2023 NCAA XC Men’s Top 10: Everyone Is Still Chasing NAU
We break down the top teams expected to contend for the NCAA cross country title in 2023By Jonathan Gault
It’s hard to believe, but the 2023 NCAA cross country season is already nearly a month old. Most of the top teams have already competed and much-hyped freshmen such as Oregon’s Simeon Birnbaum and Stanford’s Lex and Leo Young have already made their collegiate debuts. However, the pro track season ran all the way through the Prefontaine Classic on September 17, and last weekend, most of the running world’s attention was squarely on the Berlin Marathon, where Eliud Kipchoge returned to the winner’s circle and Tigst Assefa smashed the world record. So we don’t blame you if you haven’t been thinking of cross country.
It’s time to change that with LetsRun’s annual look at the top 10 cross country teams in America. These rankings are subject to change — between injuries, redshirting, and coaches holding out key runners, it can be hard to get a full sense of a team until late in the season. Instead of a definitive top 10, consider this a starting point for discussion of the season to come.
Before getting into the team-by-team previews, here’s a few big-picture storylines to keep an eye on this year.
- NCAAs in Virginia. Terre Haute used to be to NCAA XC what Eugene is to NCAA track: a great host, but a bit repetitive, if we’re being honest. From 2004 to 2016, Terre Haute hosted NCAAs 11 times in 13 years. But in recent years, the NCAA has spread the meet around, with UVA’s Panorama Farms slated to host nationals for the first time on November 18. Right now we’re in the midst of five different hosts in five years — Florida State in 2021, Oklahoma State in 2022, Virginia in 2023, Wisconsin in 2024, and Missouri in 2025. One of the beauties of cross country is in its variety, and NCAA XC athletes and fans are finally getting to experience that. There’s just one area left to expand: NCAA XC has not been held west of the Rockies since Arizona hosted in 1996.
- A loaded freshman class. The high school class of 2023 sure feels like it was something special. Galen Rupp‘s high school 5,000m record of 13:37 was broken twice — first by Connor Burns (13:37) and then by Lex Young (13:34). Leo Young finished 16th in the U20 race at World XC to lead the US to its first team medal in 41 years. And Simeon Birnbaum ran 3:57/8:34 on the track, some of the fastest mile/2-mile times ever by a US high schooler. With Burns and Birnbaum at Oregon and the Young brothers at Stanford — plus 3:58/8:35 guy Rocky Hansen at Wake Forest and NXN champ Aaron Sahlman at NAU, a lot of young American talent just entered the NCAA.
- Is Africa back? From 2009 to 2015, a Kenyan man won every NCAA XC title. In the seven years since, it has only happened once: Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat in 2019. During that time, the individual titles have been spread all around the globe, with athletes representing Australia, Canada, the US, and Great Britain all winning at least once. But 2023 could be the year Africa climbs back on top. Oklahoma State debuted two star Kenyans at the Cowboy Jamboree in Denis Kipngetich and Brian Musau. New Mexico’s Habtom Samuel may be even better: he won Roy Griak on September 22 in 23:36, the fastest time there since Lawi Lalang in 2011. On the track, he’s a two-time World U20 championship medalist and owns a pb of 27:20 for 10,000 — only one collegian has ever run faster. Samuel also finished 17th at World XC in February — 18 seconds ahead of Ky Robinson, who swept the 5k/10k at NCAAs for Stanford in June. Samuel, who defected from Eritrea after Worlds in Eugene last year, is your early NCAA favorite.
1) Northern Arizona
2022 finish: 1st *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #5, #6) *Coach: Mike Smith
The Lumberjacks needed a tiebreaker to beat Oklahoma State last year in one of the most thrilling finishes in NCAA XC history, but the end result was the same as NAU won its third straight title and sixth in the last seven years. How impressive is that? NAU has won more titles in the last seven years than traditional powers Colorado and Wisconsin have won in the history of their programs. We have not seen this sort of dominance since John McDonnell‘s Arkansas teams ruled over the sport in the 1980s and 1990s.
And NAU is showing no signs of slowing down. The Lumberjacks return their top four from last year, each of whom finished in the top 25 at NCAAs: Nico Young (2nd), Drew Bosley (3rd), Santiago Gomez-Prosser (19th), and Brodey Hasty (25th). Plus they added Spaniard Aaron Las Heras, who was 26th last year for Wake Forest. And between Theo Quax, Kang Nyoak, Corey Gorgas, and 2021 RunningLane champ Colin Sahlman, they have four other men with 5k pbs in the 13:40s for depth.
