After all the previews, prognostications, and polls, the NCAA cross country season begins in earnest on Saturday at the John McNichols Invitational. The race puts a bunch of top-10 teams together in Terre Haute — a course they will see again in November for the NCAA Championships.
For the NAU men’s team, this is where their drive for a fourth straight title will commence.
Geordie Beamish and Blaise Ferro won’t race, but the rest of the Lumberjacks core is expected on the start line. That means junior Luis Grijalva will be in the lineup, as will redshirt freshmen Theo Quax and Brodey Hasty.
Quax and Hasty ran two weeks ago at a home meet in Flagstaff, but this will be their first major cross country meet in an NAU jersey. It is still very early days of the season, and many teams will hold out or hold back their top runners. Still, a solid run by the two freshmen this weekend will shore up one of the few questions that have been asked of NAU. Remember, their title run includes an overall win streak that dates back to the beginning of 2016. Even when they hold out runners (like they did last year at Nuttycombe when they sat Matt Baxter), they win.
On Saturday NAU will get a glimpse at one of the few teams positioned to end their win streak and title run: the second-ranked team from Stanford.
There’s an air of mystery around Stanford right now. A coaching change in the summer means we don’t entirely know what to expect of this incredibly deep and talented group. Even less is certain of their strategy for this first meet. Thomas Ratcliffe, Steven Fahy, and Alex Ostberg are all ranked individually in the top 25 and could make it hard for a short-handed NAU team on Saturday, if they run.
Individually, Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat is the favorite. The senior was third at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2018, making him the top returner in 2019. On this same weekend in 2018, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald cruised to victory at the Nuttycombe Invitational and never looked back in his senior season. Does Saturday start something similar for Kurgat?
As a team, Iowa State is the third top-five squad entered (behind NAU and Stanford). Indiana (#14) and Purdue (#19) will be looking for good early season efforts as well.
Arkansas, Michigan, Stanford & Washington Clash In Women's Race
The women’s race also features the top-ranked team in the nation. Arkansas rebounded from a disappointing NCAA appearance last November to put together strong performances indoors and outdoors on the track.
This year, they are trying to win the program’s first women’s cross country title and, at the same time, hold all three national titles (cross country, indoor track, outdoor track) at once. Key to that effort is Taylor Werner.
The senior was second at the indoor 3000m and second in the outdoor 5000m, making her one of the best individuals in the nation. Arkansas plans to sit Katrina Robinson and Lauren Gregory in this meet, so Saturday will be an early look at their depth. Werner, Carina Viljoen, and Devin Clark are proven, but how tight of a spread can they have from one through five?
Fifth-ranked Michigan looked good at their opener. Freshman Ericka Vanderlende won the race by over 20 seconds and will have an immediate impact. Michigan typically runs full teams (or very close to them) so they will be in the hunt in Terre Haute. Anna West, Maddy Trevisan, and Camille Davre are all entered for Saturday.
Like their men’s team, Stanford’s women’s squad will be one to watch. They are currently ranked sixth, led by senior Fiona O’Keeffe, and have several other potential All-Americans. Pac-12 rival Washington (#12) will be in the mix, as will fellow ranked teams Indiana (#22) and NAU (#23).