There was a palpable excitement leading into this year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships – this one just had more hype around it than normal.
There were plenty of dynastic storylines to pique one’s interest and in this increasingly social media saturated world, these kids are legitimate stars with massive followings. Plus, thanks to some serious top-end team parity, the races were wide-open between a select handful of teams, which made it all the more palatable from a narrative standpoint.
The NCAA XC Championships are unlike any other college sport’s. Every team and individual shows up together on one day with a fair chance. So the outcome is treated more reverentially. There aren’t biased coaches’ polls or tough bracket draws that can cause fans to question the eventual champ. You can look back at results from years past and get a pretty clear picture of what transpired on a given day.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the meet ended, fans were probably already debating whether or not this would be considered the greatest slate of races in the meet’s history. (I’m not old enough to remember the Penn State and Indiana tie of 1942, but for as long as I’ve been alive, this has to take the cake.)
Here are my major takeaways:
1. Props to Nico Young and Drew Bosley.
The “gas, gas, gas” tradition of Northern Arizona individuals continues on, and is so fun to watch. With the team title on the line, the duo could have easily sat back and played it safe against the risk of blowing it up. Instead, they looked fear in the eyes and invited it to dance.
2. North Carolina State found a way.
At the beginning of the year, stats nerd Isaac Wood declared that this Wolfpack had the potential to be the greatest college cross country team ever. A bold assertion, but consider this: they lost Marlee Starliper (15:36) and Savannah Shaw (15:33) at the beginning of the season AND STILL WON! And while the Wolfpack’s top three had great races, my MVP is Nevada Moreno, who rose from 36th at Nuttycombe and 19th at ACCs to finish in 29th place. This is more than a great team, it’s a program.
3. It was not the tangents.
The contrast between Parker Valby’s hard-from-the-gun style with Katelyn Tuohy’s conservative starts set this up to be a fascinating game of cat and mouse. The course had hills, but it was also extremely windy — as I said on the broadcast, taking the shortest path possible would be a huge advantage. And while Valby made a few mistakes by following the gator rather than taking a straight line, that was not ultimately the difference maker. Katelyn was just too strong and once she smelled blood in the water it was over. Both are sophomores. This rivalry is far from over. And as impressive as they both were in the race, their performances afterward were even more so. All Katelyn wanted to discuss was her team’s performance – that investment in the group has become the secret to her individual success. And although she was caught just 400 meters from an NCAA title, Parker was happy and in great spirits for all post-race interviews. Those are the sort of indicators that point towards long and successful careers.
4. Charles Hicks doesn’t miss.
The worst finish of Charles Hicks’s college cross country career is 14th, and that was his freshman year at NCAAs. In his 13 other races, he’s never placed lower than 6th and that includes his European U23 title. (He’ll aim to defend it next month.) He was the first Stanford Cardinal to win an individual title at this meet, which is truly outstanding when you consider some of the names that wore the same jersey. Hicks did something Ryan Hall, Chris Derrick, Grant Fisher, Jacob Riley, Sean McGorty, and countless others did not.
5. The top 11 women return.
In a world where some super seniors are running in their fifth NCAA championships, the women’s race was dominated by underclasswomen. Out of the top 28, there were only three seniors. (For perspective, in 2019 there were fourteen.) As expected, OSU’s Natalie Cook was way up there in 7th, the type of finish you would expect of a 15:25 high school runner. But the top freshman was Alabama’s Hilda Olemomoi in 6th, who led the Crimson Tide to a third-place finish, the highest in school history.
6. Never doubt Northern Arizona.
I admittedly did! In a private conversation before the race, I said I just didn’t see the path to victory for them this year since it would require needing multiple race day heroes stepping up to run way better than they have all season. But I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll never doubt Brodey Hasty again. He’s now finished 46th, 44th, 39th, and 25th at the Championships, despite regular season races that rarely pointed to such outcomes. The dude just has the clutch gene! Combine that with the HUGE 19th place finish by Santiago Prosser, whose highest finish all year was 17th at Regionals, plus the wild improvement from George Kusche since October, and that’s how you win the sixth title in seven years.
7. The tiebreaker is fine.
The problem is inconsistency and that it’s not immediately apparent who won. There is no good way to break it, but the problem is that it’s different in high school. It’d be like if the NBA decided to play a game of knockout rather than go into overtime… Wait, did I just solve the problem? We need overtime. Each team selects one runner to race a mile for a run-off. Imagine a coach trying to determine which guy is best prepared fifteen minutes after a 10k to win it all for the team. Do you pick the guy who just had the best finish or the token miler who just acted as the seventh man? We can score it as a dual meet, go to the 6th man, look at the head-to-head results, use cumulative time, it doesn’t matter. There are multiple places on the results sheet that show that with a tenth of a second here or there that Oklahoma State would have won. Ultimately that’s where the race is decided, not the rulebook. And speaking of OK State…
8. Oklahoma State ran fantastic.
Much was made of the potential home course advantage the Stillwater-based hosts might enjoy, while it wasn’t quite enough to propel the Pokes to the top of the podium, the OK State teams ran up to or above expectations. But the only reason the men even got close enough for it to come down to a tiebreaker is that Fouad Messaoudi finished 12th in just his second race in the United States, making him the top freshman in the country.
9. The champions will be favorites again.
NC State and Northern Arizona should return as the pre-season number-one ranked teams next year, but they’re far from locks. On the women’s side, the entirety of New Mexico’s five All-Americans and eleven-second spread returns and with 13 straight top 10 finishes for coach Joe Franklin’s squad, they’re all but guaranteed to be in the mix once again. And although the Stanford men entered Stillwater as the favorites and they’re undoubtedly disappointed by taking the last podium spot, they bring back Hicks, Robinson, and Sprout, while adding in the two best high school distance runners in the nation in Lex and Leo Young.
10. This isn’t just the national championships. It’s international, too!
How many of the 80 All-Americans on Saturday would you guess hail from a country other than America? Back in my day, when handing out the All-American awards the NCAA would remove the non-Americans from the top 40 list. They stopped doing that, which has made the awards ceremony much easier, but it’s also just the right thing to do. This meet is one of the deepest and most competitive in the world and that should be celebrated. All in all, there were 31 international athletes who had the honor of receiving that certificate – how cool is that!
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