2019 NCAA Men’s XC Preview: #5 Washington Through #1 Northern Arizona

By Jonathan Gault
September 20, 2019

It’s that time of year again: fall is almost upon us (September 23rd). The days are growing shorter, mornings are getting cooler, and the track season is over.

Okay, scratch that last one. But it’s the middle of September, which means its time for cross country and LetsRun.com’s annual countdown of the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in America. These early season rankings are meant to be taken with a grain of salt — injuries, redshirts, and other unforeseen variables always have an impact. More than anything, these rankings are a starting point for a discussion of who is the best cross country team in the land, one that will rage until the NCAA championships in Terre Haute on November 23.

On the men’s side, Northern Arizona will try to join UTEP (1978-81) and Arkansas (1990-93) as the only schools to win four straight titles. Individually, last year’s two megastars, Morgan McDonald os Wisconsin and Grant Fisher of Stanford, both graduated, leaving a power vacuum at the top of the sport. Could this finally be the year that an American claims the men’s title for the first time since Oregon’s Galen Rupp in 2008?

For the women, perennial powers Colorado and New Mexico are stacked again, while Arkansas is loaded as well and will be going for a calendar-year sweep of NCAA titles after winning in indoor and outdoor track. New Mexico’s Weini Kelati, the runner-up a year ago in Madison and the NCAA 10k champ on the track, will begin the year as the individual favorite, while her teammate, 2017 NCAA XC champ Ednah Kurgat, also returns.

Article continues below player.

We’re splitting our men’s rankings into two parts. Below, you’ll find teams #5 through #1.

Nostalgic for last season? Check out our photo gallery of the 2018 NCAA XC meet in the snow in Madison or our coverage of the meet here.

Men’s preview: #10 Oklahoma State through #6 Notre Dame

Women’s preview: #10 Michigan State through #6 Washington * #5 NC State through #1 New Mexico

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2018 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.

New additions in italics

5. Washington: The best Huskies team ever?

2018 NCAA finish: 6th

Key returners (lose #1, #3 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Tibebu Proctor JR 21 14:02/28:54
Andrew Jordan SR 24 7:51/13:44; transfer from Iowa State
Talon Hull JR 38 3:44/7:59
Jack Rowe SR 39 7:58/13:54/28:50; transfer from San Francisco
Gavin Parpart JR 66 8:06/14:00/29:17
Mick Stanovsek SR 121 3:39; 10th NCAA 1500
Sam Ritz SR N/A 3:44; Heps mile champ; 5th year from Columbia
Sam Affolder FR N/A 4:08/8:59 1600/3200; 31st NXN
Sam Tanner FR N/A 3:38/8:22
Joe Waskom FR N/A 4:03/8:54 mile/2 mile; 33rd NXN
Tibebu Proctor is one of the leaders of an experienced UW team (Ben Jones photo)

Thirty years ago, the Washington men made their one and only appearance on the NCAA podium, placing 4th at NCAAs in Annapolis. That’s the feat this year’s Husky squad will be looking to equal — or possibly exceed.

UW finished 6th last year, but the roster has undergone a major overhaul since then. Tanner Anderson (19th) and Fred Huxham (58th) are both out of eligibility; in their places are a trio of transfers, Andrew Jordan from Iowa State (46th), Jack Rowe from San Francisco (83rd), and Sam Ritz, a sub-4 miler grad transfer from Columbia (Editor’s note: Ritz’s highest Ivy League xc finish was just 28th). There’s also an elite recruiting class — coach Andy Powell‘s first since assuming the job last year — featuring 3:38 1500 man Sam Tanner from New Zealand, plus Americans Sam Affolder (4:08/8:59) and Joe Waskom (4:03/8:54). Washington assistant coach Chris Kwiatkowski says they haven’t made any decisions yet on whether to race the freshmen or redshirt them.

The returning talent is strong as well. Tibebu Proctor was an All-American in XC last year and broke 29:00 on the track, while Talon Hull, the Pac-12 runner-up last year, is capable of better than his 80th-place finish at NCAAs in 2018. Gavin Parpart, with pbs of 14:00 and 29:17, provides quality depth.

Kwiatkowski says that the message is the same as it was a year ago: get better every single day.

“That’s the mantra that we had right through cross country and indoor and outdoor last year,” Kwiatkowski says. “And I think that’s still a theme and I think the returners have really owned that and they’re starting to mentor some of our newcomers.”

If the Huskies are indeed better than they were last year, they could very well leave Terre Haute with a trophy.

