came in a 14:35 race, he beat Knight at 2016 NCAAs by dropping him, running 13:30 to Knight’s 13:40. And though Knight beat Fisher at NCAA XC in 2015 and 2016 by large margins (21 seconds and 30 seconds, respectively), his two wins over Fisher at the Wisconsin Invite came by a combined 2.6 seconds. Which is to say that both men are capable of winning either style of race.
One other addendum to Knight’s victory at Wisconsin in October: it came only two months after the end of Knight’s track season on August 12. Fisher, meanwhile, had a much longer buildup into the race as he had not raced prior to xc since June 9. While both men are likely better now than they were five weeks ago, it’s Knight who has the most room for improvement, similar to how Patrick Tiernan ran by far his best race of last season at NCAAs after coming back from the 2016 Olympics.
How Does the Race Play Out?
Given Knight’s undefeated record against Fisher in XC, his head-to-head win five weeks ago in Wisconsin, and his extra room for improvement, everything says that Knight is the better cross country runner. After all, in two matchups at NCAA XC, Knight has won by an average of 25+ seconds. How is this even close?
Well if Knight has his way, it won’t be. Knight showed at Wisconsin that he can defeat Fisher in a kick, but after Fisher kicked away from him on the track in June, why would Knight want to take that risk? Knight has beaten Fisher at the last two NCAA XC champs by pulling away during the middle of the race, and that would appear to be the best strategy to defeat him again in Louisville.
The difference this time, however, is that while Knight was following moves made by others in 2015 and 2016, he’ll likely have to be the one making the move in 2017 if he is to break Fisher. It’s possible that one of Alabama’s Kenyans or another athlete tries to break the race open midway through, and Knight should be fine with that — anything to weaken Fisher helps him. But if there is still a large pack halfway through the race, Knight will have to think about making a move himself. That’s a role Knight is comfortable with, and for good reason: though he has fallen short at NCAAs in the past, he’s usually a good decision maker in races, particularly in XC. He’s just happened to run into buzzsaws like Tiernan and Edward Cheserek.
“I think Coach [Chris] Fox, he trusts me enough, he knows that I’m a smart racer and I know when to make my move,” Knight said before NCAAs last year. “He knows that I know what I’m capable of.”
Even if Knight isn’t able to drop Fisher before the final straight, as long as the pace is fairly honest, that situation still favors Knight as he’s better-suited for the 10k distance than Fisher. Just as at the end of a marathon, it’s not about who can run a faster all-out 400 meters, but who can run the fastest 400 meters after the preceding 26 miles (or in this case, 9600 meters). What Knight will want to try to avoid is a situation where there are multiple guys remaining with 400 to go. Though he prevailed in the same scenario at Wisconsin in October, the more guys remaining at the end of the race, the more likely it is that one of them beats you (and the more likely that Fisher is feeling good since more people were able to hang with the pace).
In the last two years, both Cheserek and Tiernan made their winning moves right around 8k, and our advice to Knight is to follow the same gameplan. If he does, we think he’s your 2017 NCAA champion.
Fun fact: even if Knight doesn’t win, a Canadian-born athlete is most likely winning this race as Fisher was born in Canada.
Though Knight and Fisher are the favorites in Louisville, two things need to be remembered. Last year, Edward Cheserek was the heavy favorite and he ended up third — so that is our way of saying anything can happen. Secondly, seven of the last eight individual champions have come from the same country: Kenya. And, in case you were not already aware, neither Knight (Canadian) nor Fisher (born in Canada but an American citizen) hails from East Africa. So with that in mind, we’ve listed six Kenyans below who could steal the show on Saturday.
Gilbert Kigen, junior, Alabama
2017 results: 2nd UC Riverside Invitational, 1st Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, 3rd Crimson Classic, 2nd SECs, 1st South Regional
Track PRs: 13:53/29:33
Vincent Kiprop, junior, Alabama
2017 results: 1st UC Riverside Invitational, 2nd Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, 2nd Crimson Classic, 1st SECs, 4th South Regional
Track PRs: 13:42/28:19
Alfred Chelanga, junior, Alabama
2017 results: 3rd UC Riverside Invitational, 3rd Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, 4th Crimson Classic, 3rd SECs, 2nd South Regional
Track PRs: 13:48/28:04
These three are the reason why Alabama is making its first NCAA appearance since 2010. All three men came to Alabama from Kenya via transfer (Kigen from Central Arizona, Kiprop from Missouri Southern, Chelanga from Shorter) and all three enjoyed success in the lower collegiate ranks before coming to Tuscaloosa. Kigen was the NJCAA champ in 2016, while Chelanga finished second at the 2016 NCAA DII champs — to Kiprop.