This team is not unbeatable, but it’s stacked with talent once again and coach Mike Smith has figured out the NCAA meet — his teams almost always get it right on the day. It will take a monster effort to defeat them in Virginia.
2) Oklahoma State
2022 finish: 2nd *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #2, #5) *Coach: Dave Smith
Two-tenths of a second. That’s all that separated Oklahoma State’s Alex Maier, Isai Rodriguez, and Victor Shitsama from the runners who finished one spot ahead of them at NCAA XC last year; had any of them won those individual battles, it would have been OSU celebrating an NCAA title on its home course last year, not Northern Arizona. Heck, if the NCAA used the sixth-man tiebreaker instead of scoring each position head-to-head, Oklahoma State would have won as well. But that is not how the NCAA breaks ties. NAU are the 2022 national champions, then and always.
Cowboys coach Dave Smith thinks about last year’s meet now and again. He wonders whether he should have told Maier, who ran a brilliant race in 5th, to have been a little more aggressive. But mostly, he thinks about this year. In his 22nd year in Stillwater, and with three NCAA titles already under his belt, Smith is as motivated as ever. Talking about his 2023 squad, he can’t help but get excited.
“I’m fired up,” Smith said. “I’m ready to go.”
There are plenty of reasons for optimism. OSU returns three All-Americans in Maier (5th), Fouad Messaoudi (12th, NCAA 3k champion), and Shitsama (31st). Will Muirhead (140th) made a jump in fitness last year to run 7:52 for 3k indoors, and based on what he’s seen in practice, Smith believes a similar jump could be coming this fall. That core is enough to challenge for a fourth consecutive podium finish.
But a cadre of new additions pushes the 2023 OSU squad from podium hopefuls to title contenders. Israeli Adisu Guadie has run 28:17 for 10,000 and Laban Kipkemboi has run in the 13:40s at altitude back in Kenya. It remains to be seen how much either will factor for OSU this fall, but two other new additions have already made an impact: Kenyans Denis Kipngetich and Brian Musau, who went 1-2 at the Cowboy Jamboree last weekend. Kipngetich was particularly impressive: he ran 23:21 to win the race by 20+ seconds; for reference, last year’s NCAA champ, Charles Hicks, ran 23:20 at the same meet in 2022.
Kipgnetich could be a top-10 guy at NCAAs this year; add him to Maier, Messaoudi, Shitsama, and Musau and the Cowboys could have the firepower to topple NAU.
“If we’re healthy, we can win,” Smith said.
2022 finish: 3rd *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #2, #5) *Coach: Ed Eyestone
The BYU XC team took a boost when Kenneth Rooks decided to return for another season — despite his coach Ed Eyestone trying to talk him out of it. Eyestone believes Rooks, who did not even make BYU’s NCAA XC roster last fall, has yet to fully realize his cross country potential. But he also knows Rooks’ value to shoe companies may never be higher after winning NCAA and US titles in the steeplechase and finishing 10th at the World Championships in August.
“I was frank with him,” Eyestone said. “I said, hey we have a really good cross country team. If you improve as much as you did this last season in track, then yes, you’re going to be battling for All-American for sure. But if we don’t get that kind of improvement, you may be battling for a top-seven spot.”
Rooks knew what he wanted to do.
“He said, ‘Coach, I just want to run with my team,'” Eyestone said. “It’s totally cool, but it’s something I would not have done if I were in his position.”
As for the rest of the team, BYU runs deep as usual. Casey Clinger — who was 24th at NCAAs way back in 2017 — is back for a seventh year (including his two-year Mormon mission) and has a shot at third straight top-10 finish. Brothers Davin and Creed Thompson were both All-Americans last year. Joey Noakes (13:29/28:05) made a leap during the track season and was an impressive 4th at the Virginia Invitational last weekend. Aidan Troutner is a former NXN champ. Plus Rooks, of course.
Put it all together and that’s a podium team. The question is health. Eyestone would not divulge specific names, but hinted that BYU could be short-handed this season — and neither Clinger nor Davin Thompson has raced yet this fall. Without them, the Cougars can still finish in the top 10, but their ceiling would take a hit.
“Everything is contingent on the health status of individuals and we’re going to have to see how that all plays out,” Eyestone said. “…If we have our best people line up, then I think we’ll be very, very good.”
2022 finish: 6th *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #4, #5) *Coach: Mick Byrne
Wisconsin has dominated the Big 10 in recent years, winning five straight conference titles, the last two with scores of 27 and 25 points. That success has yet to translate to an NCAA trophy as the Badgers were 11th at nationals in 2021 and 6th last year — though the latter represents the program’s best NCAA finish since a 2nd-place showing in 2012. The Badgers returning their top three runners from NCAAs in Jackson Sharp (16th), Bob Liking (34th), and Rowen Ellenberg (45th), and coach Mick Byrne believes his group has the veteran experience necessary to return to the podium in 2023.
