2023 NCAA Men’s Individual XC Preview: An Aussie, an Eritrean, and a couple of 21-year-old Americans walk into a cross country course…

A 21-year-old American hasn't won this race in more than 20-years but two, Graham Blanks and Nico Young, have a shot this year

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You might hear some folks describe the men’s individual race at the 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships at Panorama Farms in Virginia as the most wide-open NCAAs in years. And while it’s true there are a number of guys who could win on Saturday, the truth is, it’s actually the most wide-open NCAAs since…last year, when Stanford’s Charles Hicks emerged from a half-dozen contenders to become Stanford’s first individual champion. Hicks’ former teammate, NCAA 5k/10k champ Ky Robinson, could easily follow in his footsteps and win it all on for the Cardinal on Saturday. But so could Harvard’s Graham Blanks, who has not lost a race all fall and would be the first Ivy League man to win NCAA XC. Or New Mexico’s Habtom Samuel, a 27:20 10k guy who is a two-time World U20 medalist on the track. Or NAU’s Nico Young, who was 2nd overall last year.

Let’s take a look at the main contenders, one at a time, and make the case for why each could win…and why each might not.

Reminder: You can watch the meet live on ESPNU on Saturday starting at 9:30 a.m. ET

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Photo by Tim Boyle

Graham Blanks, junior, Harvard
2023 results:
1st Battle in Beantown, 1st Nuttycombe, 1st Heps, 1st Northeast Regional
Previous NCAA XC finishes: 23rd in 2021, 6th in 2022
Track pbs: 7:44/13:18/28:15. 2nd ’23 NCAA 5k.

The case for him: He hasn’t lost all season. Blanks enjoyed a great NCAA outdoor meet, finishing 2nd in the 5,000 in Austin, and has won all four of his races this fall. Not known for his kick, Blanks unleashed a huge move with just over 400m to run to win Nuttycombe by 1.7 seconds, defeating almost all of the top NCAA contenders in the process. Based on what each athlete has done this fall, he should be the favorite.

The case against him: Blanks is a 21-year-old from Athens, Ga. And 21-year-old Americans do not usually win the NCAA men’s cross country title. You’d have to go back 20 years for the last time an American aged 21 or younger won it: Colorado’s Dathan Ritzenhein, who defeated Stanford’s Ryan Hall on a freezing Iowa day in 2003, 36 days before Ritz’s 21st birthday. Since then four Americans have won the title but all were at least 22 – Josh Rohatinsky (24 in 2006), Josh McDougal (22 in 2007), Galen Rupp (22 in 2008), Conner Mantz (24 in 2021 when he won 2 times).

Can Blanks buck the trend? Clearly, Blanks is a big talent: in May 2021, at the end of his gap year before enrolling at Harvard, he ran 13:27 for 5k one month after his 19th birthday. Is he a Ritz-level talent? If he wins on Saturday, he just might be.

Ky Robinson, junior, Stanford
2023 results: 
3rd Virginia Invitational, 4th Nuttycombe, 1st Pac-12s, 1st West Regional
Previous NCAA XC finishes: 46th in 2020, 14th in 2021, 10th in 2022
Track pbs: 7:42/13:11/27:47. ’23 NCAA 5k/10k champ.

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The case for him: Robinson has a big kick and owned the last NCAAs on the track. Last fall, Robinson’s Stanford teammate Charles Hicks was only 2nd at the Cowboy Jamboree and 3rd at Pac-12 but later revealed he had been training through those races and only cared about being at his best at NCAAs. Could we be seeing something similar with Robinson this year? Remember, Robinson was beaten in the 5,000 at Pac-12s on the track last spring but crushed everyone at NCAAs, winning the 10k by 1.24 seconds and the 5k by 1.76. This guy was clearly the best runner in the NCAA five months ago. He might be again on Saturday if he has timed his peak right.

The case against him: Robinson might be better at track than cross country. Last year, Robinson was 10th at the NCAA XC meet. Two weeks later, he ran an indoor 5k in Boston against many of the same guys and beat them all. Likewise, while he was a solid 23rd at World XC in February, he wasn’t even the top NCAA runner in that race — Aaron Las Heras of Spain/Wake Forest, who was 26th at NCAA XC in 2022, beat Robinson by one place.

In addition, when Nuttycombe came down to a kick this year — a race that should have favored Robinson — he only finished 4th, losing out to noted non-kicker Nico Young, among others.

Habtom Samuel, freshman, New Mexico
2023 results: 1st Roy Griak, 3rd Nuttycombe, 1st Mountain West, 1st Mountain Regional
Previous NCAA XC finishes: none
Track pbs: 13:13/27:20. ’21 World U20 3k bronze, ’22 World U20 5k bronze.

The case for him: Read the “Track pbs” section again. Samuel ran 27:20 before stepping foot on New Mexico’s campus — a time that only one NCAA athlete (two-time NCAA XC champ Sam Chelanga in 2010) has ever bettered. He’s also won two medals at the World U20 championships for Eritrea. You don’t see many World U20 distance medalists in the NCAA, typically because those athletes are already too good for the NCAA. Samuel very well may be the biggest talent in this race, and his only loss came in sloppy conditions at Nuttycombe. The course should be in better shape in Charlottesville on Saturday.

