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November 18, 2018

NCAA Championships Recap and Analysis: Upset, Not Upsets, and a Rockin’ Good Time

The 80th NCAA Cross Country Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, had one race go totally against form and the other totally hold form, all on a classic Midwestern late fall day in a fantastic atmosphere. It was the most fun I’ve yet had at an NCAAs.

COMPLETE RESULTS

WOMEN’S RACE – ALL UPSETS


The women’s team favorites were New Mexico and Oregon. They were #1 and #2 in the coaches’ poll, and 87% of NCAA champions came from the top two since the advent of the women’s poll. They both won their conference meets, the Mountain West and Pac-12 respectively, and 35 of the 37 women’s NCAA champions since 1981 won their conference meets. It looked pretty clear-cut as a two-team race.

The team standings shown at the 2k mark of the 6k race showed Oregon leading with 157, Colorado second with 185, Arkansas third with 183, and New Mexico fourth with 251. That score for New Mexico was a little concerning given the Lobos had three women in the top twenty, but it was early going and there was plenty of time for their 4th and 5th runners to move up.

At 4k the scores showed that Colorado had taken the race by the horns: 80 points for the Buffaloes, 140 for New Mexico, 147 for Oregon. Coach Mark Wetmore’s teams have a reputation for finishing strong, and this team underlined that reputation. At the finish it was Colorado 65, New Mexico 103, Oregon 160.

65 points is a very low score for an NCAA Championships, the third-lowest women’s score under the current 31-team championship format. Colorado’s dominance was so complete that their sixth runner finished before anyone else’s fourth. That sixth runner, Val Constien, finished 30th overall and was only a step behind 4th-place Michigan’s first runner.

New Mexico, the defending champions and #1-ranked team in the final poll, could hardly be accused of underperforming. Their 103 points was only 13 more than last year’s winning total, and the lowest runner-up score ever in the 31-team format. More often than not it is good enough to win, and coach Joe Franklin said he was “over the moon” with their performance and that “there was nothing else we could have done”.

The individual race is easier to follow visually, and that one was similarly thrilling with a hard finish. A large lead pack of 11 women never really broke up until New Mexico’s Weni Kelati surged away from the field with about a mile to go. That stretched it out and only five were able to remain in the chase: Anna Rohrer (Notre Dame), Erica Burk (BYU), Dani Jones (Colorado), Jessica Hull (Oregon), and Alicia Monson (Wisconsin).

Kelati maintained her lead until the last quarter-mile, when Burk led the charge to close the gap. Jones followed and unleashed a massive kick on the final uphill stretch to the finish. She flew past Kelati and her lead became so large that she looked over her shoulder and eased off to the finish.

Colorado pulled off the double victory, both using the classic cross country strategy: get into position, be patient, strike when ready. It is a simple plan, but not an easy one.

MEN’S RACE – NO SUPRISES


Just like in the women’s race, the men’s race was expected as a two-team battle, this time between #1 Northern Arizona and #2 BYU. 90% of men’s champions since the advent of the coaches’ poll were ranked in the top two. All of the last 44 men’s champions also won their conference meet; NAU won the Big Sky and BYU won the West Coast over #3 Portland. 26 of the last 31 men’s champions had finished in the top four the previous year (and the other five missed it by unusually small margins), and last year’s top four were NAU, Portland, and BYU.

NAU led the team scoring at every checkpoint of the 10k race, always in double digits while the rest were in triple digits. BYU was back in eighth at 2k, but moved up to third at 4k and 6k and into second at 8k. Portland was second until being bumped back to third by BYU in the late stages. The only surprise of any kind in the men’s team race was that #4-ranked Wisconsin finished eighth despite running on their home course.

Neither was there a surprise in the men’s individual race, though it was still dramatic. Last year the NAU duo of Tyler Day and Matthew Baxter made a hard push from early in the race and they were rewarded with second and third place. Baxter warned in Friday’s press conference that a repeat of that strategy was unlikely, and they held to it. A lead pack of a dozen men did not lose anyone until the final mile.

Coming around the final turn to the 300-meter straightaway finish, the first to go to the lead was Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat, who later admitted “I think I went too early”. He was caught by Stanford’s Grant Fisher, one of the pre-race favorites, but the man with a full head of steam was Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald. The Badger didn’t take the lead until very late but it was a clear win, and the pro-Wisconsin crowd lost their minds.

A WINNING ATMOSPHERE

Old friends have “guy weekends”. Some go on fishing trips, some go to Vegas. My friends and I go to track meets. This was the sixteenth NCAA cross country I’ve attended with John, including the last fifteen in a row. If you’ve never been to one of these you’re missing out. Overall, I’d say this was probably the best one yet — it was a rockin’ good time.

It was the first NCAA Championships ever held at Wisconsin’s Thomas Zimmer Championship Course. If I understand correctly, the facility was first planned as a golf course but the developer ran out of money, so the university bought it and turned it into a permanent cross country course on the model of Indiana State’s Lavern Gibson course. Purpose-built cross country facilities such as these two are likely to host nearly all future NCAA Championships.

As a facility I think UW’s Zimmer course is second only to ISU’s Gibson course. The latter is striking in its vastness and open layout, which allows the less-than-speedy fan to observe the entire race from the finish area. The Zimmer course is on a smaller footprint and portions go through wooded areas, so one needs to be either swift and energetic to see the race, or stay put by the video boards near the finish. Another small drawback is that the Zimmer course has insufficient parking so fans are bussed in from remote lots, which means there is no pre-meet tailgating action.

As far as the course itself goes, it has its own special challenges. There are a couple of sharp upslopes but I still wouldn’t call it hilly. The difference between the highest and lowest points are less than at ISU. But the course never levels out, it’s always either going up or down. There are more turns, and more changes in footing, and it goes into the woods and out into the open. It never allows a runner to become comfortable (if there is such a thing at a national championship race) and this would be doubly true on a windy day.

But in terms of the overall atmosphere, Madison is the best host in a very long time. It’s bigger than Terre Haute or Ames or Greenville so hotel space is not as challenging to find, yet smaller than Louisville so the meet breaks into the public consciousness. Madison is a major college sports town, which means it’s a fun place to go.

And it’s the home of the Wisconsin Badgers, the most consistently excellent cross country program of the last half century.

The crowds appeared the best I’ve ever seen at an NCAA Championships, and they were the most energetic. A roar went up every time PA announcer Mike Jay mentioned Wisconsin, and they really went crazy when McDonald made his final push to victory.

The weather? My opinion is that if you’re thinking about the weather then you’re not thinking about racing. It snowed a bit and the footing got a little dicey, but warmer weather has produced worse footing. It was cold (28 degrees) but with very little wind, and the 36F/20mph wind at the 2016 championships felt much colder. All sport includes the classic conflict of man versus man, and endurance sports add in the conflict of man versus self. Cross country is special among these because it requires the additional conflict of man versus nature. Like Yuki Kawauchi said of this year’s Boston Marathon, “for me these are the best conditions possible”.

As it has for more than a hundred years, the collegiate cross country season drew to a close less than a week before the best holiday of the year.

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