NCAA XC Championship Preview: Men's Teams Nos. 10-1

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Originally published on FloTrack

No. 10 UCLA

Region: West, 3rd
Conference: Pac-12, 3rd

The UCLA men haven't finished in the top ten at NCAAs since 1982. Meb Keflezighi's current coach, Bob Larsen, was the coach then; Meb was seven years old at the time.  This Bruin team could do it, though---the eight teams they've lost to are all ranked in the top nine. A great day from say, Oregon, Oklahoma State, or Virginia could keep UCLA out of the top ten, but a simply good day from UCLA should probably be enough.

No. 9 Portland

Region: West, 2nd
Conference: West Coast, 2nd

Portland didn't make NCAAs in 2015, but they're back after top ten finishes in 2013 and 2014. The Pilots were easily handled by BYU and Stanford at their regional and conference meets, so everything would probably have to go right for them to make the podium. But! After only six men finished at Wisconsin---and No. 6 finished 49 places behind No. 5---the Pilots have refashioned themselves into the exact type of team that can capitalize on the chaos of nationals. 

At conferences, Portland's No. 5 was just 20 seconds ahead of their No. 7; at regionals, their No. 5 was just 10 seconds ahead of No. 7. That's the exact type of team that is built to survive nationals, where the middle third or so of the team places are often determined by who has the least go wrong. Portland can essentially survive two runners having an off day. 

No. 8 Mississippi

Region: South, 1st
Conference: SEC, 2nd

2014 was the first time Mississippi ever made XC nationals, and they finished 29th. 2015 was the second time they ever made it; after starting the preseason ranked fifth, they finished 30th. This year, though, coach Ryan Vanhoy's squad has been more consistent than ever. After strong but mercurial results at Notre Dame and Penn State, the same five men have made up their top five at conferences and regionals: Sean Tobin, MJ Erb, Robert Domanic, Craig Engels, and Wes Gallagher. 

Erb, Engels, Domanic, and Tobin all ran at NCAAs last fall, with only Tobin finishing in the top 150. A year later, all four could finish in the top 100 and make Mississippi a fringe podium threat.

No. 7 Iona 

Region: Northeast, 2nd
Conference: MAAC, 1st

Iona has been fifth, eighth, sixth, sixth, 29th, ninth, eighth, second, second, and third the last ten years. In other words, they'll be exactly where they almost always are: between third and ninth.

No. 6 Syracuse 

Region: Northeast, 1st
Conference: ACC, 1st

Syracuse is in a weird place---they're the defending national champions, running about as well as they were last year---and they've lost to three teams and are in no way the favorites on Saturday. That's because last year's title was largely due to a perfect last two kilometers from Philo Germano, who moved up from 53rd to 39th in the last 2K and clinched a nine-point win for the Orange. Germano is actually running *better* than he was at this point last year. He was 89th at Wisconsin, 15th at ACCs, and 15th at regionals before taking 39th at nationals. He's been 28th, 9th, and 9th at those three meets this year.

If 89 + 15 + 15 = 39 applies to the rest of the Syracuse squad in 2016, then they could pull off a second straight shocker. Justyn Knight is a lock for a top-five finish. Colin Bennie was fourth at conferences and second at regionals before taking eighth at nationals last year; he was fifth and second at conferences and regionals this year. Joel Hubbard was 35th at conferences and 11th at regionals before taking 47th at nationals last year; he was eighth and tenth at conferences and regionals this year. 

So Bennie, Hubbard, Knight, and Germano are on par or ahead of where they were at this point last year; let's say they pick up five points in aggregate from last year's 4-9-39-47. 

That leaves one enormous hole to fill: Martin Hehir's ninth-place finish as the No. 3 man last year. 

Hehir was fifth at ACCs and third in the Northeast region before taking ninth in the nation last year. Illiass Aouani was sixth and seventh at those two meets, so not that far off..but ninth is a little far-fetched. Syracuse's best hope for repeating is a high-scoring meet and A+ races from Aouani, Germano, and Hubbard in the 25-40 range.

No. 5 BYU

Region: Mountain, 3rd
Conference: West Coast, 1st

BYU has only lost to Northern Arizona, Colorado, and Stanford this year. It seems like this team is a return to their 2011-13 peak in which they finished fourth, sixth, and fourth. The Cougars have been out of the top ten the last two years and will certainly return this year.

Their depth is so good that if Saturday turns out to be a 2013-esque bloodbath with a winning score over 140, BYU could shock people. Only NAU has BYU's depth through seven runners. BYU had the top No. 7 at Panorama Farms (over Syracuse), the second-best No. 7 at Wisconsin (over everyone but NAU), and the best in the Mountain Region (over Colorado, NAU only ran six men). In the event that Saturday is a muddy, weird mess---the forecast right now is dry Saturday, but rain Friday---BYU has the most cards to play.

