In 2012, the Oklahoma State Cowboys won their third team title in four years. The Wisconsin Badgers were the team that prevented the OSU from making the 2012 win their fourth in a row. With the Badgers losing their top three stud All-Americans in Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Reed Connor, the door is even more wide open than it already was for Dave Smith's squad to bring back another victory to Stillwater.
Below are the names of the national championship team and what place they got at the NCAA Championship in Louisville, Kentucky last year.
5) Girma Mecheso
9) Tom Farrell
18) Shadrak Kipchirchir
24) Joseph Manilafasha
53) Shane Moskowitz
102) Kirubel Erassa
164) Fabian Clarkson
Of that team, top dog Girma Mecheso and Fabian Clarkson are the only runners not returning.
Filling Mecheso's shoes will be tough, but the Pokes proved to have replaced all-time greats before.
Coach Dave Smith remembers that morning. "If you look at John Stublaski, German Fernandez, and Colby Lowe, there's been a lot of All-Americans in that group that when they left I thought, 'Crud, what are we going to do without those guys next year?'"
Answer: faith in the returners. That same faith will be needed since the Cowboys lost their low stick, but the difference this year is that Mecheso is the only member of the guys that scored at NCAAs who is not returning. If they won the team title the year after losing three All-Americans, then they can most likely do so with losing only one (the next three Cowboys after Mecheso earned All-American honors as well last year). Especially since 2012 was their best year at the National Championship in terms of points scored.
2012: 72 points
2010: 73 points
2009: 127 points
Don't think defending their team title will be any walk in the park. With teams like Northern Arizona (fourth at '12 NCAAs) returning their top seven, Colorado (third at '12 NCAAs) returning six of their top seven and Oregon recently adding Eric Jenkins to their squad, Oklahoma State has their work cut out for them.
Unlike any of those other teams just mentioned, none of the returning Cowboys who competed at last year's NCAAs were freshman, giving them the most experience of the top teams vying for a title. In fact, there have only been three true freshman that have competed for Oklahoma State under Dave Smith at the NCAA Championship: Brian Ellis in 2003 and German Fernandez and Colby Lowe, both in 2008.
"It's a lot like a quarterback in the NCAA, you go in and think, 'I gotta earn my stripes and cut my chops on the scout team and then be second string, then maybe I'll be a starter by the time I'm a junior or senior,'" said Smith.
While it is unlikely for a freshman to run at NCAAs, there are some new Cowboys who aren't rookies - the transfers who can make an immediate impact.
Chad Noelle, a sophomore transfer from Oregon (he spent two years at Oregon, but only competed in cross country last year), and a Binghamton, NY native has proved he has a set of wheels on the track with his 3:41 1,500m. His mid-distance speed and the fact he has only run one collegiate cross country race before this season might be reason to second-guess his ability on the cross country course, but Coach Smith doesn't seem to think so.
"I don't care if you're a miler or a 10k guy or whatever, if you're a runner, you can run. And he's a runner. It wouldn't shock me to see him in our top 5. It wouldn't shock me to see him be an All-American this year in cross country."
This statement from Smith is not surprising at all considering his ability to have great milers perform extremely well in the fall. Last indoor season, five Cowboys ran sub-4:00 in the mile. Four of those guys competed on the team that won the national title in Louisville.
Noelle will fit right in. Not just physically, but also a member of his new team.
"From what I can tell, Chad Noelle is a born Cowboy," said Smith. "It's like he's been here all along. He has blended in immediately."
In addition to Noelle, it appears that Smith will bring in some more foreign talent in Kenyan transfer, Charles Mathenge.
Editor's Note: OSU also brings in another foreign talent, who just so happens to be a miler. Watch out for Matthew Fayes from Ickenham, England. Here's a clip of his bio from OSU: "As a 17-year-old, Fayers ran the 800m in 1:50, the full mile in 4:01. He also posted a 3:45 in the 1500m... [and] joins the Cowboys after capturing the national title in thr 1500m at the British Athletics Senior European Indoor Trials and UK Championships in 2013."
