Running the Numbers: A Deep Dive Into the 2021 NCAA XC Results

The Week That Was in Running, November 15 – 21, 2021

By Robert Johnson and Jonathan Gault
November 23, 2021

Past editions of the Week That Was can be found here. Got a tip, question or comment? Please call us at 844-LETSRUN (538-7786), email us, or post in our forum.

This week’s edition of the Week That Was is devoted solely to the 2021 NCAA Cross Country Championships. In case you didn’t know, Jacob Kiplimo also broke the half marathon WR last week. If you missed our extensive on-site coverage of NCAA XC from Tallahassee, please catch up now as we don’t repeat ourselves. *Full 2021 NCAA XC Coverage *Interviews From Tallahassee.

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The 2021 NCAA Cross Country Championships are in the books, and we imagine some of you have already started counting down to the 2022 champs in Stillwater (361 days from now, if you’re curious). But before looking ahead, let’s take one last look back at this year’s championships — both of them. We’ve run through data from the 2020 NCAA XC champs (held in March 2021) and the 2021 champs. Our most interesting takeaways are below.

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Most returning NCAA XC runners finished worse last weekend than they did in March

Considering the last NCAA meet was in March and it didn’t count in terms of NCAA eligibility, we decided to do an analysis of how the teams and individuals did at both meets. We went result by result and looked at how every single individual in the March NCAA XC champs did in the November NCAA XC champs. 

For LRC Supporters Club members, our spreadsheet work, which took hours to compile and is sorted in various ways, can be found here (come on coaches, write it off on the department expense account and sign up here).

110 women finished both NCAA meets and 56.4% of them (62/110) finished in a worse spot in November than in March, 42.7% (47/110) finished in a better spot and one finished in the same spot (0.9%).

Up top, the percentage of improvers was even worse. 32 of the 40 All-Americans from March competed again on Saturday. Of that group, 62.5% (20/32) finished worse in November than March, 34.4% (11/32) ran better and 3.1% (1/32) stayed the same.

For the men, the numbers were similar. 112 men finished both races and 55.4% of them (62/112) finished in a lower position, 42.9% of them (48/112) finished better, and two finished in the same spot (1.8%).

Up top, 32 of the 40 men’s All-Americans from March competed again on Saturday. 62.5% of them (20/32) finished in a worse spot or DNF’d, 31.3% (10/32) improved their finishing place, and two (6.3%) finished in the same spot.

And those improvement numbers probably overstate things. Remember, we are only looking at the people running well enough that they were actually in the meet both times. All together, combining in the men and women, 507 people started the March NCAA championships. Only 102 of them — that’s just 20.1% — finished in a better spot in November than they did in March and that includes seven people who DNF’d in March but finished in November.

Yes, this year’s field featured a little more quality as there was no indoor meet two days before it and a new freshman class was added in (as well as the Ivy League teams that sat out last year). But these figures prove something LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson always emphasizes — people take improvement for granted as it happens all the time in HS simply due to physical maturity and because you’re upping your training a great deal. Once you mature and are already training at a high level, it’s much harder to improve and when you knock it out of the park, that often means everything went perfectly for that season, which is hard to replicate the next season.

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If we take a close look at how the All-Americans improved or got worse, it’s pretty interesting. For both the men and the women, 13 of the 40 All-Americans from March finished at least 20 places worse on Saturday than they did in March.

On the positive front, however, there were five women that improved at least 50 spots to grab All-American honors on Saturday and that doesn’t include West Virginia’s Ceili McCabe, who went from 42nd to third.

For the men, there were eight guys who improved by at least 50 spots to grab AA honors.

Women That Improved 50 + Spots To Grab AA Honors
Nov. Place Athlete Yr School March Place Improvement
40 Bethany Graham FR-1 Furman 95 55
28 Calli Doan JR-3 Liberty 85 57
31 Emily Covert FR-1 Colorado 96 65
23 Megan Hasz SR-4 Minnesota 114 91
4 Cailie Logue SR-4 Iowa State 126 122
Men That Improved 50 + Spots To Grab AA Honors
Nov. Place Athlete Yr School March Place Improvement
9 Haftu Strintzos SO-2 Villanova 66 57
30 Olin Hacker SR-4 Wisconsin 98 68
21 Thomas Pollard SR-4 Iowa State 91 70
24 Eduardo Herrera SR-4 Colorado 107 83
20 Ahmed Muhumed JR-3 Florida State 123 103
26 Sam Gilman SO-2 Air Force 193 167
36 James Mwaura JR-3 Gonzaga 225 189
37 George Kusche JR-3 Northern Arizona 229 192

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What about the teams?

