Final Pre 2018 NCAA XC News: Mike Smith Believes The ’18 NAU Team Would Beat the ’16 & ’17 NCAA Champs, Allie O Wants To Race 10K At NCAA XC, & More On The Eve of 2018 NCAA XC

By Jonathan Gault
November 16, 2018

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MADISON, Wis. — Two things are on the horizon in Wisconsin this weekend: the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships, and the season’s first snowstorm, set to begin around 10:00 p.m. Central Time Friday night and carry into early Saturday morning, coating the Zimmer Championship Course — site of tomorrow’s race — with anywhere betweeen two to four inches of the white stuff.

Whether that snow impacts tomorrow’s races is yet to be determined (it will have stopped by the time the first race begins at 10:45 a.m.), but the top runners in the NCAA aren’t acting as if it’s anything to worry about.

“Coming from Alaska, I’ve had a few race experience with less than ideal weather conditions,” said Boise State’s Allie Ostrander, drawing laughs from the assembled media at today’s pre-meet press conference.

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Matt Baxter, Grant Fisher, & Morgan McDonald before NCAA XC Matt Baxter, Grant Fisher, & Morgan McDonald before NCAA XC

Morgan McDonald hails from sunny Sydney, Australia, but he’s no stranger to harsh conditions. Even before he arrived at the University of Wisconsin, where he has spent the last four years, he had raced on the big stage in tough weather.

“When I was 16, I went through the brutal experience because I represented Australia at World Junior Cross in Poland,” McDonald said (for photos of the at epic race, click here). “And I came from an Australian summer to winter and there was just snow and mud everywhere. And that was pretty chaotic. But it is just another element. It really depends how you look at it. For me, it was super fun, I did pretty well there (he finished 33rd, the top 16-year-old in the race) and I think that was because I was just able to tough it out.

“That’s honestly how I look at cross country, as just a big grind. There’s a lot of different elements that might be at play on any day and you’ve just got to be able to respond to them.”

Even those athletes who haven’t raced in the snow seemed unfazed by the forecast.

“I haven’t experienced racing in the snow yet, but…I’m mentally prepared,” said women’s individual favorite Weini Kelati of New Mexico, who grew up in Eritrea before moving to Virginia at age 17.

Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson said she felt that snow on the ground would make the race more dramatic — “I’m kind of excited” — while Northern Arizona’s Matt Baxter, the NCAA runner-up last year in Louisville, said that the snow “looks scarier than it is.”

Snow wasn’t the only thing on the minds of the NCAA’s top athletes and coaches today. They talked home-course advantage (or lack thereof), dynasties, race distances, and…waffle makers? Read on for a few last-minute notes ahead of tomorrow’s races.

Smith & BYU coach Ed Eyestone Mike Smith & BYU coach Ed Eyestone

Is this the best NAU team ever? Mike Smith thinks so

Nothern Arizona has won the last two men’s team titles and NAU coach Mike Smith was asked whether his 2018 NAU squad would beat the NCAA champion teams of 2016 and 2017. He did not hesitate in his answer:

“The 2017 team would have beat the 2016 team. And the 2018 team would beat the 2017 team.”

Smith credited that to their poise — “I think this group we have now has made a big jump in just calm and concentration” — and their ability to resist falling victim to “The Disease of More,” a concept coined by former Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, whose team fell short of an NBA three-peat in 1989.

“[The Disease of More is] when the qualities that allow a team to get to the top, whatever it is, those qualities become farther and farther away once you have success and that’s why defending and creating the circumstances that allow someone to win a championship are harder the second, third, fourth times around,” Smith said. “So it was a really powerful statement, it couldn’t apply more to our scenario. We really try to keep the fundamentals that allowed us to arrive at this place in 2016, we really try to keep those fundamentals central to our process all the way through.”

NAU won the title last year with a mantra of “gas, gas, gas” — pushing the pace at every opportunity. No one embodied that more than Baxter and Tyler Day, who broke everyone in the field save for eventual champ Justyn Knight to finish second and third. But Baxter warned that the Lumberjacks may be taking a different approach in 2018.

