2023 NCAA XC Men’s Preview: The NAU-OSU Rematch Should Be Incredible

NAU beat OSU on a tiebreaker a year ago and both teams are loaded again

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They have been running the NCAA Cross Country Championships since 1938. Few, if any of them, were more dramatic than the 2022 edition, which saw Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State finish level with 83 points. It came down to a controversial tiebreaker, with NAU prevailing to win its third straight national title — on OSU’s home course, no less. It was cross country at its finest.

“I pretend like I’m bitter about it,” says OK State coach Dave Smith, one year later. “I’m not. That thing was awesome. It was awesome for the sport to have a race that close.”

It is greedy to expect the 2023 NCAA meet, which will be held at the University of Virginia’s Panorama Farms course on Saturday, to exceed last year’s race. But the stage is set for an epic rematch.

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Six years ago, after NAU won its second straight national title in Louisville, we wondered if the Lumberjacks were poised for a dynastic run (LRC from 2017 Is Northern Arizona Poised for A Three-Peat? Are We Witnessing The Building of A Dynasty in Flagstaff?). The ingredients were in place: a perfect training environment in Flagstaff (elevation: 6,909 feet) and a top coach in Mike Smith who knew how to take advantage of it. Once NAU started winning, the recruits (and high-impact transfers) began flowing and so did the titles. Northern Arizona has won six of the last seven NCAA championships — or more than Colorado or Wisconsin has in the entire history of those storied programs.

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NAU has another title-worthy team in 2023. The Lumberjacks return their top four men from last year’s championship squad, including Nico Young and Drew Bosley, who finished 2nd and 3rd overall. And they replaced fifth man George Kusche, a Nebraska transfer who finished 39th last year, with Aaron Las Heras, a Wake Forest transfer who finished 26th last year.

OK State figured to take a step back following last year’s near-miss as Isai Rodriguez (8th NCAAs) graduated and Rory Leonard (32nd) turned professional. Instead, the Cowboys reloaded.

“I learned last year, the old adage is true that if you’re going to beat the champ, you’ve gotta knock them out,” Dave Smith says. “You can’t leave a decision to the judges, which is kind of what we did. We tied and ended up losing.”

Smith has spent the past 12 months assembling a team capable of delivering the decisive blow. He brought in two Kenyans who have had an immediate impact in their first season stateside: Denis Kipngetich won the Cowboy Jamboree and Midwest Regional while Brian Musau won the Big 12 title. Another new addition, Israel’s Adisu Guadie, who owns a 28:17 10k pb, just finished 5th at the Midwest Regional. Add them to Alex Maier (5th at ’22 NCAA XC) and Fouad Messaoudi (12th at ’22 NCAA XC, NCAA 3k champ) and the Cowboys could be even better than last year.

It could be a shootout in Virginia, though the NCAA meet has a habit of going off-script. The pre-race favorite before last year’s NAU-OSU duel? Stanford, who had an off day and wound up 4th.

“It happens every year, whether it be Wisconsin or Arkansas or Stanford or UNC, or whoever,” says Dave Smith. “Texas. One of these teams that’s kind of lurking in the weeds is going to jump up and scare all of us. Syracuse has shown some flashes this year…It’s never a two-team race. And if it is, it’s rare that it’s the two teams that people think it’s going to be.”

With that in mind, here’s a preview of this year’s meet, with a look at NAU, OK State, and the teams that could play spoiler.

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

NAU machine has kept rolling in 2023

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While it’s misleading to call NAU’s win last year an upset, there were plenty of reasons to doubt the Lumberjacks heading into the 2022 NCAA meet. Typically, NAU rolls through the regular season but in 2022, they only finished 3rd in their two main regular-season meets, the Cowboy Jamboree and Nuttycombe Invitational.

“I just didn’t have their legs underneath them in the middle of the season,” Mike Smith said. “I made some mistakes in training and that was on me.”