With every athlete who competed at the last NCAA XC champs in March granted eligibility for this season, you might expect the results to be similar to what they were eight months ago.

In some ways, they were. In the men’s team race, the top seven finished in the exact same order in both meets with the exception of Iowa State replacing Notre Dame in second. But in other ways, the results were more reflective of the typical year-over-year change at NCAA XC.

On the men’s side, 22/31 teams at last year’s champs qualified again this fall; for the women, it was 20/31. Of the 42 men’s and women’s teams that ran at both meets, not a single one ran the same seven athletes as last year. In fact, if you expand the data to include regional meets (to account for schools that didn’t qualify in both seasons), that still holds true. Overall, men’s teams ran an average of 4.6 of the same guys from last year (either at nationals or regionals if a school didn’t qualify) and women’s teams ran an average of 4.5 of the same women from last year.

Just a reminder that, even if you’re one of the top teams in the country, you need to be constantly improving your roster to stay on top. The NAU men wouldn’t have won without bringing in grad student George Kusche of Nebraska, who wound up their fourth man in 37th. Likewise, the NC State women brought back their whole team from March but only raced four of them on Saturday and would not have won without someone who wasn’t on the team eight months ago, Columbia grad transfer Allie Hays (22nd).

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Saturday’s results were also a reminder that there are two components that go into winning an NCAA title: your roster and how well you run at NCAAs (coaching is a factor as well, but coaching already affects both of those components). A great team can win with a good day at NCAAs, and a good team can win with a great day at NCAAs. But you need to be great in at least one aspect, and sometimes both.

Last year, the Notre Dame men had a great day and finished second with 88 points. On Saturday, they had an awful day and finished 9th with 290 points. Likewise, the BYU women had a great day at nationals in March, winning with 96 points. On Saturday, they had a good day, scoring 122 and finishing second. Neither of these teams are significantly different than they were eight months ago. But in a one-off race like NCAAs, every team has a range of outcomes, and consistently performing at the upper range is extremely difficult to do. That’s what makes what the NAU men have done over the past six years (and what the BYU women have done over the past three years) so impressive. 

As for the NC State women, they didn’t all knock it out of the park. The reality is they won even though two of their top five from March ran worse at NCAAs in Tallahassee than they did in Stillwater. But two ran better, they got a big transfer who improved a lot from 2019, and Samantha Bush went from not being on the March NCAA roster (just 30th at ACCs in 2020) to 32nd at NCAAs.

A Look at NC State’s NCAA XC Showings in March and November
Athlete Year March Finish Nov. Finish Difference
Dominique Clairmonte SR-4 63 153 -90
Hannah Steelman SR-4 5 24 -19
Kelsey Chmiel SO-2 9 6 3
Katelyn Tuohy FR-1 24 15 9
Savannah Shaw JR-3 98 DNC – not in top 7 N/A
Mariah Howlett SO-2 130 DNC – not in top 7 N/A
Julia Zachgo SR-4 226 DNC all season N/A
Allie Hays SR-4 Not on team (84th in 2019) 18 N/A
Samantha Bush SO-2 Not in top 7 (30th ACCs) 32 N/A
Heather Holt JR-3 Did not run (just 73rd at ACCs in 2019) 95 N/A

 

A Look at NAU’s NCAA XC Showings in March and November
Athlete Year March Finish Nov. Finish Difference
Nico Young FR-1 4 11 -7
Blaise Ferro SR-4 6 DNC – gone pro N/A
Abdihamid Nur SO-2 7 7 same
Luis Grijalva SR-4 9 DNC – gone pro N/A
Brodey Hasty SO-2 44 39 5
Drew Bosley SO-2 62 13 49
Ryan Raff JR-3 150 162 -12
George Kusche JR-3 229 (for Nebraska) 32 197
Theo Quax SO-2 DNC (15st in 2019) 113 N/A

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This year’s NCAA champions didn’t have any margin for error

One of the things that makes for a great cross country team is depth. A team that needs its entire top five to run great isn’t normally going to win NCAAs because it’s very rare that five specific athletes all run great on the same day. A team with six or seven good athletes is in a much stronger position because they can absorb a bad day from one of their top five and still be competitive.

This year, both NC State and NAU had big dropoffs from their #5 to #6 spots. NC State’s #6 Heather Holt finished 95th, 37 seconds and 63 places behind their #5. NAU’s #6 Theo Quax was even further back, finishing 114th, 49 seconds and 65 places behind their #5. Had you removed any of NAU or NC State’s top five on Saturday, neither would have won the title.

NAU celebrates #5

That’s quite rare. Before last weekend, the last women’s NCAA champ that would have lost if you removed their #5 runner was Oregon in 2016. On the men’s side, you’d have to go back to Syracuse in 2015 to find the last team that would have lost without their #5 man.

Bo Waggoner, friend of LetsRun.com (and the man whose program allows us to project the NCAA qualifiers every year), is the one who pointed this stat out to us after adjusting the scores of the last seven NCAA championships by removing the #5 runner from the winning team. Here’s what he found:

2021
W: NC State 84, adjusted 132 (2nd BYU 122, adjusted 119)
M: NAU 92, adjusted 154 (2nd Iowa State 137, adjusted 134)

“2020”
W: BYU 96, adjusted 153 (2nd NC State 161, adjusted 159)
M: NAU 60, adjusted 75 (2nd Notre Dame 87, adjusted 87)

2019
W: Arkansas 96, adjusted 100 (2nd BYU 102, adjusted 102)
M: BYU 109, adjusted 142 (2nd NAU 163, adjusted 161)

2018
W: Colorado 65, adjusted 68 (2nd New Mexico 103, adjusted 101)
M: NAU 83, adjusted 90 (2nd BYU 116, adjusted 114)

2017
W: New Mexico 90, adjusted 105 (2nd San Francisco 105, adjusted 105*)
*New Mexico wins adjusted tiebreak 1vs1, 3vs3, 4vs4
M: NAU 74, adjusted 91 (2nd Portland 127, adjusted 125)

2016
W: Oregon 125, adjusted 137 (2nd Michigan 125, adjusted 124)
M: NAU 125, adjusted 133 (2nd Stanford 158, adjusted 158)

2015
M: Syracuse 82, adjusted 97 (2nd Colorado 91, adjusted 91)
W: New Mexico 49, adjusted 82 (2nd Colorado 129, adjusted 126)

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The Five-Timers Club

On Saturday, 18 athletes made some history and competed at their fifth NCAA XC championships — nine men and nine women. Of particular note, Arkansas’ Amon Kemboi became the first man to earn five All-American finishes in XC by finishing 12th, while four athletes (Thomas Pollard, Olin Hacker, Ahmed Muhumed, and Abby Kohut-Jackson) finally earned their first All-American honor in their fifth appearance.

Here are the members of the five-timers club.

Women

Athlete School 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Allie Schadler Washington 209th 102nd 242nd 26th 25th
Sara Musselman BYU 215th 162nd 160th 33rd 53rd
Lynsie Gram Michigan St 126th 116th 49th 34th 48th
Abby Kohut-Jackson Minnesota 231st 215th 110th 45th 39th
Dominique Clairmonte NC State 58th 62nd 54th 63rd 153rd
Christina Aragon Stanford 38th 67th 195th 88th 57th
Cailie Logue Iowa St 79th 53rd 15th 126th 4th
Rachel McArthur Villanova/Colorado 204th 119th 85th 166th 54th
Krissy Gear Furman/Arkansas 239th 237th 78th 21st 43rd

Men

Athlete School 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Amon Kemboi Campbell/Arkansas 29th 7th 8th 11th 12th
Ehab El-Sandali Iona 157th 92nd 41st 29th 25th
Morgan Beadlescomb Michigan St 165th 91st 23rd 33rd 5th
Thomas Pollard Iowa St 45th 98th 95th 91st 21st
Olin Hacker Wisconsin 66th 56th 93rd 98th 30th
Eduardo Herrera Colorado 33rd 43rd 55th 107th 24th
Joe Dragon Syracuse 174th 90th 213th 128th 55th
Tibebu Proctor Washington 172nd 38th 106th DNF 75th
Ahmed Muhumed Boise St/Florida St 113th 188th 65th 123rd 20th

Speaking of Thomas Pollard, his dad Jamie is the athletic director at Iowa State. In June, he fired Martin Smith and replaced him with assistant coach Jeremy Sudbury, who is 32 years young. In Sudbury’s first season in charge, Thomas Pollard ran by far his best race at NCAAs, while the Cyclones had their best team finish (second) since 1994.

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And the best men’s XC conference is…..

We thought it would be fun to compare the conferences at NCAAs. As for who is #1, it really depends on what you value.

For the men, In terms of qualifiers, the ACC led the way with five but they had no one in the top eight. Of the four-bid conferences, the Pac-12 (three in the top 15) was way better than the Big 10 (just one team in the top 20). But if you value firepower up front, the Big 12 was the best as Iowa State and Oklahoma State went 2-3.

Conference # Qualifiers Points
ACC 5 76 (9, 10, 18, 19, 20)
Pac-12 4 55 (5, 8, 13, 29)
Big 10 4 87 (11, 21, 25, 30)
Big 12 3 19 (2, 3, 14)
SEC 3 46 (4, 15, 27)
West Coast 3 49 (7, 16, 26)
Ivy 2 35 (12, 23)
Big East 2 50 (22, 28)
Big Sky 2 25 (1, 24)
AAC 1 6
Mountain West 1 17
Southern 1 31

If you scored each conference’s top five runners together like an All-Star team, here’s how the results would have looked:

ACC: 83
Big Sky: 84
Pac-12: 98
Big 12: 101
SEC: 133
WCC: 155
Big 10: 242
Heps: 262

Somehow, the Big 10 only had two men in the top 65 at NCAAs.

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And the best women’s XC conference is…..

For the women, we think it’s the ACC. They tied the Pac-12 with five qualifying teams and while the Pac-12’s total team score was lower than the ACC’s, the ACC had the national champ and two of the top five teams in the country.

Conference # Qualifiers Points
Pac-12 5 65 (4, 6, 11, 20, 24)
ACC 5 69 (1, 5, 14, 19, 30)
Big 10 4 57 (7, 12, 16, 22)
Big East 4 100 (18, 26, 27, 29)
Big 12 3 43 (9, 13, 21)
SEC 3 33 (8, 10, 15)
Mountain West 3 48 (3, 17, 28)
West Coast 1 2
Big Sky 1 23
Ivy 1 25
Conf USA 1 31

If you scored each conference’s top five runners together like an All-Star team, here’s how the results would have looked:

ACC: 63
SEC: 81
Big 12: 123
Pac-12: 126
Big 10: 131
WCC: 150
Mountain West: 163

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Are the Stanford women worthy of the most improved award?

Does Stanford deserve most improved honors? In the short term, the answer is yes. They finished 5th at the Pac-12 meet three weeks ago yet on Saturday in Tallahassee they were sixth in the country (and #2 for the Pac-12). That’s a really nice turnaround. Yes, we know some will point out they were third in March and only sixth on Saturday, but we’ll counter that by pointing out that Ella Donaghu, who was 10th in March, opted not to use her extra season of eligibility. Also they were the only team in the country where every single person that ran in both the March NCAA XC meet and the November NCAA XC meet did as good or better in November than they did in March.

Stanford Women’s Finishes at November and March NCAA XCs
Athlete YR March Finish Nov. Finish Improvement
Julia Heymach SR-4 13 13 Same
Grace Connolly FR-1 181 159 22
Christina Aragon SR-4 88 57 31
Lucy Jenks FR-1 92 49 43
Zofia Dudek FR-1 156 63 93
Ella Donaghu SR-4 10 DNC – gone pro N/A
Jessica Lawson SR-4 56 DNC – injured N/A

More: Supporters Club: Full spreadsheet analysis comparing every finisher from the two 2021 NCAA meets (SC only)

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