By Owen Corbett
November 16, 2023
It’s officially that time of year! The collegiate cross country season comes to an end this Saturday at the Panorama Farms Cross Country Course in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it's shaping up to be a doozy.
Three of the four titles to be awarded, including both team trophies, will be heavyweight fights between two juggernauts, while the men’s individual title will be more of a free-for-all. Whether you are making the trip to Virginia or tuning in on TV Saturday morning, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know before the gun goes off this weekend. You can find all the information on when and how to watch here.
Will Katelyn Tuohy become the first repeat women’s champion in over a decade? Can Northern Arizona be the first school to claim both team titles since 2004? Who will deliver the biggest shock of the day? Let’s get into the action.
Men’s Team: Can NAU Keep The Dynasty Going? Can Oklahoma State Get Redemption?
Flashback to 2022: there was chaos at the finish line of the OSU Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Oklahoma, as officials tried to sort out the final score of the meet. The frequently-changing unofficial results made their way to the runners, and for just a moment, Oklahoma State thought they had won. It seemed that they used their home course advantage to upset the Northern Arizona dynasty, it was a storybook ending. But joy quickly turned to heartbreak as both teams ended up with a final score of 83 points – the first tie in NCAA Championship history – and the recently-changed tiebreaker rules awarded the title to the Lumberjacks. There was plenty of debate following the race about whether the tiebreaker rules were fair, but no amount of arguing was going to change the result. Barely missing a prime opportunity on their home course and losing two of their top five runners as NAU improved meant that the Cowboys may have missed their best chance in recent years… or so we thought.
Oklahoma State quietly reloaded with an international recruiting class that is still revealing its full depth. Adding Kenyans Denis Kipngetich (2023 Midwest Regional champion) and Brian Musau (2023 Big 12 Conference champion) to a team that brings back Alex Maier (5th at 2022 NCAAs) and reigning indoor 3000m champion Fouad Messaoudi (12th at 2022 NCAAs) makes the No. 2 team in the country even more of a threat to NAU’s dominance than last year.
Speaking of the Lumberjacks: they come into Charlottesville with the top two returners from last year’s National Championship, Nico Young (2nd at 2022 NCAAs) and Drew Bosley (3rd at 2022 NCAAs), and they haven’t shown any signs of regression. Bosley will return to the Panorama Farms course where he won the Virginia Invitational in September, and Young has finished first or second in each of his three races on the grass this season. The NAU dynasty is not built off individuals though (even though they have had some great ones). The Jacks’ six national championships were delivered thanks to their remarkable depth, and should they prevail, it’ll be no different in 2023. Finishing ahead of Bosley at last week’s Mountain Regional was junior breakout star Kang Nyoak, who will be put to the test in his first nationals appearance. On the other end of the experience spectrum are Wake Forest transfer Aaron Las Heras (26th at 2022 NCAAs), who finished as the runner-up behind Young at the Big Sky Conference Championships, along with veterans Brodey Hasty (25th at 2022 NCAAs) and Santiago Prosser (19th at 2022 NCAAs), all three of whom earned All-American honors at last year's national meet.
The two teams haven’t competed directly all year, but they’ve separated themselves from the rest of the pack. The best of the rest may be BYU, the runner-up in all four of their big meets this year, losing handly to either NAU or Oklahoma State each time. Unless disaster strikes for one or more scoring runners, the real question remains whether NAU’s or OSU’s squad can put more . Fans looking for a close race will be crossing their fingers for a repeat of last year, when the combined times of the teams’ top five runners were just five seconds apart.
Men’s Individual: A Wide Open Race At The Top
For all of Northern Arizona’s dominance over the last decade, they have never had an individual champion on the men’s side at NCAAs (interestingly, they have produced two women’s national champions but no women’s team title). That could change this year as they have the best 1-2 punch in the country. For starters, Nico Young feels due for an individual title on the grass. From his fourth place finish as a freshman, to falling just short over the final stretch last year, Young has never had a bad performance at NCAAs – his lowest career finish is 11th. A breakthrough in his senior year would be reminiscent of Adam Goucher’s legendary 1998 win, some great company for Young to join.
