Morgan McDonald Gets His Storybook Ending As NAU Men 3-Peat at 2018 NCAA XC Champs

By Jonathan Gault
November 17, 2018

MADISON, Wis. — This is the day Morgan McDonald had been dreaming of. Maybe not the snow that turned the Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course into a scene out of a Christmas card. But the ending, with McDonald flashing a “W” (for Wisconsin) with his fingers as he crossed the line as the 2018 NCAA cross country champion on his home course? Yeah, McDonald, a fifth-year senior at the University of Wisconsin by way of Australia, had been imagining that for a while. So long in fact, that he can’t remember exactly how long.

“As soon as we thought that we might be hosting nationals, I can’t remember when it first was mentioned, but back when I was maybe a sophomore or even a freshman, this is something that we knew down the line might be an option,” McDonald said.

But fairytale endings don’t just happen. You have to work for them, and McDonald was pushed hard by a strong field of competitors, but in the end he held off everyone in an epic home-straight sprint to win in 29:08.3, with Stanford senior Grant Fisher, his expected biggest rival, in second in 29:08.8. With 400 to go, nine guys — that’s right, nine — were still in the lead pack, and with 150 to go the leaders were four wide — Fisher, McDonald, and Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat as well as the surprise of the day, Oklahoma State redshirt freshman Isai Rodriguez.

Finally, McDonald began to pull away during the final 100, checking over his right shoulder just before the line to ensure he had time for a quick celebration in front of an adoring crowd that cheered every time his name was uttered on the loudspeakers.

The NAU men, national champions again The NAU men, national champions again (courtesy NCAA Track & Field)

In the team race, it’s official: we have a dynasty on our hands. The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks won their third straight NCAA cross country title, becoming just the fifth school to win three in a row (and first in 18 years since Arkansas did it from 1998-2000). Led by a sixth-place finish by Tyler Day, NAU put all five of its scorers in the top 30 to win handily, 83-116, over second-ranked BYU. NAU was ahead at every split, putting its pack near the front early on, and though they would fade throughout the race (from 52 points at 4.1k to 62 at 6k to 66 at 8k to 83 in the finish), they held on to bring yet another national title back to Flagstaff.

BYU wound up second with 116, making amends for their subpar showing in 2017, while Portland made its third podium appearance in the last five years by taking third with 160. Colorado was the final squad to receive a trophy, taking fourth thanks to a big run from its top three of Joe KleckerJohn Dressel, and Ryan Forsyth, all of whom finished in the top 11. In the process, Colorado also returned to a position it’s used to occupying – top of the Pac 12 – after finishing just third at the Pac 12 meet three weeks ago.

Top 10 Results – Team & Individual – Full Results Here
1 NAU 83 1 McDonald, Morgan SR-4 Wisconsin 29:08.3
2 BYU 116 2 Fisher, Grant SR-4 Stanford 29:08.8
3 Portland 160 3 Kurgat, Edwin JR-3 Iowa State 29:09.0
4 Colorado 178 4 Rodriguez, Isai FR-1 Okl State 29:10.5
5 Stanford 201 5 Templeton, Aaron SR-4 Furman 29:11.9
6 Washington 213 6 Day, Tyler SR-4 NAU 29:12.9
7 Iowa State 220 7 Kemboi, Amon SO-2 Campbell 29:14.6
8 Wisconsin 240 8 Klecker, Joe JR-3 Colorado 29:15.0
9 Colorado St. 309 9 Dressel, John JR-3 Colorado 29:16.9
10 Boise State 342 10 Mantz, Conner FR-1 BYU 29:17.1

Interviews and quick take analysis appear below.

Morgan McDonald: “Definitely it’s the best [win of my life]. It is so special.”

McDonald ran a 3:55 mile and 13:15 5k over the summer of 2017. Had he chosen to run the 2017 NCAA cross country season, he would have been a serious contender for the individual title. But he and Badgers coach Mick Byrne decided to redshirt him, knowing that they would be hosting the meet in 2018 with a chance for McDonald to go out on top.

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“This [race] was 100% the reason [I redshirted last year],” McDonald said. “This, and we thought the team could be a bit better. But it was all centered around this 2018 nationals held in Madison, you know, with the Badger crowd. It was all about that.”

And it was worth it. McDonald was asked how this compares to other races he’s won — including the Australian national title on the track earlier this year — and he did not hesitate.

“Definitely it’s the best. It is so special.”

Mick Byrne on McDonald’s win

Byrne said that this has been the focus for McDonald since May 1 once he made his comeback from a shin injury that limited him at the Commonwealth Games.

Grant Fisher hoped it would come down to a kick, and it did

Fisher wanted to play to his strengths today, and that meant hoping the race came down to a kick (though he acknowledged that if someone had tried to really string it out, he would have felt fine going with them too). And a kicker’s race is what he got, even if the outcome wasn’t the one he wanted.

