The eight NCAA Division III cross country regional championships are this Saturday across the nation, with teams and individuals fighting for a spot on the NCAA championship starting line. Thirty-two teams will qualify -- 16 automatic, 16 at-large -- while the top seven individuals not on a qualifying team will also book a trip to the November 18 race in Elsah, Illinois -- which you can watch live right here on FloTrack.
With so much qualifying hysteria in store for this weekend, we've trimmed the fat to hone in on the key team and individual battles to watch on Saturday. With NCAAs just a week after Saturday's races, these regional storylines will serve as an appetizer for what's to come at the Big Dance:
The men's team battle to watch…
Midwest Regional: No. 1 North Central vs No. 3 UW-La Crosse
Based on their storied history and dominance thus far in 2017, North Central is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as NCAA champions. Just how big of a favorite are the Cardinals? We should find out more after Saturday, as top-ranked NCC battles FloXC No. 3 UW-La Crosse for the first time in 2017 at the Midwest regional.
North Central figured to be a force this season after returning three All Americans from a team that won NCAAs by a record 144 points, and the Cardinals have so far been as good as advertised. The addition of freshman transfer Jared Borowsky, who won the CCIW Championships on October 28, has made North Central even more formidable. For the fifth time in school history, the DIII powerhouse swept the top seven places at the conference meet. At their best, the Cardinals are likely unbeatable.
UW-La Crosse doesn't have near the star power of North Central, but the Eagles have shown steady improvement after finishing sixth at NCAAs last fall, and they picked up their first conference title since 2013 two weeks ago. Returning their entire top five from last season, including four men who finished inside the NCAA top 100, has paid its dividends, and UWL managed to put six men in the top 12 at the WIAC Championships even without one of their top runners. Depth is their strong suit, as La Crosse had just a 31-second spread at conference.
Still, though, an upset of North Central will require this UWL squad to be better than we've ever seen them. Only one current runner -- senior Jonah Weisse -- has a cross country All-American honor to his credit, and that's from all the way back in 2014. The Eagles will need multiple such finishes to dethrone the NCC dynasty at nationals, and how they stack up on Saturday will tell us if they truly have that potential.
The men's individual battle to watch…
Atlantic Regional: No. 1 Isaac Garcia-Cassani (SUNY Geneseo) vs No. 2 Grant O'Connor (RPI)
Whoever wins the individual race at the Atlantic region will have the upper hand as the NCAA favorite, as the top two runners in the FloXC rankings, Isaac Garcia-Cassani and Grant O'Connor, will face off on Saturday. Garcia-Cassani is certainly the smart bet as the two-time defending Atlantic region champion and the NCAA's top returner, but he figures to face a stiff challenge from O'Connor, who finished third in last spring's NCAA 10K.
The junior O'Connor dominated his conference race against FloXC No. 10 Otto Kingstedt, but Garcia-Cassani and his 4:02 mile speed represents a much tougher test. The SUNY Geneseo senior won DIII's version of a Pre-Nats race on October 14 at the Principia College Cowbell XC Invite against a field close to the quality of NCAAs, and he easily dispatched of O'Connor when the pair faced off in late September. But O'Connor hasn't lost since, and we expect him to really go after the NCAA favorite to see how he stacks up against one of DIII's top dogs.
The women's team battle to watch…
New England Regional: No. 2 MIT vs No. 6 Williams vs No. 7 Middlebury vs No. 10 Tufts
Defending NCAA champion and top-ranked Johns Hopkins remains the women's DIII favorite, but the Engineers from MIT put a scare into JHU earlier this season, threatening to knock the Blue Jays off their perch. With the New England region featuring four top-10 squads, we'll be following closely to see how No. 2 MIT fares in their NCAA tune-up.
Your NEWMAC All Conference Women's XC Team: Eccles, Collins, Zimmerman, Bacher, McPhillips, McCandless, Weiss, Melanson, Niu pic.twitter.com/lts1DhFq5w— MIT Track & Field/XC (@MITTFXC) November 2, 2017
MIT very nearly beat Hopkins at the midseason Cowbell Invite, falling by just two points while putting their seventh runner ahead of JHU's No. 5. A duplicate performance of that at nationals would give the MIT women a very good shot at winning the program's first NCAA cross country national title.
With four quality squads fighting for two automatic berths, the race between MIT, Williams, Middlebury, and Tufts should be honest and entertaining.
The women's individual battle to watch…
No. 4 Bryn McKillop (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps) vs. No. 5 Kayla Leland (Whitworth)
Two NCAA top-15 finishers from 2016 will square off at the West region in Bryn McKillop and Kayla Leland. Neither woman is the NCAA favorite -- that honor belongs to Ithaca's Taryn Cordani -- but the two West studs should sort out who will be her top challenger next weekend. McKillop is the only top-10 finisher from last season to compete in 2017, while Leland finished one spot behind Cordani at NCAAs last fall.
Remember to tune in to FloTrack for the DIII XC championship on November 18.