Young’s only two losses this season have come to arguably his biggest rivals heading into this weekend. Just last week he was edged by New Mexico’s Habtom Samuel at the Mountain Regional. Samuel is a newcomer to the NCAA scene this fall but is a two-time World U20 Medalist, placed 17th at the 2023 World Athletics Cross Country Championships – the senior race! – for his native Eritrea, and boasts a 27:20.08 10,000m PB. He’s also won three of the four races he has run this season as a Lobo. Like Young, Samuel won’t be running alone: fellow New Mexico freshmen Lukas Kiprop and Evans Kiplagat of Kenya have finished within seconds of their low stick a number of times this season and could help spur their teammate to an individual title.
In the other race that Samuel and Young faced off in this season, neither of them won. At the biggest regular-season meet of the year, the Nuttycombe Invitational, they finished in the two spots behind Harvard’s Graham Blanks. While Blanks (6th at NCAAs in 2022) was considered a surprise champ on the day, winning is all he has done this year. Blanks has started four races this season and crossed the finish first in each and every time. The big caveat to Blanks’s win at Wisco was that it came in incredibly muddy and rainy conditions that will look nothing like the weather in Charlottesville on Saturday. It is worth wondering if the fair weather in the forecast favors one of the contenders with quicker track PBs more.
Another big regular-season winner was Nico Young’s teammate Drew Bosley, who started the year strong with wins at NAU’s home opener and the Virginia Invitational, but didn’t run the Lumberjack’s conference meet and was the third finisher on his own team in their regional race. There is certainly concern there but Bosley should not be counted out as you only have to look to a year ago where he stayed with Young until the closing stages of the race.
If you’re looking for a dark horse to root for, the other undefeated runner in the field is Wisconsin’s Bob Liking. Liking doesn’t have the strong NCAAs pedigree that some of his rivals have; in two efforts he’s finished 34th and 66th. But the 2022 and 2023 Big Ten champ is 3-for-3 this season, and in a kicker’s race it wouldn’t be crazy to see him in the mix.
Lastly, it would be impossible to move on without mentioning last year’s 5000m/10,000m champion on the track, Stanford’s Ky Robinson. Although Robinson (10th last year at NCAAs) doesn’t have a signature win over a national field on the grass this year, the 2022 Nuttycombe champion has put together a solid campaign. The Cardinal crew hasn’t made much noise in the team conversation this year, but they’ll be looking to cap the season with back-to-back individual champions.
Women’s Team: Will NAU Break Up The NC State Three-peat?
It was only a matter of time before the Northern Arizona University women caught up to their male counterparts. With the same team resources as the men, a beneficial training environment, and one of the best coaches in the country, there was no reason why top female talent wouldn’t flock to Flagstaff. Now, as the Lady Jacks sit atop the national coaches’ poll headed into the big dance in Charlottesville, the question worth asking is if they are a bigger favorite than their dynastic men's squad.
How did the program that finished just sixth in Stillwater one year ago become so dominant so quickly? It was a perfect storm of homegrown talent like two-time Big Sky Conference champion Elise Stearns (4th at 2022 NCAAs) and Annika Reiss (47th at 2022 NCAAs) developing into stars, alongside an influx of top-tier transfers like Gracelyn Larkin (26th at 2022 NCAAs) and Aliandrea Upshaw (146th at 2022 NCAAs) from New Mexico and Ruby Smee (58th at 2022 NCAAs) from San Francisco. All five runners placed in the top 25 in NAU’s dominant win at this year’s Nuttycombe Invitational, as did Australian freshman Keira Moore.
While the NAU women will be trying to add their own chapter to their school’s lore this weekend, the team that they’ll have to dethrone to do so has been as dominant as any in recent history. Consider this: when the NAU women rose to the top of the rankings after their Nuttycombe win in October, it ended a streak of 16 consecutive polls, dating back to 2021, where the NC State Wolfpack held the top spot. This was the longest run of any team at No. 1 since the NAU men’s astonishing run of 32 consecutive polls from 2016 to 2019, and was the longest stretch on the women’s side since the Stanford Cardinal ran their way to 19 consecutive top rankings - and three straight national titles, from 2005 to 2007.
