2022 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Stanford Seeks First Title Since ’03 Against a Deep Field

By Jonathan Gault
November 16, 2022

(Have you signed up for our free fantasy xc contest? Do so now: LRC $20,022 LetsRun.com Coros NCAA XC Prediction Contest)

Stanford University last won an NCAA title in men’s cross country in 2003, when its “Dream Team” put six men in the top 13 and scored 24 points in one of the greatest performances in NCAA XC history. For those of a certain age, 2003 doesn’t sound that long ago — it’s the same year “Hey Ya!” and “Mr. Brightside” were released. But at Stanford University, going 19 years without a title qualifies as a drought.

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Consider: since the Cardinal won that national title, 14 other teams at Stanford have combined to win 44 NCAA titles. Fourteen!

The men’s XC team has remained competitive for that entire span — the Cardinal hasn’t finished lower than 6th at NCAAs since 2013 — but a title has proved elusive. And at Stanford, success is measured by titles.

On Saturday, Stanford has its best shot at a title in almost two decades. After scoring 54 points to crush the field at the Nuttycombe Invitational and 22 points to roll past the competition at Pac-12s, Stanford enters the 2022 NCAA Championships, which will be held on Oklahoma State’s meatgrinder of a course, as the #1 team in the coaches’ poll.

The competition, as it always is at NCAAs, will be fierce. After losing two-time NCAA champion Conner Mantz, Brigham Young has reloaded and put together a stellar campaign. Oklahoma State, running on its home course, will be looking to get over the hump after finishing 3rd at each of the past two NCAA Championships. And Northern Arizona, winners of the last two NCAA titles and five of the last six, can never be counted out, even if the Lumberjacks have fallen short of their high standards so far in 2022. All four of those teams will come to Stillwater with legitimate championship expectations, but only one can win it all. Let’s try to figure out who it will be.

Stanford is the team to beat

Charles Hicks led the Cardinal at NCAAs last year (Photo by Tim Boyle)

Stanford posted the single most impressive performance of any team this year when it won the Nuttycombe Invitational in Wisconsin on October 14. That meet featured 20 of the 31 teams that will be at NCAAs this weekend, and the Cardinal went 1-3-7-13-30 for 54 points. Since 2011, seven of the eight teams (men’s and women’s) that scored under 80 points at Nuttycombe went on to win NCAAs.

There’s a lot to like about Stanford. They have the best 1-2-3 in America with Ky Robinson (13:20/27:47, Nuttycombe champ), Charles Hicks (13:24/27:40, 4th ’21 NCAA XC), and Cole Sprout (13:24/27:42, 4th NCAA 10k). And they roll six deep as their #6 at Pac 12s was ahead of the #2 for Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — all nationally ranked teams. Devin Hart (7:51/13:45) was 13th at Nuttycombe (10th at Pac 12s), Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau (13:52/28:35) was 30th (as well as 5th at Pac-12s and 6th at the West Regional), and Thomas Boyden has run 13:37 on the track and was 7th at Pac-12s. That gives them some margin for error at NCAAs.

Stanford coach Ricardo Santos believes this is a more resilient group than the 2021 team, which had potential but wilted down the stretch when faced with a spate of injuries and illnesses.

“This year, we’re more positive and we feel that if something does happen, someone’s ready to pick up the slack,” Santos says. “Whereas last year, we just felt sorry for ourselves.”

That resolve may be tested as there is a question mark around the health of Sprout. He didn’t run regionals and Strava sleuths noted he went five straight days without logging a run from November 5-9. Santos said Sprout has been running in practice this week and he’s still planning on running NCAAs, but if Sprout isn’t at 100%, Stanford’s title hopes take a serious hit.

Stanford hasn’t won an NCAA XC title since most of its current squad were in diapers, but Santos says he hasn’t seen any signs that his team feels pressure to end that drought. He told LetsRun he’s not even sure his athletes could name the last year Stanford won the NCAA XC title.

“Their mindset is hey, this hasn’t been done in a while and we have the opportunity of winning this for the first time in a while,” Santos said. “I really don’t think they look at it and say wow, it’s been 19 years since we won a national title.”

