LetsRun’s 2021 NCAA XC Men’s Top 10: Can Anyone Topple NAU?

By Jonathan Gault
September 27, 2021

The 2021 NCAA cross country season is upon us, and we’ve been previewing the action this week on LetsRun.com. On Wednesday, we published our interview with reigning NCAA men’s individual champion Conner Mantz of BYU, and on Thursday we highlighted the major trends and storylines to watch in the season to come. Now it’s time for the article you’ve been waiting for: the preseason* rankings.

*Yes, there have been some meets this season, but most schools have yet to race seriously.

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With the caveats that a lot can change over the next two months and regular-season performance is not always indicative of how a team runs at a national championship (where the larger field places a higher priority on low sticks), here’s one man’s best guess as to how it will all shake out in Tallahassee on November 20. Men’s rankings below. The women’s rankings can be found here.

1) Northern Arizona

2020 finish: 1st   *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #2, #4)   *Coach: Mike Smith

Will yet another NCAA title trophy head to Flagstaff this fall? (photo courtesy of NAU Track & XC)

In recent years, it’s been easy to pencil in Northern Arizona as the #1 team in the country at the start of the season. The Lumberjacks have won four of the past five national titles, and the one time they were defeated at nationals (2019), they finished second. After losing two NCAA top-10 finishers from March’s NCAA meet, they’re not a slam-dunk #1 in 2021, but their mix of talent, experience, and coaching is enough to earn the top ranking. In Nico Young and Abdihamid Nur, NAU has two of the top five returners from NCAAs. And they have a third potential star in Drew Bosley, who was only 62nd last year but finished 22nd as a true freshman in 2019 and was right with Young and Nur when the Lumberjacks raced at the Cowboy Jamboree on September 18. Those three are proven, reliable veterans.

If there is a weakness, it comes at the #4 and #5 spots, and that showed at the Cowboy Jamboree with a 19-second gap between NAU’s #3 and #4 (though NAU still handily beat Oklahoma State, Tulsa, and Colorado). The good news is they have options. Transfer George Kusche was only 229th at NCAAs last year, but he was also the Big 10 individual champion at Nebraska. If he can adjust to Flagstaff’s 7,000 feet by November — “he’s figuring out altitude right now, but we’re liking what we’re seeing” says NAU coach Mike Smith — then he could be a big factor at NCAAs. Ryan Raff (who has run well at altitude but has yet to put it together on the big stage), Brodey Hasty (13:49, 44th at NCAA XC), Theo Quax (13:49), and Tristian Merchant (true freshman from Alaska who cracked NAU’s top seven at Cowboy Jamboree) all offer potential to round out the scoring lineup.

Last year, NAU scored 60 points at NCAAs became the first team to put four men in the top 10 since the legendary 2003 Stanford squad. It’s unlikely the Lumberjacks repeat that feat in November, but they can’t afford to slip much if they are to retain their title as Notre Dame, OK State, and Stanford have all improved since last season.

2) Notre Dame

2020 finish: 2nd   *Returners from NCAAs: 6/7 (lose #7)   *Coach: Sean Carlson

Notre Dame surprised everyone in March not just by finishing second, but by scoring 87 points — the lowest non-winning score at NCAAs in 23 years. The Irish had an incredible six All-Americans in 2020, putting all five scorers in the top 23 with sixth man Josh Methner in 36th. All six return — has any school ever returned six All-Americans? — including 1500m Olympian Yared Nuguse, who is healthy and back training after a quad injury sidelined him in Tokyo. And the Irish should be even deeper this fall as they add in Matthew Carmody (13:41 pb), who didn’t run NCAAs last year, and Anthony Russo (13:53/28:57), a grad transfer from Penn. You can make a strong case that, on paper, Notre Dame should be pre-season favorites, not NAU.

“Our goal is to be better than last year’s team,” says ND coach Sean Carlson. “Now what that result is, we’ll see — I don’t know. I can’t control what the NAUs and Oklahoma States of the worlds do. But I think it’s realistic for us to be just as good, if not better.”

