By Jonathan Gault
September 21, 2018
BOSTON — New year. New faces. Same result.
After an offseason that saw the Syracuse men’s cross country team lose foundational pieces Colin Bennie, Philo Germano, and NCAA champion Justyn Knight to graduation and head coach Chris Fox to a professional gig with Reebok, you could understand if the Orange took a step back in 2018 under first-year coach Brien Bell.
But Friday’s result at the 2018 Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown showed that Syracuse remains a force to be reckoned with as the Orange put five men in the top 13 to cruise to victory with 37 points over a field that contained five ranked teams.
“We’ve won eight of our last nine conference titles and five straight ACC titles and eight of last nine regional titles,” Bell said. “I think we’ve been top-15 [at NCAAs] nine straight years. So there has to be some sort of mechanism where there’s learning and teaching and development going on for when one class leaves, the other one’s ready.”
Aidan Tooker (2nd in 24:03) and Noah Affolder (5th in 24:11), both NCAA steeplechase finalists last spring, led the Orange on Friday, with Kevin James (8th, 24:17), Joe Dragon (9th, 24:18), and Iliass Aouani (13th, 24:24) rounding out the scoring. Tooker came charging down the home straight like a madman, and while he picked up a couple of places, his late surge was not enough to catch the winner, Campbell’s Amon Kemboi (5th in the NCAA 5,000 final), who, like Tooker, also finished in 24:03.
Second place, with 70 points, went to the University of Washington, a program that, like Syracuse, underwent a coaching change in the offseason with Andy Powell taking over for the departed Greg Metcalf. Several UW runners ran at the front in the race’s early stages. Sophomore Talon Hull (4:44) held a seven-second lead at the mile and he was eventually passed by teammate Tibebu Proctor, who led a tightly-bunched field at two miles (9:49).
“We wanted to run aggressively,” Powell said. “No one likes to run too aggressively early on [in the season] because no one knows where they’re at [fitness-wise], but we thought we’d run aggressively and try to put four guys in the top 15. Talon hasn’t raced [since November 2017], so I think he was a little anxious. He was just kind of running his own race. He wasn’t running that fast.”
Ultimately the Orange had too much firepower, putting in four men before Washington had two, but the 26th-ranked Huskies did manage to take down two top-20 teams in No. 12 Campbell (6th with 189 points) and No. 17 Virginia (4th with 98 points). Campbell, a trendy preseason top-10 pick, showed that it still has a long way to go, as despite putting two men in the top three (Lawrence Kipkoech was 3rd in 24:05), their next three scorers came across in 48th, 63rd, and 81st.
The women’s race was totally unpredictable. In a field that featured four ranked teams, unranked squads swept the top three places, with Ole Miss edging Georgia Teach, 102 to 105, with Utah in third (161 points). Incredibly, neither Ole Miss nor Georgia Tech received a single vote in the most recent USTFCCCA poll (Utah received six); expect that to change when the new poll comes out on Tuesday.g
Individually, Providence’s Abbey Wheeler, who was 19th at NCAAs last year in the 5,000, went wire-to-wire to win, clocking 17:10 for the 5k course. Wheeler already had over 20 meters on the field at the mile (5:16) and would grow that lead to as much as 16 seconds at two miles before the pack started to reel her in. She was never seriously challenged, however, and went on to win by seven seconds by Minnesota’s Bethany Hasz.
That was the only good news for Providence on the day, however, as the Friars came in ranked 11th in the country and wound up finishing 11th overall. Penn State grad transfer Tessa Barrett (15:28 5k, 2013 Footlocker XC champ) did not run, but several of Providence’s top athletes did — Regan Rome, who was 25th at NCAAs three years ago, could only manage 36th today.
Instead, Ole Miss used some pack running to pull the upset. Their top two runners, Lisa Vogelgesang (10th, 17:34) and Madeleine King (11th, 17:34) crossed the line together, and their #3 and #4, Ylva Traxler (23rd, 17:49) and Victoria Simmons (25th, 17:51) were only two seconds apart. Ole Miss put all seven of its finishers in the top 39, which helped them edge Georgia Tech; two of the three points in Ole Miss’ margin of victory came courtesy of displacements by their #6 and #7 runners (Georgia Tech’s #5, Ellen Flood, finished 45th overall).
Results, interviews, and analysis below.
