2022 NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: A Free-For-All in Stillwater

By Jonathan Gault
November 16, 2022

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The race for the men’s individual title at the 2022 NCAA Cross Country Championships is as wide-open as any in recent memory. Right now, just three days out from the race, there is no favorite, which is very strange indeed. Because there is almost always a favorite at NCAA XC.

That favorite doesn’t always win. In 2013, a freshman named Edward Cheserek famously took down heavily-favored Kennedy Kithuka, only for a heavily-favored Cheserek to lose to Patrick Tiernan as a senior in 2016. But in both of those races, everyone at least agreed going in about who was the man to beat. So to go into Saturday’s NCAA meet in Stillwater, Okla., without a clear favorite — heck, there’s not even a clear top three — well, it’s not a bad thing. Just different.

That doesn’t mean there is a shortage of talent. Whether it’s NAU’s Nico Young (3:37/13:11), Oklahoma State’s Alex Maier (3:56 mile/7:46/13:25/28:12), Stanford’s Ky Robinson (13:20/27:44) or Charles Hicks (13:24/27:40), or someone else entirely, whoever wins on Saturday will be a deserving NCAA champion. On paper, it’s incredibly tough to rank them, though. Good thing we have a race to sort everything out.

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The season so far

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OK State’s Alex Maier fired the first shot of this season when he won the Cowboy Jamboree on September 24, defeating the likes of Young and Hicks. It was an impressive win over a quality field, and it confirmed that Maier, who was a surprising 2nd in the NCAA 10,000 last spring, is here to stay as one of the best in the NCAA. Since then, he won the Big 12 meet in convincing fashion, then took things easy at the Midwest Regional as the Cowboys cruised through to qualify. Taken together that means Maier has not lost a race yet this fall in which he was trying to win.

So why isn’t Maier the favorite? Well his big race was eight weeks ago, and a lot can change in eight weeks. Plus, as impressive as his kick was to win the Cowboy Jamboree, it’s worth noting there were still five men together with 400 meters to go in that race. Maier should be on the shortlist of any NCAA title contenders, but he hasn’t done quite enough to cement himself as the favorite.

And while Maier raced many of the top guys at Cowboy Jamboree, he didn’t race all of them. One such guy: Victor Kiprop of Alabama, the only undefeated runner in the NCAA this year. Kiprop didn’t race at the two biggest meets of the year (Cowboy Jamboree and Nuttycombe), but he has won all five of his races this year, including the Joe Piane Invitational at Notre Dame and the SEC Championships, where he took down NCAA 10k champ Dylan Jacobs of Tennessee.

It’s worth remembering just how big of a talent Kiprop is. He came to Alabama last year having already run 13:26 at altitude in Kenya in May 2021. And while he had some good races for Alabama, running 13:24 and 28:15 on the track, he was poor at NCAAs, dropping out in cross country and finishing 23rd in the 10k on the track.

This year, Kiprop has paired his talent with consistency and has so far proven impossible to beat. We’ll find out just how good he is Saturday.

The other man who has made a big statement this season is Stanford’s Ky Robinson. Robinson was 2nd at NCAA indoors and 4th at NCAA outdoors in the 5k last spring and got a late start on the 2022 XC season after representing Australia at the Worlds and Commonwealth Games. In his first race back, he made a statement by outkicking Nico Young to win Nuttycombe. Since then, Robinson was only 6th at Pac-12s (he was Stanford’s 4th man in that race), but his win at Nuttycombe showed Robinson has the talent to win it all.

If you’re going purely by 2022 cross country form, Maier or Kiprop has been the best guy this fall. But they’re not the only guys who could win.

Two more who could absolutely win on Saturday

Let’s start with Stanford’s Charles Hicks. Hicks, who went to high school in Florida but represents Great Britain internationally (he was born in London and lived there until age 12), is the top returner from last year’s NCAA meet, finishing 4th overall. That’s a very good sign: nine of the last 14 NCAA XC champs were the top returner from NCAAs the year before.

