2018 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #6 Alabama & #5 Iowa State

By LetsRun.com
September 19, 2018

Cross country is back, and the 2018 season promises to be a historic one.

In the team competition, a pair of teams are chasing dynasty status: the Northern Arizona men will be trying to become the first team to win three straight titles since Arkansas from 1998-2000, while the New Mexico women will be gunning for their third title in four years.

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Individually, the big story on the men’s side is whether the American drought can end: no U.S. man has won the NCAA individual title since Oregon’s Galen Rupp did it 10 years ago. Northern Arizona’s Tyler Day and Stanford’s Grant Fisher — both top-five finishers a year ago — will look to end that streak. Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald will be looking to end a drought of his own: no man has won the NCAA title on his home course since Indiana’s Bob Kennedy in 1992, but the Aussie will have a chance this fall as the NCAA championships will be staged at the Zimmer Course for the first time.

That course is another reason to be excited for the season. From 2004-2017, only two cities (Terre Haute and Louisville) hosted NCAAs. But over the next four years, four cities will host, beginning with Madison on November 17 (Terre Haute, Stillwater, Okla., and Tallahassee will follow in 2019, 2020, and 2021). Start planning those itineraries.

For the fifth year in a row, we’re counting down the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in America. These aren’t meant as definitive predictions — there are too many variables to accurately forecast the results of a race two months from now — but consider this a starting point for the national title conversation.

Key dates
September 7: 
Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
September 28: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 13: Pre-National Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 26-28: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 9: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 17: NCAA championships, Madison, Wisconsin

Women’s previews: #10 Arkansas & #9 Villanova * #8 Wisconsin & #7 Michigan * #6 NC State & #5 Stanford

Previous men’s previews: #10 Syracuse & #9 Boise State * #8 Wisconsin & #7 Colorado

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2017 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.

New additions in italics

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s four Kenyan studs could take them far, but can they find a fifth runner?

2017 results: 14th NCAAs, 3rd South Regional, 2nd SEC

Key returners

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Gilbert Kigen SR 3 13:40/28:27; 7th NCAA 10k
Vincent Kiprop SR 5 13:37/28:19; 2nd NCAA 10k; 2nd NCAA indoor 5k
Alfred Chelanga SR 21 13:42/28:04; 16th NCAA 10k
JP Brinyark JR 132 14:41/31:23
Kwemoi Ndiwa FR N/A 1:49 800
Noel Rotich FR N/A 8:32 steeple
Kigen made a bold early move at NCAA XC last year and would ultimately finish 4th overall

Kigen made a bold early move at NCAA XC last year and would ultimately finish 4th overall (Mike Scott photo)

Through three runners, only two schools had a lower score than Alabama at NCAAs last year: champion Northern Arizona and 4th-place Stanford. Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, five men score in XC, and last year at NCAAs, only three schools in the 31-team field had a lower-placing fifth man than Bama (Andrew Bull in 227th). In fact, the Crimson Tide’s #4 man, Garrett Bull (223rd), would only have scored for three teams as well. But, thanks to the Kenyan trio of Gilbert Kigen (4th), Vincent Kiprop (7th), and Alfred Chelanga (37th), Alabama was able to finish in a respectable 14th place — the team’s best finish in seven years. The Tide should be even stronger in 2018, but not even head coach Dan Waters knows for sure how good his team can be.

What we do know: Kigen, Kiprop, and Chelanga make for a formidable front three. Kigen and Kiprop are both individual title contenders, and Chelanga is faster over 10,000 meters (28:04) than both of them. And new addition Noel Rotich, an 8:32 steepler, has been with them stride-for-stride in workouts, according to Waters. So who is the team’s #1 runner?

“Hard to say,” Waters said when we spoke with him last week. “If you watched practice today, I’d say it was Alfred Chelanga. If you watched practice on Saturday, it was Gilbert Kigen. Watch practice a week ago, it was Noel Rotich. You listen to the prognosticators and it’s gonna be Vincent Kiprop. I don’t know. I think that all four of them have the opportunity to do be the #1 runner.”

If NCAA XC was scored like World XC is, with only the top four scoring, Alabama would have a good shot at being the 2018 NCAA champs.

As good as Alabama is through four, however, their #5 spot remains unsettled. JP Brinyark (14:41/31:23) ran at NCAAs last year but finished 243rd out of 250. Waters brought in a fifth Kenyan, Kwemoi Ndiwa, but he’s an 800 specialist (1:49 pb) and unproven in cross country.