Reigning champion Katelyn Tuohy is expected to add, at most, 2 points to the team score, but she’ll be relying on her teammates to outplace the competition as well. That starts with the Scottie Pippen to Tuohy’s Michael Jordan, fifth-year senior Kelsey Chmiel (3rd at 2022 NCAAs). Chmiel has been the most consistent member of the Wolfpack supporting cast in what has been a bit of a rocky season by NC State’s sky-high standards. This will be her fifth appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, and she has managed to improve her result at each and every one (22nd in 2019, 9th in 2020*, 6th in 2021, and 3rd in 2022).
Behind their top two, NC State has a number of important question marks that could make or break the team’s attempted threepeat. Expectations were high for the Wolfpack when they added Alabama transfer Amaris Tyynismaa (9th at 2022 NCAAs) ahead of the track season last year; however, the reigning ACC 5000m champion on the track has struggled with injury this fall and hasn’t finished either of the two races she has started. Two-time All-American Samantha Bush (15th at 2022 NCAAs) seems to be rounding into form with her sixth place finish at the Southeast Regional meet, but she opened the season with a seventh place finish on her own team, followed by a DNF at Nuttycombe. NC State may have to rely on their talented crop of young runners to cover the gaps. Keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Grace Hartman (8th at 2023 Southeast Regional), who edged out standout true freshman Leah Stephens, the Wolfpack’s third runner at both ACC Championships and Nuttycombe.
Similar to the men’s side, it feels like a two-team race for the title. BYU coach Diljeet Taylor doesn’t have a true low stick like she did two years ago when Whittni Morgan (née Orton) won the individual title en route to the Courgar’s runner-up finish, but that didn’t stop her in 2020* when BYU won the team title without an individual finishing in the top ten. The No. 3 Cougars will look to bounce back from their eighth place finish in Stillwater last year and pick up another podium trophy at the very least.
No. 4 Oklahoma State had their highest finish in NCAA history last year as they were the only school to put both their men’s and women’s programs on the podium. The Cowgirls will look to repeat that accomplishment this year behind Midwest Regional champion Billah Jepkirui (151st at 2022 NCAAs) and Big 12 Conference champion Taylor Roe (13th at 2022 NCAAs).
*the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships were staged in March of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women’s Individual: Katelyn Tuohy vs Parker Valby: Part III
Stop me if this sounds familiar. Florida’s Parker Valby (2nd at 2022 NCAAs) is running eye-popping times that make her look untouchable, while Katelyn Tuohy is racking up big wins by leaving competitors in the dust over the final mile, setting up a head-to-head matchup with the hype of a heavyweight title fight. It feels like deja vu, when both runners were co-favorites headed into 2022 NCAAs. We all know how that turned out, with Valby going out hard on a grueling course and Tuohy hunting her down to run away with a convincing win.
This year though, there is one key difference: unlike 2022, Tuohy and Valby have a head-to-head matchup on their cards already headed into the championships. At the Nuttycombe Invitational five weeks ago, Valby set a course record in brutal conditions, running away from the NC State star over the second half of the race. It was a shock to see Tuohy – who went undefeated last season – get outclassed and an incredible sign for Valby believers to see her speed translate over the hills that hurt her last November. Tuohy has cruised to impressive wins in her two races since the defeat, and should still be considered a slight favorite until someone takes the trophy from her hands, but it's clear Valby is on a different level than she was last year, and it might just be enough to give the University of Florida its first individual cross country champion.
The closest anyone has come to Valby this season? The Alabama duo of Doris Lemngole and Hilda Olemomoi (6th at 2022 NCAAs). Two weeks after losing to Valby at the SEC Championships by well over 30 seconds, the Kenyan duo stalked Valby from a little more than 50 meters behind at the South Regional meet, and closed hard to finish within three and five seconds of her, respectively. Because No. 20 Alabama likely won’t factor into the top of the team race, Lemngole and Olemomoi can put everything on the line and try to stick with Valby and Tuohy for as long as possible. The two have experience on big stages, as Olemomoi was within half a second of a top five finish in Stillwater last year, and Lemngole was called on to pace a Diamond League steeplechase this past May. If either of the two favorites have an off day and leave the door open, expect the Crimson Tide teammates to capitalize.