Last winter it was hard to get a read on the Irish as ND’s top group only raced once before NCAAs, and Carlson says to expect something similar this fall as most of his best athletes likely won’t open up until later in the season. But if ND can peak like they did last season, they have the talent to end a 63-year title drought in South Bend.

3) Oklahoma State

2020 finish: 3rd   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Dave Smith

Isai Rodriguez is a two-time top-10 finisher at NCAA XC (Ben Jones photo)

The Cowboys were a podium team every year from 2009 through 2013 but struggled (by the program’s high standards) over the next six years, finishing in the top 10 just once and missing the meet entirely in 2019 — snapping a streak of 16 straight appearances. Last year, however, OK State was revitalized and, hosting nationals for the first time, finished third overall.

The Cowboys no longer have home-course advantage, but the entire top seven returns this fall and the roster should be bolstered by a pair of new additions in transfer Shea Foster from Southeastern Louisiana (45th NCAAs, 13:32 5k) and Brit Rory Leonard (3:44/13:50). They join a squad featuring a genuine star in Isai Rodriguez — a two-time top-10 finisher at NCAAs who just trounced NAU’s Nico Young and Abdihamid Nur at the Cowbor Jamboree — and returning All-Americans Alex Maier (17th), Ryan Smeeton (26th), and Victor Shitsama (34th). Add in an improved Kevin Mulcaire (80th) and Ryan Schoppe, who ran 13:43 as a true freshman last year, and the Cowboys are absolutely loaded.

“This might be the best team we’ve ever had,” says coach Dave Smith. “But it might not be enough to win this year because this year is top-heavy with a couple of really, really good teams.”

Indeed, NAU beat OK State at the Cowboy Jamboree on September 18, 40-62. But the Cowboys didn’t run Foster and Leonard competed unattached; had Leonard counted, the score would have been 41-54. In a loaded year, it will take a monster effort to win it all in Tallahassee, but OK State is one of the few teams with the horses capable of taking a run at NAU and Notre Dame.

4) Stanford

2020 finish: 5th  *Returners from NCAAs: 6/7   *Coach: Ricardo Santos

The Cardinal just missed the podium last year despite running a team featuring four freshmen at NCAAs. And because last cross country season didn’t count for eligibility purposes, they’re all still freshmen in cross country this year — even though some of them are now in their third year at Stanford. It’s scary to think about how good this Stanford team could be in a year or two. Every one of the athletes listed below still has four years of cross country eligibility remaining (including this one):

Charles Hicks 13:33/27:47 (third year at Stanford)
Thomas Boyden 13:42 (second year)
Cole Sprout 13:43 (second year)
Devin Hart 13:45 (third year)
Ky Robinson 13:51/8:32 steeple (second year)
Evan Burke 13:58 (third year)
Liam Anderson 2018 NXN champion (third year)

Of course, that’s also a competitive roster right now, especially when you add in guys like D.J. Principe (13:49) and Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau (13:52). Hicks and Sprout are studs; both finished in the top 15 at NCAAs a year ago and have a great shot to do so again in 2021. Whether the Cardinal can break onto the podium — and challenge for the title — will depend on how much progress its 3-4-5 runners have made in the last six months.

5) BYU

2020 finish: 7th  *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #3, #4)   *Coach: Ed Eyestone

Mantz thrived in Stillwater in March but BYU had a rough day overall (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

After three straight podium finishes, BYU fell to seventh place last year, though a good chunk of that is due to Brandon Garnica, who was 13th at 9k, passing out due to heat exhaustion in the final kilometer (BYU had 189 points at 9k; it took 181 to get on the podium). Garnica (13:26 5k) is back this fall and partners with Casey Clinger (13:24) and NCAA individual champion Conner Mantz (13:24) to form the strongest top three in America.

