Six Teams With The Biggest Breakthroughs This Season

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With just two meets left in the cross country season, we narrowed down six programs that have executed breakthrough performances leading into the NCAA regional weekend.

See which teams make the NCAA championships by watching the Kolas LIVE: selection show on Friday!

Men's Teams

No. 5 Portland

In September and early October, the Portland Pilots were riding a No. 22 FloXC ranking. Heading into the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, no one expected the Pilots to finish within the top five in the team results, but that's exactly what they did in Madison. By upending No. 3 Syracuse and No. 4 Stanford, the Pilots secured a runner-up finish to No. 1-ranked Northern Arizona. It was a statement that shocked everyone but head coach Rob Connor, who told FloTrack after the race that the "expectations have always been the highest."

"I told the team at the start of the year, if you don't talk about trying to win it, then you're immediately eliminated," Connor said.

The Pilots ran like an NCAA podium team in Wisconsin by putting three men in the top 11 finishers and scoring the fourth and fifth men at 41st and 54th, placing all five scorers within the first 55 finishers. The top three individual finish was accomplished by senior Jeff Thies, junior Nick Hauger, and newcomer Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse who has proven to be a great addition to the top five. While NAU soundly beat them with a low score of 50 points, the Pilots finished safely above stiff competition with 28 points less than Syracuse and 32 points less than Stanford.

Heading into the NCAA West Regional, the Pilots are ranked No. 5 in the FloXC national rankings and No. 2 in the west region after falling to BYU at conference, according to the USTFCCCA rankings. Coach Connor spoke honestly about conference not being a priority for the team, but fans can definitely expect the Pilots to roll out for regionals and the NCAA championship podium race.

No. 7 Furman

Like the Pilots, the Furman squad took full advantage of the competition at the Wisconsin Invitational by beating several highly ranked teams. The Paladins notched a fifth-place team finish in Madison and finished just two points shy of Stanford and well ahead of No. 8 Colorado State. At the time of the meet, the performance catapulted the team from No. 12 to No. 8 in the rankings. Now the Paladins remain at No. 7 after winning the Southern Conference.

The Furman men's program as well as the women's program are having breakthrough seasons as evidenced by the women's team's sixth-place Wisconsin finish.

"It was a great day for both programs," coach Robert Gary said in a team release. "The women's race was an absolute breakthrough for the program and has us in the company of the top 12 teams in the country. The men's program was only a couple of points away from beating a team that will win a trophy (top four) in November. My favorite stat of the day is that we were the best combined program, considering the finishes of both the men and women together."

Watch the Wisconsin Invitational race:

No. 9 Southern Utah

According to the latest Butler projections, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds have eight wins against qualified teams (Colorado, Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa State, Iona) so far this season.

At the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, the Thunderbirds made a statement when the team beat then-No. 7 Colorado. At the time, Southern Utah was ranked No. 20, but the performance catapulted the squad up to No. 9. The momentum continued at the Wisconsin Invitational when the team finished seventh overall.

The Thunderbirds' latest performance took place at the Big Sky Conference Championships, where the team finished a close second to No. 1-ranked NAU. Southern Utah scored 36 points against the Lumberjacks' 24-point total. As of this week, Southern Utah is ranked No. 5 in the competitive Mountain region.

Heading into the mountain regional, head coach Eric Houle says he isn't holding anything back when it comes to the team's goal of placing top 10 at the NCAA championships.

"Some schools might rest people, some might go hard knowing that nationals is around the corner, but we plan on running like we normally do," Houle said in a team release. "We hope to go in to regionals and put ourselves in a position where we will make nationals again and place top 10."

Women's Teams

No. 9 Furman

As mentioned above, the entire Furman program is in the middle of a breakthrough season.

nullThe women's team has steadily progressed throughout the fall, starting with a third-place finish at the Louisville Classic. From there, the Paladins captured a breakthrough sixth-place finish at the Wisconsin Invitational. The performance put the team above formidable opponents Washington and Stanford. Led by a sixth-place finish from team leader Allie Buchalski, the relatively young squad scored all five women within the first 100 spots.

Related: Father's Memory Drives Furman Cross Country Star Allie Buchalski

Most recently, the Furman women and men captured the fifth-straight sweep of the Southern Conference Championship. The women's team earned the victory with a low score of just 23 total points to beat runner-up Samford.

If the women and men make the NCAA championship out of the southeast region, it will mark the first time in program history that both teams make the meet. It would also be the first NCAA berth ever for the women's program.

No. 11 Utah State

So far this season, Utah State has earned six wins against qualified teams (Villanova, Georgia, Michigan, Georgia, Ole Miss, Abilene Christian). At the beginning of the year, the team wasn't even ranked in the FloXC standings, but quickly earned the No. 20 consideration after winning the Paul Short Invitational and beating Villanova in September.

The team continued to soar through the rankings after a breakthrough fourth-place finish at the Pre-National Invitational in October. The performance put the squad above powerhouse team Michigan and placed all five top scorers within the first 67 finishers.

Utah State quickly jumped from No. 20 to No. 11 after Pre-Nationals and held the spot after placing third to No. 1 New Mexico and No. 8 Boise State at the Mountain West Conference.

This weekend, Utah State will contend in the competitive mountain region for a spot at the NCAA championships.

No. 20 Georgia

Like Utah State, the Georgia Bulldogs took full advantage of the competition at Pre-Nationals when the team secured a sixth-place finish in Louisville. The performance earned the team a spot in the rankings at No. 18 after beating BYU, Eastern Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Northern Arizona.

The Bulldogs continued the streak at the SEC championships with a momentous runner-up finish to team winner Arkansas. With 88 total points, Georgia beat Ole Miss and Missouri for the podium finish. The second-place performance marked the first time since 2006 that the Bulldogs have earned the honor. Just one year earlier, the team finished 10th at the conference meet. The improvement has a lot to do with the addition of star front-runners and twins Jessica and Sam Drop who placed fourth and fifth at the SEC meet. John Frierson highlighted the siblings' contribution in this feature.

This weekend, the Bulldogs will take on the competition in the south region where the team is ranked No. 1 over Ole Miss.

See which teams make the NCAA championships by watching the Kolas LIVE: selection show!

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