4. Iowa State: Is this the year the Cyclones break through to the podium?

2018 NCAA finish: 3rd

Key returners (lose #2, #4, #6 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Edwin Kurgat SR 1 7:56/13:34; 5th NCAA 5k
Addison DeHaven SR 14 7:54/13:58/29:02; 5th year from Boise State
Chad Johnson SO 31 14:16
Milo Greder JR 40 4:05 mile
Zach Black JR 139 4:06 mile
Festus Lagat SR N/A 1:45/3:44; 23rd at ’18 Nuttycombe Invite
David Too SR N/A 7:59/13:51/29:07
Thomas Pollard JR N/A 14:02/29:15; 45th at ’16 NCAA XC
Chad Johnson impressed by taking 61st as a true freshman in 2018 (Ben Jones photo)

Iowa State has finished 7th at NCAAs two years in a row. In 2017, it came as a pleasant surprise after an up-and-down regular season. In 2018, it was a slight disappointment for a team targeting a top-five finish. Not that 7th was a bad result, but to assistant coach Jeremy Sudbury, it felt like the Cyclones were missing that extra bit of magic that separates a top-10 squad from a podium team.

“Last year, for whatever reason, we just never clicked,” Sudbury says. “We never could get the whole thing put together.”

Martin Smith, in his seventh year in Ames, has turned the Cyclones into perennial contenders. And Sudbury thinks this could be the year they take the next step.

“The main goal is to be on the podium,” Sudbury says. “Last two years we’ve been sniffing it…this year we have a lot of good karma, good team energy, good chemistry.”

Of course, good karma can only take you so far; to land on the NCAA podium, you need talent. Fortunately, the Cyclones have that, too.

Edwin Kurgat is the top returner from NCAAs last year, and is a trendy pick to win it all this fall. Kurgat was in last year’s race until the very end, but when it came time to kick, he found himself barely run out of it by Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher. Since then, everything Kurgat has done has been geared toward ironing out his weaknesses.

The joke afterwards was he’s like, ‘I wasn’t even tired, I just couldn’t literally turn my legs over fast enough with those guys,'” Sudbury says.

At NCAA outdoors last year, Kurgat would have been one of the favorites in the 10k, but he opted to focus on the 5k instead to improve his speed and challenge himself against the cream of the NCAA crop. He finished 5th in that race (of the men who beat him, Stanford’s Thomas Ratcliffe and Alabama’s Gilbert Kigen return this fall) and closed his last lap in 54.97 seconds, evidence of progress. This fall, he’s back in his element.

“Edwin is a natural cross country guy,” Sudbury says. “The longer, the better for him.”

Iowa State lost its #2 from NCAAs last year in Andrew Jordan, who was 46th and transferred to Washington, but Chad Johnson, who was 61st as a true freshman, returns, and the Cyclones add in 5th-year Addison DeHaven from Boise State, who was 28th. Sudbury is also optimistic that Thomas Pollard, who was 45th as a true freshman in 2016, is back to that level after suffering from pericarditis, a heart ailment brought on by a fungus known as histoplasmosis (pericarditis is the same issue that sidelined Matthew Centrowitz in 2014 and 2017).

Add in David Too (13:51/29:07), a mid-year transfer from Florida A&M last year, and Iowa State has a formidable lineup. Heck, even mid-d master Festus Lagat could help out. While he’s known for his 800 exploits (1:45 pb, 3rd NCAAs), he ran 66:06 to finish 4th in the NJCAA Half Marathon Championships back in 2015. Sudbury says that because of Lagat’s sensitive peroneal muscles, he mostly stays off the grass, training on dirt roads and the track, but he could be a difference-maker come November. Last fall, he was 23rd at the Nuttycombe Invitational, running 23:44 for 8k.

Our goal with him is to get him to the starting line at the Big 12 and NCAA meet and just see what he can do with his natural talent,” Sudbury says.

3. BYU: A reloaded Cougars squad should make it three straight podium appearances

2018 NCAA finish: 2nd

Key returners (lose #2, #3, #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Conner Mantz SO 5 13:29/28:18; 4th NCAA 10k, 7th NCAA 5k
Clayson Shumway JR 16 13:54/28:36/8:36 steeple
Jacob Heslington SR 26 13:55/8:39 steeple
Brayden McLelland SR 32 14:08/29:19
Talem Franco SR N/A 3:42; 11th NCAA 1500
Danny Carney SR N/A 7:57/13:39/28:49/8:41 steeple; 42nd at ’17 NCAA XC
Zac Jacklin SO N/A 8:16/14:12
Connor Weaver JR N/A 14:00
Brandon Garnica SO N/A 8:15/14:05
Michael Ottesen SR N/A 14:08/28:58
Matt Owens JR N/A 3:44/8:04/8:32 steeple
Conner Mantz was 10th as a redshirt frosh last year (Ben Jones photo)

Few teams lost more talent than BYU this year, as the Cougars graduated Rory Linkletter (2nd at 2017 NCAAs in the 10k), Connor McMillan (4th at USAs in the 10k), and Clayton Young (NCAA 10k champ). Those three were instrumental in building the culture that has produced two straight podium teams in Provo, but anyone expecting the Cougars to take a major step back ought to think twice. Remember, this is a team that qualified 6 different guys to NCAAs in teh 10,000 on the track: MB: BYU Qualifies SIX GUYS to NCAA finals in 10,000.