“I was prepared for that, and I was proud of how I kicked,” Fisher said. “Morgan got the best of me. He had an incredible last 100 meters. I have tremendous respect for him and all the guys that were leading…I got what I hoped for and it wasn’t quite the result I was hoping for, but I’m proud of how I executed the race.”

Fisher had good perspective on the race, and while he wanted to win, he viewed second place in a field this good as something to be proud of.

“I think you’re gonna see in four or five  years, a lot of the guys that were in this race really at the forefront of American running and world running,” Fisher said.

Fisher is now the 21st man to finish in the top five at NCAA XC three times. He’s the first American to do it since Stanford’s Chris Derrick from ’09-’11 (we missed that initially, thanks Dan Lilot). NAU’s Futsum Zienasellassie also finished in the top five three times (’13, ’14, ’16), but only once as an American as he got his citizenship in 2016.

Mike Smith was right: this was the best NAU team of the last three

Pre-race, NAU coach Michael Smith said he thought this team would beat last year’s team, which he thought would beat the 2016 team. And when he was asked in the mixed zone afterward, he stood by that assessment.

That being said, NAU’s winning score today was a little higher than last year (they won with 125 in 2016, 74 in 2017, and 83 this year) but that was mainly because NAU only put one guy in the top 10 this year versus three last year. When Matt Baxter, last year’s runner-up, surprisingly lost contact with the lead pack shortly after 6k, Smith said he never got nervous that his star might implode (Baxter ended up 15th).

“I told my staff, I’d be worried if it was anyone but Matt Baxter.”

So yes, if you go solely by their performance at the NCAA meet, the 2017 team was better. But Smith saw it differently. Last year, the entire team had great races at NCAAs — NAU hit its ceiling. In 2018, they didn’t, and the fact that NAU could score 83 points and win the national title anyway shows how strong this team truly is.

“Today we had some guys that were maybe just a little — today was solid for them, and look where they finished,” Smith said. “And I think that’s a sign of a great team.”

Last year, when Baxter and Tyler Day caught the rest of the NCAA by surprise by forcing an unrelenting pace in Louisville, Smith said the key word was “gas” — be aggressive as possible at all times. Today, the key word for NAU was “each other.” To most people, cross country is both a team and individual sport, but Smith says that’s not how NAU views it. It’s 100% a team sport to them.

“It’s only a team sport, none of this is individual,” Smith said. “They don’t ever talk about individual placings. A lot of them said how hard the race was today, and I said, ‘Where did you go when it got hard?’ And they said ‘each other.’ We talk about that a lot, we teach it, talk about it in workouts, talk about it in training. I think it’s just a huge piece of what we do.”

Last year, Smith said that NAU was still Eric Heins’ team — the coach that Smith succeeded after Heins stepped away after winning the 2016 NCAA title. So we asked him after today’s race whether NAU finally feels like his team. Smith gave credit to the men who came before him for helping to build the program, but ultimately he agreed with that assertion.

“Yeah,” Smith said, “I think I am feeling like that.”

As for Baxter, he said he didn’t feel good all day but knew he had to hang in there for his teammates and because he talked some smack before the race.

“I talked a lot of crap beforehand so I kind of had to say in it,” Baxter said after the race. “I was thinking about the team. I was hurting from pretty early on.”

The American title drought continues

It has been 10 full years since an American won the NCAA men’s individual title (Galen Rupp), and while that drought was half a second from coming to an end today, Morgan McDonald made sure that US fans would have to wait at least one more year before celebrating.

“I find it funny how it’s kind of America versus the rest of the world,” McDonald said. “I’m so impressed at how long it’s been since an American won so it is kind of like America versus the rest and I guess the rest came on top this time again.”

Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat of Kenya, who was third today as a junior, is the top returning finisher from this year’s race, so it’s possible the drought could stretch beyond 2019 as well. But a lot can change in a year’s time.

There were four US underclassman in the top 10 today. Oklahoma State redshirt freshman Isai Rodriguez (more on him later) was 4th, Colorado juniors Joe Klecker and John Dressel were 8th and 9th, and BYU redshirt freshman Conner Mantz was 10th.

Maybe Conner Mantz can do it down the road. He’s a 21-year-old freshman (served a Mormom mission and then redshirted a year, turns 22 next month), but in 2015 he convincingly beat Morgan McDonald in the junior race at World XC. Mantz finished 29th while McDonald trailed home 28 seconds back in 40th. (Mantz was also a three-time FL finalist in HS).

And it wasn’t just where Mantz finished, but how he ran. Even though this was his first NCAA XC champs, he ran without any fear, running in front of the leaders and pushing the pace repeatedly. Steve Prefontaine certainly would have been proud.

“That’s how he runs,” said BYU coach Ed Eyestone. “That’s what gives him energy. You can’t coach that. You gotta be in it to win it, and certainly it’s fun to have someone who likes to put his head in it the entire way.”

Who the heck is Isai Rodriguez?

