By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2019
You’re going to hear it many times this week, so you may as well hear it from me: an American man hasn’t won the NCAA individual cross country title since 2008. Believe it or not, it was actually a fairly common occurrence in the early 2000s: from 2002 through 2008, Americans claimed five of the seven titles on offer. But since Oregon’s Galen Rupp outdueled Liberty’s Sam Chelanga in 2008, the NCAA title has gone to Kenyans eight times, Australians twice, and even a Canadian, but never an American. We’re currently in the longest drought ever for an American champion; if it doesn’t end on Saturday, the entire 2010s will have come and gone without a US champ.
This is neither bad nor good news, merely a reflection of the current NCAA system, which attracts top talent from all over the world. And right now, the US drought seems poised to continue: the NCAA favorite, Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat, hails from Kenya, as do two of his top challengers, Alabama’s Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen. But there is always hope, and for the US it comes primarily in the form of BYU’s Conner Mantz and Colorado’s Joe Klecker.
We’ll get to them in a minute, but let’s start with Kurgat. With the graduation of Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher in June, there was a power vacuum at the top of the NCAA heading into the 2019 cross country season and several candidates to fill it. Kurgat, as the top returner from last year’s NCAA meet (he finished third, 0.2 of a second behind Fisher), was handed that role, somewhat by default, though the 13:34 5000 man was only 9th and 5th in his NCAA track finals in 2019.
Making the top returner the favorite for next year’s NCAA meet isn’t a bad starting point, though. Since 2008, the top returner from the previous year has gone on to win NCAAs more than 50% of the time (6/11):
|Year||Top returner||Place at NCAAs|
The bad news for Kurgat? In four of the five years when the top returner didn’t win, it was because some new stud came into the NCAA. That was the case with Lawi Lalang in 2011, Kennedy Kithuka in 2012, Edward Cheserek in 2013, and McDonald in 2018 (McDonald had been at Wisconsin for four years but redshirted in 2017). The guys in that role in 2019 are Kiprop and Kigen, both of whom redshirted last fall.
So far, however, Kurgat has backed up his status as preseason favorite. He opened up his 2019 season with a win in Terre Haute at the John McNichols Invitational and hasn’t lost since, claiming victories at the Nuttycombe Invitational, Big 12s, and the Midwest Regional. The win at Nuttycombe was particularly dominant and cemented his status as the NCAA favorite: after taking off with 2k to go, he went on to win by 9.7 seconds, the second-largest margin in the meet’s 11-year history. Only Lawi Lalang (15.1 seconds in 2011) has won by more at Nuttycombe, and he went on to crush everyone at NCAAs later that year.
The one caveat about all of those wins is who Kurgat has raced — or rather, who he hasn’t. He hasn’t been beating up on creampuffs, but he hasn’t raced Kiprop, Kigen, or Mantz yet this season.
So that’s the case for Kurgat: top returner and a dominant win in the biggest regular-season meet. He’s in his own tier up top, but bigger favorites than Kurgat have lost at this meet (see: Tiernan over Cheserek in 2016). Here are the cases for some other contenders.
Tier 2: The Studs that Kurgat Hasn’t Raced Yet
Gilbert Kigen, senior, Alabama
Track PBs: 7:59/13:34/28:20
2019 results: 2nd Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite, 2nd SECs, 1st South Central Regional
The last time Kurgat lost a race, Kigen was one of the men in front of him as he finished 4th at NCAAs in the 5,000 in June (Kurgat was .14 behind in 5th). Kigen was also 2nd in the NCAA 10,000 and has gone 1-2 with teammate Kiprop in all three of his meets this fall. A 4th-place finish at NCAA XC in 2017 rounds out an impressive resume.
Vincent Kiprop, senior, Alabama
Track PBs: 7:55/13:37/28:19
2019 results: 1st Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite, 1st SECs, 2nd South Central Regional
Kiprop has only one defeat this fall, to Kigen at regionals, and the two Kenyans own similar credentials. Like Kigen, Kiprop has finished 2nd in an NCAA track final — twice, in fact (2018 indoor 5k, 2018 outdoor 10k) — before redshirting the 2019 outdoor season.