Sleeper Picks To Impress Your Friends:
Men’s Team: Although the men’s race seems like a two-team battle, there are a number of schools looking to fill out the podium, and a few that could even break into the runner-up conversation if one of the top squads has an off day. No. 4 North Carolina heads into the weekend with their highest ranking in program history behind a strong four-man contingent of ACC Champion Parker Wolfe (9th at 2022 NCAAs), Division III National Champion Alex Phillip, 1500m finalist on the track Ethan Strand (62nd at 2022 NCAAs), and Indiana transfer Jake Gebhardt.
While UNC may be new to the top of the rankings, No. 5 Wisconsin (tied with Texas) has five national titles to their name, and is rounding into form at the right time. The Badgers were crushed on their home course at Nuttycombe, where they came in 22nd, but it was all a part of their plan of prioritizing the postseason. After an incredible 19-point performance at the Big Ten Conference Championships, Bob Liking (34th at 2022 NCAAs), Jackson Sharp (16th at 2022 NCAAs), and Adam Spencer (188th at 2022 NCAAs) did enough in the Great Lakes Regional to advance and are peaking for the biggest race of the season.
Men’s Individual: For the first half of the season, it looked like star true freshman Rocky Hansen of Wake Forest could vie for the win in his first collegiate championship. He finished in the top six at the two biggest meets of the regular season, and almost every name that finished ahead of him has already been mentioned in this article as a contender for the individual title. The problem though is that he has not raced in over a month while dealing with an injury, and wasn’t part of the Demon Deacons’ Regionals squad that advanced to nationals with an at-large bid.
So instead, we will stay in the ACC and give some more love to Parker Wolfe, who finished ahead of Hansen at the Virginia Invitational and only one spot behind him at the Nuttycombe Invitational. Aside from Wolfe’s conference title, his second place finish on the Panorama Farms course at the beginning of the season should give him confidence, while his narrow loss at last week’s Southeast Regional should give him the motivation to end the season on a high.
Women’s Team: As NCAA athletes entering the transfer portal becomes increasingly common, it will become more and more of a weapon for programs to build national championship teams in all sports, and we are getting our first glimpse of that in cross country with the Florida women. Last year, Parker Valby was the lone Gator representative in Stillwater after her team finished seventh at the South Regional. Just one season later, Valby is surrounded by a team that climbed as high as No. 6 in the national coaches’ poll and is a legitimate podium threat. The turn around occurred this offseason as the top transfers on the market flocked to Gainesville to form a superteam around Valby.
The Gators added Alabama transfers Flomena Asekol (14th at 2022 NCAAs) and Allison Wilson, along with New Mexico stars Elise Thorner (40th at 2022 NCAAs) and Amelia Mazza-Downie (22nd at 2022 NCAAs). Unfortunately, Mazza-Downie has struggled to get to the starting line this fall, only running one race, and won’t be in Charlottesville after missing the Gators’s regional competition.
Women’s Individual: It is hard to imagine anyone but Parker Valby or Katelyn Tuohy winning this race, but there are a few women who can mix it up with them early on. Back in October, Stanford’s star freshman Amy Bunnage stuck with the two favorites for the first few kilometers before fading to 13th. Bunnage serves as the low stick for a young Cardinal team that could be a real title threat in years to come.
At the final Pac-12 Championships late last month, Bunnage edged Kaylee Mitchell (18th at 2022 NCAAs) and Grace Fetherstonhaugh (31st at 2022 NCAAs), who finished first and third at the West Regional for an Oregon State team that was ranked top ten in the country as of the last weekend in October, but failed to collectively qualify for NCAAs after a ninth place team finish. The Beavers’ top runners will be running for their whole team on Saturday.
Lastly, reigning 1500m champion Maia Ramsden (11th at 2022 NCAAs), who ended Katelyn Tuohy’s attempted double on the track this past June before it even started, has won four of her five races this year and could be a threat to shock the field once again.
Huge sports fan turned massive track nerd. Statistics major looking to work in sports research. University of Connecticut club runner (faster than Chris Chavez but slower than Kyle Merber).