2019 DI NCAA XC Championships

2019 DI NCAA XC Men's Preview: NAU Faces Their Toughest Test Yet

2019 DI NCAA XC Men's Preview: NAU Faces Their Toughest Test Yet

NAU will go for a fourth straight NCAA title in Terre Haute with a young but accomplished lineup.

Nov 21, 2019 by Kevin Sully
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When they line up on the start line at Saturday’s NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, it will have been 1,471 days since the Northern Arizona men’s team lost a varsity race. 

The streak has spanned three national championships and included enough dominant performances to make you question when they will ever lose again. This year, they looked the most vulnerable they ever have during this run. Yes, they returned three All-Americans from 2018 (Geordie Beamish, Luis Grijalva and Blaise Ferro), but they also lost three All-Americans. And the men tasked with replacing them were freshmen. 

So far, there’s been no drop-off. This year has looked like the past three. They’ve swarmed the front pack, overwhelming the race with yellow and blue by the mid-way point. When one Lumberjack makes a move to winnow the lead pack, there’s a Pavlovian response from the others. It doesn’t take long for the race to become one-sided. Rival teams might have a faster lead runner, but when NAU sets up shop, they don’t budge. 

NAU kicked off the season by dispatching the then-second-ranked Stanford at the John McNichols Invitational. Freshmen Theo Quax, Abdihamid Nur and Brodey Hasty ran in the 2-3-4 spots for the Lumberjacks, quickly answering the questions about experience. 

The next month at the Nuttycombe Invitational, NAU put three in the top 10 and beat Stanford again by 84 points. 

Beamish, who has been a part of the three previous championship teams, has only raced three times this season, but looked incredibly sharp while winning the Mountain Regional meet last week and leading a 1-2-3 finish for the team. In Salt Lake City, he was in full flight, displaying that raw finishing speed that took him to an indoor mile title last March. Grijalva has been his normal steady self this season. He was the team’s first finisher at Nuttycombe and McNichols and placed just behind Beamish at Regionals. Ferro has raced sparingly, but showed promise in Salt Lake City as their sixth man.

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During the win streak, NAU has never seemed encumbered by the pressure. However, if ever there was a moment to feel it, it would be now, with so many freshmen needed to fill crucial roles on Saturday. A line-up hasn’t been announced, but it’s likely that at least three (and up to four) freshmen will be on the starting line. Nur has been a great addition, running as the team’s third and fourth man during his three appearances. Hasty didn’t run at Nuttycombe, but was up pushing the pace with Beamish and Grijalva at Regionals. Quax didn’t race at Regionals either after scoring for the team at McNichols and Nuttycombe. 

True freshman Drew Bosley also sat out the regional meet, but could be called into action on Saturday. In his debut this fall, he showed no fear at Nuttycombe, making a mid-race move against a deep field. He eventually faded to 21st, but he finished as NAU’s fifth man. Two weeks later, he won the Big Sky Conference Championships. 

The depth and relative ease with which they’ve won their meets this season makes NAU a sizeable favorite in Terre Haute. They can absorb a few mediocre performances and still win. Their rivals cannot. 

If they do win, they will match UTEP (1978-1981) and Arkansas (1990-1993) as the only men’s teams to win four consecutive cross country titles. No men’s team has ever won five in a row (Villanova’s women’s program won six between 1989 and 1994).  

Both UTEP and Arkansas saved their best performance for last. Their lowest score came on their fourth title, punctuating their dynasty with an exclamation mark. The thought of NAU being their best when they are also their youngest doesn’t seem to compute, but that could be the case.

Can Colorado Or BYU Pull Off The Upset?

The contenders need to be close to perfect to pull off the NAU upset. Colorado’s Joe Klecker and John Dressel give the Buffaloes a top two that can run with the first pack. Freshman Kashon Harrison has been excellent in his first season, running as their third man at Pre-Nationals and then finishing as their second, ahead of Dressel, at Pac 12s. 

Eduardo Herrera and Alec Hornecker are expected to complete Colorado’s top five. At Pac 12s and Pre-Nationals, there’s been a noticeable drop off after Colorado’s fifth man. That doesn’t matter if Klecker, Dressel, Harrison, Herrera and Hornecker all run well on Saturday. But if one has a bad day, Colorado will need someone to reveal themselves to make up those points. 

BYU has a bit of the opposite problem. They have plenty of depth, but will need multiple runners to figure into the top 30 if they have designs on upsetting NAU. Conner Mantz is primed for a top-five finish (more on him below) and Jacob Heslington has been a great No. 2, finishing fourth at Pre-Nationals and eighth at Regionals. Behind those two, BYU owns a deep bench of NCAA track finalists like Daniel Carney, Connor Weaver and Matt Owens. Clayson Shumway, who hasn’t raced all year due to injury, is a wild card for the Cougars and has the potential to be a low-scorer.

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Stanford entered the year as the de facto challenger to NAU. But after losing to them twice and finishing behind Colorado and Oregon at the Pac-12 Championships, they would need to have an otherworldly day to get past NAU, Colorado and BYU. 

Kurgat Favored In Competitive Individual Race

The individual race doesn’t have the clear storylines of last season. In 2018, it was Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald and Stanford’s Grant Fisher dueling for their first cross country title in their final collegiate cross country race. McDonald kicked away for an epic win in front of the home crowd in Madison, the first of his three NCAA championships in his senior season. 

Not much attention was paid to the man who finished third in that race, Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat. It was the best race of Kurgat’s career and made him the early favorite for 2019. During the indoor and outdoor track seasons he made finals, but never replicated his top-three finish from cross country. This fall, Kurgat asserted himself. He’s won all four races with relative ease and done it against top competition. His most impressive win came at the Nuttycombe Invitational when he detached himself from the rest of the field and glided to a 10-second victory. He was just as smooth at his conference meet and at Regionals.

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But he is beatable. Alabama’s duo of Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen can cause problems for Kurgat. 

Kiprop redshirted last fall, a year after finishing seventh at this meet. He hasn’t raced much this season; however, when he has competed, he hasn’t shown any vulnerabilities. Kiprop won the Joe Piane Invitational and the SEC Championships before finishing just behind Kigen at the Regional meet. 

Kigen was second to Kiprop in their first two meetings, but he beat Kurgat the last time the two raced, in the 5000m at the NCAA Outdoor Championships (Kigen was fourth and Kurgat was fifth). Kigen’s second-place finish in the 10,000m in the same meet shows that he can close. Kurgat is certainly confident in his finish, though he won’t want to leave it too late. Given the personnel, it’s unlikely that the pace will lag. Kiprop and Kigen are aggressive, same with Campbell’s Amon Kemboi (seventh last year) and Athanas Kioko (second at the Southeast Regional). 

BYU’s Conner Mantz was undefeated until the regional meet and will be itching to go if the pace slows. Mantz was tenth last year; his final kick slowed after spikes came out of his shoe in the Madison snow. During the track season, he tempered his front-running a bit and came away with a fourth-place finish in the 10,000m. His newfound patience paid off at Pre-Nationals, when he had enough in the tank to put together a strong final 400 meters to beat Kemboi. A slower pace would invite NAU’s Beamish and Wisconsin’s Oliver Hoare into the race, although both men are good enough to be able to hang with an honest 10,000m as well. Colorado’s Klecker and Dressel and Stanford’s Alex Ostberg and Thomas Ratcliffe will need top-15 finishes to keep their team in contention.