Cross Country

Cross Country Nationals Preview: New Mexico, NAU favorites in team battle as Badgers look to capture individual crowns

Junior Alicia Monson won the Nuttycombe Invitational, and is one of two Badgers vying for an individual title on Saturday at the same course.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

In 1985, the last time the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country National Championships were held in Wisconsin, Tim Hacker ran to an individual title in his final collegiate competition.

Thirty-three years later nationals are back in the Badger state, and this time Wisconsin runners are among the favorites on both the men’s and women’s side.

Saturday's championships will be held at UW-Madison's Thomas Zimmer Championship Course. The women's 6-kilometer race will begin at 10:45 a.m., followed by the men's race at 11:45 a.m. Spectator information can be found here.

Women’s Preview

Defending champion New Mexico came into the season as significant favorites, with the No. 1 ranking and three returning all-americans. But since the Lobos lost in late September the national title race has been as unsettled as any year in recent memory. Although New Mexico is still a narrow favorite, five teams have a legitimate shot at capturing the win on Saturday.

The Lobos are lead by a dominant top three, any of whom could be the top runner for most of the teams in the field. Junior Ednah Kurgat is the defending individual champion, but she has yet to win a race this year as her teammate, sophomore Weini Kelati, has emerged as the most dominant runner in the country in 2018. They’re backed up by senior Charlotte Prouse, the 12th-place finisher at this meet a year ago. New Mexico’s biggest question is at the fifth slot, where they’ve had trouble finding a consistent scorer.

Two teams have beaten New Mexico this year — both on the nationals course during September’s Nuttycombe Invitational — and they’re both serious contenders for the title.

Colorado won the Nuttycombe title by putting four runners in the top 20 and 6 in the top 40, and with one of the nation’s top runners in senior Dani Jones, the Buffaloes have the capacity to get under the 100-point barrier that it typically takes to win a title.

Second at the Nuttycombe meet was Boise State, led by junior Allie Ostrander, another contender for the overall title. Ostrander’s been second and fourth in her two nationals finishes and can be penciled in for a top finish. The Broncos have two more runners behind Ostrander who can contend for All-American status (top 25), but they’re less settled than Colorado at fourth and fifth.

The best team not at Nuttycombe was Oregon, and the Ducks might also be New Mexico’s toughest competitor for the crown. Led by Pre-Nationals winner Jessica Hull and last year’s fifth-place finisher Weronika Pyzik, Oregon’s got the top runners and the depth that wins titles. If the Lobos can’t find a fifth runner on Saturday, the Ducks are best-positioned team to take advantage.

The dark horse is Arkansas, which went 1-2-3-4 and scored 21 points at its regional competition last Friday. Fifth spot is still a weakness for the Razorbacks, and they don’t have a standout runner like the previous four teams mentioned, but if they all run well, their depth could be a major difference-maker.

Even with defending champion Kurgat in the field, two runners have been head and shoulders above the rest in 2018. One is Kelati, who won her race at Pre-Nationals and fended off several top runners at both the Mountain West Conference meet and the Mountain regional. The other is Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson, who beat Kelati and the rest of the loaded field at Nuttycombe.

Monson — a junior from Amery, Wisconsin — was a relative unknown on the national scene until her breakout earlier this fall in Madison. Since then, she’s captured a Big Ten title and finished first at the Great Lakes regional to cement herself amongst the favorites.

The slower the race goes the better for Monson, who’s used a big move in the final kilometer to take each of her wins this year. If wind or other conditions keep the race bunched up, watch for Jones from Colorado, a natural miler who has by far the best top-end speed of any of the individual contenders in this race.

Men’s Preview

Unlike the women’s race, where as many as five teams have a reason to think they could capture the title, the men’s field is simple at the top, with two teams a cut above the rest this season and one clear favorite: Northern Arizona.

NAU is the two-time defending champion, looking to become the first team to win three straight team titles since Arkansas in 2000, and every result they’ve put up in 2018 has them on track to accomplish that goal. The Lumberjacks dominated one of the strongest regular-season fields in recent history at Nuttycombe in posting 46 points for the win, lower than they scored in 2017 before going on to win nationals in comfortable fashion.

They did this without top runner Matthew Baxter. With Baxter and fellow seniors Tyler Day and Peter Lomong all top-10 finishers at nationals last year, NAU has a top three as strong as New Mexico’s on the women’s side. What sets the Lumberjacks apart is that they compliment those top runners with elite depth; sophomores Luis Grijalva and Blaise Ferro were fifth and eighth at the Nuttycombe meet.

If NAU runs near its best on Saturday, the Lumberjacks are capable of posting a score below 50 points, where no other team can go.

If the Lumberjacks run their first bad race in more than two years, it will most likely be BYU that stands to benefit. The Cougars didn’t go to Nuttycombe, but they dominated the weaker of the two Pre-Nationals fields two weeks later with five runners in the top 12. BYU doesn’t have the top scorers of NAU or other podium contenders, but they’ve succeeded with depth and pack running all season. The Cougars can’t go as low as NAU can on a good day, but they’re well-positioned to take advantage if something unexpected happens.

While BYU and NAU are the clear favorites to stand on the top step of the podium, there’s a raft of other teams looking to grab the final podium place or take advantage of a slip-up by the top two like Portland did last year in grabbing second.

First out of that pack looks to be Wisconsin, led by Nuttycombe individual champion Morgan McDonald. The Badgers have, after NAU, likely the second-strongest top four in the nation in McDonald, 1500m national champ Olli Hoare, junior Olin Hacker and Big Ten fourth-placer Ben Eidenschink. Wisconsin’s questions have come at the fifth spot — when it took second at Nuttycombe, fifth-man Tyson Miehe was 75th overall, behind four other fifth-place runners.

Miehe’s run better since then, with an encouraging 12th place at the Big Ten Championships. Freshmen Derrick Peters and Shuaib Aljabaly have also run well and give the Badgers other possibilities for their final scorer if one of them has a good day.

If the Badgers can’t get a good run from their fifth, Portland and Stanford are poised to take advantage. Both West Coast programs have kept their powder dry for much of the regular season, but their coaches have a strong track record of leading teams to big performances at national meets.

Individually it’s been McDonald and Stanford’s Grant Fisher who have captured the most impressive accolades this fall, and they enter as the favorites. The two seniors, who are both best over 5 kilometers but can stretch it up to 10, haven’t raced each other this year and count wins over NAU’s Day as their top accomplishment of the season, McDonald at Nuttycombe and Fisher at Pre-Nationals.

While that duo has received most of the attention, don’t overlook Day and Baxter’s chances, especially in cold and windy conditions on Saturday. Last year the NAU seniors transformed the team and individual battles by running hard from the gun, and over at 10 kilometers, the two grinders have the potential to run the kick out of both Fisher and McDonald.

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