2023 NCAA XC: NC State’s Strange Victory, Colorado’s Year from Hell, and Should UVA Host Again?By Jonathan Gault
The 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships are in the books, and the biggest stories have been told. We recapped both the men’s and women’s races on Saturday and shared some thoughts on the champs: Graham Blanks and the Oklahoma State men, Parker Valby and the North Carolina State women.
But so much happens during the NCAA meet that it’s impossible to analyze it all at once. With a few more days to break everything down, here are seven more observations on the 2023 NCAA XC champs.
1) Familiar company at the top of the men’s race
The top five schools in the men’s race on Saturday were, in order: OK State, Northern Arizona, BYU, Arkansas, and Iowa State. Does that sound familiar? It should. All of those teams have finished in the top five at least three times in the last five years, with OK State making its fourth straight podium appearance and NAU notching its eighth straight top-two finish.
During that span, six schools have combined to earn 21 of the 25 top-five places on offer:
Top-5 NCAA men’s finishes, 2019-23
OK State: 4
Arkansas, BYU, Iowa State, Stanford: 3
Colorado, Tulsa, Notre Dame, Wake Forest: 1
Rest of NCAA combined: 0
The most surprising member of that elite six is Iowa State. While the Cyclones do have some history in cross country – they were NCAA champs in 1989 and 1994 – they missed NCAAs six years in a row from 2010-15. But Martin Smith got Iowa State to the podium in 2019, and Smith’s former assistant Jeremy Sudbury has built upon his success after Smith was let go in the summer of 2021. Iowa State was a surprising 2nd in 2021, and what the Cyclones did in 2023 may have been an even bigger shock.
After failing to qualify for NCAAs last year, Iowa State was ranked just 25th in the 2023 preseason coaches’ poll and just 17th heading into NCAAs – a fair ranking considering the Cyclones were 13th at Nuttycombe and a distant 4th at Big 12s. Yet somehow, Iowa State finished 5th overall.
How did they do it? Like conference rival OK State, Iowa State got huge runs from a pair of first-year NCAA runners. South African Sanele Masondo and Kenyan Rodgers Kiplimo (also listed as Rodgers Rotich) went 1-2 at last year’s NJCAA Championships – that’s junior college. Kiplimo transferred to Iowa State in January, while Masondo joined him in the summer of 2023. They finished as the Cyclones’ top two runners on Saturday in 16th and 37th. That doesn’t sound too crazy on paper, but their progressions this season have been insane. When the two ran on the NCAA course eight weeks earlier at the Virginia Invite, neither cracked the top 100.
|Athlete||Virginia Invite||Nuttycombe||Big 12s||Midwest Regional||NCAAs|
Iowa State coach Jeremy Sudbury told LetsRun that Kiplimo missed almost all of August while recovering from an Achilles injury and they chose to bring him along slowly throughout the season. Sudbury said Masondo was not injured but took some time to adjust to Iowa State’s training and got COVID after Nuttycombe.
“We train heavy for most of the season in preparation for the jump to 10k,” Sudbury wrote in a text message to LetsRun. “In my opinion, 8k and 10k are completely different races. If you run 8k on Saturday, we don’t get 5th. It’s mentally and physically so much more daunting of a task than ripping through 5k and hanging on for 3 more.”
2) There was a huge gap between the top two teams and everyone else in 2023
After the race, we noted how NAU had one of its best performances ever at the NCAA meet but were beaten by an even better performance by Oklahoma State. Here’s how far ahead of everyone else they were:
-OSU’s #5, Alex Maier, finished 15th overall
-NAU’s #5, Brodey Hasty, finished 25th overall
-BYU’s #1, James Corrigan, finished 32nd overall
Why is that notable? BYU finished 3rd in the team standings. So the best runner on the 3rd-best team in the country would not even score for either of the top two teams.