Hicks is also super consistent. He hasn’t finished lower than 4th in any XC meet in the past two years, and he was battling for the win to the very end at the two biggest regular season meets, finishing 2nd at Cowboy Jamboree and 3rd at Nuttycombe. He followed that up by repeating as Pac-12 champion. He doesn’t have a signature performance on his resume yet like Maier or Robinson, but he’s more than capable of winning it all in Stillwater.

Young was 4th in Stillwater two years ago (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The other man who has to be considered a major contender is Northern Arizona’s Nico Young. One of the best high school XC runners ever, Young has lived up to the hype through two years at NAU, helping the Lumberjacks to two national titles in XC and finishing 9th in the 5k at the Olympic Trials in 2021 as an 18-year-old. Last spring, he ran 13:11 on the track for 5k — the fastest ever by an American teenager, and the fastest of anyone in Saturday’s field — and finished 3rd at NCAAs in the 5k, behind only a sixth- and seventh-year senior.

There are a couple of reasons to be wary of picking Young. The first is that until three weeks ago, he had never won a collegiate XC race. And the second is that, historically, 20-year-old Americans do not win the NCAA XC title.

The counterargument: Young was only 0.1 away from winning Nuttycombe this year, and in the last two weeks he has won twice, with a dominant 26-second win at the Big Sky meet and another victory at the Mountain Regional. Granted, the Big Sky meet was essentially a dual meet between NAU and Montana State — but both of those teams still have strong runners (Drew Bosley was 13th at NCAAs last year, Duncan Hamilton won Pre-Nats this year). And while Americans this young don’t typically win NCAA XC, they also don’t typically run 7:56 at 17, 13:24 at 18, and 13:11 at 19. Nico Young isn’t typical. He’s special.

Let’s also not forget that Young finished 4th at NCAAs as a true freshman on the same OK State course that will host NCAAs on Saturday.  And he’s a heck of a lot better now than he was when he ran that race in March 2021.

The wild card/home state favorite

Like Young, Oklahoma State’s Isai Rodriguez finished 4th at NCAAs as a freshman back in 2018 (though Rodriguez was a redshirt freshman). It was a shocking performance for a kid from tiny Ringwood, Okla., (population: 399) who amassed high school pbs of just 4:27 and 9:26.

Since that snowy day in Madison when Rodriguez’s talent became clear, his collegiate career has alternated between frustration and brilliance.

In 2019, Rodriguez began the season as one of the NCAA favorites, but he could not overcome a nagging hip injury at the Midwest Regional. He finished 66th in that race and the Cowboys snapped a 16-year streak of qualifying for NCAAs. The following year, Rodriguez bounced back and finished 8th at NCAAs on his home course.

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In 2021, Rodriguez was an All-American again at NCAA XC (22nd), but in January 2022 he was involved in a scary car accident when he was a passenger in a car driven by his friend, OSU wrestling star A.J. Ferrari. Ferrari’s SUV collided head-on with a pickup truck while while Ferrari was trying to pass in a no-passing zone, and while Rodriguez escaped with minor injuries to his arm, leg, and head, the experience was scarring. Ferrari had to be pulled out of the car as it burst into flames, then airlifted to a hospital in Oklahoma City (he survived but has since been dismissed from the OSU wrestling team).

“After that car wreck, it took a while,” says OSU coach Dave Smith. “It was tough. It was a hard thing to go through. It was traumatic, it was scary, it was a big deal.”

By February, Rodriguez was racing again, but he missed the first two months of the outdoor season due to an unrelated foot injury. He was going to miss the Big 12 Championship too, until he convinced Smith to let him run.

“I say dude, you haven’t run since February,” Smith says. “He said, ‘Well, I’ve got 10 days [to get ready].'”

What happened next gets to the essence of who Rodriguez is as an athlete. Whatever has happened in training, however much practice he has missed, he is absolutely fearless when the gun fires. Racing for the first time in three months, at 7:45 in the morning, in a 10k at altitude in Lubbock, Tex., Rodriguez took the race out in 65 seconds and had a 40-meter lead one lap into the race. He wound up fading, but he still finished 6th to score points for the team.