There have been no such concerns in 2023. NAU won the Virginia Invitational in September despite resting Young, Las Heras, and two-time All-American Brodey Hasty. At the Nuttycombe Invitational, a full-strength NAU rolled over the field, scoring 76 points — or 86 fewer than runner-up BYU, currently ranked #3 in the country.

Heading into the last two NCAA meets, the concern for Northern Arizona centered around their #5 runner: would someone step up and deliver? Brodey Hasty did in 2021, and Santiago Prosser more than delivered in 2022 (he actually finished as NAU’s #3 in 19th).

It’s not as if those concerns are absent — this is cross country, anyone can have a bad race — but the Lumberjacks have more answers than in previous years. NAU has three men who are very likely to score for them on Saturday (Young, Bosley, Las Heras) and six more who could finish anywhere from #3 to #7 (obviously only 4 of them can run). Here are their options:

  • Santiago Prosser (7:59/13:46 pbs): 19th at NCAA XC last year, 29th at ’23 Nuttycombe.
  • Brodey Hasty (7:49/13:42): Sixth-year senior always delivers at NCAAs and has improved in each of his four appearances: 46th, 44th, 39th, 25th (the COVID-delayed 2020 championships didn’t count against anyone’s eligibility, meaning Hasty gets to run his 5th NCAA XC champs on Saturday).
  • Theo Quax (7:49/13:29): Sixth-year senior has never finished in the top 100 at NCAAs but his ’23 XC season has been his best yet — he was NAU’s #2 at Virginia Invite (6th overall) and NAU’s #4 at Nuttycombe (25th).
  • Kang Nyoak (8:00/13:42): Born in Ethiopia to Sudanese parents, Nyoak moved to Australia at age 8 and is now based in Flagstaff. Only 70th at Nuttycombe but coming off a breakout 5th-place finish at the Mountain Regional.
  • Corey Gorgas (13:49): Gorgas was 33rd at Nuttycombe but NAU is so deep he didn’t even score for them at that meet.
  • Colin Sahlman (3:38/13:42): Sahlman was the top recruit in the high school class of 2022, but he’s a luxury on this team. He was their 8th man at conference (11th overall) and 7th man at regionals and probably won’t even run NCAAs.

This is also an incredibly experienced team. NAU’s prospective top five of Young, Bosley, Las Heras, Prosser, and Hasty have combined for 10 All-American honors in 15 NCAA appearances. Nico Young, in his fourth year of college, is still one of the younger guys on the team; Las Heras, Hasty and Quax are all in their sixth year in the NCAA, and Nyoak, who turns 24 in March, is the same age. The most impressive part of NAU’s dynasty is the team’s ability to consistently peak properly for the NCAA meet, and with such a battle-tested group, it’s a good bet the Lumberjacks do so again this weekend.

After staying at home for most of the season, OSU gets its biggest test

OK State’s Four Horsemen: Alex Maier, Fouad Messaoudi, Denis Kipngetich, & Brian Musau (Courtesy Oklahoma State XC/T&F)

There’s a lot to like about this Oklahoma State team. To win NCAAs, you need at least one top-10 finisher, and often two. Between Denis Kipngetich, Brian Musau, Alex Maier, and Fouad Messaoudi, OK State has four guys with the potential to finish in the top 10. They have the horses to run with NAU up front.

Like his counterpart in Flagstaff, OSU coach Dave Smith has some options when it comes to rounding out his squad. Essentially, he has three cracks at finding a fifth man who can finish in the 30s or 40s. These are his options:

  • Victor Shitsama (13:53/28:51 pbs): 34th, 29th, and 31st in three NCAA apperances but is coming off an awful 45th place at Big 12s (he was 4th overall at the Cowboy Jamboree in his only other xc race this year)
  • Adisu Guadie (28:17): Came to OSU in August after finishing his stint in the Israel Defense Forces. Only OSU’s 8th man at Big 12s (22nd overall) but improved to their #4 (5th overall) at Midwest Regional.
  • Will Muirhead (7:52/13:55): OSU’s #4 at Big 12s (8th overall) but did not run well at regionals and wound up a DNF.
  • Jonas Price (8:11/8:46 steeple): OSU’s #5 at Big 12s (9th overall).
  • Ryan Schoppe (3:37/13:37): 53rd at NCAA XC last fall and anchored OSU to NCAA DMR title in March. He’s healthy and fit but hasn’t raced this fall — does Smith pull his redshirt?