3) NC State’s strange but true title
The NC State women’s winning score of 114 points in 2022 was already on the high side. In the previous eight championships from 2014-21, 114 would have been enough to win just once, in 2016. So if we told you the following things would be true in 2023, it would not have looked good for an NC State three-peat:
-NC State would score more points than they did in 2022
-Katelyn Tuohy would finish lower than she did in 2022
-Amaris Tyynismaa and Samantha Bush would both finish 10+ places lower than they did in 2022
-Kelsey Chmiel, 3rd overall in 2022, would not run at all
-NC State’s #4 and #5 runners, freshmen Leah Stephens and Grace Hartman, would combine to lose 19 places over the final kilometer
All that added up to 123 points for NC State, but it was still good enough to win as #1 NAU had an off day. In cross country, you don’t need to have your best race in order to win. You just need to have a better race than everyone else.
4) Tennessee women finish 6th in first NCAA appearance since 2006 – oh, and their #1 runner only has one arm
When Sean Carlson left Notre Dame to take over as Tennessee distance coach in the summer of 2022, the Tennessee men hadn’t been to NCAA XC since 2005 and the Tennessee women hadn’t been since 2006. Carlson took the Volunteer men to NCAAs in year 1 (they finished 20th in 2022 and 26th in 2023) and the Volunteer women to NCAAs in year 2, where they finished 6th overall, the team’s best result since 1989.
Carlson developed a reputation as a top recruiter while at Notre Dame, and his first recruiting class in Knoxville was enormous: Tennessee currently has 19 true freshmen listed on its 2023 women’s cross country roster. That class is already paying dividends as three of the Volunteers five scorers on Saturday – Jillian Candelino (72nd), Caroline Lyerly (91st), and Jessie Secor (113th) – are true freshmen. Secor attended duPont Manual High School in Louisville – the alma mater of US mile record holder Yared Nuguse, who starred for Carlson at Notre Dame.
But Tennessee’s biggest addition was transfer Ashley Jones from High Point, who went from 39th at the Southeast Regional last year to 42nd on Saturday in her first NCAA appearance. A great run made even more remarkable by the fact that Jones accomplished it with only one arm: most of her right arm had to be amputated below the shoulder after an ATV accident in 2016.
The Florida women are another team that made a big turnaround this year. After missing the last four NCAA meets, Florida finished 5th this year under coach Will Palmer, who came on board in January 2023. The Gators had three transfers in their top five and might have finished on the podium had another transfer, Amelia Mazza-Downie (22nd at NCAAs last year), not DNF’d.
5) Colorado posts its worst men’s performance of the Wetmore era
Mark Wetmore has been at Colorado for 32 seasons, the last 29 of those as head coach. During that span, the Buffaloes have been the most consistent XC program in America: since Wetmore came aboard as a volunteer assistant in 1992, Colorado has qualified for every NCAA XC champs on the men’s side and has only missed one on the women’s side (2008).
And the Buffaloes are not just there to make up the numbers. From 2011-22, the men finished in the top 10 in 11 of 12 years, with seven podium appearances and two titles. On the women’s side, CU posted top-10 finishes in 10 of 12 years, with four podium appearances and one title.
But 2023 has been one of the program’s most trying years. In June, Colorado released the findings of an internal investigation into the cross country and track program that found the team’s body composition testing practices “negatively impacted a significant number of student-athletes.” And at NCAAs this fall, Colorado posted its worst performances in years. The women were 19th, their lowest finish since 2012, while the men were 25th, the worst performance of the Wetmore era.
Almost every program endures a down year at some point – we’re just not used to seeing one from Colorado. The women were hurt by injuries – Wetmore told LetsRun in September that their roster, which included Bailey Hertenstein (5th in ‘22) and Natalie Cook (7th in ‘22) was one of CU’s best ever, but neither woman raced at all this fall. Had those two women replicated their 2022 finishes, Colorado would have been in the hunt for the team title. The men could take longer to rebound; either way, it’s going to be interesting to see what comes next for Colorado and Wetmore, who turned 70 in June.
6) Biggest over/underachievers at NCAAs
Every year, we like to take a look at the teams who over/underachieved the most at the NCAA meet. Here were the biggest differences between teams’ pre-race ranking in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll and their finish in Charlottesville.