With 150 to go, there were four men kicking for the win: McDonald, Fisher, Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State, and…Isai Rodriguez? Rodriguez wound up finishing fourth in 29:10.5, just 2.2 seconds behind McDonald and much higher than anyone would have predicted for a redshirt freshman from Ringwood, Oklahoma. Barely recruited out of high school (as a senior, he finished 24th at Foot Locker South and had PRs of 4:27 and 9:26), this was his first NCAA championship meet of any kind (he just missed out on making it in the 5,000 last spring).

But he had put together a strong cross season to this point. He finished second at the Arturo Barrios Invite at Texas A&M (though he crossed the line just .1 behind his teammate Ashenafi Hatte) and was second behind Kurgat in his other two races (Big 12s and the Midwest Regional). Rodriguez is a little old for a redshirt freshman (he turns 21 in March), but for a 20-year-old American to finish fourth at NCAA XC is some feat.

Oklahoma State hosts the NCAA XC meet in 2020. Could Rodriguez end the US drought in style by winning it all on his home course?

Rodriguez’s run was a win for the underdogs everywhere, evidence that you don’t need have ridiculous times in high school to finish high at NCAAs. He wasn’t the only one — NAU’s Tyler Day, who was 3rd here last year and 6th today (the top man on NAU’s title team) had HS bests of 4:20 and 9:28.

Day said that to come from where he came from — Gilbert, Arizona, where he won just one state title — to become a member of three NCAA title teams at Northern Arizona is “just stupid. It’s nuts. I can honestly say it’s almost one in a million chances. And I’m really happy I won this lottery.”

BYU “showed up” this time

Last year, BYU struggled to live up to the pre-race hype and wound up a disappointing third. Even though they only finished one place higher today, BYU coach Ed Eyestone was a much happier man as he felt they did themselves proud by putting all five scorers in the top 50 to tally 116 points.

Eyestone said one key was that the 2018 team was a lot looser and calmer. Last year, BYU had a videographer and the school mascot was in the starting box before the race to pump them up. There were a lot fewer bells and whistles this year, and that led to a better outcome.

The Colorado men finished on the podium — despite their fifth man finishing 147th

The Colorado men, who finished outside of the top two at their conference meet this year for the first time since 1990 (they were 3rd at Pac-12s behind Stanford and Washington), redeemed themselves by making it back to the NCAA podium for the first time since 2015. The main reason was the terrific runs from their top three — Joe Klecker in 8th, John Dressel in 9th, and Ryan Forsyth in 11th. Colorado had three guys in before anyone else in the country even had two.

The fifth spot has been a problem for Colorado all year, and even though Ethan Gonzales didn’t give the Buffs a great run at that position, the brilliance of Klecker, Dressel, and Forsyth counteracted him to enable CU to take 4th. Gonzales finished 147th overall — the lowest place for a scorer on a men’s podium team since 2004, when Butler’s fifth man Andrew Sherman finished 151st.

Klecker said that he was really struggling to hang on over the final 2k after pushing the pace early, but was proud of what he could do for the team today.

“We had the best 1-2-3 in the NCAA today and that’s where my focus lies in cross country, getting our team on the podium,” Klecker said.

Quick: Who were the biggest overachievers and underachievers? Oklahoma State surprised the Most/Syracuse bombed the most

We always like to compare how teams finished as compared to their national rankings. Normally with so many meets in the books, things line up pretty closely with a few glaring exceptions. That was certainly true today as 18 of the 28 ranked teams finished within three spots of their national rankings. The biggest underachievers were Syracuse. They came into the meet ranked 11th but only finished 26th. Contrast that to Oklahoma State, who came in ranked 27th but ended up 13th.

In the chart below you can see how all the teams did as compared to their national ranking.

Place Team Rank Difference
1 Northern Arizona 1 Same
2 BYU 2 Same
3 Portland 4 1 spot better
4 Colorado 8 4 spots better
5 Stanford 7 2 spots better
6 Washington 6 same
7 Iowa State 5 2 spots worse
8 Wisconsin 3 5 spots worse
9 Colorado St. 13 4 spots better
10 Boise State 9 1 spot worse
11 North Carolina St. 16 5 spots better
12 Wyoming 15 3 spots better
13 Oklahoma State 27 14 spots better
14 Notre Dame 10 4 spots worse
15 Oregon 12 3 spots worse
16 Eastern Kentucky 21 5 spots better
17 Ole Miss 14 3 spots worse
18 Indiana 24 6 spots better
19 Michigan 20 1 spot better
20 Air Force 17 3 spots worse
21 Southern Utah 19 2 spots worse
22 Princeton 23 1 spot better
23 Villanova 29 6 spots better
24 Bradley 25 1 spot better
25 Arkansas 17 8 spots worse
26 Syracuse 11 15 spots worse
27 Texas NR N/A
28 Iona 26 2 spots better
29 Purdue 22 7 spots worse
30 Tulsa 28 2 spots worse
31 Florida State NR N/A

In our next Week That Was weekly recap, we’ll compile a similar list for how teams fared compared to the preseason rankings. Syracuse was #10 in the preseason and Oklahoma State was #25.

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More: Complete 2018 NCAA XC Coverage 
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