By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2019
It’s the week before Thanksgiving and, in what is quickly becoming a tradition, the Northern Arizona men are favored to win yet another NCAA cross country title.
If you are the kind of person who waits until the week of NCAAs to start paying attention to collegiate cross country, this may come as no surprise. After all, NAU has won the last three titles, began this year as a near-unanimous* #1, and hasn’t lost a meet since 2015. Same old, same old, right? Not quite.
*NAU has earned 10 of 11 first-place votes in every USTFCCCA coaches’ poll this year. But every week, one coach — presumably NAU’s Mike Smith — has voted Stanford #1.
To chalk the 2019 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks up as simply the latest iteration of the Flagstaff machine wouldn’t be completely inaccurate, but it wouldn’t tell the whole story either. Of NAU’s five scorers on its 2019 Mountain Regional champion squad — a team that went 1-2-3-6-9 for 21 points against the #2 and #3 teams in the country last week — only one, Luis Grijalva, scored for the Lumberjacks at NCAAs last year. NAU lost its #1, #2, and #5 runners from a team that won its third straight NCAA championship. One year later, they’re not only the odds-on favorite to win it all; they’re so deep that their #4 man from that team, junior Blaise Ferro, who finished 26th at NCAAs, may not be good enough to even make their NCAA roster. Mike Smith was handed an NCAA title team when he took over from Eric Heins in 2017, but what he has built since then is simply remarkable.
This is an NAU team that scored 59 points at the Nuttycombe Invitational — the country’s most competitive regular-season meet — with three freshmen in its top five. And that group didn’t include Brodey Hasty — yet another freshman who just finished third at the Mountain Regional. A team that started the season showing hints of vulnerability after the exits of veterans Tyler Day, Matt Baxter, and Peter Lomong instead seems poised to dominate for years to come.
But they don’t just hand you an NCAA title. You have to earn it on the day, and the 2019 NAU men haven’t done that yet. Of the nine men who might run for the Lumberjacks on Saturday (the seven from regionals, plus freshmen Theo Quax and Drew Bosley), five have never run at NCAA XC. And as much as Smith preaches process, to treat NCAAs as just another meet and to divorce themselves from the outcome, there’s no way to simulate the passion and intensity of the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Should NAU win a fourth straight title, they would be worthy champions and would tie UTEP (1978-81) and Arkansas (1990-93) for the most consecutive men’s titles. Will they? Let’s look closer.
The Mighty Men of Northern Arizona
NAU, clearly, is the team to beat. They began the season by defeating the Japanese collegiate champions, Tokai University, in an impromptu showdown at their season opener, and have rolled through the competition ever since. At the John McNichols Invite on September 21, NAU rested NCAA mile champ Geordie Beamish and still pasted a very good Stanford team that some had predicted would topple NAU this fall, 31-51. They won their fourth straight title at Nuttycombe in October with 59 points, right in line with their previous title teams (78 in 2016, 50 in 2017, 46 in 2018) and cruised at the Big Sky and Mountain Regional meets.
The crazy thing about this NAU team is its depth. They roll nine deep, and you could put any seven of them on the line on Saturday and NAU would still be favored to win. Look at their top five from each meet this year and you’ll see how interchangeable the Lumberjacks are:
Grijalva, Beamish, Bosley, Nur, and Hasty all seem likely to run, and if I had to guess, I’d say Smith rolls with Ferro and Raff at the other two spots (LRC asked Smith on Wednesday which seven he’ll run at NCAAs; Smith said that he had not yet made the final call as one of their guys is sick right now). Regardless of who runs, the main takeaway here is that NAU has enough talent to swallow a bad day (or even two) from any of its top seven guys and still win it all. The other NCAA contenders cannot say the same.
Who Could Topple the Lumberjacks?
Colorado is #2 in the coaches’ poll, and the Buffaloes, not coincidentally, also happen to be the team with the best chance of defeating NAU. They were actually very close to NAU through four runners at NCAAs in 2018: NAU’s top four scored 58, while CU’s top four scored 59. The problem was that NAU’s #5 scored 25 while CU’s #5 scored 119.
CU is unquestionably deeper in 2019. They still have three studs up front in Joe Klecker (8th at 2018 NCAAs, 13:30 pb), John Dressel (9th at 2018 NCAAs, 13:41 pb), and true freshman Kashon Harrison (11th Pre-Nats, 7th Pac-12s, 8:55 3200 in HS), who replaces the departed Ryan Forsyth (11th last year). They also have a very capable #4 in Eduardo Herrera, who has finished 33rd and 43rd at the last two NCAA meets (13:57 pb). They even have some wiggle room at the #5 spot; both Alec Hornecker (12th Pac-12s, 14:35/30:12), a transfer walk-on from Portland State, and Gabe Fendel (18th Mountain Regional, 14:28), a redshirt freshman and son of 1996 Brazilian Olympic marathoner Solange Fendel, have run well for the Buffs this year.
For Colorado to win, they’d likely need Klecker and Dressel in the top 10, Harrison in the top 20, Herrera in the top 40, and either Fendel or Hornecker in the top 50. Considering Fendel was only 29th at Pac-12s, it probably needs to be Hornecker at #5. In terms of team scoring, that would look something like: 4+5+15+31+35, which is 90 points. If those places sound familiar, you either have a photographic memory or you’re a humongous cross country nerd: they are the exact team score positions of the 2004 Colorado squad that famously upset the Wisconsin “Dream Team” that featured two-time NCAA XC champ Simon Bairu, Chris Solinsky, and Matt Tegenkamp.
What happened on that day in Terre Haute — exactly 15 years to the day before this year’s NCAA meet — has to play out again on Saturday. Colorado has to run their best race, and NAU has to have a slightly off day. Anything less and it’s probably not enough as CU’s margin for error is much slimmer; remember, NAU put five guys in front of CU’s #3 at regionals just last week.
Stanford, under new coach Ricardo Santos, is the other team that, on paper, has a chance against NAU. Between Alex Ostberg (13:42), Thomas Ratcliffe (13:32), Connor Lane (13:42), Steven Fahy (13:34), and Alek Parsons (13:47), Stanford has five guys who have broken 13:50 for 5,000 meters (NAU has three and one more at 13:50). But while Ostberg and Ratcliffe have been reliable presences in the front pack, the other three haven’t been running to their potential. Lane has finished just one race this fall, taking 51st at Pac-12s. Parsons, 30th at NCAAs in 2018, was 45th at Nuttycombe and 22nd at Pac-12s. And Fahy, the NCAA steeple champ who was 17th at NCAA XC in 2017, was 78th at Nuttycombe and 16th at Pac-12s.
So for Stanford to win, they’d need three guys who have been underperforming to show up to NCAAs and suddenly run out of their minds? Sorry Cardinal fans: it ain’t happening.
BYU, ranked #3 in the coaches’ poll, is strong again. The Cougars beat Colorado at Pre-Nats, 81-83, have a terrific #1 in Conner Mantz, who has run 13:29 for 5000 and is perhaps the US’s best hope for the individual title, and good depth behind him in Jacob Heslington (4th Pre-Nats, 13:55), Brandon Garnica (14th Pre-Nats, 14:05), and Daniel Carney (13:39). The wild card is Clayson Shumway, who was 32nd last year and has yet to race this fall due to a hip injury. BYU coach Ed Eyestone wouldn’t confirm whether Shumway, who is traveling to Terre Haute, would be back in the lineup Saturday, but it seems likely he sits (Eyestone’s comments about Shumway were similar to his comments about Carney ahead of last year’s NCAA meet, and Carney didn’t end up running). Even if he doesn’t run, at least Shumway has entertained by talking voluminous amount of
shit — wait, do BYU guys swear? — on Twitter this week.
As for the running side of things, this BYU team, which lost to Oregon back in September, isn’t quite as strong as the 2017 and 2018 squads. They can still land on the podium, but if the Cougars couldn’t win the last two years, it’s hard to see them doing so on Saturday.
“[NAU has] a young group, and I fully expect them to do their thing,” BYU coach Ed Eyestone tells LRC. “But if we do our thing, I think we can make it exciting.”
Other Podium Contenders
Colorado and Stanford have the highest ceilings outside of NAU, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be on the podium. Stanford lost to Oregon at Pac-12s and Portland at regionals, and those two teams could easily beat the Cardinal again in Terre Haute. A quick look at them and some other teams with a shot at a trophy (top four teams).
- Portland: The Pilots were only 9th at Nuttycombe, but Rob Conner once again has UP peaking at the right time as Portland won its third consecutive West Regional title last week. Led by Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse (13:57/28:37) — who was 21st last year and ran a 2:14 marathon in Berlin in September — Portland has a shot at its third straight podium finish, especially if Caleb Webb, their #2 man at Nuttycombe, can bounce back from a 43rd-place showing at regionals.
- Oregon: At their best, Oregon is a podium team, with Pac-12 runner-up Cooper Teare (7:50/13:32) and Jackson Mestler (7:57/13:46) leading the way. But Oregon was only 10th at Nuttycombe, making the Ducks a high-variance team in Terre Haute.
- Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane (yes, that’s their nickname) surprised everyone with a third-place finish at Nuttycombe, just one year removed from finishing 30th at NCAAs. But Tulsa backed it up with a strong run to beat Iowa State at the Midwest Regional, putting all five of its scorers in the top 11. Tulsa’s best NCAA finish is 7th in 2012; this squad looks set to top that.
- Iowa State: Seventh at the past two NCAA meets, Iowa State is in a similar spot in 2019. Individual favorite Edwin Kurgat gives the Cyclones a big advantage at the #1 spot, but it’s how #2 through #5 run that will determine the Cyclones’ fate. After defeats to Stanford (John McNichols, Nuttycombe) and Tulsa (Nuttycombe, Midwest Regional), ISU needs to run its best race of the year to break through to the podium in 2019.
JG prediction: 1. NAU 2. Colorado 3. Stanford 4. Tulsa
I feel fairly confident that NAU will win — they haven’t lost a race since 2015 — and I feel good about Colorado in second. There are half a dozen teams who could fill the final two spots. I’m banking on Stanford recapturing its early-season form (the did finish 2nd at Nuttycombe) to take third. And since there always seems to be one (somewhat unexpected) squad on the podium, let’s go with Tulsa for fourth.
Think you know better? Be sure to enter the LRC $200,019 Running Warehouse D1 Cross Country Prediction Contest, where we’re giving away three pairs of Skechers GOrun Ride 8 Hyper shoes and three gift certificates thanks to our friends at Running Warehouse.