The pain in Rodriguez’ foot lingered throughout the summer. By August, those 10 days leading up to Big 12s remained the only running he had done since February. His foot still brought him pain, but his senior season was cross country was starting. Rodriguez ran his first steps on OSU’s first day of camp, August 15.

“He came to the realization, hey if it’s going to hurt, it’s going to hurt, at this point I’ve gotta get going,” Smith says.

It’s been a slow process. At first, Rodriguez was only running two minutes every other day, but by September he was up to 40 and by October he was running workouts. He debuted by finishing 5th at Big 12s on October 28, then won the Midwest Regional two weeks later.

By this point, you might be wondering why I’ve spent 500 words discussing a guy who has never won a Big 12 title, let alone an NCAA title. Well, because at his best, Rodriguez can do things few runners are capable of. When Rodriguez finished 4th as a freshman in 2018, he did so after missing three weeks in the middle of the season.

Smith says that right now, Rodriguez’s fitness is where he would want it to be in the middle of September, not the week of the NCAA championships. But Smith also points out that that the middle of September is when Rodriguez had one of his best races in an OSU uniform. At the Cowboy Jamboree on September 18, 2021, Rodriguez ran 23:05, destroying a field that included Maier, Young, and Abdihamid Nur by over 30 seconds. A lot of studs have run the 8k course at OSU in recent years — Wesley KiptooLuis GrijalvaConner Mantz — and none of them have run within 20 seconds of Rodriguez’s time. As a 24-year-old, sixth-year senior, Rodriguez will know the course better than anyone in Saturday’s field.

Of course, OSU also has team title aspirations. Sometimes an athlete in Rodriguez’s position will run a more cautious race rather than chasing the win and risking blowing up. But Rodriguez is not the kind of guy who does anything at less than 100%. At the regional meet, Smith told him to relax, that OK State had done enough to qualify and there was no need to push it. He won the race anyway.

“What I want and what Isai is going to do are totally unrelated things, so it’s not even worth talking about,” Smith says. “Isai is going to be Isai, and I’ve learned that. You can’t coach the win out of that guy. If he sniffs it, he’s going to go for it.”

So would it shock me if Rodriguez won the whole damn thing on Saturday? No, it would not. And it would be a pretty cool story for an Oklahoma native to win an NCAA title on his home course in his final NCAA XC race.

Others with a shot at victory

This is a wide-open race, yet I’ve only mentioned six guys so far. If there’s any year where someone could come out of left field to win the NCAA title, it’s this one. So in an effort to cover my ass, here are a few more men who could win on Saturday:

  • Nickolas Scudder, Charlotte: Scudder’s pbs (13:40/28:32) don’t scream NCAA champion, but he has wins at the Panorama Farms XC23 Invitational, the Conference USA meet, and the Southeast Regional. His only loss this year came to Alabama star Victor Kiprop at Notre Dame, where he was only 1.5 seconds back. If Kiprop can win NCAAs, so can Scudder.
  • Dylan Jacobs, Tennessee: Jacobs has run 13:14 on the track and is was the NCAA 10,000 champion for Notre Dame last year (he followed coach Sean Carlson to Tennessee this fall). He was 10th last year and has to be viewed as a serious contender.
  • Bob Liking, Wisconsin: Liking was 4th at Nuttycombe, only 1.3 seconds behind Hicks and 4.0 seconds behind Young. He’s also a two-time Big 10 XC champ.
  • Brian Fay, Washington: (Late JG addition) Fay got a late start on the season after running the Euro champs for Ireland, but he has run 13:16 for 5k and just won the West Regional.

JG Prediction

Who wins the individual title?

Your vote has been counted. Thank you!

I picked Nico Young to win NCAAs back in September and I’m not backing off now. He hasn’t dominated this fall, but he’s still been very good and looks to be peaking at the right time. Conner Mantz won on this course two years ago by being the guy who could suffer the most, and I think Young will be able to suffer more than anyone else on cold, windy, hilly course on Saturday.

Maier has been terrific this fall and has already won a big race on this course, so I’ll take him 2nd and Hicks 3rd.

1. Young 2. Maier 3. Hicks

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