Showdown in Stillwater: NCAA Cross Country Is Back This Weekend in a Big Way

By Jonathan Gault
September 16, 2021

The professional track season is wrapping up, school is back in session, and fall is almost upon is. Which, in the world of means two things: fall marathons and NCAA cross country.

With the major marathon season still a week away (things kick off in Berlin on September 26), let’s focus on cross country. Last season wrapped barely six months ago with the BYU women and NAU men claiming national titles in Stillwater, Okla., but the 2021 campaign has already begun and it starts to get serious this weekend as there are some big-time showdowns on tap. Friday brings a matchup between #1 BYU and #3 Stanford in the women’s race at the FSU XC Open in Tallahassee. Then on Saturday, #1 NAU faces #6 Oklahoma State, #8 Tulsa, and #12 Colorado in the men’s race at the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater.

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Hold on a minute. Isn’t this NCAA cross country, where the best teams barely race and generally avoid showing their cards until late October? Why are we getting two huge races in mid-September?

The BYU women, who return everyone from their 2020 title team, are in Tallahassee this week to check out the NCAA course (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

One major reason: the NCAA has spread the wealth when it comes to who gets to host NCAAs. From 2020 through 2025, four of the six NCAA championships will be run on courses that have never hosted NCAAs before. Coaches want to get familiar with those courses — and get their athletes familiar with them as well. That includes OK State’s course at Stillwater. Even though NCAAs were there just six months ago, it’s a brutal, tactically demanding course and it never hurts to get extra reps.

“We have a good course and we’re also hosting nationals next year,” says Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith. “And I know the coaches that think they have a chance to win — at least some of the guys I’ve been talking to who are coming — they’re like, the more I get my guys on that course before next November, the better. Our course is one where, if you start to get familiar with it, you can run it a little better. There’s some nuance to our course. It’s not a track; you’ve gotta figure out how to run it.”

Apalachee Regional Park, which will host this year’s NCAA meet on November 20, is not as technically challenging as Stillwater, but you still don’t want to go into the biggest race of the year flying blind. That’s why BYU coach Diljeet Taylor has entered 17 women at Florida State this weekend. The Cougars return all seven runners from last year’s title team and feature a deep bench, so Taylor wants anyone who might factor for the team in November to get a chance to check out the course.

BYU’s showdown against a strong Stanford squad may already be in the books by the time you read this (the race goes off at 8:10 a.m. ET Friday) and that race will be telling. Has Stanford, who finished third at NCAAs last year, narrowed the gap to BYU, who won NCAAs by a whopping 65 points in March? Or has BYU widened it — which seems more likely considering Stanford has lost its top runner from NCAAs last year, 10th placer Ella Donaghu, while BYU’s Whittni Orton, the 2020 preseason favorite, should be healthier than when she raced NCAAs in March and finished 17th.

In Stillwater, we’ll get our first look at NAU, who lose two top-10 finishers from 2020 in Blaise Ferro (6th – graduated) and Olympian Luis Grijalva (9th – Olympian turned pro). This being NAU, they still have two more top-10 guys to fall back on in Nico Young (4th) and Abdi Nur (7th), plus they add in Big 10 champ George Kusche, a transfer from Nebraska. But they could be pushed by a strong OK State team, who know this course well and bring everyone back after finishing third at NCAAs in March (OSU also adds 3:44/13:50 Brit Rory Leonard). Isai Rodriguez, a two-time top-10 finisher at NCAAs, should lead the Cowboys, and Smith says he will be running a strong team; TBD whether NAU, Colorado, and Tulsa do the same, but expect to see some top talent on display in Stillwater. On the women’s side, last year’s NCAA runner-up Taylor Roe will be in action for OSU.