What We Learned From the 2021 Pre-Nats/Nuttycombe Invitational
By Jonathan Gault
October 15, 2021
Pre-Nationals and the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, both of which were held today, are basically the only NCAA cross country regular season meets that matter. And it’s debatable how much they matter. Yes, almost all of the top teams in the country were in action today — 57 of the top 61 across the most recent USTFCCCA polls — but a number of the top teams held out star runners. That’s because, the way NCAA cross country currently operates, the main goal of the regular season is not to win races. It is to put your team in the best possible position to succeed at nationals.
That’s a longer discussion best left for a later date. We just got a bunch of results today and it’s time to make sense of them.
At Pre-Nats, hosted by Florida State at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, it was a familiar story in the men’s race. Individually, the top two finishers were the same as at NCAAs seven months ago, with BYU’s Conner Mantz winning his sixth straight cross country race to take the title in 22:47.0, a course record for the 8k course, just ahead of Florida State’s Adriaan Wildschutt (22:49.5). In the team race, reigning NCAA champion NAU won handily, putting three men in the top 10 to score 64 points, well ahead of Colorado and Arkansas, who finished second and third, both with 128 points (Colorado won the tiebreaker).
The women’s race at Pre-Nats was all Colorado, as the #5 Buffaloes went 1-5-9-16-23 to win with just 54 points, well ahead of #10 Utah (149). Individually, Colorado’s Abby Nichols claimed the win in 19:46.4 for the 6k course, just ahead of Arkansas’ Lauren Gregory (19:47.7).
The women’s race in Wisconsin produced some surprises as West Virginia’s Ceili McCabe, who was 42nd at NCAA XC in March, used a big kick in the final 100 meters to sprint away from NC State’s Kelsey Chmiel and 2020 NCAA runner-up Taylor Roe of Oklahoma State to win in 19:57.4. The upsets continued in the team battle as #3 New Mexico scored 93 points to beat #1 NC State (102) and #2 BYU (152), though the Wolfpack and Cougars both held out key athletes.
Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo dominated the final race of the day by ripping through the course in 23:11.2, the fastest time on the 8k course at Wisconsin since Lawi Lalang‘s 23:03 in 2012. NCAA 5k champion Cooper Teare of Oregon was second in 23:20.9. Kiptoo’s heroics powered the #6 Cyclones to a 88-104 win over #3 Stanford.
So what does it all mean? Here are our biggest takeaways from a busy day of racing.
The men’s individual race at NCAAs is going to be incredible
The men’s race at NCAAs last year was fascinating to watch, with Kiptoo’s insane 2:31 opening kilometer forcing the field to make some serious decisions early on a windy day in Stillwater. But in the end, it wasn’t particularly close: Mantz won by a hefty 22-second margin.
This year’s race figures to be better. Kiptoo and Mantz are back, and they already staged an epic home-straight duel at Roy Griak earlier this season. Plus Kiptoo seems to have learned to pace himself better. Rather than head to the front immediately today in Wisconsin, he waited until the 1200m mark to take the lead. He still ran the first half faster than the second (11:29.2/11:42.0) but seemed in control throughout.
But they’re not the only guys who could win it. Wildschutt was a distant second to Mantz at NCAAs but closed the gap significantly at Pre-Nats as he was leading with 1k to go and wound up only 2.5 seconds behind. And if you’re writing off Cooper Teare after today’s run, you’re crazy. Yes, Kiptoo beat him by 9.7 seconds, but this was not a race where the individual win was important. Once Kiptoo took off, Teare likely decided to hang back and just make sure he took care of business for his Oregon team. But at NCAAs, Teare is going to be focused on the win (why else would he come back this fall?) and dropping him won’t be as easy. Remember, he’s a 13:12 guy and was one place away from making the US Olympic team in the 5000 this summer.
Colorado is back
By Colorado standards, last season was a rough one. The women finished 7th at NCAAs and the men 14th, marking the first time since 2010 that Mark Wetmore failed to put at least one of his squads on the NCAA podium. But Wetmore’s teams, heavy on freshmen and transfers, have jelled in 2021 and put on a show at Pre-Nats today. In the women’s race, the Buffaloes put three women in the top 10 (Abby Nichols, Emily Covert, and India Johnson), five in the top 25, and all seven in the top 50. Even though there was only one other top-10 team in the race (#10 Utah), scoring 54 points against a field that included 10 ranked teams is no joke. Colorado sent a message that they deserve to be in the national title conversation come November.
The men, meanwhile, followed up their impressive showing at the Cowboy Jamboree (where they scored 62 points, the same as runner-up OK State) by taking second behind a typically dominant NAU squad. This was a good day for Wetmore & Co.
Bad news for the rest of the NCAA men’s teams: NAU looked terrific
Historically, this wasn’t the most impressive showing by an NAU team, but scoring 64 points against a field featuring five of the top eight teams in the country at Pre-Nats is still pretty damn good. From a big-picture perspective, there were a couple of notable NAU results. We already knew that Abdihamid Nur and Nico Young were two of the top guys in the country, but NAU now has a third ace in Drew Bosley, who was back to his 2019 form (when he was 22nd at NCAAs as a true freshman), finishing 6th today, sandwiched between Nur and Young. Many thought that BYU’s trio of Mantz-Casey Clinger–Brandon Garnica would be the best top three in the country, but that may have changed today given that NAU’s top three scored 19 points — the same amount as Garnica scored on his own. Also, Theo Quax also improved significantly from his last race (25th at Cowboy Jamboree to 24th today). If he can keep that up, NAU may be untouchable.