Conner Mantz, sophomore, BYU
Track PBs: 7:50/13:29/28:18
2019 results: 1st BYU Autumn Classic, 1st Dellinger Invite, 1st Pre-Nats, 1st WCCs, 4th Mountain Regional
Mantz, who turns 23 next month, impressed as a freshman last fall, finishing 10th at NCAAs in his first collegiate XC season (he went on a mission in 2015 and 2016 and redshirted 2017). He backed that up on the track last spring: after taking 7th and 10th in the 3k/5k at NCAA indoors, he improved to 7th and 4th in the 5k/10k outdoors. Mantz is known for heading straight to the front and isn’t afraid to push the pace — “Mantz is a tough, gritty guy who likes inflicting pain and seems impervious to pain,” his coach Ed Eyestone tells LRC — but don’t sleep on his speed. He used his kick to win Pre-Nats and is the only guy in this field who has broken 13:30 for 5k.
Tier 3: Super Talented Guys Who Could Win If Everything Breaks Right
Joe Klecker, senior, Colorado
Track PBs: 3:58/7:51/13:35
2019 results: 5th Wyoming Invite, 3rd Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite, 9th Pre-Nats, 1st Pac-12s, 11th Mountain Regional
Klecker has just one win this year, but it was an impressive one, at Pac-12s. His runs at Wyoming and the Mountain Regional weren’t all-out, so no worries there, but he was beaten convincingly by Kiprop and Kigen at Notre Dame and was only 9th at Pre-Nats. Still, he was 3rd (3k) and 2nd (5k) at NCAA indoors in March before injuries derailed him outdoors, and he was 8th (#3 returner) at NCAA XC last year. Discount him at your peril.
Thomas Ratcliffe, junior, Stanford
Track PBs: 7:54/13:32
2019 results: 2nd John McNichols Invite, 4th Nuttycombe Invite, 6th Pac-12s, 8th West Regional
You can make a case that Ratcliffe, who finished 3rd at NCAAs in the 5k last spring — ahead of Kurgat, Mantz, and Kigen — despite missing most of the preceding two years, is the most talented runner in the NCAA. Remember, this is a guy that his former coach, Chris Miltenberg, called a Grant Fisher-level talent (though Fisher never won NCAA XC, of course) and a guy who ran a 4:01 mile in HS as a part-time runner. However, he’s already lost twice to Kurgat this fall and was 12+ seconds back of Klecker at Pac-12s. Does he have something special in store at NCAAs? Talent-wise a win isn’t a stretch but results-wise it’s a HUGE stretch. He’s won one xc race in his life since middle school (admittedly he didn’t run HS xc).
Alex Masai, senior, Hofstra
Track PBs: 7:59/13:53/29:39
2019 results: 1st Stony Brook Wolfie Invite, 1st Paul Short Run, 1st Princeton Invite, 1st CAAs, 1st Northeast Regional
Masai’s pbs of 13:53/29:39 aren’t NCAA title-worthy — heck, he didn’t even qualify for NCAAs last fall after placing 62nd at regionals. But he’s the only undefeated man in the NCAA this year outside of Kurgat and has yet to test himself against top-level competition. As the brother of 2009 World Champs 10k bronze medalist Moses Masai, he has strong bloodlines.
It would be a surprise if someone outside of the seven guys above wins it all on Saturday, but there are a few intriguing dark horse candidates, including 2018 NCAA 1500 champ Oliver Hoare of Wisconsin (2nd Nuttycombe, 1st Big 10s this fall) and 2019 NCAA mile champ Geordie Beamish of Northern Arizona (Mountain Regional champ), both of whom have big kicks and could be major factors if the pace slows up front. Heck, any of NAU’s top group — which also includes Luis Grijalva, Brodey Hasty, Drew Bosley, and Abdihamid Nur — could be factors in the individual race. Chances are, at least two of them will finish in the top 10, but good luck figuring out which ones as the Lumberjacks are pretty interchangeable.
JG prediction: 1. Kurgat 2. Kiprop 3. Mantz
Kurgat began the season as the man to beat and has shown no signs of weakness yet. He was closer than you remember to winning it all last year (just 0.7 behind McDonald) and has only gotten better since then. He’s the only guy who seems capable of turning this thing into a runaway, like he did at Nuttycombe in October.
But after him, there isn’t much separation. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a repeat of last year’s race, where half a dozen guys were still in it rounding the final turn in Madison. That’s why it may be in Kurgat’s interest to kick with a few kilometers to go. The longer he lets everyone hang around, the higher the chance of an upset. If he truly is the best guy — and I think he is — he should be able to get some separation before the long uphill finishing straight.
Think you know best? 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.