Once again, this is the deepest team in America: BYU has multiple sub-14:10 guys that won’t even make its top seven. But to make the podium, you need studs as well, and the Cougars have them. Conner Mantz, who was 10th last year as a 21-year-old redshirt freshman, is the only man currently in the NCAA who has broken 13:30 for 5k. Mantz showed no fear in heading straight to the front of races in his first season of NCAA XC last season, and he won’t let anyone have it easy in 2019.

“I’m sure there will be a number of people that will rise up,” says BYU coach Ed Eyestone, “but I think whoever it is that rises up, they will have to make their way through Conner Mantz to win the title.”

BYU has another returning All-American in Clayson Shumway (32nd last year), but his health is an issue as he works back from a stress fracture in his hip. Shumway unknowingly ran through it to make the NCAA steeple final last spring — something Eyestone said was inspiring to watch — but was forced to take some time off and is now slowly building back mileage. Eyestone doesn’t know whether Shumway will be ready for NCAAs, but if he is, consider that a potential ace up BYU’s sleeve.

“Given his work ethic and his tolerance for pain and dedication, determination, I like the chances of maybe getting him in late in the season,” Eyestone says. “That would make a huge difference.”

On paper, Danny Carney (13:39 5k), Jacob Heslington (13:55, 8:39 steeple) should also be in BYU’s top five, and Eyestone says to watch out for Zac Jacklin, whose PRs are modest (8:16/14:12) but who was second behind Mantz in BYU’s season opener last weekend.

Eyestone says that NAU, as the three-time defending champions, remains the team to beat. But the Cougars are capable of mounting a challenge, particularly if Shumway can return to top form.

2. Stanford: Can Ricardo Santos pull an Andy Gerard and win the Cardinal’s first NCAA title since 2003?

2018 NCAA finish: 5th

Key returners (lose #1, #5 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Alex Ostberg SR 6 7:51/13:42
Alek Parsons JR 15 13:47/28:56
DJ Principe SO 37 3:44/14:10
Michael Vernau JR 75 14:02/29:06
Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau SO 96 9:07 3200
Steven Fahy SR N/A
7:54/13:34/8:34 steeple; NCAA steeple champ; 17th at ’17 NCAA XC
Thomas Ratcliffe SO N/A 13:32; 3rd NCAA 5k
Connor Lane JR N/A 13:42
Clayton Mendez SO N/A 8:04/13:57
Liam Anderson FR N/A 4:08/8:51 1600/3200; NXN champ
Ryan Oosting FR N/A 4:03/8:53 mile/2 mile; 12th NXN
Alex Ostberg will be looking for a third straight top-20 finish in Terre Haute (Ben Jones photo)

Longtime Stanford fans are no strangers to the situation in which new Cardinal coach Ricardo Santos currently finds himself. Back in 2003, Vin Lananna left Stanford to take a job as the athletic director as Oberlin College. He left behind a loaded squad that his successor, Andy Gerard, guided Stanford to one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history, winning the national title in a rout by scoring just 24 points.

In fact, Santos himself is no stranger to this situation either. In 2008, he took over at Iona for Mick Byrne, who had led Iona to a runner-up finish at NCAAs in 2007 and once again guided the Gaels to a runner-up finish at the Big Dance.

So it’s entirely plausible that Santos, in taking over for Chris Miltenberg who decamped for North Carolina, could lead Stanford to its first NCAA title since 2003. But ask Miltenberg: getting to the very top of the podium is hard. Milt’s teams finished in the top five in each of his final five seasons in Palo Alto, but none of them grabbed the big trophy.

Santos will coach the men’s distance runners while new Stanford director J.J. Clark handles the women, and the roster Santos inherits is bursting with talent. Alex Ostberg has two top-20 finishes at NCAA XC. Alek Parsons was 30th last year. And Stanford gets back NCAA steeple champ Steven Fahy, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility (Editor’s note: The NCAA has in recent years changed it’s 6th year policy. If you redshirt as a freshman and then miss another year with injury, you can get a sixth year whereas before you needed two different injuries), as well as Thomas Ratcliffe, who was 3rd in the NCAA 5k final in June. On paper, that’s the best 1-4 in the country. And we haven’t even mentioned Connor Lane, who has run 13:42 for 5k, sub-14:00 man Clayton Mendez, or freshman Liam Anderson, the 2018 NXN champ.