Men’s top 10 individuals * Full results
|4||401||Farah Abdulkarim||JR||Ole Miss||9:29||15:28||24:09||4:52|
|10||411||Waleed Suliman||SO||Ole Miss||9:29||15:29||24:18||4:54|
1. No. 10 Syracuse, 37 points
2. No. 26 Washington, 70
3. No. 30 Ole Miss, 77
4. No. 17 Virginia, 98
5. North Carolina, 153
6. No. 12 Campbell, 189
7. Stony Brook, 204
8. Dartmouth, 228
9. Georgia Tech, 254
10. Boston University, 319
Women’s top 10 individuals * Full results
|4||187||Sydney Meyers||SR||Eastern Michigan||10:47||17:19||5:35|
|6||184||Natalie Cizmas||SR||Eastern Michigan||10:47||17:25||5:37|
|7||200||Mary Prouty||SR||Georgia Tech||10:48||17:25||5:37|
|8||658||Samantha Halvorsen||JR||Wake Forest||10:48||17:27||5:37|
|9||662||Meredith Smith||SR||Wake Forest||10:51||17:34||5:40|
|10||400||Lisa Vogelgesang||FR||Ole Miss||10:47||17:34||5:40|
1. Ole Miss, 102 points
2. Georgia Tech, 105
3. Utah, 161
4. No. 24 Minnesota, 162
5. No. 27 Dartmouth, 168
6. Brown, 187
7. Wake Forest, 200
8. Virginia, 222
9. No. 22 Syracuse, 242
10. Eastern Michigan, 254
While Bell, who was officially named the team’s head coach on Monday after spending 13 years as an assistant under Chris Fox, knows his guys still have some things to work on — depth being one: there was a 28-second gap between Syracuse’s #5 and #6, and a 33-second gap between their #6 and #7 — this was a successful day for the Orange.
Bell knows that he’s got two very good runners in Tooker and Affolder, and believes that with guys like Kevin James, Joe Dragon, and Iliass Aouani — all of whom have been in Syracuse for over two years — they have a solid supporting cast.
Bell largely operated in the shadows during Fox’s tenure — those close to the program knew him well, but Fox was the public face of the program. Now Bell may have to get used to the spotlight from time to time.
“The big difference is people’s perception of me has changed,” Bell said. “But in terms of my life, [becoming head coach] really hasn’t changed all that much.”
Powell, who held out 13:44 man Fred Huxham today, said that apart from transfers Mick Stanovsek and Tanner Anderson who came with him from Oregon, he’s still getting to know his runners. He liked what he saw in Boston but knows that the competition will be much tougher three weeks from now at Pre-Nats.
“This is a good start for us,” Powell said. “We certainly need to get a lot better in three weeks. We’ve got five weeks until the postseason starts, so we do have time, but we just need to keep improving every day.”
Powell splits responsibilities with his wife Maurica in running the UW program — Andy handles the men, budget, and compliance; Maurica handles the women and alumni relations, among other duties — and it will be interesting to see how they fare in Seattle now that they are in charge of a whole program after having great success running the distance squads under head coach Robert Johnson at Oregon.
Powell spoke more about that situation — and what it’s been like having Olympic 1500 champion Matthew Centrowitz as a volunteer assistant this fall — in the interview below.
The plan for Kemboi and teammate Lawrence Kipkoech was to begin pushing the pace at 3 miles. They did that, and while the move shook up the field, they were not able to drop everybody. Kemboi did wind up creating a gap by the time he entered the home straight, and though he barely held on for the win (he and runner-up Aidan Tooker were given the same time), Kemboi said the outcome was never in doubt.
“I was sure,” Kemboi said. “I was relaxing. When I saw he was making a move, then I just kicked a little bit. But yeah, I was comfortable towards the end.”
As for the rest of the season, Kemboi, who has run 13:37 and 28:55 on the track, says he wants to help his Campbell squad qualify for NCAAs for the first time ever — something that will be difficult unless their #3/#4/#5 runners run significantly better than they did today. Individually, Kemboi was 29th last year, but he’s shooting a lot higher in 2018.
“My goal is get there (NCAAs), go for win,” Kemboi said. “Go for the win this year.”
Wheeler wasn’t planning on leading the entire race, but she got off the line well and found herself in the lead feeling good and thus decided to open up a gap. It wound up working brilliantly as she was never caught.
Wheeler was just 101st at NCAAs last year, but after a track season that saw her dip under 16:00 for the first time, she’s ready to do a lot better in 2018.
We found Mr. Cross Country
If you read my profile on cross country superfan Mike Mahon last year, you know he makes it to over 50 meets a year in Massachusetts, so it was no surprise to see him on hand today. Mahon told me this was his the 17th meet he’s been to so far in 2018, and the 1,764th of his career.