No. 4 Arkansas

Region: South Central, 1st
Conference: SEC, 1st

We have seen Arkansas' full team exactly once this year, at the SEC meet. Austen Dalquist, who finished between Colorado's Ben Saarel and Zach Perrin at Pre-Nats, didn't run regionals. And Andrew Ronoh, who was top six at SECs and regionals, didn't run Pre-Nats.

If Ronoh ran Pre-Nats, Arkansas would be undefeated at this point, and the national title conversation might be a little different. The Razorbacks' potential top five of Alex George, Jack Bruce, Frankline Tonui, Ronoh, and Dalquist is lethal.

That's the one knock on Arkansas, though---they have zero margin for error. At regionals, there was 51 seconds between their Nos. 4 and 5; at Pre-Nats, there was 24 seconds from No. 4 to No. 5. This team goes exactly five deep. But if coach Chris Bucknam's plan of strategically resting Ronoh and Dalquist works, and all five men are on on Saturday, then this is a surefire podium team.

No. 3 Stanford

Region: West, 1st
Conference: Pac-12, 2nd

Stanford has the most that can go right, and the most that can go wrong. Grant Fisher and Sean McGorty are potentially the best 1-2 punch in the nation---but McGorty has been slowly going backwards this season, taking sixth at Wisconsin, seventh at Pac-12s, and ninth at regionals. (Though regionals was a conservative pack run.) Thomas Ratcliffe could be one of the best No. 3 runners in the nation---but he's a freshman who has never run a 10K in his life. Garrett Sweatt, Jack Keelan, Alex Ostberg, and Steven Fahy give Stanford four men good enough to be No. 4/5 runners on a championship team---but they scored higher in those two spots than NAU and BYU did at Wisconsin and Colorado did at Pac-12s.

If Ratcliffe is as good as promised and Garrett Sweatt does roughly what he's done at nationals the last two years (64th and 68th), then Stanford is maybe one man away from a title. If Sweatt is in the 60s, then one of Keelan/Ostberg/Fahy needs to finish in the 30s to give Stanford a shot; if Sweatt is significantly better than that, then obviously that gives the other three some more wiggle room.

Colorado and Stanford are the only two men's teams to have stood on the podium the last two years. The Cardinal are definitely good enough make their third straight podium. The real question is if they will win.

No. 2 Colorado

Region: Mountain, 2nd
Conference: Pac-12, 1st

If Stanford can do it, Colorado can too. The Buffaloes pulled off a shocking upset at Pac-12s, beating Stanford, Oregon, and UCLA after losing to the Ducks at Pre-Nats.

And yes, the Mountain Region meet was likely a conservative run for the top three teams. But Colorado had very, very few points from their regular season, and needed to auto-qualify to be 100% certain that they were going to Terre Haute. And they got the job done, beating BYU---a team that had only lost to NAU and Stanford---for second.

But this is an unpredictable team. Check out their scorers at their major meets:

Mountain Region: Klecker, Dressel, Perrin, Saarel, Forsyth
Pac-12: Saarel, Perrin, Dressel, Forsyth, Klecker
Pre-Nats: Forsyth, Klecker, Dressel, Saarel, Perrin

That variability hasn't hurt them so far. But if one of the five is off on Saturday, Colorado is probably limited to a podium spot. If they're all on, then they're well-positioned to win if NAU falters.

No. 1 Northern Arizona

Region: Mountain, 1st
Conference: Big Sky, 1st

Matt Baxter, Tyler Day, and Geordie Beamish have never run NCAAs; Cory Glines and Andy Trouard have never finished in the top 190. But if they simply run the way they've been running this year, combined with Futsum Zienasellassie's low stick, they should deliver coach Eric Heins a title in his final race.

Baxter, Day, and Glines were all in the top 20 at Wisconsin, with Beamish just seven seconds behind Glines. That's a much better performance than Syracuse put up in Madison before winning nationals last fall.

Wisconsin was a slow-starting race, Big Sky lacked depth, and regionals was probably a semi-conservative performance. But: at all three races, their No. 5 was within 33 seconds off Zienasellassie. 

Pegging Zienasellassie at third last year, that would have put NAU's entire top five in the top 32. That is good enough to win an NCAA championship nearly every single year.

If the Lumberjacks deliver, it'll be a fairytale ending for coach Eric Heins, who is leaving the program at the end of the season to move with his wife to Houston. Get to know the NAU program better in parts one and two of our documentary about them.