“These guys are now older, they’ve been to the national meet several times,” Byrne said. “It’s time for them to show what they can do at that level. We’ve been able to have incredibly good races at the Big 10 championships and looked really good at the regional meet last year. We were a little bit off at nationals. But we weren’t way off.”
The front three should be solid. Behind them, Wisconsin has a number of options to fill the remaining spots in their top seven. Evan Bishop was 83rd last year and Byrne believes he is ready to make a leap after a strong summer. Adam Spencer had a disastrous NCAAs in 2022 (188th) but is a huge talent (3:31 1500 pb) and was 6th at Big 10 XC last year. After a long track season, Spencer will not race until Big 10s, but he could provide a late-season boost to an already strong team.
“Big question mark, can he go from 8k to 10k?” Byrne said. “A lot of great middle distance athletes have been able to do it and I don’t see why he can’t.”
Byrne is also high on Christian De Vaal (New Zealand U20 XC champ) and Israeli first-year Matan Ivri (13:57 pb) as guys who could make an impact right away alongside redshirt freshmen Micah Wilson (13:56, 2nd US U20 XC champs) and Logan Measner (8:41 steeple). The Badgers have a lot of options.
5) North Carolina
2022 finish: 10th *Returners from NCAAs: 3/7 (lose #3, #4, #5, #7) *Coach: Chris Miltenberg
Back in 2019, North Carolina hired Chris Miltenberg to turn around a program that had made just two NCAA appearances in 27 years. So far, so good: the Tar Heels made it back to the Big Dance in 2021 and returned last year, finishing 10th — the school’s best result since 1985. But Miltenberg, who coached the Georgetown women to a title in 2011 and whose men’s teams made the podium four times at Stanford (but never won a title), knows the next step is even harder.
“You can get to where we got, especially when we got 18th, just by getting some good guys and putting some resources into it and really making it an emphasis,” Miltenberg said. “To get from 10th to top 5, the hill gets steeper.”
UNC returns a top-10 NCAA finisher in Parker Wolfe, but will be without two core runners in Will Coogan (106th NCAAs) and Patrick Anderson (113th) who sustained serious injuries in a horrific car accident last spring. Both men are now working their way back to running, and Miltenberg says the team refers to them as “their superpower” — a source of inspiration when it is time to dig deep. But neither will race for North Carolina this fall.
“Their perspective and their resilience is nothing short of absolutely freaking amazing,” Miltenberg said. “You can’t even begin to put into words how scary it was, how bad it could have been.”
Even without Coogan and Anderson, UNC ran very well at the Virginia Invitational last weekend (they were 3rd) on the strength of returners Wolfe and Ethan Strand (62nd NCAAs) plus grad transfers Alex Phillip (13:44/28:31, two-time NCAA DIII XC champ) and Jake Gebhardt (13:37 for Indiana last spring). Miltenberg believes that with those additions, the 2023 squad can top the 2022 team’s NCAA finish and continue the program’s rise.
“Being in a situation where we can be climbing and ascending and maybe beating teams we’re ‘not supposed to beat yet’ is a really, really fun spot to be for us,” Miltenberg said.
6) Notre Dame
2022 finish: 15th *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #2, #7) *Coach: Chris Neal
Last year, the Irish finished 15th in their first year under Chris Neal, who came in from Furman when Sean Carlson left for Tennessee. This year’s team should be capable of returning to the top 10. Though Notre Dame loses the top true freshman from last year’s field in Izaiah Steury (who transferred to Oregon), they have reloaded with a pair of grad transfers in Tyler Berg (78th last year for Columbia, 13:41 5k) and Vincent Mauri (87th last year for Arizona State, 13:39 5k).
ND should also get some internal reinforcements. Ethan Coleman, who redshirted last fall, ran 28:46 on the track. And Neal expects the talented Josh Methner (13:32 5k pb, 2019 Foot Locker champ), who did not even run NCAAs for the Irish last fall, to make a big impact in 2023.
“[Methner] was nicked up when I got here and we kind of got into that injury cycle of hurry back for one thing, another little nick-up,” Neal said, adding that Methner redshirted outdoors so he could get healthy. “…I think [he’ll] be a top-two contributor on our team for sure.”
Add that core to a bona fide low stick in 2022 ACC XC champ Carter Solomon and this should be a strong Irish team.