How would the results look if everyone had run their stars?
One of the (many) differences between the NFL and NCAA cross country: NFL teams do not rest their stars for marquee regular-season matchups. If you’re practicing, you play. But regular-season victories also carry rewards for NFL teams in the form of home-field advantage and byes in the playoffs. Top NCAA cross country teams do not receive any sort of advantage for winning in the regular season, which means many coaches err on the side of caution when it comes to deploying their stars.
We saw that today with the #2 Notre Dame men, who were 5th at Pre-Nats, and the #1 NC State and #2 BYU women. All three teams held out athletes who have been training with the team but who, for various reasons, did not race today. Team-by-team:
Notre Dame: Did not race Matthew Carmody (13:41 5k) or 2020 All-Americans Josh Methner and Yared Nuguse.
ND coach Sean Carlson told LetsRun that Carmody did not race as he had already competed at ND’s home invite two weeks ago when the rest of the top group rested. Meanwhile Methner and Nuguse (who was dealing with quad injury during the Olympics) got a late start to the season and will both open up at ACCs. Notre Dame needs them to be competitive with NAU as today NAU had 5 in before Notre Dame had three and NAU’s 6th runner (56th) was quite close to Notre Dame’s #3 (51st) (more on that below).
NC State: Did not race Hannah Steelman (5th 2020 NCAA XC) or Dominique Clairmonte (63rd 2020 NCAA XC). Savannah Shaw (15:40 5k) DNF’d.
Similar to Carlson, NC State coach Laurie Henes said Steelman and Clairmonte got a late start to this season but have done all the workouts during the most recent training cycle and are expected to race in the championship portion of the season. Shaw hit her shin on a spike holding the NC State team tent into the ground and Henes pulled her from the race once it was apparent it was bothering her. If Steelman had run today and was anywhere close to her old self, NC State would have beaten New Mexico who was only 9 points ahead.
BYU: Did not race Whittni Orton (17th at 2020 NCAA XC).
Orton is a fairly injury-prone runner (last year, she didn’t race at all from October to March). BYU coach Diljeet Taylor told LetsRun that Orton is currently healthy but that they were “just being smart” by not racing her today.
The absence of the runners above detracted from what were, on paper, showdowns between the top teams in the country. But we can do a little math to estimate how their presence may have changed things.
In the men’s race at Pre-Nats, Notre Dame finished fifth with 203 points, going 5-17-51-57-73. If we slot Nuguse in at 10th, Carmody at 20th, and Methner at 30th, that changes ND’s result to 5-10-18-20-30 and gives them 83 points — not enough for the win, but a lot closer to NAU (a revised total of 67, accounting for displacements by the new ND runners). Bottom line: ND is still one of the best teams in the country, once all their pieces come together.
What about the women’s race at Wisconsin? New Mexico won it with 93 points, but how would that compare to a full-strength BYU and NC State?
For BYU, Orton won her season opener at Florida State on September 17 and finished 3.5 seconds ahead of Southern Utah’s Alison Pray in that race. Had she finished 3.5 seconds ahead of Pray today, she would have finished 5th overall, so let’s put her there. As for NC State, Steelman was 2.4 seconds behind Pray (quickly becoming our constant) at Notre Dame on October 1. 2.4 seconds behind Pray would have put Steelman 10th today — or 11th once we factor in Orton. And since Clairmonte didn’t score for NC State at ND, it makes the most sense to say she wouldn’t have affected their scoring lineup today.
Adding Orton and Steelman into the mix yields new results of 5-15-22-25-34 for BYU, 2-6-11-20-33 for NC State, and 14-17-18-26-28 for New Mexico. Or, tallied all together:
NC State: 72
New Mexico: 103
Advantage, NC State.
Who bombed? And who surprised?
If I’m going to heap praise on some of the teams above, it’s only fair to dole out some criticisms.
On the women’s side, Colorado ran great, but otherwise it was a rough day for the Pac-12 as #7 Washington was 15th at Nuttycombe and #9 Stanford was 16th. Another underperformer was #20 Villanova, who was only 20th at Nuttycombe.
On the men’s side, #13 Washington was 14th at Nuttycombe and #14 Iona finished a disastrous 25th. It was not a great day for #16 Butler (22nd at Nuttycombe), #17 Wake Forest (15th at Pre-Nats), or #18 North Carolina (18th at Nuttycombe) either.
On a more positive note, the unranked Princeton men impressed by taking 7th at Pre-Nats while #30 Air Force was a surprising 5th at Nuttycombe. Unranked Colorado State also cracked the top 10 at Nuttycombe by finishing 10th.
On the women’s side, unranked Syracuse was the surprise of the day, taking 7th at Nuttycombe.
Discuss today’s races on the LetsRun.com messageboard: