Why I’m Picking Nico Young & Katelyn Tuohy to Win It All & More Thoughts as 2022 NCAA XC Season Begins

By Jonathan Gault
September 26, 2022

I spent the last two weeks scanning NCAA cross country rosters and talking to collegiate coaches to get a sense of what the 2022 NCAA XC season is going to look like. The result was our men’s and women’s preseason top 10 rankings, but during my research I came across a few things that didn’t fit neatly into those rankings.

So that is what this article is for. With the season beginning in earnest last weekend, here are four more thoughts on the NCAA individual favorites, the Oklahoma State course, and why everyone seems to need a #5 runner this year.

Nico Young will win the men’s individual title

(Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

You can make the case for a few men as the preseason favorite for the 2022 NCAA individual title. Stanford’s Charles Hicks is the top returner from last year’s championships, finishing 4th in Tallahassee, and built on that with a solid track season that saw him finish 3rd in the NCAA 3k indoors and 6th in the 10k despite a very bloody nose. His teammate Ky Robinson was 2nd in the 5k at NCAA indoors, running 13:20, and 4th in the 5k outdoors. Dylan Jacobs (now running for Tennessee) ran an American indoor collegiate record of 13:14 for 5k in February and won the NCAA 10,000 title in June. He’s also the #4 returner from NCAA XC.

But I’m picking Northern Arizona’s Nico Young for the win. Young was “only” 11th at NCAA XC last year, making him the #5 returner. And he was only 5th at the Cowboy Jamboree on Saturday, a race won by OK State’s NCAA 10k runner-up Alex Maier. But Young ran 13:11 on the track last spring — only four collegians have ever run faster — and finished 3rd in the 5k at NCAA outdoors, behind seventh-year senior Olin Hacker and sixth-year senior Morgan Beadlescomb (Young was finishing up his second year at NAU).

Plus — and this is important in cross country — Young knows how to suffer. NCAAs is at Oklahoma State this year, a brutal course that rewards those who can take a punch or two and keep going. That’s how Conner Mantz won there two years ago. And guess who was 4th in that race as a true freshman? Nico Young.

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Young just turned 20 at the end of July, and it’s rare for anyone to win NCAA XC as a 20-year-old, let alone an American. In the last 10 years, only Edward Cheserek has won an NCAA title before the age of 21 (and there’s still some doubt about Cheserek’s official age).

Year Winner School Year in college Age
2021 Conner Mantz BYU 7th 24
2020 Conner Mantz BYU 6th 24
2019 Edwin Kurgat Iowa St. 4th 23
2018 Morgan McDonald Wisconsin 5th 22
2017 Justyn Knight Syracuse 4th 21
2016 Patrick Tiernan Villanova 4th 22
2015 Edward Cheserek Oregon 3rd 21
2014 Edward Cheserek Oregon 2nd 20
2013 Edward Cheserek Oregon 1st 19
2012 Kennedy Kithuka Texas Tech 4th 23

You’d have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a 20-year-old American who won NCAA XC: Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritzenhein was the greatest American high school XC runner ever, then went on to become a three-time Olympian, 5,000m American record holder, and World Half Championships bronze medalist as a pro. That’s the type of talent required to win NCAA XC as an American in your third year of college.

The thing is, Young might be that good. Young is one of the best distance prospects the US has ever produced, putting together an all-time XC season in 2019 and running a high school record for 3,000 meters (7:56). At age 18 in 2021, he ran a US U20 record of 13:24 and finished 9th at the Olympic Trials. If you were to pick an American to win NCAA XC as a 20-year-old, they’d have done all the things Nico Young has done.

One other thing you may have missed: in August, Young came out as gay. Considering there are very few openly gay male athletes at the elite college/professional level in the US, Young could get some mainstream media attention if he wins NCAAs this fall.

Katelyn Tuohy will win the women’s individual title

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Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat is the top returner from last year’s NCAA championships (she was 2nd overall) and won the NCAA 10,000m title on the track. What’s more, she won NCAA XC the last time it was held at Oklahoma State in March 2021. So why am I picking NC State’s Katelyn Tuohy to win NCAA XC this year?

It’s simple. During the 2022 track season, Tuohy surpassed Chelangat. Tuohy has gradually improved every season of her college career, and though she was only 15th at NCAA XC last fall, 14 seconds behind Chelangat, she beat Chelangat twice at NCAA indoors (in the 3k and 5k), again at NCAA outdoors (5k — though Chelangat was doubling back from the 10k and Tuohy was fresh). Tuohy now has a faster 5k pb as well (15:14 to 15:17). One big advantage Chelangat has over Tuohy is her XC results, but Tuohy was the best girls’ high school XC prospect ever in the US, winning the NXN individual title in 2017, 2018 and 2019. I suspect her breakout 2022 campaign on the track will translate nicely to the cross country course.

One other thing Chelangat has on her side is history. Tuohy, like Nico Young, is a 20-year-old American in her third year of college. Chelangat is a 25-year-old 5th-year senior. If experience matters, Chelangat is the pick (and history suggests it does: only one 20-year-old has won NCAA XC in the last 10 years).

Year Winner School Year in college Age
2021 Whittni Orton BYU 6th 24
2020 Mercy Chelangat Alabama 3rd 23
2019 Weini Kelati New Mexico 3rd 22
2018 Dani Jones Colorado 4th 22
2017 Ednah Kurgat New Mexico 4th 26*
2016 Karissa Schweizer Missouri 3rd 20
2015 Molly Seidel Notre Dame 4th 21
2014 Kate Avery Iona 3rd 23
2013 Abbey D’Agostino Dartmouth 4th 21
2012 Betsy Saina Iowa St. 5th 24

*Kurgat’s World Athletics page says she was 26 when she won NCAA XC; Kurgat told LetsRun at the time she was 22.

(Table idea courtesy LetsRun reader Fast Tuohy)

Almost every team has questions at the back end of its lineup

Last year, it felt like every NCAA team was loaded. Because the 2020 championships (held in March 2021) didn’t count against anyone’s eligibility clock, most teams returned the vast majority of their athletes and there weren’t many holes to patch. This year, some of those athletes are finally out of eligibility (or simply choosing to move on) and teams that chose to keep fifth- and sixth-year seniors instead of recruiting hard in the high school class of 2021 now have to scramble to find replacements.

Of course, that’s the life cycle of NCAA cross country. Athlete graduate but new ones step up to fill their places. And while there are a few super deep teams out there, such as the NC State and New Mexico women, more teams than usual seem dependent on someone stepping up to fill a gaping hole at the #5 spot. NAU could be vulnerable if they can’t find a fifth man, particularly if Colin Sahlman doesn’t run. If the OK State men are to win it all or the Tulsa men are to finish on the podium, they’ll both need a breakthrough at the #5 spot to go with their seasoned veterans up front. The Notre Dame women could be a podium team if they find a #5 but could finish off the podium if not.

Some coaches love the tough OK State course…others hate it

Typically, courses that host the NCAA championships are inoffensive. They do not provoke a wide range of opinions. Oklahoma State’s course is not one of those courses.

NCAA coaches agree that OK State’s course is tough. They do not all agree whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

NAU’s Mike Smith, for example, loves the difficulty of the course.

(Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“The harder the better,” Smith says. “The worse conditions, better. The more hills, better. Longer, better. The race at Oklahoma State will have about a third of the field talk themselves out of it before the race begins. That’s just less people we’ve gotta worry about. There will be some guys with fast PRs that will finish not where they should.”

Smith may be a little biased though — after all, NAU won the men’s race when it was held there two years ago. But BYU’s Diljeet Taylor also coached her team to the title in Stillwater, and she holds the opposite opinion.

“You would think that I would love it because we’ve won one national title and it was there on that course,” Taylor says. “So naturally I feel like I probably should have some good feelings towards it. But it’s brutal. It’s just hard. It’s really, really hard. So it’s not my most favorite cross course but I’m letting my women know that. They know how extremely hard it’s going to be. And the message going in is, hey, we’re going to leave our soul there [at the Cowboy Jamboree in September (the BYU women were 3rd)] and we’ll pick it up in November.”

My take: it’s nice to have a challenging NCAA XC course. It’s supposed to be cross country – not a track meet on grass. The course for World XC in 2019 was ridiculously tough, but the races were awesome and the best athletes still came out on top. Of course, I’m not the one that has to race 10,000 meters…

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MB: Former teen phenoms Katelyn Tuohy and Nico Young will be your NCAA xc champions.

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