2022 finish: 18th *Returners from NCAAs: 6/7 (lose #3) *Coach: Greg Metcalf
There was a stretch in the 2010s where Texas was at NCAAs just to make up the numbers. Someone had to get the second auto spot in the South Central region, and it was usually the university representing the second-most populous state in the union.
No more. The Longhorns finished 14th at NCAAs under Pete Watson in 2021 and 18th last year in the first season under new coach Greg Metcalf. In 2023, Texas could be good enough to return to the top 10 for the first time since 2012. The Longhorns secured a top transfer in Devin Hart, who came from Stanford with pbs of 13:29/28:07 and immediately stepped in as UT’s #1 at the Cowboy Jamboree, finishing 3rd overall. Haftu Knight (13:32/28:30), Rodger Rivera (13:41), and Isaac Alonzo (13:41/28:47, 3rd Big 12 XC) form a very solid supporting cast.
“I’m sitting here with four guys that have dreams, goals, and ambitions of being an All-American this fall,” Metcalf said.
If those four run to their potential and one more guy can step up — perhaps Nathanael Berhane (13:57 5k) or Emmanuel Sgouros (8:05 3k) — then Texas could be a top-10 team in November.
2022 finish: 12th *Returners from NCAAs: 5/7 (lose #3, #4) *Coach: Brien Bell
After a strong run in the 2010s that included six straight conference championships and an unforgettable 2015 national title, Syracuse took a step back, finishing 26th, 27th, and 30th at NCAAs from 2018-20. In the middle of that stretch (which did include the 2019 ACC title), longtime coach Chris Fox left to coach the Reebok Boston Track Club, with former assistant Brien Bell taking over.
In the last two years, however, the Orange have been trending in the right direction. Syracuse has finished 2nd at each of the last two ACC XC champs and has improved from 30th at NCAAs in 2020 to 19th in 2021 and 12th last year. This year’s squad should be even better and got a boost a few weeks ago when Fox returned, this time as an assistant to Bell.
Syracuse’s 4th-place result at last week’s Virginia Invitational were a good indication of what to expect this fall. Though the team does not have an star front-runner — their top finisher was Paul O’Donnell in 19th — they had a 15-second spread with their 5th man way ahead of anyone else’s save for superpowers NAU and BYU. It should also be noted that Nathan Lawler, Syracuse’s top finisher at NCAAs last year (46th), did not run this race.
Last year’s Orange squad put five men between 46th and 110th at NCAAs and it got them 12th. If the 2023 team can bump those finishes up a little — certainly possible with improvements by O’Donnell, Sam Lawler (110th in ’22), Assaf Harari (123rd) and new addition Perry Mackinnon (13:33/28:33 for Cornell) — Syracuse could be back in the top 10 for the first time since 2016.
2022 finish: 19th *Returners from NCAAs: 4/7 (lose #2, #4, #5, #7) *Coach: Marcus O’Sullivan
Initially, Villanova was not going to be in this top 10, especially considering the Wildcats lost four of their top seven from a team that was only 19th last year. But Villanova beat strong teams like Villanova, Air Force, and Stanford at the Virginia Invitational, and was only two points behind Syracuse. You don’t fluke a result like that.
Liam Murphy (7th at Virginia) and Haftu Strintzos (13:45/28:34) are two strong veterans and Marco Langon, who was 121st last year as a true freshman (and 19th in the U20 race at World XC) is poised to make a leap in his second year. Villanova’s main concern will be backing them up at #4 and #5. Xian Shively (13:58) and Ryan Kredell (17th at the NCAA DIII champs for Haverford last year) were good enough last weekend. Can they do it again on the same course in November?
2022 finish: 4th *Returners from NCAAs: 4/7 (lose #1, #3, #4) *Coach: Ricardo Santos
Stanford looked like the best team in the country for much of 2022, but some bad luck near the end of the season derailed their bid for a first NCAA title since 2003. #3 man Cole Sprout partially tore his hamstring while #5 Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau woke up with a fever on the day of NCAAs. It would have taken a big effort for the Cardinal to beat NAU or OSU, but those two events resulted in Stanford finishing a distant 4th despite strong runs upfront from Ky Robinson and individual champ Charles Hicks.
Stanford coach Ricardo Santos believes the Cardinal’s disappointing performance was partly down to bad luck. But he also said he will make some changes this year to try to ensure his team is not running out of gas late in the season.
“[It’s about] making sure we’re not going to the well and making sure that we’re getting to NCAAs in a better spot,” Santos said. “It’s just getting to NCAAs in a position that we’re not tired and feeling like we’re on our last legs.”