The case against him: Samuel was beaten at Nuttycombe, so he can be beaten at NCAAs. He’s also never run NCAAs before — though it should be noted that he ran World XC in February, where he finished 17th. That was 18 seconds ahead of Ky Robinson, even though Samuel only arrived in Bathurst at midnight on the day of the race.

Nico Young, junior, Northern Arizona
2023 results: 2nd Nuttycombe, 1st Big Sky, 2nd Mountain Regional
Previous NCAA XC finishes: 4th in 2020, 11th in 2021, 2nd in 2022
Track pbs: 3:37/7:51/13:11

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The case for him: Young is the top returner from last year and a proven cross country star. He rarely has a bad race and has two top-four finishes at NCAA XC — which is two more than Graham Blanks, Ky Robinson, or Habtom Samuel. It could finally be his time.

The case against him: Young doesn’t have much of a kick. Also, like Blanks, Young is a 21-year-old American, and 21-year-old Americans rarely win this race. That said, Young has been a phenom since high school, winning NXN in 2019 and setting the US high school 3000m record of 7:56.97. He was also 4th at NCAA XC as a true freshman in March 2021 — the best result by a US true freshman since Ritz was 4th in 2001.

Drew Bosley, senior, Northern Arizona
2023 results: 1st George Kyte Classic, 1st Virginia Invitational, 8th Nuttycombe, 7th Mountain Regional
Previous NCAA XC finishes: 22nd in 2019, 62nd in 2020, 13th in 2021, 3rd in 2022
Track pbs: 7:36/13:13/28:18. NCAA 3k record holder.

The case for him: Bosley won the Virginia Invitational on this course in September, beating Ky Robinson in the process. He was 3rd last year and has as much experience than anyone in the field — he is 23 years old and this will be his fifth NCAA XC meet (the COVID year of 2020-21 didn’t count against his eligibility).

The case against him: Bosley hasn’t even been the best NAU athlete the last three times he’s run this race — his teammate Nico Young beat him at NCAA XC in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Bosley was also only 8th at Nuttycombe in October.

Denis Kipngetich, freshman, Oklahoma State:
2023 results: 1st Cowboy Jamboree, 14th Big 12s, 1st Midwest regional
Previous NCAA XC finishes: none
Track pbs:
13:43 at altitude

The case for him: Kipngetich came to OSU with impressive credentials. In January, he finished 3rd at the Kenyan cross country championships. That was the Kenyan senior championships — though a separate meet (and weaker field) from the Kenyan World XC trials, which were held in December. Then he ran 13:43 at altitude in Nairobi in February. If it wasn’t for a slip-up at Big 12s, this guy wouldn’t be someone who I initially had in my “long shots” category (but my boss Robert Johnson made me move up to this category) as he’s been dominating the NCAA. He debuted at OSU by winning the Cowboy Jamboree by 20 seconds in September and won the Midwest Regional last week by 10 seconds.

The case against him: He was only 14th at Big 12s.

Longer shots

  • Alex Maier, senior, Oklahoma State: Maier has run 7:43 and 13:11, was the ’22 NCAA 10k runner-up and was 5th at NCAA XC last year. Certainly sounds like someone who should be contending for the individual title.
  • Bob Liking, junior, Wisconsin: Liking is the 3-time Big 10 XC champ which is an amazing feat. The problem is his best NCAA finish is just 34th. But he’s undefeated in 2023 – having has won all three of his races this fall, the Loyola Lakefront Invitational, Big 10s, and the Great Lakes Regional.
  • Parker Wolfe, junior, North Carolina: Wolfe was 9th last year at NCAA XC, finished 5th in the NCAA 5k in June, was 7th at Nuttycombe this fall and won ACCs.
  • Jackson Sharp, senior, Wisconsin: The Aussie was 3rd in the NCAA 3k indoors, 3rd in the NCAA 5k outdoors, and 5th at Nuttycombe this fall. He was 2nd at Big-10s to Liking for the 2nd straight year but last year at NCAAs he turned the tables on Liking and finish 6th.

JG prediction

My first instinct was to go with Ky Robinson considering how easily he won the NCAA 5k and 10k in June, but a 10k XC race in November is far different than a hot and humid 5k in June. Last year, when Young and Bosley pushed the pace, Robinson hung back. Would he do the same in 2023? It’s also a little concerning that he lost in a kick at Nuttycombe after winning Nuttycombe in a kick in 2022.

Nico Young is always up there and is not a bad pick, but the more I think about it, the more I like Habtom Samuel. The dude is a two-time World U20 bronze medalist. Do you know how good you have to be to win a medal at World U20s? Here are some of the recent 5k medalists:

2014: Yomif Kejelcha (gold) — two-time World Indoor champ with pbs of 3:47/7:23/12:41/57:41
2016: Selemon Barega (gold) — Olympic 10k champ
2018: Stanley Mburu (silver) — 2022 Worlds 10k silver; Jakob Ingebrigtsen (bronze) — Olympic 1500 champ, two-time World 5k champ

Samuel ran the fastest time at Roy Griak since Lawi Lalang in 2011. He was only 3rd at Nuttycombe but maybe he’s not great in the mud. This is a great field, but I’m picking the guy who has already won two global medals.

1. Samuel 2. Young 3. Blanks

Who wins men's title?

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