NCAA XC Men’s Preview: NAU Seeks Revenge as BYU Tries to Repeat; Can Anyone Stop Wesley Kiptoo?

By Jonathan Gault
March 11, 2021

Monday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships will be full of firsts.

First NCAA XC meet in Oklahoma? Check.

First NCAA XC meet in March? Check.

First NCAA XC meet on live TV (ESPNU) since 2009? Check (TV / Streaming info here).

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But the firsts we’re most concerned with here at are the ones in the results. Who will be the first man and woman across the line? The first team in the results? After a 16-month wait since the last NCAA XC champs, it’s time to hand out some trophies.

That’s what this preview is about. Which athletes and teams will go down as legends? Who will go home devastated? Let’s sort through the fields and make some picks. Men’s preview below, with the women’s preview to come shortly.

Men’s team: Can NAU regain its title after the devastation of 2019, or will BYU repeat?

From 2016-2018, as Northern Arizona reeled off three straight national titles, some in the media (myself included) touted the rivalry between NAU and their northern neighbors Brigham Young. Looking back on those years now, BYU coach Ed Eyestone says the word “rivalry” may have been overly generous given NAU’s NCAA domination.

“It was nice to be included in the conversation, but I don’t think until we actually beat them on the big day that that was really an accurate assessment,” Eyestone says.

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Everything changed on November 23, 2019, in Terre Haute. NAU, seemingly impervious to pressure the previous three years, started slowly in the Indiana slop and could never get going. Meanwhile an overlooked BYU team ran its best race of the season to spring the upset and earn the first NCAA title in program history. The rivalry was officially on.

The race was a turning point for both programs. For BYU, it was proof they were good enough, that they could get it done when it mattered most. For NAU, it was a wakeup call. Lumberjacks coach Mike Smith preaches process over outcome, but entering the 2019 NCAA meet, his men had yet to lose a race since Smith took over the program in 2017. After the loss, his process-oriented approach was put to the test. How would his athletes respond?

In the case of senior Luis Grijalva, magnificently. After finishing 23rd in 2018, Grijalva was just 52nd at NCAA XC in 2019, one of the underperformers who cost the Lumberjacks a fourth straight title. But he came back for the 2020 indoor season with renewed vigor, running pbs of 7:43 and 13:29, and kept that momentum going all year, winning the stacked OSU Invitational in October and running a stellar 13:16 at the Track Meet in December to take down a field of pros.

“[2019 NCAA XC] was really a defining moment in my running career,” Grijlava says. “That loss just kind of ignited a fire for myself personally. I feel like ever since that moment, I became a different athlete…It sucks losing. I don’t know if you guys know, but winning a national title is probably the best feeling in the world, especially as a team. There’s nothing in the world that can replicate that. I want that feeling back.”

On Monday, Grijalva and the rest of the Lumberjacks get their shot at redemption in what could be the most intriguing matchup yet between the Mountain Region powers. Collectively, BYU and NAU have taken the sport of cross country to a new level in recent years. In February, three BYU men (Conner MantzCasey ClingerBrandon Garnica) broke 13:30 in the same race; they wound up ranked #1, #2, and #3 in the NCAA during the 2021 indoor season (all three will skip NCAA Indoors to focus on XC). NAU’s front three — Grijalva, Nico Young, and Abdihamid Nur — are just as good. Most years, three guys in the top 10 essentially guarantees a win. If you’re BYU or NAU this year, it might be a requirement just to keep up with the other team. (With apologies to Stanford, Tulsa, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State, all of whom are credible podium threats, this is a two-horse race for the team title.)

The schools have raced twice in 2020-21, but never at full strength. NAU (without Young) beat BYU, 36-59, on the OK State course in October, but that BYU squad lacked their #4 man from conference (Elijah Amstrong) and Garnica was not close to 100% in that race. In February, BYU turned the tables, taking down a Grijalva-less NAU in Las Vegas, 49-54. That BYU win was misleading, however; NAU needs to be considered the favorite. Except for Grijalva, the teams were almost at full strength in the second encounter, and if you just say that Grijalva ran with NAU’s #3 man, then the Lumberjacks would have won handily, 37 to 51.

Grijalva (second from left) and Ferro (third from left) were key members of NAU’s last title team in 2018

Monday’s race turns on two factors. The first: are NAU’s studs good to go? Two weeks ago, NAU was upset at its conference meet by unranked Southern Utah after Smith held out Grijalva, Young, and Blaise Ferro. Smith told LetsRun he did that to make sure all three guys could make it to the start line at NCAAs, and he confirmed that will happen: all three will race on Monday.

