Events

Morgan McDonald & NAU Make History at NCAA XC Championships

Individual champion Dani Jones led Colorado to the NCAA women’s team title, while Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald and NAU made history in the men’s race.

The NCAA DI Cross Country Championships at the University of Wisconsin yielded historic performances as Morgan McDonald became the first man to win on his home course since 1992, the Northern Arizona men became the first team to successfully three-peat since 2000, and Dani Jones of Colorado led a massive upset to win the individual and team titles in the women’s race.

Individual Champion Dani Jones Leads Buffs to First Team Title in 14 Years

The freezing temperatures and slight dusting of snow on the ground laid the perfect foundation for the Colorado women’s first team victory since 2004. The Buffs now own three NCAA DI XC team titles; the first in 2000, also yielded an individual crown from Kara Goucher (née Grgas-Wheeler).

Jones is the 12th woman in NCAA history to win the individual crown while also leading a team victory. The Arizona native, a senior, has won two NCAA titles on the track (indoor 3K, DMR) but her previous finishes at NCAA XC were 10th, 22nd and 49th.

In Wisconsin on Saturday, the Buffs were in second place by 2K, just 27 points behind Oregon, and claimed a 60-point lead over New Mexico by 4K. Though the defending champion Lobos made great strides in the final third of the race, the Buffs still managed to hold them off by a 39-point margin to take the victory with 64 points to New Mexico’s 103.

“My goal was to just give myself a chance and stay in there and it worked out well,” the Arizona native said after the race. “I never thought I’d win a cross title. It’s just unbelievable and so special.”

Behind Jones, the Buffs packed all five scorers into the top 24 overall finishers: Makena Morley (8th), Tabor Scholl (15th), Sage Hurta (22nd) and Taylor Tuttle (24th). No. 6 runner Val Constien was 30th, meaning the Buffs still would have won even without Jones.

Morley said that she tripped at 1K and had to slowly work her way back up to an All-American position. “I got stepped on,” she said. “I kicked at the end because I saw my teammate win it. I never kick and I kicked! I didn’t really know where I was.”

The win was especially sweet as the team had placed third the past two years in a row after entering the national championship as the top-ranked squad.

While Colorado led the team standings for the second half of the race, Jones’ win wasn’t a sure thing until the final straightaway—which includes an uphill. Pre-race favorite Weini Kelati of New Mexico surged from the lead pack with 2K to go and looked to have secured the victory until Jones distanced her by three seconds in the final stretch, 19:42.8 to 19:45.3.

Morgan McDonald, NAU Reign Victorious in Men’s Championship

Wisconsin fifth-year senior McDonald made his extra year of eligibility worth it as the 22-year-old won his first NCAA title on Saturday morning in 29:08.3, edging out Grant Fisher of Stanford by hundredths of a second. Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State was a close third in 29:09.0.

The win made McDonald the first man to win the NCAA DI cross country title on his home course since 1992, when Indiana’s Bob Kennedy won for the Hoosiers. He is the fourth individual men’s cross country champion in University of Wisconsin history and the first under head coach Mick Byrne.

“It hurt really bad but I knew that in my head, I was thinking, ‘I’ve done this so many times,’” he said. “Every session, we finish by doing this straight. I was scared of the guys around me but I knew I had a good shot. I knew Grant was there the whole time, he’s a very savvy, smart racer, and I knew Edwin was there, too. I was trying to time my move based on them.”

McDonald, Fisher and Kurgat did not emerge as the top three until the final finishing stretch. Redshirt freshman Conner Mantz of BYU emerged as a surprise early leader, guiding the deep top pack of more than 20 runners through 6K in 17:34 and 8K in 23:31. He would ultimately finish 10th in his first NCAA XC appearance after playing the role that NAU’s Tyler Day and Matt Baxter played last year in setting the pace.

Day and Baxter, third and second in 2017, moved straight to the front but did not set the pace the way they did last year in pursuit of their second straight team title. Baxter, a New Zealand native, was off his game on Saturday and quickly slipped from the front pack. He would finish 15th on the day, while Day took sixth place overall.

“It was a hard day out here but I had to stick with it and I had to get every single point for my team,” Baxter said. “I knew there was still gonna be a good chance our team was in it but I had to focus on every spot.” Luckily for NAU, the Lumberjacks’ squad is so stacked that they won even with an off day from their top runner and captured a historic third straight NCAA DI XC team title.

“I’d be worried if it was anyone else besides Matt Baxter,” NAU head coach Mike Smith said of watching his top runner slip from the lead pack. “I’ve coached a lot of people and there’s very few like him that could fall off like that and completely manage the situation.”

Behind Day and Baxter, the rest of the scoring Lumberjacks finished within the top 30. Luis Grijalva was 23rd, Blaise Ferro 26th and Peter Lomong—who was transcendent last year with an eighth-place finish—was 29th.

“It’s only about team points. We have some guys who probably could have finished higher, but…you can train legs, brains are a whole other thing, though, and that’s the secret to all this,” said Smith.

Only three teams have ever successfully won three titles in a row; the last team to do so was Arkansas from 1998 to 2000.