For Santos himself, however, it’s a different story. The coaches of the other three men’s contenders — Mike Smith at NAU, Ed Eyestone at BYU, and Dave Smith at Oklahoma State — have all won team titles in cross country. Santos has not, though he has coached Iona to a runner-up finish in 2008 and Kate Avery to the individual title in 2014.

“I want to win a title,” Santos says. “It’s something that I haven’t done. It’s something that I put pressure on myself, but I also know that the athletes, I have to keep them loose and have them in a good frame of mind heading into it…I try to put all that pressure on my shoulders so that they don’t have to feel that.”

If Stanford doesn’t win, it will be one of these three teams…

In the last 10 years, no men’s team ranked outside of the top three in the final coaches’ poll has won the NCAA title. Heavy favorites have lost at this meet before — much heavier favorites than Stanford — but when the favorite loses, it’s usually to another top team and not a Cinderella.

With that in mind, there are three teams with a realistic shot to beat Stanford on Saturday. Here’s the case for each of them.

Northern Arizona

A familiar sight in recent years: NAU leaving NCAAs with the championship trophy (Photo by Ben Sheehan)

Let’s get this on the record. It would surprise nobody if NAU, winners of five of the last six NCAA titles, were to claim #6 in Stillwater.

“In the words of Rudy Tomjanovich, ‘never underestimate the heart of a champion,'” Dave Smith says. “I’m not sleeping on those guys…Mike Smith knows what he’s doing, and he’s preparing that team, he’s doing everything he can to optimize this Saturday. Stanford’s really, really good, but NAU scares the crap out of me.

“I texted Mike Smith after the regional meet and I said, ‘I see you.’ I think I called him an inappropriate name. And he wrote back: ‘Shhh.'”

Dave Smith has reason to be scared. Since Mike Smith took over in Flagstaff in 2017, no coach has done a better job of getting their athletes to execute on the biggest stage. NAU’s five NCAA finishes in that span: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 1st.

But the 2022 NAU squad has shown more flaws in the regular season than its past title teams. From 2016-2021, NAU’s “A team” lost just once in a regular-season meet: in February 2021 to BYU at the Silver State Collegiate XC Challenge — and even that team wasn’t at full capacity as Luis Grijalva didn’t run (NAU also finished 2nd at the Big Sky Champs in February 2021 but rested multiple key athletes for that meet). This year, the Lumberjacks have doubled that total as they were just 3rd at the Cowboy Jamboree and 3rd at Nuttycombe.

NAU’s top two, Nico Young and Drew Bosley, who were 11th and 13th a year ago, have been as good as advertised and should finish in the top 10 or close to it on Saturday. But NAU has struggled for continuity at the next three spots.

This isn’t entirely new territory. Last year, NAU had question marks at #4 and #5 but George Kusche and Brodey Hasty both stepped up and delivered All-American performances at NCAAs. Both men are still on the team, but both have been inconsistent. Kusche was 86th at the Cowboy Jamboree and 97th at Nuttycombe, while Hasty was 137th at Nuttycombe.

Hasty has run better recently – he was 4th at the Big Sky meet and 14th at the Mountain Regional – and has a track record of success: he’s finished 46th, 44th, and 39th in three NCAA XC appearances. Kusche (5th Big Sky, skipped Mountain Regional) is hit or miss. He’s been 55th and 37th at NCAAs, but has also finished 165th and 229th. The latter performance came at OK State, and while Kusche was doubling back from NCAA Indoors, the hills don’t play to his strengths as a miler.

Even if Kusche and Hasty pull it together, NAU still needs one more. And they have some candidates. It never hurts to have the #1 recruit in the country in Colin Sahlman (60th Nuttycombe, 27th regionals). He is ubertalented but has never run a 10k in his life, let alone a hilly one which may not suit him given he more of a miler in high school (granted, he was a 3:56 miler). Alaskan sophomore Santiago Prosser (13:51 pb), who is running NCAAs for the first time, was 33rd at Nuttycombe, only one second behind Stanford’s #5. If he runs like that at NCAAs, they could win. Senior Ryan Raff (45th Nuttycombe, 9th regionals, 13:51 pb) is another option, though he’s never finished higher than 150th in three NCAA appearances.

