By Jonathan Gault
November 17, 2017
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There are under 24 hours to go until the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships, to be contested at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park and though the NCAA’s top athletes and coaches tried to project an air of calm at today’s pre-race press conference, the stakes for everyone involved are enormous. For Syracuse’s Justyn Knight, it’s a chance to win his first NCAA title in his final collegiate cross country race. For BYU’s Rory Linkletter and head coach Ed Eyestone, it’s a chance to bring the program’s first NCAA men’s XC title back to Provo. For Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer, it’s a chance to become the first women’s repeat champion since Villanova’s Sheila Reid in 2010-11.
There’s a quick turnaround between the press conference and the races (which, in case you missed it, have been moved up due to weather concerns — the women now start at 9 a.m. ET with the men to follow at 10 a.m. ET) so I’ll just hit a few quick points from today’s media availability.
1) It’s been a long time coming for the BYU men; now it’s time to “win this flippin’ thing”
This has been a dream season so far for the men of Brigham Young University, and as I mentioned in my feature earlier this week, it will mean a lot for coach Ed Eyestone, the NCAA individual champ as an undergrad in 1984, to coach his alma mater to its first NCAA XC title. But Eyestone is not the only man who has been thinking about this race for a long time. Rory Linkletter, who won on this course at Pre-Nats five weeks ago, was one of several men in BYU’s 2014 recruiting class who went to high school in the state of Utah, and before they even signed with the Cougars, Linkletter, Kramer Morton, and Connor McMillan all made it a goal of theirs to win it all.
“We decided that we were going to bring home a championship while we were at BYU, and here we are four years later with that being a realistic expectation,” Linkletter said.
More recently, after returning home from last year’s NCAA championships, where BYU finished 7th, several guys visited Eyestone in their office to talk about the future of the team.
“Guys came into my office and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got guys coming back next year, there’s no reason why we can’t win this flippin’ thing,’” said Eyestone. “And I said, ‘Put that on the whiteboard.’”
So for the last year, “win this flippin’ thing” — or WTFT for short — has been the motto of the BYU XC team. And no, that’s not the PC version.
“Come on now, this is BYU,” Eyestone deadpanned. “So yes, it’s verbatim. That’s about as extreme as we get.”
The final piece fell into place when star recruit Casey Clinger decided to defer his LDS mission until after the season, giving the Cougars one more low stick in an already loaded lineup. There will be a lot of BYU support out on the course as 10 guys from the team decided to fly out on their own dime to cheer on their teammates and, hopefully, a chance to see BYU finally “win this flippin’ thing.”
2) How does the No. 1 team in the country prepare for NCAAs? By playing “Breakout”
A day before NAU scored 51 points to win the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational last month, the Lumberjacks took some time to have some fun and played a round of laser tag.
The boys might have just found themselves a new pre-race tradition… ?? pic.twitter.com/KO3NsB1ziq
— NAU Track & Field/XC (@NAUTrackFieldXC) October 13, 2017
There was no laser tag today; instead, NAU prepped by playing Breakout, an escape-the-room game where Smith was “taken hostage.”
“It was a real test of our IQ. Some of our guys, the fastest runners aren’t the strongest in that department,” NAU coach Mike Smith joked. “So it gave different people a chance to be the stars. But no, it was fun. We just tried to get them away from thinking about the race.
“…Peter Lomong was a complete deadweight. If we were really kidnapped, we would have been goners. Cade Burks led the way but he’s an alternate so it doesn’t tell you much about tomorrow.”
As for tomorrow, Smith likes where his team is at. Despite graduating #1 man Futsum Zienasellassie from last year’s title team, NAU has not missed a beat and has rolled through the competition again in 2017. Smith said that his runners try not to dwell on last year’s success — four of the Lumberjacks’ five scorers return.
“They don’t try to be last year’s team,” Smith said. “They’re really excited about being this year’s team.”
With that said, Smith said he likes what he’s seen this fall in his first full year as head coach (he took over from Eric Heins after the ‘16 XC season) and that NAU’s data in the metrics he uses to analyze the team in training have been “ahead of schedule.”
“For those longer aerobic efforts, some of the routes, some of the workouts and the intensities, all the numbers are really, really good…It’s just training, but I think you need evidence of what they’re capable of, and it can be a better team than last year.”
3) Grant Fisher: “I think it would be a mistake just to focus on the Grant and Justyn deal”
Fisher, now a junior at Stanford, first flashed his enormous potential by winning Foot Lockers as a junior in 2013 and since then he’s been hyped as one of the next great American distance runners. So far, he’s backed up that hype, winning another Foot Locker title in 2014, becoming the seventh U.S. high school boy under 4:00 in the mile in 2015, and winning his first NCAA title on the track in June.
Tomorrow, Fisher can make more history by becoming the first American man to win an NCAA XC title since Galen Rupp, but all he’s focused on is scoring one point for his team.
“It would be cool, but [ending the U.S. drought] is not on my mind at all going into tomorrow,” Fisher said. “I look up to [2003 NCAA XC champ and three-time Olympian] Dathan Ritzenhein a lot, being from Michigan. And growing up, everyone wanted to be Ritz. And I don’t think I ever ran faster than Ritz on any course or any race. So I’m not aspiring to be him by any means, I’m not aspiring to be the next great American distance runner that’s run on a cross country course. I’m here for my team and that’s it.”
Much of the attention this week has been on Fisher and his friend/rival Justyn Knight, but Fisher isn’t discounting anyone.
“I think it would be a mistake just to focus on the Grant and Justyn deal,” Fisher said. “He’s a phenomenal runner and a great guy and I respect him a lot, but there’s a lot of guys in the race.”
4) Which one of Alabama’s Kenyan trio will finish the highest tomorrow?
A year ago, Vincent Kiprop won the NCAA Division II XC title for Missouri Southern. Tomorrow, he’ll try to add the DI crown to a resume that also includes this year’s SEC title and a 28:19 10,000-meter personal best. But he’ll have company in teammates Gilbert Kigen (South Regional champ) and Alfred Chelanga (last year’s DII runner-up at Shorter). Those three have raced as a pack in almost every race this season, so which one of them will come out on top in Louisville? Kiprop isn’t telling.
“That’s a pretty good question and a very good answer comes tomorrow,” Kiprop said, drawing laughs from the media.
One coach I talked to does have a firm opinion however; when I asked the coach for his pick for the NCAA title, he didn’t choose Fisher or Knight, but Kigen, pointing to his stellar championship record in junior college at Central Arizona: he won nine NJCAA titles, including a mile/3k/5k sweep at the 2017 indoor meet. It’s a big step up from junior college to NCAA Division I, but Kigen is clearly a big talent.
5) Dani Jones channels Scarlett O’Hara: “Tomorrow is just another day”
Last year, Colorado entered as the No. 1 women’s team in the country, but underperformed and finished third. The Buffaloes didn’t totally bomb — they were only nine points behind champion Oregon — but it wasn’t the outcome anyone involved with the program wanted.
But after a race, Buffs’ head coach Mark Wetmore usually says one of two things:
1) That was good. Let’s get back to work.
2) That was not good. Let’s get back to work.
After nationals last year, it was the latter. And though it would be sweet for Dani Jones, the Pac-12 champion and the Buffs’ top runner, to help Colorado earn some redemption tomorrow, she knows that even if the Buffs win tomorrow, they’ll still have to get back to work eventually.
“[Last year] was really disappointing and I think we grew a lot from it,” Jones said. “I think you saw a lot of that fuel during indoor (when Jones won the 3k and anchored Colorado to the DMR title at NCAA indoors) and outdoor but tomorrow is just another day, another race.”