Though Alabama skipped the two biggest meets of the year (Wisconsin and Pre-Nats), only one man has beaten any of their three stars this year: Middle Tennessee State’s Jacob Choge (we’ll get to him in a minute). Kigen, Kiprop, and Chelanga have otherwise dominated, with their most impressive performance a 1-2-3 finish at Notre Dame on September 29. Fourth place in that race was Colorado’s Joe Klecker, a top-10 NCAA threat himself who finished 2nd to Fisher at Pac-12s and won a loaded Mountain Regional.
Because all three men have been so close this season, it’s hard to choose which one has the best chance of winning NCAAs but we are going with Kiprop. While Kiprop was a fair ways behind the other two at regionals (20 seconds back of Kigen and 17 behind Chelanga), he won SECs and he beat Chelanga to win the DII title last year. Chelanga has the most impressive track performance (28:04 10k) but he has yet to win a single race this fall. But if one of them has been holding back to run with the others this fall and decides to go for it at NCAAs, Knight and Fisher could have some company at the end of the race.
Jacob Choge, sophomore, Middle Tennessee State
2017 results: 2nd Brooks Memphis Twilight XC Classic, 2nd Commodore Classic, 6th Louisville Sports Commission Classic, 1st Crimson Classic, 1st Conference USAs, 3rd South Regional
Track PRs: 13:39/28:42
Choge needs to be mentioned as the only man to break up Alabama’s Kenyan trio this year, but there are a few things working against him. First, of all, he was only 6th the last time he raced on this course, losing to four Northern Arizona runners and Boise State’s Yusuke Uchikoshi at Pre-Nats. It’s hard for us to imagine that a guy who would have been NAU’s fifth man seven weeks ago is going to be your NCAA champion. Second, Choge has raced a lot. He has had a two-week break between each race (apart from regionals to NCAAs, but everyone else has to deal with the same issue), so he’s had time to recover, but NCAAs will be his seventh race of 2017, and it’s possible that will have an effect, especially over 10 kilometers. But Choge is a big-time talent (13:39 5k) with a great pedigree (his brother Augustine has PRs of 3:29/12:53 and medalled at World Indoors last year). That being said, it should be mentioned that was only 40th last year so we don’t think he’s your winner.
Amon Kemboi, freshman, Campbell
2017 results: 1st Elon Opener, 2nd Campbell-UNC Greensboro dual, 1st Panorama Farms Invitational, 3rd Pre-Nats, 1st Big South, 2nd Southeast Regional
Track PRs: 13:47/28:57
Kemboi has only lost to two people who were not his teammates: BYU’s Rory Linkletter (23:08) and Virginia Tech’s Peter Seufer (23:10) at Pre-Nats (Kemboi ran 23:11). Considering this is his first year of NCAA cross country, he could have more room to improve than the other men on this list (all of whom have run XC in the U.S. for two or more years).
Emmanuel Rotich, junior, Tulane
2017 results: 1st Temple Invitational, 1st Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational (B race), 1st Pre-Nats (B race), 1st AACs, 1st South Central Regional
Track PRs: 14:04/8:39 steeple
If you’ve been following this cross country season, you’ve likely heard of Alabama’s Kenyans. And if you read our 2016 NCAA preview, you read about Choge. But you may not be familiar with Tulane’s Emmanuel Rotich who is the only undefeated runner in the NCAA this year apart from Justyn Knight. Admittedly, Rotich has not faced much competition — he ran the B races at Notre Dame and Pre-Nats, and neither his conference (AAC) nor his region (South Central) is particularly strong. But he’s beaten everyone that has been put in front of him. Rotich won the South Central region last year as well and only managed 85th at NCAAs, and it’s possible that he’s not even an All-American on Saturday. But it says here that if you head into the NCAA meet undefeated, you get a mention in the LRC preview.
Best of the Rest
- Rory Linkletter, junior, BYU: BYU has multiple top-10 threats, but Linkletter is the one with the most realistic (albeit small) chance to win the whole thing. For starters, he won Pre-Nats, and though both Knight and Fisher were at Wisconsin, winning Pre-Nats is still a big deal. Second, he was the NCAA 10,000 runner-up last year (top returner) and demonstrated in that race that he owns a big-time kick (he closed his last lap in 55.77 and passed seven guys in the final 500 meters).
- Joe Klecker, sophomore, Colorado: Klecker won the Mountain Regional last week, was 2nd at Pac-12s (to Fisher), and 4th at Notre Dame behind Alabama’s Kenyans. He also finished 28th at NCAAs last year. He was only 9th at Pre-Nats, however. But 2nd at Pre-Nats is more recent and that gives us faith in him. If someone makes the pace honest and true test of endurance, he’s much more likely to contend than if it’s slow as he’ll get outkicked by Fisher like he did at Pac 12s. Unlikely to win as his pb is 13:42.
- Anyone in NAU’s top three: Andy Trouard, Tyler Day, and Matt Baxter went 3-4-5 at Wisconsin. Though none of them could hang with Knight and Fisher when the kicking began, they’re all top-10 threats in Louisville.