2019 NCAA Men’s XC Season Preview: Men’s Teams #10 Oklahoma State Through #6 Notre Dame

By Jonathan Gault
September 19, 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.

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We’re splitting our men’s rankings into two parts. Below, you’ll find teams #10 through #6. Check back tomorrow for 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.

Women’s preview: #10 Michigan State through #6 Washington  *Coming Friday: #5 Through #1

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

10. Oklahoma State: Resurgent Cowboys look to return to top 10 for first time since 2014

2018 NCAA finish: 13th

Key returners (lose #3 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Isai Rodriguez SO 2 7:54/13:53
Ashenafi Hatte SR 13 8:04/14:00
Bryce Quigley SO 94 8:23/14:46
Alec Haines JR 110 8:14/14:27
Ayrton Ledesma Fuentes SR 140 8:20/14:33
Jorge Perez SR 147 14:30/30:39
Ryan Smeeton JR N/A 8:27 steeple; 2nd NCAA steeple
Kevin Mulcaire SO N/A 8:06/14:02
Alex Maier FR N/A 4:09/8:52 1600/3200; 7th NXN
Rodriguez was one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 NCAA meet (Ben Jones photo)

With six of their top seven back from a squad that finished 13th last year, plus the addition of NCAA steeplechase runner-up Ryan Smeeton, this is, on paper, a top-10 team. But to translate that paper potential to a result in November, this group — like any cross country team — needs to stay healthy and perform on the day. Both have been issues for the Cowboys in recent years, who have seen Iowa State usurp their crown as the top XC team in the Big 12 and have failed to crack the top 10 at NCAAs since 2014 after finishing in the top three every year from 2009-13.

“From 2005-13, we just were lucky [with few major injuries],” Smith says. “And then the last few years, we haven’t been nearly as lucky. It all evens out.”

If this group can stay healthy, however, Smith thinks this is his best squad since 2014 (when OSU finished 9th at NCAAs) and likes their upside.

“In 2007, we got 3rd,” Smith says. “And this team is, I think, as good as that team and maybe better. But that team in 2007 performed really well at nationals.”

One guy who ran out of his mind at nationals in 2018 was Isai Rodriguez, who shocked everyone by finishing 4th as a redshirt freshman, just 2.2 seconds out of the win. Smith knows he has a big talent on his hands, so he’s proceeding with caution. He loves Rodriguez’ fearless, stress-free approach to racing, and doesn’t want to put massive expectations on his shoulders now that he’s the #2 returner from the NCAA meet.

“You take the top 25 of any NCAA final, you put them in a bag and shake them up, you’re gonna draw a different order every time,” Smith says. “Yes, he was 4th, but 24th wasn’t much different than 4th.”

(Editor’s note: For the record, 24th was 37.6 seconds behind 4th).

Smith also shut Rodriguez down during the outdoor track season after a case of patellar tendonitis early in the season; Rodriguez is still adjusting to a collegiate workload (he ran around 65 miles per week last year), and Smith didn’t want to rush him back to fitness.

Rodriguez will be flanked by Ashenafi Hatte (27th last year) and Smeeton, forming a formidable top three. Smith says the Cowboys’ #4 and #5 will be “by committee,” but he likes what he’s seen out of Alec Haines and Jorge Perez, who are finally healthy this fall.

Even though Perez was 12th to last last year at NCAAs and has only run 14:30/30:39, Smith has high hopes for him, saying he’s finally escaped a cycle of injuries.

I would expect [Perez] could be maybe a top-50/60 guy, on a good day maybe sneak into the All-American range,” Smith says.

With some injury luck, this team should return to the top 10 in Terre Haute. But if one of the big three goes down, or no one emerges at the #4 and #5 spots, they could tumble down the rankings.

9. Portland: The Pilots look to reload after heavy losses to graduation

2018 NCAA finish: 3rd

Key returners (lose #2, #3, #4, #5, #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse SR 10 13:58/28:37
Caleb Webb SR 34 13:56/29:15
Evert Silva SO N/A 13:48/29:17
Michael Teran-Solano SR N/A 13:57/29:19
Riley Osen JR N/A 8:41 steeple
Justin Hazell RS FR N/A 14:22
Joey Duerr SR N/A 8:13/14:07; 5th year from Minnesota
Bradley Peloquin FR N/A 4:11/8:56 mile/2 mile
Roudolff-Levisse has finished 11th and 21st at the last two NCAA meets (Ben Jones photo)

Rob Conner‘s first goal for this year’s Portland squad is simple: make it to nationals. The last time the Pilots found themselves in a situation like this — graduating five of their top seven after a third-place finish at NCAAs — was 2015, which also happens to be the only year of the last 14 in which Portland failed to qualify for NCAAs.

Should the Pilots make it to Terre Haute — and with four sub-14:00 men on the roster, it would be a shock if they didn’t — Conner is thinking bigger.