On paper, it’s hard to separate NAU and OSU. Both have a cadre of stars and enough upside on the back end that someone should step up. The difference could come down to experience.

Oklahoma State has beaten good teams this season. At the Cowboy Jamboree on September 23, they beat #5 Texas, 26-32 — and that was without Messaoudi or Maier. And they crushed #3 BYU at the Big 12 meet, 25-55, even with a bad day from Kipngetich, who was 14th. BYU is traditionally one of the deepest teams in America and OSU put five men in front of BYU’s #3 at Big 12s. That’s impressive.

But neither of those meets does a good job of simulating the chaos and depth of the NCAA meet, and OSU skipped the Nuttycombe meet to run an intrasquad race on their home course instead. NCAAs will be just the second time this year that OSU has raced outside of Stillwater. Of course, OSU skipped the big midseason invitationals in 2021 and 2022 and still ran well at NCAAs each year. There’s no denying NAU has the experience advantage — Kipngetich, Musau, and Guadie have never run NCAAs before — which means it’s Smith’s job to make sure his guys stay calm when faced with the deepest field of the season on Saturday.

“For all of these guys that haven’t been through a couple of battles, it can be tough,” Smith says. “Sometimes it’s hard for guys to get in the middle of a race, be redlining and look up and see 50 guys in front of them…What we keep talking about is, no one is entitled to anything. You have to go out and earn it. You have to understand that there’s 200 other guys out there who think they can be top-40, and they’re all fighting for it.”

Who could crash the party?

#3 BYU (2nd Nuttycombe, 2nd Big 12s)

BYU was 3rd last year and has finished in the top seven every year since 2016. The Cougars were 2nd at Nuttycombe this year and could still be a podium team, but their ceiling has been limited in 2023 by the loss of Casey Clinger (7th at ’22 NCAAs) and Dalvin Thompson (30th at ’22 NCAAs), who have not raced all fall, presumably due to injury.

#4 North Carolina (10th Nuttycombe, 1st ACCs)

UNC has run three great races at the Virginia Invitational (3rd behind NAU and BYU), ACCs (1st), and the Southeast Regional (1st with 37 points) and one bad one at Nuttycombe (10th, 399 points). North Carolina has one of the best 1-2 punches in the nation with Parker Wolfe (9th ’22 NCAAs, ’23 ACC champ) and Alex Phillip, a grad transfer who was a two-time NCAA DIII XC champ at John Carroll. But their margin for error is thin. Ethan Strand and Jake Gebhardt are very capable #3/#4 runners, but when Gebhardt had a bad day at Nuttycombe, there was no one to pick up the slack and UNC tumbled down the standings. Colton Sands (29th ACCs, 18th Southeast Regional) has stepped up the last two meets but can he do it on the big stage?

#5 Wisconsin (1st Big 10s)

If there’s a team capable of winning it all from outside of the top two, Wisconsin might be the best bet. Wisconsin scored 19 points to win its conference meet, the lowest score at that meet since the last Big 10 team to win it all (Wisconsin in 2011). Its top five of Bob Liking (three-time Big 10 XC champ), Jackson Sharp (13:26 pb, 3rd NCAA 5k), Adam Spencer (3rd NCAA 1500, 3:31 pb), Evan Bishop (7:58/13:45), and Rowan Ellenberg (7:58/13:46) is formidable. Wisconsin was beaten by an impressive Butler team at the Great Lakes Regional, but Wisconsin went 1-2-6 up front and rested Bishop/Ellenberg.