There are questions, however. First and foremost: is Ratcliffe healthy? He was spectacular this year outdoors, but through three years at Stanford, he has yet to score for the Cardinal at NCAA XC, dropping out in 2016 and missing the 2017 and 2018 races. We’ll have to wait to find out the answer to that question — LetsRun put in a request for interviews with Clark and Santos, but as of publication, that request had gone unfulfilled.

Lane, likewise, has yet to run NCAAs, or even Pac-12s, for Stanford in cross. Anderson could redshirt. If everything breaks right, Stanford could win it all, but it’s rare for everything to break right for an NCAA XC team. Look no further than last year: had Fahy not succumbed to a hip injury before NCAAs, Stanford could well have been NCAA champs. Instead, they were 5th.

At this level, one key injury to a top runner is enough to knock you off the podium. If the Cardinal’s big names are healthy, however, they have as good a shot as anyone to knock NAU off their perch in November.

1. Northern Arizona: The dynasty rolls on

2018 NCAA finish: 1st

Key returners (lose #1, #2, #5 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Luis Grijalva JR 11 3:39/13:37
Blaise Ferro JR 12 13:50/28:22
Geordie Beamish SR 22 3:38/13:31; NCAA mile champ
Ryan Raff SO 81 8:10/14:17/29:27
Brodey Hasty RS FR N/A 3:43/8:00/13:55
Theo Quax RS FR N/A 3:39/13:49
Drew Bosley FR N/A 4:07/8:50 mile/2 mile; 5th FL/23rd NXN
Caleb Easton FR N/A 8:57 3200
Abdihamid Nur FR N/A 14:06
This has become a familiar sight (Ben Jones photo)

As good as BYU, Stanford, and Portland were last year, there was an air of inevitability around Northern Arizona’s third straight NCAA title. The Lumberjacks returned three men from the top 10 in 2017 and never looked seriously vulnerable. As it turned out, they weren’t: they rolled to another national championship by scoring 83 points in Madison.

That’s not the case this year. NAU may well tack on #4 in Terre Haute in November, but after graduating the core of its last two NCAA title squads in Tyler DayMatt Baxter, and Peter Lomong, head coach Mike Smith will have to rely on the next generation of Lumberjacks to keep it going.

“There are certain athletes you wish you could coach forever,” says Smith. “But the positive though, when people move on, is it allows a team to cultivate their own identity. And every team has its own identity. I am probably most excited about seeing how this team cultivates its identity. It’s the challenge I’ve laid before them.”

There are veterans to guide that process. Luis Grijalva, the sixth man on NAU’s 2017 title team and its 3rd man last year, is the Lumberjacks’ top returner from NCAAs last year (23rd) and ready to step into a leadership role. Ditto Geordie Beamish, who won the NCAA mile title indoors and ran 13:31 for 5k outdoors. Blaise Ferro was 26th at NCAAs last year. And in Ryan Raff (29:27), Brodey Hasty (13:55), and Theo Quax (13:49), NAU has three second-year guys ready to step up into scorers this fall.

Ask Smith for the secret of NAU’s success, and he’ll tell you it’s his team’s poise under pressure. The Lumberjacks have not lost a meet over the last three years, and Smith believes that’s because his athletes replicate the same process before every meet, whether it’s a 4.5-mile race on September 7 or a championship 10k on November 23. If he has trained his athletes correctly, they shouldn’t be feeling stressed on the morning of NCAAs.

“If you can be at the NCAA meet and stand on the starting line and have it be just another race, you’re gonna do a great job,” Smith says. “Emotionally, that’s the key. We want to be the least excited team on the line.”

Smith stresses, however, that there’s a difference between normalizing a process and flying around on autopilot.

“We obsess over repeating a daily process 100 days in a row,” Smith says. “And if we forget that and think that that comes automatically and start talking about outcomes, then we’re actually not a hard team to beat. But we teach that every second of the day.”

Smith tries to limit talk about specific outcomes. The pieces for another title run are in place, but all he wants from his guys is for them to follow their process and run their best race of the year at NCAAs. If those two things happen, but a squad like Stanford or BYU has a great day and beats them, Smith can live with that.

“We try to talk about racing our best team at the national meet,” Smith says. “And the last three years, that’s what we’ve done. We’re focused on how we’re gonna race our best, with our best team, at the national meet. That could get us 3rd. That could get us 5th. Some years, a great meet for us is 6th place. I just think that if you make the bullseye very small, that it’s winning or bust, you’re not teaching it correctly.”

Be a fan and talk about the men’s team title battle on our messageboard: MB: And your 2019 NCAA men’s xc team champion will be…..

Previous: #10 Oklahoma State through #6 Notre Dame

Women’s preview: #10 Michigan State through #6 Washington * #5 NC State through #1 New Mexico

Nostalgic for last season? Check out our photo gallery of the 2018 NCAA XC meet in the snow in Madison or our coverage of the meet here.

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