College cross country doesn’t begin and end with the NCAA Championships. It is by far the most important meet, and for the very best athletes and teams it’s the only thing that really matters, but the season goes for several months. Let’s take a look at the whole thing, with an emphasis on the end of the year.
Wisconsin. While the Badgers won the NCAA Championships as expected, how they did it was just a little bit different than how they had run all their previous races.
During the regular season, they ran one of the tightest packs we’ve ever seen. Their 1-to-5 gap at the Bill Dellinger Invitational was 5 seconds, at their own adidas Invitational it was 2 seconds, and at the Big Ten Championships is “ballooned” to 18 seconds. At the Great Lakes regional, the five Badgers came across the line shoulder-to-shoulder.
At the NCAA Championships it was a different story. Coach Mick Byrne gave Big Ten champ Mo Ahmed the “green light” to run all-out and the gap between him and #2 runner Elliot Krause was 35 seconds, and then it was another 39 seconds back to #5 runner Maverick Darling.
As I see it, Wisconsin’s regular-season pack running didn’t turn out to be a nationals strategy so much as a year-long means to an esprit de corps. Byrne often uses the phrase “Badger Tough” and also talks about what it means to put on a Wisconsin uniform and the responsibility that comes with it. It’s obvious that, at least for this particular group, the team comes before the individual. With one of the key runners (Ryan Collins) being a transfer (from Virginia ), instilling this attitude was probably more important than usual.
Lawi Lalang. Unlike Wisconsin’s national title, which was won in a slightly different style than their regular-season victories, Lalang won with his same basic strategy. This was to push hard in the middle to late portions of the race and build up an insurmountable lead. The only thing different from all his other races was not setting a course record (although he came very close).
The stunning thing is that he is running on freshman eligibility. He’s either going to be the most dominant cross country runner in NCAA history, or turn pro before his four years are up. Considering that he has “marathon runner” written all over him, and the amount of money flowing through that event these days, it’s entirely possible.
Oklahoma State. The Cowboys started off the season as the #1-ranked team, as they should have given their status as two-time defending national champions with most of their key runners returning. They kept that ranking throughout August, September and October. During that time it was assumed that the absence of Girma Macheso, 7th at last year’s NCAA Championships, was only temporary and he would return to the lineup for the end-of-the-season meets.
After the Big 12 Championships, though, we all knew he had to be injured and gone for the season. Transfer Shadrack Kipchirchir filled that hole to some degree, finishing 39th in the team scoring at nationals. Another problem was that Jon Stublaski was not having the same kind of season he had in 2010. Last year he was 30th among team runners at the NCAA Championships, and this year he was 63rd, both times as Oklahoma State ’s fifth runner.
Macheso’s loss added 34 points from last year to this year. Stublaski’s off-year added 33 points. The Cowboys were 42 points out of first. By themselves, neither was fatal to the three-peat, but together they were too much.
Chris Derrick. The Stanford senior was part of a strong class of high schoolers four years ago. Derrick ran 13:55 at the Arcadia Prep Invitational, #6 on the all-time high school list, and German Fernandez tore off some fantastic races late in the 2008 season, including the (since broken) national 2-mile record.
Since then, Derrick has run well and very consistently but not spectacularly. Monday’s runner-up finish may have been his best college race ever. Fifth at halfway, he ran the second half of the race just as fast as Lalang did, and closed on Lalang by eight seconds in the last 2k.
While times only mean so much in cross country, due to weather and tactics, it’s worth noting that Derrick’s 28:57 is the 3rd-fastest ever on this course (behind Chelanga’s 28:41 and Lalang’s 28:44). Ritz, Rupp, Tegenkamp, Solinsky – all ran 10k on this course, and none broke 29:00.
Since the advent of freshman eligibility in 1968, only six men have finished in the top ten four times: Steve Prefontaine ( Oregon ), Nick Rose (Western Kentucky), Bob Kennedy ( Indiana ), Kevin Sullivan ( Michigan ), Adam Goucher ( Colorado ), and now Derrick. Those are some amazing names to be associated with.
Track season. None of the top few runners were surprises, and most are expected to do well during track season. The one that have huge implications for track season was in ninth place, Henry Lelei of Texas A&M. The sprint/hurdle/jump-heavy Aggies, winners of the last three NCAA outdoor championships, now have a long-distance runner. He might be able to score some points at the nationals, but he also represents huge points in the Big 12, as he was the first across the line from the conference.
Who’s up for next year? Lalang is obviously everyone’s favorite at this point to repeat next year. The next top runners with eligibility remaining are Mo Ahmed and Lelei. But what about teams?
I weeded out the seniors from the results and re-scored the meet. I only scored four runners from each team, figuring that there will be reserves and freshmen and transfers and whatnot to fill in holes in teams’ rosters. The leaders were Wisconsin , BYU, Texas , Portland and Oklahoma State . More of the same, except for Texas —the Longhorns have only two top-four finishes in school history (4th in 1990, 3rd in 1956).
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