Hicks is gone now, having turned pro to join the Bowerman Track Club, and losing Devin Hart (13:29/28:07, now a 5th-year at Texas) hurts. But this is still a very strong team on paper. Robinson owned the NCAA track meet in June, sweeping the 5k/10k, Sprout has run 13:24/27:42, and Lex (13:34 5k) and Leo Young (16th World U20 XC) are good enough to contribute this fall as true freshmen. Add Evan Burke (13:38 5k), Robert DiDonato (13:44 5k), and Zane Bergen (4th at 2021 RunningLane XC champs) and there’s plenty of talent to go around.
It didn’t show last weekend, however, as Stanford was only 9th at the Virginia Invitational. While Robinson was great (3rd overall), Sprout was just 62nd while Leo (46th) and Lex (75th) Young finished well down the field after going out conservatively, and Burke was 120th.
That result makes this team really hard to place. Is this a podium team that had an off day in the third week of September? Or is Stanford in serious trouble?
If the Cardinal can do what Santos hopes they will and run their best at the end of the season rather than the start, this team is capable of much better than 10th at NCAAs in November. But their result at the Virginia Invitational also showed that the floor could be lower than many expected.
- Air Force took some graduation hits after finishing 7th at NCAAs last year, but the Falcons are always competitive under coach Ryan Cole.
- It’s year five for Vin Lananna at Virginia. The Cavaliers showed progress by finishing 7th at the Virginia Invitational last week and will have home-course advantage come nationals.
- Arkansas slipped to 23rd after podium finishes in 2020 and 2021, but bring back a star in Patrick Kiprop (24th NCAAs) and add transfer Kirami Yego from South Alabama.
- Colorado has only missed the top 10 at NCAAs once since 2010, and that was the COVID championships of March 2021. But CU lost its top three men from last year and endured a turbulent offseason including an internal investigation into the program after complaints about body composition testing — though coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs ultimately kept their jobs. They were only 12th at UVA last weekend.
What about Oregon?
It’s a question of when, not if, Oregon returns as a major cross country power. Between the brand-new Hayward Field, the resources of Nike and the UO athletic department, and the Ducks’ history of success, coach Jerry Schumacher, now in his second year, has everything he needs to build a program capable of challenging for national titles like he did at Wisconsin. However, Oregon is likely still be a year or two away from that type of conversation, but Schumacher brought in a star-studded 2023 recruiting class, and if all of those guys run, the Ducks could be a top-10 team as soon as this year. Here’s who is new in Eugene:
- Simeon Birnbaum: The #1 distance recruit in the class of 2023. Here are Birnbaum’s pbs and where they rank on the all-time US high school list: 3:37.93 1500 (2nd), 3:57.53 mile (4th), 8:05.11 3000 (9th), 8:34.10 2-mile (2nd). Birnbaum took down loaded fields to win the mile at the St. Louis Festival of Miles and Nike Outdoor Nationals and the 2-mile at the Brooks PR Invite.
- Connor Burns: Like Birnbaum, Burns broke 4:00 in the mile as a junior. As a senior, he ran 8:34.33 for 2 miles (#3 in US HS history behind Lukas Verzbicas and Birnbaum) and broke Galen Rupp’s high school 5000 record by running 13:37.30 (since broken by Lex Young). However, he was only 32nd at NXN.
- Archie Noakes: The Aussie ran 13:52 for 5k over the summer and was 17th in the U20 race at World XC, three seconds behind Leo Young. Most impressively, he ran 7:53 for 3k in March — which is three seconds faster than the US high school record.
- Izaiah Steury: 28th at Nuttycombe, 9th at ACCs, and 63rd at NCAAs as a true freshman for Notre Dame last year.
All of those guys are healthy and ran at the Dellinger Invitational on September 22, to varying degrees of success (Birnbaum was 3rd, Noakes 10th, Steury 18th, Burns 48th). If they can build strength this fall, that group is talented enough to challenge for top 10 at NCAAs.
There’s one more big “if,” though. Birnbaum, Burns, Noakes, and Steury all ran unattached at Dellinger, and if I had to guess, most of them will redshirt this fall. But let’s think about this. The last two superstars to come through the program, Cole Hocker and Cooper Teare, both turned pro with eligibility to spare. What are the chances Birnbaum, Burns, and Noakes all end up using their fifth year of cross eligibility?
(Hocker and Teare both ran XC as true freshmen, by the way).
It would be a lot more fun if Schumacher lets the Baby Ducks (Ducklings?) loose on the NCAA this year — particularly Birnbaum, who looks ready to go. But don’t count on it actually happening.