BYU did take some hits behind them as their next two scorers from NCAAs, Ethan Cannon and Clayson Shumway, have graduated and decided not to come back for another year. But, as always, the Cougars have an army of potential replacements. Aidan Troutner is the most promising. The 2017 NXN champ as a senior in high school, Troutner served a mission in 2018 and 2019, which meant last year was his first campaign back training. He wound up 125th at NCAAs, but the talent is there for him to develop into a reliable #4 this year. Options for BYU at #5 include Elijah Armstrong (13:53 5k, but not currently competing due to health issues), Lucas Bons (3:37 1500), Garrett Marsing (8:31 steeple), Adam Wood (8:47 steeple), and true freshman Creed Thompson (Easton Allred, who ran 13:45 last year, may redshirt). If one (or more) of them can step up, BYU could return to the podium in 2021.

6) Washington

2020 finish: 25th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Andy Powell

Washington may be the most improved team in the country this year. The Huskies add two big-time transfers in Canadian Kieran Lumb (13:24/28:17) and Irishman Brian Fay (13:44/8:29 steeple), a pair of high-mileage guys who have never run NCAA XC before but should be able to make an immediate impact. Washington also has three more guys who broke 13:50 last spring: Luke Houser (13:43), Tibebu Proctor (13:46), and Isaac Green, who finished a breakout track season by running 13:27 at NCAAs in June.

Washington coach Andy Powell is also very high on fifth-year senior Talon Hull (7:59/28:51). Some of Hull’s results suggest a top-10 talent: he was just 0.4 behind Grant Fisher at Pac-12s in 2018 and took third behind Conner Mantz and Nico Young (and ahead of Casey Clinger and Abdihamid Nur) at the Silver State Challenge in February. Yet he’s also never made NCAAs on the track (he was 42nd at regionals in the 10k last year) and has never finished better than 80th at NCAA XC (he was hurt last year and didn’t run). If the good version of Hull shows up, he could help Washington challenge for just the second podium appearance in school history.

“He’s a gamechanger for our program,” Powell says. “He’s fit and he’s running well.”

The fact that Washington is just 6th in our poll shows you how loaded the NCAA is this year. They have five sub-13:50 guys (including two 13:20 guys) plus an additional sub-29 guy and they aren’t even on the podium.

7) Arkansas

2020 finish: 4th   *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #2, #6)   *Coach: Chris Bucknam

It may have gotten lost in the shuffle — which tends to happen when two teams score under 90 points and an American wins the individual race for the first time in 12 years — but the Arkansas men pulled off one of the most impressive feats of the 2020 NCAA XC champs. The focus all year for the Razorbacks had been on indoor track, a meet that the Razorbacks hosted. But rather than punt on cross country, Chris Bucknam‘s men went for the double and wound up performing better at NCAA XC (4th) than NCAA indoors (T-7th). With four of the Razorbacks’ top seven at NCAA doubling back from NCAA indoors just days earlier (Amon Kemboi and Gilbert Boit actually tripled — 3k and 5k at NCAA indoors, plus XC), Arkansas scored 181 points to earn its first podium finish since the John McDonnell era.

The challenge in repeating that feat this fall is that Arkansas, because of its desire to succeed in track and XC, lacks the depth of some of its top XC rivals. With Luke Meade (38th last year) sidelined after breaking his ankle in a rock climbing accident, the Razorbacks will need to find a replacement. Freshmen Ben Shearer (8:48 2-mile) and Elias Schreml (13:58 in Germany) are both options but whether they can help immediately remains to be seen.

“I’m not sure what kind of impact they’ll have,” Bucknam says. “We’ll run them at Chile Pepper [on October 1], they’ll probably [be] unattached, just to kind of see where they’re at.”