Bottom line: NAU needs a lot to go right to win, but at NCAAs, a lot typically does go right for the Lumberjacks.

BYU

Clinger will need to be in the top 10 again to give BYU a chance on Saturday (Photo by Ben Sheehan)

BYU is the only team in the country to have beaten Stanford, scoring 76 to Stanford’s 101 at the Cowboy Jamboree on September 24. Granted, Stanford wasn’t at full strength — they were missing Ky Robinson — but neither was BYU, as Brandon Garnica (7:55/13:26/28:19, 54th 2021 NCAA XC) was missing. Add in both those guys and Stanford likely takes it, but it would be close. Likewise, while Stanford beat BYU at Nuttycombe (54-89), that BYU squad was missing Casey Clinger due to injury and Christian Allen due to COVID. For BYU to score 89 at Nuttycombe without two guys who were top-20 at NCAAs last year shows just how deep this team is.

“If we were running seven people and scoring people, I would like my chances of being way up there on the podium,” says BYU coach Ed Eyestone. “But of course you just run five…Man for man through seven [guys], this is probably my best team.”

That depth is enviable. At Nuttycombe, BYU went 15-16-17-20-21 with a two-second spread. Add in Clinger and Allen at NCAAs and there are no weaknesses, one through seven.

But to win an NCAA title, depth is not enough. In a field as deep as NCAAs, you need a low stick. And really, you need two. No team has won NCAAs without a top-10 finisher since 2006, and half of the last 10 title teams have had two in the top 10.

Year School #1 #2 Combined places
2021 NAU Abdihamid Nur, 7th Nico Young, 11th 18
2020 NAU Nico Young, 4th Blaise Ferro, 6th 10
2019 BYU Conner Mantz, 3rd Daniel Carney, 17th 20
2018 NAU Tyler Day, 6th Matt Baxter, 15th 21
2017 NAU Matt Baxter, 2nd Tyler Day, 3rd 5
2016 NAU Futsum Zienasellassie, 4th Matt Baxter, 11th 15
2015 Syracuse Justyn Knight, 4th Colin Bennie, 8th 12
2014 Colorado Ammar Moussa, 5th Ben Saarel, 7th 12
2013 Colorado Ben Saarel, 8th Morgan Pearson, 17th 25
2012 OK State Girma Mecheso, 5th Tom Farrell, 9th 14
Average 15.2

That’s the worry with BYU. Of the four contenders, BYU has the worst top two — I’d take Stanford (some combination of Hicks/Robinson/Sprout), NAU (Young/Bosley), and OK State (Alex Maier/Isai Rodriguez) over what BYU has.

So the key for BYU is its top three of Clinger (8th last year), Allen (16th), and Garnica. If all three of them run great, BYU should be close to even with everyone else through three and would have the edge with their superior depth.

One cool fact about this team: the seven men likely to run at NCAAs for BYU (Clinger, Allen, Garnica, Joey NoakesAidan TroutnerDavin Thompson, Creed Thompson) are all Utah natives. More than that, they all hail from towns within 30 miles of BYU’s campus in Provo. It reminds Eyestone of the 1982 Wisconsin team that won it all 40 years ago with Wisconsin natives as their top six scorers.

“Win, place, or show, for us, the fact that we’ve got guys that are just local guys is kind of cool,” Eyestone says.

Bottom line: BYU has the second-best odds to win behind Stanford. They’ve got a great shot to score right around 100 points, but whether that is good enough to win is dependent on what the other teams do.

Oklahoma State

For Oklahoma State to win its first NCAA title in 10 years, two main things have to happen:

1) Isai Rodriguez needs to have a great race
2) Someone needs to step up at #5

OK State has finished 3rd in each of the past two years (Photo by Ben Sheehan)

OSU has three reliable guys in its top five. Alex Maier won the Cowboy Jamboree and Big 12 titles and is among the favorites for the individual title. Victor Shitsama, who beat the likes of Cole Sprout and Nico Young at the Cowboy Jamboree, was 29th last year and should be in the top 30 again this year. And Rory Leonard, who was 17th at Cowboy Jamboree and 2nd at Big 12s, is a good bet to finish somewhere in the 25-50 range. Between the three of them, OSU has the skeleton of a title team.

