2018 DI NCAA XC Championships

Anatomy Of A NCAA Men's Championship XC Team

Anatomy Of A NCAA Men's Championship XC Team

Two low scorers or crazy depth? What are the prerequisites for an NCAA Championship cross country team?

Sep 13, 2018 by Kevin Sully
It’s a fall tradition to argue about the optimal construction of a cross country team. 

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It’s a fall tradition to argue about the optimal construction of a cross country team. 

"Would you rather have a few low sticks or reliable depth?" 

"A tight pack with a small spread, or a couple outliers with a high ceiling?"

As the NCAA season begins this fall, the debate begins anew. In the men’s competition, NAU and BYU are ranked as the top two teams in the FloXC Countdown. NAU is led by the terrific duo of Matthew Baxter and Tyler Day, while BYU includes an abundance of potential All-Americans with enough strength to potentially make up two teams capable of finishing in the top 15 of the NCAA Championships. 

But neither team is the perfect avatar for the low sticks-vs.-depth argument. NAU could put five runners in the top 35, while BYU’s Rory Linkletter, Connor McMillan, and Clayton Young are all credible top-10 finishers individually. In short, both teams can do both.

Does the history of the meet reveal any answers about the most common route to a title? We know, for instance, that a team's fourth-place runner is the greatest indicator of success, but can we discover any other trends that championship teams share? 

To answer this, we looked at men's results beginning in 1998, when the meet moved to its current 31-team format (we will review the women's next week). 

YearMen's Champion1st Runner2nd Runner3rd Runner4th Runner5th Runner
2012Oklahoma State13111740
2010Oklahoma State5672530
2009Oklahoma State78112477
Average Place

A few observations:

-Once you remove individual qualifiers, a championship team always has at least one runner in the top 10 of the meet. 

-The champions with the highest-placing top runner (Colorado in 2006 and Arkansas in 2010) compensated by having a strong two through five. Colorado had five runners in the first 34, while Arkansas packed five men in between 10th and 27th place. 

-On average, a championship team’s second runner is also in the top 10. In the 20 championships between 1998 and 2017, the winning team had a second runner outside of the top 10 on just five occasions—and they never fell out of the top 15. 

-Having four All-Americans is a prerequisite. The lowest-finishing third runner was 21st, while the worst fourth runner was 36th.

-There’s a vast range for the No. 5 runner, spanning from 10th (from Stanford’s dominant crew in 2003) all the way to 77th (when Colorado won by 20 points over NAU in 2013). It’s no surprise that Colorado’s 149 points that year was the highest winning score in the history of the meet.

So, how does this apply to this year? 

Based on past results, NAU is in a better position to put at least one runner in the top 10 and two in the first 15, but BYU is certainly capable of doing the same. On the other side of the coin, it’s easy to envision BYU having four or more All-Americans, and the strength of their fifth runner should give them a little bit of room to maneuver.