Can a guy who ran just 4:27/9:26 in HS & didn’t run at all this summer actually win the NCAA XC title?

Isai Rodriguez is the wild card/home state favorite for the 2022 NCAA XC title

By Jonathan Gault
November 16, 2022

(Editor’s note: This excerpt appears in a longer piece where we break down all of the NCAA men’s title contenders. But we thought this was such a cool story that it deserved its own article.)

Back in 2018, Oklahoma State’s Isai Rodriguez finished 4th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships as 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.

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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 made his season debut 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, as Oklahoma State prepares to host the 2022 NCAA Cross Country Championships on Saturday in Stillwater. 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.

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

Jonathan Gault, a high school All-American at 5,000m and the cross-country and track and field captain at Dartmouth, is one of the premier track and field writers of his generation.  He has won numerous journalism awards including the NCAA Jim McKay Scholarship. He resides in Boston, Massachusetts and is known for his daily analysis, in-depth profiles, historical pieces, and love of the Brighton & Hove Albion football club. You can follow him @jongault13 or email him.

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