Our Division II Cross Country Preview
The Wood Report has been a hit on CITIUS and we’ve been getting a lot of questions about whether there will be a Division II version of it. As of right now, Isaac is working on the women’s Division I Wood Report. He has a lovely family and I’m sure they want to spend time with him as well. It takes a lot of work for someone to vet through every single roster in each division and then score each conference, each region and then the national meet. We don’t want to harm Isaac’s mental well-being so Andrew Wise will be taking care of our full Division II cross country preview. We don’t really have a Division III blogger yet but we’re on the lookout for any possible candidates. Here’s Andrew’s insight.
Just two years ago, five of the top six finishers at the Division II Cross Country national championship were underclassmen. This year, only two of those athletes will race at the D-II level. Adams State phenom Sydney Gidabuday and Grand Valley State stalwart Zach Panning have spent the last two years watching African-born athletes Vincent Kiprop and Alfred Chelanga, from Missouri Southern and Shorter, respectively, run away from the field and battle it out amongst themselves in the final stretch.
This year, both Kiprop and Chelanga will be representing the University of Alabama after that program spent the off-season scooping up D-II and Junior College talent to bolster their roster. That means a new champion will be crowned in Evansville, Indiana on November 18.
With eye-popping 13:36/29:08 PR’s on the track, as well as a host of finishes behind Kiprop and Chelanga on the track and on the grass in the last two years, the flat-topped, charismatic Gidabuday is the favorite to take home an individual title to what must be a massive trophy case in Alamosa.
But there will be challengers, undoubtedly including Panning, as well as Chico State’s Kyle Medina, who placed 11th at NCAAs last year but nabbed fourth and second in the 5,000m and 1500m this spring. He’ll also likely spend the entire season battling his conference rival, CSU Pueblo’s Derrick Williams. Despite DNF-ing at XC’s last year, Williams grabbed a pile of top-5 place showing through indoor and outdoor. He also ran 24:01 at Chili Pepper last year, where Kiprop was the only D-II athlete who ran faster.
Gidabuday, Panning, Medina, and Williams each lead squads that could compete for team titles.
On paper, Adams State returns the strongest and with 12 national titles since joining D-II in 1992 so the boys from Alamosa are always a good bet. But they’ve shown chinks in the armor. Last year, Grand Valley was leading Adams on points with a kilometer left in the race, only to watch that victory slip away.
Colorado School of Mines will look to upset Adams again, after taking the RMAC and Central Region titles in last season. They won it all in 2015 with a textbook pack-running effort. All five scorers that year were All-Americans, but Mines didn’t have any athletes in the top 10 overall. With five athletes that were in the top-60 last year returning, the next few chapters in what’s becoming an RMAC grudge match are set to be intense.
CSU Pueblo will be in on those battles as well, and guys like Paul Roberts, who two years ago was one of the fastest high school athletes in the nation but has yet to break out on the NCAA stage, will join Williams in trying to upset the Mines-Adams dual.
Also worth mentioning are Southern Indiana and Alaska Anchorage. Southern Indiana will host the national meet on their home course in Evansville. The dead-flat, wicked-fast course will likely suit SIU senior Bastian Grau, who won the indoor mile last winter.
Alaska Anchorage lost their top performer from a year ago in Michel Ramirez, and Henry Cheseto, who placed third at XCs in 2015, was just 49th a year ago and did not race on the track during indoor or outdoor. But they bring back Edwin Kangogo, who came out of nowhere to place sixth in the steeple last spring and has had a consistent career for the Seawolves. Their team roster also lists three Kenyan freshman, continuing that uniquely Division-II pipeline from east Africa to Alaska. Depending on the impact of those additions, UAA could find itself once again in contention for a podium spot.
Alexis Zeis knows what it’s like to be at the front of championship races. Headed into her senior XC season at University of Mary in North Dakota, she owns an indoor title in the 5,000m and a individual title from 2015 in XC, where she out-leaned Grand Valley State’s Kendra Foley by .3 (.3!) of a second. Foley would take the 2016 title from Zeis, by a 25-second margin, but with Foley now graduated, Zeis has a shot at ending her career with a second individual title.
But there were four other juniors besides Zeis in the top six at D-II’s last year, including phenomenally aggressive front-running Emilee Trost from Minnesota Duluth. Alaska Anchorage’s Caroline Kurgat is looking to cap off a career that’s seen a few podium performances but as of yet, no national titles. Southern Indian’a Emily Roberts and Mercy Rotich of Eastern New Mexico round out the top returners.
The athlete with the biggest shot at spoiling Zeis’ party might be Western State’s Polish steeplechase standout Alicja Konieczek, who put on a show on the track in 2017. She swept the mile and 3,000m indoor, then dropped a 9:49 steeple at Payton Jordan before sweeping the steeple and 5,000m at outdoor nationals. Despite finishing outside the top 10 at nationals a year ago, Konieczek has clearly become accustomed to winning championship races. On the fast, flat grass in Evansville, her speed may even the playing field against the XC specialists.
Konieczek will lead a Western State team that will mix it up with conference rivals Adams State as well as Grand Valley Stat – a team that’s won four of the last five team titles. All three of those teams lost a lot to graduation at the end of last season, but these are programs that tend to skip a rebuilding phase in favor of reloading with young talent. GVSU returns Stacey Metzger, who placed 15th last year, making her the top freshman in the country.
The depth of talent in the women’s field comes through in the team scores: last year, Grand Valley outran Adams 116-139, while in the men’s spread was 54-79. Big team scores leave a lot of room open for dark horses to have a big day. Teams like Chico State, Southern Indiana, and U-Mary will be trying to capitalize on any chinks in the armor for the favorites.
New Rules, New Battles
For everybody else in the D-II world grinding out miles and ripping repeats on the grass in hopes of nabbing a berth to the national meet, the conversation has to be about the new championship qualifying rules. Until this year, the number of berths out of each region has been determined based on the number of teams from that region that placed in the top-10 at the national meet the previous year in addition to automatic spots for the top three teams at the regional championship. That means the West and Rocky Mountain region have frequently qualified five or six teams to the national meet, while the south and east regions have rarely sent more than three teams.
This year, the automatic qualifying spots will remain, but there will be sixteen at-large bids given based on results from races throughout the season. It won’t be a complete D-I-style KOLAS system, but it will completely change the stakes for early invites in D-II.
It’s hard to tell at this point how the new rules will play out. The new system might lead to a more competitive national meet, with even more teams than usual coming out of the historically dominant regions. It also may turn national qualifying into a largely financial battle. For teams with limited travel budgets, getting squads to competitive invites to score points will prove a challenge. Add to that that there’s no incentive to race well against D-I competition, or anyone else, and a lot of teams’ racing schedules are set for a major shake-up.
It will be hard to tell until the end of the season whether the best 32 teams end up on the line in Evansville or if the rules skew the competition further. For those of us running the races, it means big September invites like Roy Griak and Chili Pepper mean more than they ever have before.