“In our last 13 trips to nationals, we’ve averaged 9th,” Conner says. “I don’t know how many teams could say that. There are a few, probably, but we don’t have bad races at nationals, normally.”

And his team? They’re dreaming bigger still. Conner wouldn’t say exactly how big, but they won’t be satisfied with merely finishing in the top 10.

“That’s the new DNA in our team,” Conner says.

That DNA is a direct result of the Pilots’ last two trips to NCAAs, which have resulted in two trophies returning to the Pacific Northwest. Add in Conner’s reputation for developing talent, and even with the loss of All-Americans Logan Orndorf and Nick Hauger, the standard remains high in Portland.

Senior Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse of France(11th and 21st at NCAAs the last two years) is a strong #1, and behind him, Caleb WebbEvert Silva, and Michael Teran-Solano have all run under 14:00 and 29:20. And, as always, UP has several guys waiting in the wings waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves. Joey Duerr comes in as a fifth-year from Minnesota — the same path trod by Matt Welch in 2017, who wound up an NCAA hero for the Pilots by taking 46th at nationals. Conner usually redshirts freshmen, but he said he may make an exception for Bradley Peloquin, an 8:56 2-miler in high school, who has been training with Portland’s top guys. And Justin Hazell, the California Division I champ in XC two years ago, is a big talent.

There’s enough here to expect another top-10 finish from the Pilots. And perhaps more.

8. Colorado: Can the Buffs find a #4 and #5 to extend their top-10 streak to nine?

2018 NCAA finish: 4th

Key returners (lose #3, #5 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Joe Klecker SR 3 7:51/13:30; 3rd NCAA 3k, 2nd NCAA indoor 5k
John Dressel SR 4 7:51/13:41/29:00
Eduardo Herrera JR 23 8:08/13:57
Paxton Smith JR 89 14:27/30:02
Gus Newcomb SO 131 8:35/14:56
Alec Hornecker JR N/A 14:35/30:12
Gabe Fendel RS FR N/A 14:28
Kashon Harrison FR N/A 4:13 mile; 8:55 3200; 11th FL
Austin Vancil FR N/A 9:08 3200; 6th NXN
Klecker is one of two Buffs returning from last year’s top 10 (Ben Jones photo)

Usually when a team finishes 4th at NCAAs, only graduates two of its top seven, and returns two top-10 finishers, you’d expect them to be in the mix for a podium spot the following year. And Colorado very well may be. But the Buffs also had serious depth issues last year — their #5 man at NCAAs finished 147th, the lowest finish for a scoring member of a podium team at NCAAs since 2004 — which were patched over by the brilliance of their front three. Now one of those men, Ryan Forsyth, is gone, and while Eduardo Herrera (33rd and 43rd at the last two NCAA meets) is a capable replacement, CU is unproven at the #4 and #5 spots. If those issues aren’t solved, Colorado could drop out of the top 10 for the first time since 2010.

The good news: the Buffs have two studs in Joe Klecker and John Dressel, who were 8th and 9th a year ago in Madison. Klecker, in particular, looked terrific indoors this year, taking 2nd in the 5k and 3rd in the 3k at NCAAs. He missed NCAA outdoors due to a foot injury, but if he’s back to full health, he’s an individual title contender.

And, of course, Colorado has one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history in Mark Wetmore. If anyone can cobble together a #4 and #5, it’s him.

Right now, Wetmore said he expects his fourth and fifth men to be junior Alec Hornecker, a transfer from Portland State whom Wetmore says has been running with his top guys in practice but who has failed to break 14:30 or 30:00 in track, and redshirt freshman Gabe Fendel, who ran 4:07 (mile) and 8:50 (3200) as a high schooler in Indiana. Wetmore often opts to redshirt his freshmen, but if the Buffs are to make a podium run this fall, he may have to race someone like Kashon Harrison (11th Foot Locker) or Austin Vancil (6th NXN). If that does happen, Wetmore says that his yearlings are more prepared than usual to make the transition to Division I cross country.

“I think they (Harrison, Vancil, Hunter Appleton, and Noah Hibbard) are the best four arriving in September we’ve ever had,” Wetmore says. “I mean not necessarily on paper, but they all worked over the summer, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.”