There are a couple of concerns. The big one is whether Wisconsin can repeat its Big 10 performance. The last two years, the Badgers have run their best race of the year at Big 10s rather than NCAAs. Coach Mick Byrne tried something new this year by punting on his own meet, the Nuttycombe Invitational (the Badgers finished 22nd with a skeleton squad), in order to peak for NCAAs. We’ll see on Saturday whether the adjustment worked.

The other question is whether the 1500 specialist Spencer can hold up to two 10ks in nine days. He has run well in XC (6th and 5th at Big 10s the last two years) but was 188th at NCAA XC last year at OK State.

JG prediction

The battle for the podium in Virginia should be incredibly fierce. Syracuse is currently ranked 15th in the country, yet it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Orange finish 4th. Texas, Arkansas, Butler, Stanford…all potential podium teams.

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But when it comes to the victory, even BYU/UNC/Wisconsin are long shots. It’s possible that OSU or NAU has an off day and finishes 3rd or 4th, but NCAA XC is not a meet prone to massive upsets. Seventeen of the last 20 NCAA champions (85%) have entered NCAAs ranked either #1 or #2. The biggest upset in that span was Colorado’s famous victory over Wisconsin in 2004, when the Buffaloes were ranked #4, and the only other teams to win ranked outside the top two were #3 BYU in 2019 and #3 Colorado in 2013.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Smith decides to play this race. Last year, just as he did in 2017, Smith sent his top two of Nico Young and Drew Bosley to the front early and had them string out the field. Will he try that again on Saturday? And if so, will any OSU runners go with them? Last year, Alex Maier and Isai Rodgriguez opted to hang back in the second pack, and while they both finished well, a fading Bosley hung onto third, giving NAU a crucial cushion up front.

There is very little to pick betweeen NAU and OSU. Here’s how I’d project their top sevens on Saturday.

Runner NAU OSU Edge
#1 Nico Young Denis Kipngetich Slight NAU
#2 Drew Bosley Alex Maier Slight NAU
#3 Aaron Las Heras Brian Musau OSU
#4 Santiago Prosser Fouad Messaoudi OSU
#5 Brodey Hasty Victor Shitsama NAU
#6 Kang Nyoak Adisu Guadie Even
#7 Theo Quax Will Muirhead NAU

OSU has the stronger top four, but I have NAU slightly ahead overall, and if one of NAU’s stars runs poorly, they’re in a better position to absorb a bad day. I also trust Hasty to run better than Shitsama. Both are NCAA veterans and Shitsama has beaten Hasty all three times they’ve raced at NCAAs, but his 45th-place finish at Big 12s — his only result since September — has me worried he may not be the same runner this fall. But if Musau/Messaoudi can beat Las Heras/Prosser by 5 places each — not a stretch at all — that could open the cushion OK State needs to win its first title since 2012. It’s really, really close.

And when it’s that close, I have to go with NAU. Time and again, the Lumberjacks have run their best race of the season at NCAAs. Nico Young has run three NCAA meets, finished 4th, 11th, and 2nd, and won three team titles. Bosley and Hasty will both be running in their fifth NCAA XC champs on Saturday. They know exactly what it takes to succeed on this stage. OSU’s best-case scenario is probably a little better than NAU’s, and it’s not as if OSU has a history of bombing NCAAs — they’ve made the podium in each of the last three years and ran easily their best race of the season at NCAAs last year. But I trust NAU a little more.

I picked against NAU in 2021 and 2022 and they made me look foolish. I won’t do it again: NAU will win its fourth straight national title this weekend.

1. NAU 2. OK State 3. Wisconsin 4. BYU

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Women’s Preview: 2023 NCAA XC Women’s Preview: Surging NAU Tries to Derail NC State 3-Peat No women’s team has three-peated since Stanford (2005-07) while the NAU women have never won NCAA XC. Will one of those droughts change on Saturday?

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