Will they be at their best? That remains unclear. Grijalva’s fall season ran all the way into December, and he has taken a little while to get up to speed in 2021; he skipped NAU’s first XC meet on February 1 and was only their third man at the Battle Born Collegiate Challenge on February 19 before missing the conference meet. Ferro has the potential for greatness (26th at 2018 NCAAs) but has a long injury history; was the decision to hold him out of the Big Sky meet a result of a new issue, or merely a precaution? Young has looked better with every race, taking it to Mantz on February 1 before running 20 seconds faster on the same course 18 days later to take second behind Nur. But what has happened to himi since?

The second key factor is what each team looks like at the #4/#5 spots. If you figure the teams are roughly even through three, these are the spots that will determine the title. Here are the athletes vying for those places (these are the guys Smith and Eyestone told LetsRun they are planning on running on Monday):

NAU Credentials BYU Credentials
Athlete #1 Blaise Ferro 13:39/28:22; 26th ’18 NCAA XC Elijah Armstrong 13:55; 7th WCC
Athlete #2 Drew Bosley 22nd ’19 NCAA XC Aidan Troutner 14:10; 9th WCC; ’17 NXN champ
Athlete #3 Brodey Hasty 13:55; 46th ’19 NCAA XC Clayson Shumway 13:54/28:36; 15th WCC; 32nd ’18 NCAA XC
Athlete #4 Ryan Raff 14:17/29:27; 4th Big Sky Ethan Cannon 13:59; 10th WCC

I like what NAU offers more than BYU. Ferro didn’t race Big Sky, but in his most recent XC race on February 19, he was only seven seconds back of Grijalva and Pac-12 champion Eduardo Herrera of Colorado, and he beat Stanford’s Charles Hicks, who finished second at Pac-12s. Going farther back, when NAU raced BYU in Vegas on February 1, Ferro was just 0.1 behind Brandon Garnica — the third of BYU’s killer top three. If he’s on his game, Ferro is a top-20 guy at NCAAs, and if he runs with Garnica on Monday again, that’s game over for BYU. Also, Drew Bosley was almost a top-20 guy last year — granted he hasn’t raced quite to that level in 2021. The nice thing about NAU is three of their four guys have run well at NCAAs in the past.

BYU doesn’t have quite the same pedigree. Sixth-year transfer Armstrong had a breakout race at WCCs, finishing four seconds back of Garnica, suggesting he could run Ferro close in Stillwater. But his previous NCAA results for Boise State are rough: 168th in 2019 and 112th in 2018. You have to go back to his true freshman year of 2015, when he finished 70th, to find a decent showing at this meet. Troutner has big-time talent but has yet to fully put it together in college. Shumway, on paper, is a strong option at #4 or #5, but he will need to rebound from a rough run at conference where he finished as BYU’s #7.

One guy BYU could have really used is Matt Owens, who was their #5 at NCAAs last year in 45th place. Unfortunately, he contracted COVID-19 in the fall, which significantly affected his fitness (he was only 51st at the OSU Invitational in October) and even now has yet to fully recover his form.

JG’s pick: It’s rare for two teams to score under 100 points at the same NCAA meet — it’s only happened twice in the last 15 years. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens on Monday; BYU and NAU are that good. I expect Ferro to be healthy enough to run well, and I think he’ll give NAU the cushion it needs at the #4 spot to claim its fourth national title in five years.

As for the other podium spots, it’s hard not to like Stanford after a youthful Cardinal squad dominated the Pac-12 meet with 28 points — the lowest winning score since Colorado’s 2013 NCAA title team. And I’ll take OK State for fourth. The #6 Cowboys have raced almost all of the top teams this year, and have beaten #5 Tulsa and #7 Iowa State (twice). All of those races were very close, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of those three squads on the podium. But I’ll take the Cowboys and their home-course advantage for the final spot on the podium.

1. NAU 2. BYU 3. Stanford 4. OK State

Men’s individuals: Wesley Kiptoo looks to make it back-to-back winners from Iowa State

You know how in college football, all the experts put together their pre-season Heisman lists? And then every so often, someone like Joe Burrow emerges from nowhere and makes all of those lists look foolish?

Kiptoo has been untouchable in XC this year (Courtesy Iowa State Track & XC)

The same thing happens every few years in NCAA cross country. We take a look at last year’s results, tinker with them after the spring track season, make projections…and then some Kenyan comes along and blows those projections out of the water. It happened with Arizona’s Lawi Lalang in 2011. It happened with Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka in 2012. And it has happened again with Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo in 2020-21.

Prior to arriving in Ames last fall, Kiptoo was a virtual unknown to most XC fans. But he had quietly amassed a remarkable resume at Colby (Kans.) Community College, clocking 13:43 for 5,000m and winning the NJCAA XC title by over a minute. It didn’t take Kiptoo long to make an impression at the Division I level. He won his season opener at the Bob Timmons Classic on September 19 before destroying fields at the Cowboy Jamboree (27-second win), Big 12 championship (14-second win), and FSU Winter Classic (15-second win). In fact, Kiptoo has only been challenged in one of his seven races in a Cyclone uniform: he was outkicked by a pair of 3:50 milers, Oregon’s Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker, in a 3k at Arkansas on January 30 (Kiptoo still ran 7:48; neither Teare nor Hocker is running NCAA XC).