7. Oregon: The Ducks are deep, but can anyone emerge as an All-American?

2018 NCAA finish: 15th

Key returners (lose #2 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Jackson Mestler SR 36 7:57/13:46
Cooper Teare JR 47 7:50/13:32; 4th NCAA 3k
Jack Yearian JR 61 3:49/8:01
James West SR 76 3:35/7:58/13:52
Reed Brown JR 99 3:38/14:22
Charlie Hunter SO 102 7:59/14:04
Noah Affolder JR 107 14:07/8:40 steeple; transfer from Syracuse
Soren Knudsen SO N/A
Lucky Schreiner SR N/A 14:08; Heps 5k champ; 5th year from Columbia
Austin Tamagno SR N/A 3:40/14:26; 81st at ’17 NCAA XC
Levi Thomet JR N/A 8:06/13:59
Cole Hocker FR N/A 4:07/8:56 1600/3200; FL champ; 2nd NXN
After a breakout track season, Teare should vastly improve on his 94th-place showing in Madison (Ben Jones photo)

The Ducks finished 15th at NCAAs last fall in year one of the Ben Thomas era, the program’s worst finish since 2012. To blame that on Thomas, who carved out a reputation as one of the best middle-distance coaches in the country while at Virginia Tech, would be foolish. It certainly didn’t help that Oregon’s top runner, Tanner Anderson, followed previous coach Andy Powell to Washington, where he finished 19th individually at NCAAs. But the Ducks will be trying to avoid another 15th-place showing in 2019 as the talent on this roster should be worth a top-10 finish, and perhaps a podium spot if all goes well.

The concern about all that talent — which includes two of the last three Foot Locker champions — is that not a single runner on the roster has registered an All-American finish (top 40) at NCAA XC. Six of the team’s top seven return from 2018, but Jackson Mestler was the highest Duck at NCAAs last year in 73rd.

Mestler, after running 7:57 and 13:46 indoors, has the talent to crack the top 40 this fall, and junior Cooper Teare, who ran 13:32 outdoors and won Pac-12s in the 5k, is a top-10 threat. Beyond those two, the Ducks have five sub-14:10 guys to round out the roster, plus 8:01 3k runner Jack Yearian.

James West (3:35 1500) and Reed Brown (3:38) are milers who offer upside — Brown was a Foot Locker champ in HS — and Oregon adds one of the nation’s top recruits in 2018 FL champ Cole Hocker (though who knows if he races this fall). If a couple of those guys translate that potential into All-American finishes, this could be a podium team. And if they don’t, there’s enough talent that this team should still land in the top 10.

6. Notre Dame: With the NCAA 1500 champ & two strong recruiting classes, the Irish are going places

2018 NCAA finish: 14th

Key returners (lose #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Danny Kilrea SO 17 14:11/28:55
Yared Nuguse JR 30 3:38/7:57; NCAA 1500 champ
Anthony Williams SR 48 14:35
Tyler Keslin SR 79 8:09/14:25/29:29
Andrew Alexander JR 87 8:05/14:01
Kevin Salvano JR 92 14:18/28:54
Dylan Jacobs RS FR N/A 3:46/8:11; ’17 FL champ
Jake Renfree FR N/A 4:05/9:11 mile/2 mile; 2nd FL
Carter Cheeseman FR N/A 4:07/8:53 mile/2 mile; 10th FL
Nuguse was 59th at NCAA XC last fall before winning the NCAA 1500 title in June (Ben Jones photo)

Just three years ago, Notre Dame finished 10th at ACCs in cross country. This year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Irish finish top 10 in the NCAA.

Two things have keyed the Irish’s rise: an influx of talent, and coach Sean Carlson, who took the reins in 2016 after serving as an assistant for the previous five years. The results have been most visible on the track — an NCAA 1500 title for Yared Nuguse, who also anchored the Irish to the DMR title at NCAA Indoors in March — but the Irish have taken steps in XC as well. Last fall, ND snapped Syracuse’s five-year win streak to win its first ACC XC title, and went on to finish 14th at NCAAs, the program’s best finish since making the podium in 2005.

This fall should be even better. The Irish return their top six from the 2018 NCAA meet, and Carlson believes that some of his key athletes have made impressive strides since then. Carlson says that Danny Kilrea, who was 33rd a year ago as a true freshman, is better than he was this time last year, and Andrew Alexander went from 8:16 and 14:19 as a freshman to 8:05 and 14:01 as a sophomore in 2019. Nuguse was 59th at NCAAs a year ago, but he has vast potential — he was 3rd at both ACCs and the Great Lakes regional before what Carlson describes as “a bit off an off day” at nationals.

“I don’t know that you guys have seen what he is capable of yet [in cross country],” Carlson says. “I’m pretty excited about him.”

Plus ND adds a Foot Locker champ in Dylan Jacobs, who redshirted as a freshman in 2018, and a pair of accomplished freshmen in Jake Renfree (2nd Foot Locker) and Carter Cheeseman (10th Foot Locker). Carlson says he is still deciding whether to pull the redshirts from the latter two — they will race unattached at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational on October 4.

One difference Carlson expects from a year ago: the Irish will be more prepared for success. Last year, he says, as the program began to find success, it felt as if almost every race was a “Super Bowl” for them. This year, he wants to make sure that everything Notre Dame does prepares the team for the NCAA meet on November 23.

“What we’re trying to do a little bit more of this year is just stay more emotionally grounded early on in the season,” Carlson says.

Check back tomorrow for teams #5 through #1.

Women’s preview: #10 Michigan State through #6 Washington *Coming Friday: #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.

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