2018 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #8 Wisconsin & #7 Colorado
September 18, 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.
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.
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
Previous men’s previews: #10 Syracuse & #9 Boise State
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
8. Wisconsin: Led by one of the individual favorites, the hosts should return to the top 10
2017 results: DNQ NCAAs, 3rd Great Lakes Regional, 3rd Big 10, 25th Wisconsin Invitational
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Oliver Hoare||JR||158||3:37/7:51/14:07; NCAA 1500 champ; Big 10 XC champ|
|Morgan McDonald||SR||N/A||3:55/13:15; 7th at ’16 NCAA XC; Aussie 5k champ|
It’s tough to go from not qualifying for NCAAs to finishing in the top 10, but Wisconsin did it in 2016 and the Badgers have a great chance to repeat the feat in 2018 on their home course.
Whenever you fail to qualify for NCAAs after putting together a streak like Wisconsin’s — the Badgers made every meet from 1972 through 2014 — it looks bad. But last year, a few points made a huge difference. Wisconsin ran well at Big 10s and regionals in 2017, finishing third at both meets. At regionals, Wisconsin was just five points behind Michigan — a team that finished 10th at NCAAs eight days later — but because the Badgers had a bad day at the Wisconsin Invite, they did not have enough points to earn an at-large bid to the dance.
And that was without Olin Hacker (66th at NCAAs in 2016) and Morgan McDonald (7th at NCAAs in 2016), both of whom wound up redshirting in 2017 (Hacker due to injury, McDonald so that he could have a crack at the individual title on his home course this year). Those two men return in 2018 to lead a formidable Badgers squad.
McDonald should be one of the best runners in the country this fall, if not the best. His 3:55 mile and 13:15 5,000 pbs are tops among all returning athletes, and he took down some serious studs (David McNeill, Stewart McSweyn, Patrick Tiernan, Sam McEntee) to win the Australian 5,000 title in February. No one in the NCAA has a win like that on their resume. Though McDonald did battle some shin issues in the spring, he’s healthy now, and Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne says McDonald has put together a “great” training block this summer. With the home crowd behind him, it will take some effort to beat McDonald at NCAAs this fall.
McDonald’s fellow Aussie Oliver Hoare, the NCAA 1500 champion, was only 185th in Louisville last year, but Byrne says Hoare was feeling sick on that day and expects him to be much better in 2018. Hoare can clearly run XC — he was the Big 10 champ a year ago — and he and McDonald give the Badgers a potent 1-2 punch.
Behind them, Zack Snider, Ben Eidenschink, and Tyson Miehe have all run sub-14:10/29:20, Hacker is back, and Finn Gessner and Seth Hirsch (2nd and 3rd at Foot Lockers in 2016) should be better after a year adjusting to the NCAA.
Byrne says that he doesn’t feel any pressure to produce on home soil in November.
“This is Wisconsin,” Byrne says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re hosting or not, you’re expected to compete at the national level. I don’t think it’s any additional pressure. I don’t think this year’s any different. We host it. That’s fun. It’s not pressure to do that.”
Even so, Madison will be the center of the NCAA cross country universe over the next two months, and Byrne — who hopes to draw 8,000 to 10,000 spectators to NCAAs, weather permitting — is quite all right with that.
“If there’s such a thing as cross country on steroids, it’s about to happen here in Wisconsin,” Byrne says. “I’m going around telling everyone we’re hosting three national championships this year — the Nuttycombe, the Pre-Nationals, and the nationals.”
7. Colorado: An eighth straight top-10 finish is within reach, but even Wetmore admits depth could be an issue
2017 results: 8th NCAAs, 2nd Mountain Regional, 2nd Pac-12, 2nd Pre-Nats
Key returners (lose #4, #5, #7 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Joe Klecker||JR||38||7:51/13:30; 28th at ’16 NCAA XC|
|John Dressel||JR||N/A||7:51/13:42; 26th ’15 NCAA XC; 33rd ’16 NCAA XC|
|Reilly Friedman||JR||N/A||14:15/29:52; 217th ’16 NCAA XC|
For the first time since the formation of the conference in 2011, Colorado failed to win the Pac-12 title year — a feat that says more about Colorado’s incredible consistency than any failings on the part of the 2017 squad. Last year’s Buffaloes were deep enough that they could survive an off day from #1 man Joe Klecker (who finished 67th at nationals after taking 28th the year before) and an entire season without two-time XC All-American John Dressel and still finish 8th in the country.
The Buffs lose two scorers from that team, but Dressel is back and healthy, Klecker (13:30 5k pb) is still a stud, and Colorado has another potential low stick in Eduardo Herrera, who was 33rd last year as a redshirt freshman. Add in Ryan Forsyth (7:56/13:41 pbs, 57th last year) and Colorado has a strong, proven front four.
CU’s fate will be decided by its fifth man. Ethan Gonzales and Reilly Freidman both have NCAA experience, but neither has finished higher than 177th. When we asked Colorado coach Mark Wetmore if he was worried about his team’s depth, he responded in typical deadpan style: “I think that’s a fair assessment.”
One potential solution, Phillip Rocha, is no longer on the team. A big talent — Rocha was the 2015 Foot Locker runner-up behind Drew Hunter — Rocha cited “racist coaches” as one of the reasons for his departure, but cited no evidence to support his claims. Wetmore says that Rocha never told him why he was leaving, and while Wetmore will admit that he had problems with Rocha during his stint on the team, those problems are “not for public consumption.”
Thus, it will likely fall to Gonzales or Freidman to step up as the team’s #5 runner. If one of them does — and Herrera, Forsyth, Klecker, and Dressel run to their potential — Colorado could notch its sixth podium appearance in eight years.