In the eyes of Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith, who saw Kiptoo run and win on the NCAA course last fall, Kiptoo is the man to beat. His tactics don’t change much: go out hard enough to drop the field and maintain that gap the rest of the way.

“He puts his foot on the accelerator and floors it until you submit,” Smith says. “…So far, I haven’t seen anyone who cannot submit.”

Kiptoo’s opening splits are so fast that they sound made up. At the Cowboy Jamboree last fall, Smith says Kiptoo was around 8:03-04 at three kilometers. At Big 12s, he came through the mile in 4:12. In his most recent cross race, the FSU Winter XC Classic on February 5, he hit 5k in under 14:00.

Iowa State assistant coach Jeremy Sudbury says there is more to Kiptoo than mind-blowing splits, however. He describes him as an exceptional self-regulator who knows how to run within himself, pointing out that he never touched the front at the Track Meet in December en route to a 10,000m pb of 27:37.

“It’s part of his DNA or his personality, that he likes running that way (from the front),” Sudbury says. “But by no means is it uncalculated. He definitely knows what he’s doing, and it’s something we talk about in training.”

The two natural questions, then:

Will Kiptoo take it out hard again, even on a rain-soaked course?

Almost certainly.

If he does, will anyone be bold enough to go with him?

From an individual perspective, that is the question. Kiptoo — who trains with 2019 NCAA XC champ Edwin Kurgat (who still has outdoor eligibility) — has destroyed all comers in XC this year. But he hasn’t raced NAU or BYU, each of whom have multiple individual title contenders. He is very much the real deal, but someone like Conner Mantz is not one to back down from a challenge. It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

One final note: Kiptoo will be running NCAA XC after doubling back from the NCAA indoor 5,000 three days earlier. It may not make a difference, but it’s something the other top contenders won’t have to deal with. If Kiptoo has to go to the well in that race and double back on a tough OSU course, he could become a little vulnerable.

If Kiptoo does win the XC title, it will be the first time that two different individuals from the same school won the NCAA XC title in consecutive championships since Jorge Torres and Dathan Ritzenhein won for Colorado in 2002 and 2003.

Speaking of those other top contenders, let’s take a quick look at the other guys who could win:

  • Luis Grijalva, NAU: Absolutely on fire in the fall, with a win over Mantz at the OSU Invite and a 13:16 win at the Track Meet outkicking Cooper Teare, but has only raced once since December 4 and was NAU’s third man in that race. The 2020 version of Grijalva looked like the best bet of anyone to challenge Kiptoo. Will we see that version on Monday?
  • Conner Mantz, BYU: Top returner from last year (3rd) has lost only once in 2020-21, to Grijalva at OSU in October. Beat all of NAU’s guys (minus Grijalva) to win in Las Vegas on February 1 and ran an NCAA-leading 13:28 indoor 5k on February 12. Tough and fearless, Mantz is the man with the best shot of ending the American drought in this race that dates back to Galen Rupp‘s win for Oregon in 2008.
  • Nico Young, NAU: Only one American has won the NCAA XC title as a true freshman: Indiana’s Bob Kennedy in 1988. So the odds are against Young, but the NAU star is so good that he has forced us to at least ponder the possibility. As a high schooler, he set the course record at NXN and the national record in the 3k (7:56). And back on February 1, he gave Mantz — five years his senior — all he could handle in Las Vegas, making a few big moves and ultimately finishing just two seconds behind the BYU star. When Young returned to that course 18 days later, he ran over 21 seconds faster (though he was narrowly edged by teammate Abdihamid Nur). He may not be 100% healthy after he was held out of NAU’s conference meet.
  • Abdihamid Nur, NAU: The Somali-born Nur, who transferred to NAU after a stint at crosstown Coconino Community College, has come into his own this season. He has won his last two races, beating Young and Pac-12 champ Eduardo Herrera on February 19, followed by a win at the Big Sky conference meet on February 27.
  • Eduardo Herrera, Colorado: Herrera has been beaten by every other guy on this list in 2020-21, but is coming off a dominant 11-second win at Pac-12s on March 5.

JG prediction: Kiptoo has shown no weakness in XC and seems well-suited for a demanding 10k race. Plus the NAU and BYU guys — the best bet to upset him — may be hesitant to go with him should he try to open a gap, lest they blow up and cost their teams valuable points. I envision Kiptoo opening a comfortable lead by halfway and running unchallenged for the second half of the race.

Behind him, it’s more interesting. I’m banking on Grijalva having his best XC race in an NAU uniform, which will be just enough to edge the uber-consistent Mantz.

1. Kiptoo 2. Grijalva 3. Mantz

What are your picks? Let us know by playing in the $200,021 LRC Running Warehouse NCAA Prediction Contest here

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