Isai Rodriguez is a bit less certain. Beset by injuries (he barely ran at all over the summer), Rodriguez has only raced at three meets since February, and only twice in XC. He was 5th at Big 12s (2nd for OSU) in his season opener on October 28, then won the Midwest Regional last week. His past NCAA history is very strong (4th in ’18, 8th in ’20, 22nd in ’21) but he hasn’t faced the best of the best yet this season. Rodriguez is a gamer, though, and you’d be foolish to think he won’t be out there with the leaders in his final race on his home course.

If Rodriguez can finish in the top 10, OSU needs one more thing to go right, and that’s to find a 5th man who can finish as an All-American. The candidates: Fouad Messaoudi (13:46 5k, 6th Big 12 XC), Ryan Schoppe (13:43, 7th Big 12 XC), and Will Muirhead (13:55, 11th Big 12 XC). Only Schoppe has run NCAAs before, and he was 225th and 230th in his two appearances. Getting one of those three — all of whom are more middle-distance types than true XC men — to have a great day over a tough 10k XC course is a big ask, but they at least have the advantage of getting to practice on that course every week.

Bottom line: OK State started the season looking for a fifth runner and now, on the eve of NCAAs, still hasn’t found a convincing answer. But heroes have emerged to win titles at NCAAs for this program before (Johnathan Stublanski in 2010, Joseph Manilafasha in 2012). If someone can do it this year, they’ll be partying long into the night on Saturday in Stillwater.

Other podium contenders

  • Tulsa has a terrific top four but has been searching for a fifth man all year (they had four in the top 20 at Nuttycombe but their #5 was 155th). Four stars is often enough to get on the podium but this is a deep season up top. Tulsa will need someone — perhaps redshirt freshman Luke Lambert — to step up and stop the bleeding at #5 if they are to finish on the podium for the first time in program history.
  • Wisconsin packed things up at the Great Lake Regional and went 8-9-10-11-12-13 with a spread of 0.7 seconds. It’s a deep team, and two-time Big 10 XC champ Bob Liking is a genuine star who could finish in the top 10.
  • Air Force was 4th at Nuttycombe and if they can follow the same recipe as that race — a strong run up front from Sam Gillman and a tight pack behind him (their #2 through #5 were separated by five seconds) — a podium finish is possible in Stillwater.

What else to consider

Reminder: the course at Oklahoma State is no joke. When OK State last hosted two years ago, coaches universally called it the toughest NCAA course in recent memory  (LRC “It Will Be a Bloodbath” — Are You Ready for the Hardest NCAA XC Course in Recent Memory?) and the times bore that out as only four men broke 30:00. For most of the course’s 10,000 meters, you are either climbing or descending, and if you go out too hard, this course will make you pay more than most.

The weather could also play a factor. It will be chilly (mid-30s during the race) and windy (12 mph with gusts to 20 mph). But it’s not supposed to rain much between now and race day, which should make for a fast, dry surface on Saturday.

JG prediction

My first prediction is that Saturday should be an awesome race. NCAAs is usually a battle between two or three teams, but this year there are four teams who have a legitimate shot at the title. Usually a score under 200 guarantees you a spot on the podium, but it may take something closer to 150 to finish in the top four in 2022.

I think it’s a great year in terms of parity,” says Eyestone.

Stanford has the greatest potential — no one else has run a race as good as the one they ran at Nuttycombe — and that’s why I like them to win on Saturday. But if Sprout isn’t 100%, they’re vulnerable — especially this year, when there are more teams than usual ready to pounce on any mistake.

BYU has been great all season and has run the best against Stanford of anyone, beating them at Cowboy Jamboree and finishing second at Nuttycombe, so I like them for second. OK State and NAU are both talented enough to win but there’s less certainty about their back-end, so I have them third and fourth. But if you ran this race 100 times, each of these teams would probably win at least 10.

1. Stanford 2. BYU 3. Oklahoma State 4. NAU

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