Couple these stellar transfers with returners like Craig Nowak and redshirt sophomore Brian Gohlke, and there is no doubt the Cowboys will be incredibly deep. With that being said, it is not guaranteed who will be toeing the line in Terre Haute come late November.
Smith said this about Nowak, "That's a guy, just like Gohlke, who could jump up and be in the top forty, fifty, sixty [at NCAAs], or as good as our team is, it might be difficult to make the team."
So many people return from this great team last year and there are a few solid additions that the coaching staff might not even know who is ready to run in Terre Haute until the last minute, literally.
"We're going into the national meet taking ten or eleven or twelve guys and we don't know the seven who are going to run," said Smith. "We won't know until maybe an hour before the gun goes off, then we say, 'Okay here's the lineup.' It's body language and posture and who is giving me that deer in the headlights look -- well, maybe this person is not ready."
Smith added, "We've changed lineups thirty minutes before the gun goes off."
With the incredible group of returners and crew of stand-out new comers, there is no question the Cowboys will repeat as NCAA champions, right? Not so fast.
Let's recall 2011
The Oklahoma State team that won in 2010 was in a different league than the rest of the NCAA. They won the national championship with 73 points, besting Florida State (193) and Wisconsin (223).
5) Girma Mecheso JR
6) German Fernandez JR
7) Colby Lowe JR
25) Tom Farrell FR
30) Johnathan Sublaski JR
54) Joseph Manilafasha FR
137) Ryan Prentice SO
Nobody on that team was a senior and every member returned to Stillwater in the fall of 2011. They also added All-American Shadrack Kipchirchir to the team for the 2011 season. The three-peat just seemed too easy.
"Everything on paper said we should have won and won handily that year," said Smith. "It didn't work out that way."
It did not. The Wisconsin Badgers had something to prove.
"Wisconsin had a group of guys that were ticked off that they were underappreciated, that people were overlooking them in the rankings," said Smith. "They were on an absolute mission to prove everyone wrong. They had that foxhole mentality and that's a really powerful, unifying element that is hard to have when you've already won it and you're trying to repeat."
Well, OSU is trying to repeat yet again, so what makes this year different than 2011?
For one, they have learned from where they went wrong two years ago. Sometimes hardship is the best teacher.
"Maybe we just started to think we were better than we were and didn't take the same amount of commitment and absolute focus that it took to get there and that's the wrong way to look at it, because it does," said Smith. "You have to stay maybe even more focused and more dialed in because you do have to find a way to overcome the loss of some of those motivating factors that are there when you are trying to reach a certain level."
So what are the motivating factors for this group of Cowboys to gun for another national title? It's two-fold. On an individual level, some of these guys have never had an opportunity to be one of the seven guys that runs at the NCAA Championship.
"For some of them, they've never won a championship before, and it doesn't matter that Fernandez and Lowe won one a couple years ago, they want to win one now," said Smith.
The other factor that motivates this team to win another crown is what Dave Smith and his Cowboys are trying to do with this program as a whole.
"Each year we wanna win a national championship, but it's part of a bigger goal, that is, we want to join an elite group of teams that when people think of cross country, your name comes up every time. I think we're getting close. And eventually our goal is to be looked at as the best cross country program, and eventually track and field program, in the country."
If Oklahoma State is crowned the nation's best they will be the fifth team in men's Division I cross country history to have won four team titles in five consecutive years. The four teams that have accomplished that feat in the past are listed below.
Michigan State won four titles from 1955-1959
Villanova won four titles from 1966-1970
UTEP won four consecutive titles from 1978-1981
Arkansas won four consecutive titles from 1990-1993
Getting this win would be yet another step closer to being named among some of the best cross country programs ever, but like Coach Dave Smith said, it's not going to come easy.
Don't be foolish enough to think these Cowboys will stampede over the rest of the nation without putting the work in and keeping the focus that they seemed to have lost in 2011. There could be another Wisconsin of 2011 lurking around preparing to flip the script on the cowboys and lasso them off their high horse.