Wisconsin doesn’t fit in this category as the Badgers only fell five spots (entered ranked 5th, finished 10th). But we should mention that Wisconsin chose to sit most of its top group when it hosted the Nuttycombe Invitational on October 13 in order to peak for NCAAs and still wound up underperforming.
What about since the start of the season? Were there any teams the coaches completely overrated or did not see coming at all?
On the men’s side, Oregon (15th) and Washington (18th) were both top-20 preseason teams that failed to even make it to NCAAs, while Arkansas (ranked 20th, finished 4th) and Iowa State (ranked 25th, finished 5th) both drastically overperformed relative to preseason expectations.
The women’s preseason poll was stunningly accurate. The first poll, released on August 30, nailed the top four schools, in order: NC State, NAU, OK State, Notre Dame. The next few spots did not fare as well: #5 Colorado wound up 19th at NCAAs while #6 North Carolina did not even qualify. #16 Ohio State and #20 Oregon State were other highly-ranked preseason teams who did not make it to the meet. On the other end, Tennessee did not receive a single vote in the poll and wound up 6th at NCAAs.
7) Thoughts on the fan experience
Saturday was the first time NCAAs had been in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic in 30 years, and the turnout was strong. The announced attendance of 6,723 was one of the biggest in years. That’s one of the biggest editions in recent years – here’s what the USTFCCCA reported for paid attendance from 2018-22 (note: the 6,723 is total attendance, which included athletes/coaches/staff; paid attendance for 2023 was around 5,000).
Here are the attendance figures from the five previous @NCAATrackField DI Cross Country Championships.
2018 – 4,030 (Madison, Wisc.)
2019 – 2.977 (Terre Haute, Ind.)
2020 – Limited (Stillwater, Okla.)
2021 – 2,449 (Tallahassee, Fla.)
2022 – 3,240 (Stillwater, Okla.)
— USTFCCCA (@USTFCCCA) November 16, 2023
I asked those in attendance for their thoughts on the meet. The consensus:
-The course itself was championship-worthy and located in a picturesque location
-The course was spectator-friendly, allowing fans to easily see the athletes multiple times throughout the race
-Many fans complained that the lines waiting for a shuttle bus to leave the course were too long
-Many fans also said that despite the meet being billed as a sellout, they never had to show their ticket to board the bus or enter the course
-Concessions were severely limited
-Only one (understaffed) merchandise tent, which created a very long line
There was some confusion when UVA announced on Thursday that the meet was sold-out. How can a cross country meet sell out?
Well, the meet sold out because UVA decided to put a cap on spectators, and it proved to be a wise decision. There were complaints about the merchandise tent, concessions, and shuttle wait times after selling 5,000 tickets; all of those areas would have been even worse with more people on the course.
My thoughts? The consternation about the sellout is overblown. It’s unfortunate that some fans who wanted to attend were unable to, but it also demonstrates high demand, and that’s a good thing. Plus every school had the opportunity to buy four tickets per athlete, which means there should not have been any parents who were shut out of the process.
Because there is only one way onto the course across a single-lane bridge and limited parking on-site, shuttles are a necessity, and that is not changing if UVA hosts again. The NCAA has to decide whether that tradeoff – capping attendance and relying on shuttles – is worth it to host the meet at a fantastic course near one of the most densely-populated regions of the country. I’d argue it is worth it, and now local fans will know to get their tickets early (and UVA knows to prepare more merchandise/concession options).
Not that NCAAs needs to return immediately. This is a meet that should move around the country, and there are plenty of championship-worthy venues that have been willing to host in recent years. Terre Haute always does a good job. The 2018 meet in Madison (a terrific college town) was among the best NCAAs I’ve been to and I expect more of the same when Madison hosts again next year. Tallahassee and Stillwater both worked fine in 2021 and 2022. And how about a meet out West? The meet hasn’t been west of the Rockies since Tucson hosted in 1996.