By Kyle Merber
November 15, 2023
Alright running nerds (sorry, I was worried that intro was too flattering), I am back in the booth for ESPN at the NCAA Cross Country Championships this Saturday, November 18th in Charlottesville, Virginia. Coverage begins at 9:30 AM ET and my goal coming in is to be able to read the YouTube comments afterward and not completely hate myself.
There are 62 teams and 510 individuals competing, and if you graduated from college at any point prior to the pandemic, then you’re probably a bit out of touch with just about all of them. With that in mind, let’s try to simplify things and give you the major storylines to enjoy the broadcast.
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1. The Dynasty: The Northern Arizona men will be running for their seventh national title in eight years. They return their top four and have had no shortage of talent entering the program at all times, so you’d expect that they’d be the heavy favorites. But that assumption would discount how insanely well the two heroes of the day had to run in order to make last year’s title happen. Santiago Prosser was 17th at regionals in 2022 and then finished 19th at the national meet. Brodey Hasty was 14th at regionals and ended up 25th at NCAAs. The pair was 15th and 14th, respectively, at this year’s Mountain Regional meet. But just in case they don’t replicate 2022’s heroics, NAU brought in backup in All-American transfer Aaron Las Heras, so there is a little more room for error. And then there is the wild card in Kang Nyoak, who finished fifth last weekend in what was undoubtedly the best cross race of his life. To beat this NAU team, it will require an all-time great team and a historic performance.
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2. The Challenger: One year ago, Oklahoma State lost the NCAA meet on a tiebreaker in their own backyard. Rather than rolling over, coach Dave Smith added more firepower to his squad and is back with a team that scored 19 points at regionals despite resting a couple of likely NCAA entrants. The big off-season acquisitions were Denis Kipngetich, Brian Musau, and Adisu Guadia. They’ve all demonstrated talent, but the NCAA meet is unique and often requires a couple of tries to get right. With Fouad Messaoudi and Alex Maier, there are legitimately four guys on this team who could be in the top 10. If both Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State run perfect races, then the Cowboys will likely win.
3. The defense: It’s been back-to-back titles for the NC State Wolfpack, but this next one may be the most difficult yet, thanks in part to the ascendance of #1-ranked NAU. At Nuttycombe, the Lumberjack women pulled off what would have then been considered an upset, though that was without NC State’s Samantha Bush (15th in 2022) in the equation – she should be back for NCAAs. NC State has shown their cards, though never all at once. The 1-2 punch of Katelyn Tuohy and Kelsey Chmiel return and have been stalwarts of the program’s recent success. For the Lumberjack, Elise Stearns and Annike Reiss are now the beneficiaries of three fresh transfers in Gracelyn Larkin (26th in 2022), Ruby Smee, and Aliandrea Upshaw. Do you know how good the Northern Arizona women have to be to earn the top ranking heading into NCAAs against the two-time defending champions who still have their biggest pieces back? That’s bulletin board material!
Xavier Gallo / @XavierGallo
4. Pick a favorite: No one in the men’s race has won an individual NCAA Cross Country title before… losers! Well, that streak will end in a few days for one lucky fella. Who will it be? Stanford’s Ky Robinson earned double gold during the outdoor track season so he’s not a bad name to start with. He was 4th at Nuttycombe (0.1 from second), though he won Pac-12s and West Regionals. Many would pick Nico Young – last year’s second-place finisher seems like a natural heir to the throne. He’s got eight All-American certificates, just none of them in gold (not sure if they do different colors for winners but you get what I mean). Up until Wisconsin, Harvard’s Graham Blanks would have been a good “dark horse” pick, however, the horse is out of the bag after his run there. He didn’t actually have to try very hard to win Heps and he won regionals in trainers (okay, they were Vaporflys) so Blanks is well rested. I’m hesitant to name anyone else because of the rule of threes and all. But if I had to, then it’s gotta be New Mexico’s Habtom Samuel, who just started his freshman year as a Lobo with a CV that would put most others’ to shame. And while I am not sure what resume-padding activities he got up to in high school, he has run 27:20 for 10,000m and finished 17th at World Cross last year for Eritrea. And not the little baby junior race either!
Xavier Gallo / @XavierGallo
5. Is this a rivalry yet?: Katelyn Tuohy vs. Parker Valby. Apologies to the other women in the field, but no one except your parents is picking you to win this one. (And because I just said that, you now have the necessary motivation to prove me wrong!) Between her storied high school career, marked by winning four NXN titles, and her complete dominance last year, it sorta feels like Tuohy should have won nine NCAA cross country titles by now. However last year was her first, and this year will not be given. Florida’s Parker Valby only has one career win against Tuohy over hill and dale, but it came this season at the Nuttycombe Invitational. A 12-second victory is substantial, but October 13th is not November 18th.
6. Homefield advantage: For the better part of two decades, the NCAA championships were not a traveling circus. Younger readers might not realize that 13 of the last 21 editions were held in Terre Haute, Indiana. For the first time since 1987, the meet returns to Charlottesville (albeit, on a different course than it was last contested on) and that was largely due to the work of Vin Lananna. But the then-ranked #10 UVA women and #13 men struggled mightily at the regional meet and both got in as the 30th team off of points. Now that they’re back home, how much can they outperform expectations?
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After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.