“He’s run 25:35 8k cross in [at 8,000 feet] in Kenya,” Waters said. “Is that good enough? I don’t know. You tell me. I think the numbers will work against us all season long until we get to the national championship. There’s a big part of me in the back of my mind that says it might be harder for us to finish in the top four regionally than it would be in the top four nationally. We might not make it to the national meet and be one of the better teams in the country.”

Indeed, Alabama was only third at last year’s South Regional, but at nationals finished well ahead of the two teams that beat them in that race, Ole Miss (18th) and Middle Tennessee State (23rd) — such is the power of three low sticks in a large, deep field.

The table below gives you an idea of what Alabama will need to do to land on the podium.

Year 4th-place team score Lowest-placing scorer for a podium team (actual place, not team score)
2017 221 138th
2016 196 108th
2015 183 97th
2014 188 108th
2013 267 118th
2012 191 113th
2011 203 92nd
2010 237 132nd
2009 190 97th
2008 229 112th
Average 210.5 111.5

Alabama’s top four are so strong that they have the potential to blow the number in that second column out of the water. If Kiprop, Kigen, Chelanga, and Rotich combine for 40 points (a very good day, but not inconceivable), their #5 could score 170 (roughly 200th overall) and they’d still have a shot to make it on the podium. That’s doable, but a bad day at by any of the guys up front could see this squad tumble out of the top 10. Either way, it will be fun to watch.

“If the season goes well, I think it will be one of the more interesting stories in the NCAA this year,” Waters said.

5. Iowa State: This is the Cyclones’ best team in over two decades 

2017 results: 7th NCAAs, 1st Midwest Regional, 1st Big 12, 16th Wisconsin Invitational

Key returners (lose #4 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Andrew Jordan JR 8 7:56/13:44
Edwin Kurgat JR 13 13:41
Stanley Langat JR 29 14:12
Dan Curts SR 38 13:45
Thomas Pollard JR 52 14:02/29:30
Milo Greder SO 78
John Nownes SR 120 14:11
Festus Lagat SR N/A 3:46; 32nd at Big 12 XC
Tanner Norman RS FR N/A 8:56 2-mile; 8th at ’16 NXN
Chad Johnson FR N/A 8:52 3200; 11th FL
Andrew Jordans 15th-place finish led the Cyclones at NCAAs last year

Andrew Jordan’s 15th-place finish led the Cyclones at NCAAs last year

2017 represented a breakthrough year for Iowa State cross country as the Cyclones ended Oklahoma State’s nine-year winning streak to win the Big 12 title and went on to finish 7th at nationals — its highest finish at both meets since the 1994 NCAA championship team.

It was all the more impressive considering how Iowa State’s season started. The entire team came down with the flu before Roy Griak, causing the Cyclones to withdraw from that meet, and their training suffered enough during that time that they could only finish 16th at Wisconsin.

“[We were] very excited about how the team was able to run at nationals and handle that high-stress situation for the first time, especially being a young team last year,” says Iowa State assistant coach Jeremy Sudbury. “That’s something that Martin [Smith], our head coach, has been really adamant about with all the young guys, [saying]: ‘look, we’ll build until the end of the season, don’t let the early-season stuff get in the way.'”

With six of their seven returners back from NCAAs — only #4 man Nathan Rodriguez fails to return — Iowa State should be even better in 2018. And Rodriguez’ loss shouldn’t hurt too much as the Cyclones picked up the best transfer in the country in Edwin Kurgat, who finished 21st at NCAAs for the University of Tennessee-Martin in 2017.

The coaching staff is also excited by the addition of two freshmen: redshirt frosh Tanner Norman, who was 8th at NXN two years ago, and true frosh Chad Johnson, who ran 8:52 for 3200 and finished 11th at Foot Lockers last year.

“[Johnson] has been looking so good in practice, we decided not to redshirt him during this year and pull him out of redshirt, so he’ll be running for us in our lineup,” Sudbury says. “Those three guys (Kurgat, Norman, and Johnson) we see as potentially bumping some of the older guys off the top seven or definitely making it interesting.”

In each of his past four stops (Oklahoma men, Oregon men, Wisconsin men, Virginia women), Smith has led his team to a top-five finish at nationals in cross country. The Iowa State women have already done that while Smith has been the program’s director in Ames, but the day-to-day coaching for that squad was done by Andrea Grove-McDonough. With the young talent on hand, expect a top-five finish from the men either this year or next.

More: 2017 NCAA Men’s Cross Country Photo Gallery
*2017 NCAA Women’s Cross Country Photo Gallery
*2017 NCAA XC Coverage

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