8) Iona

2020 finish: 10th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Joe Pienta

Powered by the top three of Jack O’Leary (25th), Ehab El-Sandali (29th), and Jamie Dee (56th), Iona returned to the top 10 last year for the first time since 2016. All three are back this fall, along with the rest of the NCAA squad. If the Gaels can improve at the #4/#5 spots — Josh DeSouza, who ran 13:54 last year but was just 192nd at NCAA XC, seems like the best bet — then Iona could be even better in 2021. Johnjack Millar, who was 26th at NCAAs in 2019, is another candidate, but he’s on the comeback trail from injury — he hasn’t raced since February 2020 — and is something of a wildcard.

“I think we’ve got a really good team that, on the right day, could potentially podium,” says coach Joe Pienta. “There’s probably 12 teams out there at least who can probably podium on the day, depending on who’s healthy and all that stuff.”

9) Oregon

2020 finish: did not compete   *Returners from NCAAs: N/A   *Coach: Ben Thomas

Teare will be among the individual favorites at NCAAs in November (Kirby Lee-Image of Sport/Pac-12 Conference)

Oregon punted on the 2020 NCAA XC season but the Ducks are back this fall and have the pieces to make a run at the top 10. NCAA 5k champ Cooper Teare is among the favorites for the individual title, and he has a solid supporting cast in Cincinnati transfer Aaron Bienenfeld (13:31/28:10, 16th at NCAA XC), Jackson Mestler (13:36, 3rd Pac-12 XC), and Jack Yearian (13:44).

Had US 1500m champion Cole Hocker returned to the team this fall, the Ducks might have been able to put together a podium run. Even though Hocker is known more for his mid-d exploits, he is a 13:18 5k man, was a Foot Locker champion in high school, and would have been a huge asset to this Oregon squad.

Without Hocker, now a pro for Nike, Oregon has a hole at the #5 spot. Can anyone step up to fill it? The answer will determine how far the Ducks go in 2021. But with two very low sticks in Teare and Bienenfeld, the Ducks don’t need that much more to finish in the top 10.

10) Colorado

2020 finish: 14th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Mark Wetmore

Colorado was 14th last year, the program’s worst NCAA finish since 2010. But the Buffs would have finished several spots higher had their ace, Eduardo Herrera (13:24 pb, Pac-12 XC champ) not endured an awful day and finished way back in 107th. Everyone is returning in 2021, but other than Herrera, this could be a very different (and potentially vastly improved) Colorado squad in 2021.

CU impressed at the Cowboy Jamboree by tying Oklahoma State on their own course, and after Herrera — who ran like the stud he is and finished second overall — Colorado’s next four scorers were all transfers. Stephen Jones (14:08 5k) was at Colorado last year but did not compete. But the others — Brendan Fraser from Notre Dame (29:14 10k), Andrew Kent from Georgia Tech (13:47 5k), and Charlie Sweeney from Western Colorado (13:51 5k) — were all new additions. If legendary coach Mark Wetmore can work his magic and get that group to gel behind Herrera, the Buffs could do some damage this fall.

Honorable mentions

  • Tulsa was 6th last year, but they lose top man Patrick Dever and #5 Cameron Field. They did add Irishman Cormac Dalton (13:59) and Michael Power (13:54), and still have two guys from the top 20 last year in Peter Lynch (12th) and Isaac Akers (19th). Tulsa could easily be a top-10 team this year, but their fifth-place finish at the Cowboy Jamboree — 24 points behind Texas — was not encouraging.
  • Butler has two genuine stars in Simon Bedard (13:34/28:33) and Barry Keane (13:35/28:28) but will need to develop some depth behind them to crack the top 10.
  • Iowa State has one of the best low sticks in the country in Wesley Kiptoo but the Cyclones lose their #2 man from 2020 in Mitchell Day (41st). A second low stick would help if Iowa State is to repeat its eighth-place showing from a year ago. The Cyclones looked good at Roy Griak last weekend, finishing just one point behind BYU.
  • Southern Utah, Utah State, and Ole Miss were 9th, 11th, and 12th in 2020. SUU lost their #3 and #4, and Ole Miss lost their #3 and #5. But Utah State returns their entire top seven and should be dangerous in the perennially strong Mountain Region.

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