“Pulling the same move two years in a row might not be the wisest thing in the world because everyone knows what’s going to happen,” Baxter said. “You might see a few surprises tomorrow.”

Home course advantage?

One of the major storylines heading into this meet is that two of the individual title contenders — Morgan McDonald on the men’s side and Alicia Monson on the women’s — will be racing the national championships on their home course. But how much of an advantage is that, really? The Wisconsin men and women both work out there once a week (the women will usually do an easy run there once a week as well), but all of the major NCAA contenders have raced on the Zimmer Championship Course before, many of them multiple times.

Allie Ostrander, Weini Kelati, & Alicia Monson Allie Ostrander, Weini Kelati, & Alicia Monson

The table below shows how many times some of the top individuals have raced on the course:

Athlete # of races on Zimmer Course
Morgan McDonald 7
Matt Baxter 3
Grant Fisher 3
Tyler Day 5
Alicia Monson 9
Allie Ostrander 3
Weini Kelati 3
Ednah Kurgat 3

Even if there is a home course advantage, Baxter is very confident in his #1-ranked NAU squad.

“In terms of the home course advantage, I think the Wisconsin boys may need that,” Baxter quipped.

Monson doesn’t just run for Wisconsin; she’s a Wisconsin native, hailing from Amery, a town of 2,800 that’s a four-hour drive north from Madison. She said that her mom has been active on Facebook, informing the community of Monson’s cross country accomplishments, and that she’ll have a lot of fans on the course tomorrow — in addition to her parents and siblings, all of her mom’s sisters will be coming — and there are so many of them that Monson has lost count.

“Seven…six…something like that? [laughs] I don’t know. It’s a lot.”

Should the women race 10k too?

Since the women’s race was added to the NCAA XC Championships in 1981, they’ve never raced the same distance as the men. From 1981 to 1999, the women have raced 5k, and they’ve raced 6k from 2000 onward. Meanwhile the men’s race has been 10k since 1976. NCAA XC remains one of the few events in running where women and men do not run the same distance (they ran different distances at the World Cross Country Championships until 2017, when both genders raced 10k), and today the women were asked whether they wanted to race the same distance as the men.

Boise State’s Ostrander provided a thoughtful response.

“I think this will depend largely on what athlete or which program you ask,” Ostrander said. “You’ll get a lot of differing opinions, and I think that changing the distance for women would really change the dynamic of the sport. Because right now I feel like 1500 runners, 5k runners, 10k runners can all be successful. But it becomes more difficult for shorter distance track runners to be successful once it goes up to a 10k. And I know it can be done because you see it on the men’s side, but that would really change the way that certain individuals and programs perform.”

Still, Ostrander said she believes that the women should be racing 10k at NCAAs, especially since that is the distance the pros run at World XC.

“Personally, I would like to see the distance go up. It would be awesome for us to be racing the same distance as the men…It would make sense for us to prepare to race at the world standard distance.”

Why did Charlotte Prouse bring a waffle maker to Madison? “She likes making waffles”

New Mexico coach Joe Franklin likes to keep his athletes loose. For Charlotte Prouse, who finished 12th last year as part of the Lobos’ title team and was the NCAA runner-up in the steeplechase in June, that means making waffles. So Prouse, after successfully getting it through airport security, brought her own waffle maker to Madison — just as she every time the Lobos have run here this year.

There’s no grand reason behind it, but Franklin likes his athletes happy, and if making waffles makes Prouse happy this weekend, he’s happy to accommodate.

“She likes making waffles,” Franklin says. “That’s one of the things she likes doing, so she’s brought a waffle maker on every trip I think.”

BYU’s Rory Linkletter, who won Pre-Nats here last month, also brought an interesting item in his luggage: a stethoscope.

“He’s doing blood pressure tests on everybody on the team,” BYU coach Ed Eyestone said. “Not to make sure that they’re low-key, but just because he has a class and he has to do 100 of them, so he actually took it out on the course today. Who’d he take, [BYU teammate Daniel] Carney’s blood pressure? It was a little high. Told him you better stop salting, putting sodium on everything.”

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