There’s no race quite like the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Thirty-one teams and about 250 individuals, the best of the best across Division I, line up shoulder-to-shoulder to race through mud and snow, grassy knolls and rolling hills—6K for women and 10K for men. During the track season, they’ll separate themselves into half-milers and steeplechasers, 5K runners and 10K grinders; but for one weekend in November, all share one racing common goal.
The University of Wisconsin hosts the championship this Saturday in Madison for the first time since 1978. The state itself last played host to NCAAs in 1985, when Marquette University held the event in Milwaukee—a year that factors heavily in Badger lore, as both the men’s and women’s teams captured team titles that day.
Led by Morgan McDonald (more on him later), the Wisconsin men have a strong shot to make the podium again for the first time since 2012. But the real juggernaut in the men’s team race is Northern Arizona University (NAU), the two-time defending team champions who look poised for a third consecutive title on Saturday.
The last team to capture three straight titles was Arkansas from 1998 to 2000. The Razorbacks also won four straight team titles from 1990 to 1993; other schools with notable men’s team title streaks include UTEP (four titles, 1978-1981), Villanova (three titles, 1966-1968) and Drake (three titles, 1944-1946). For the most part, though, such streaks are a thing of the past. The past three teams to have a shot at the three-peat have faltered: Oregon (2009), Oklahoma State (2011) and Colorado (2015) have all placed runner-up in the year of their third bid for glory.
Team Battle: NAU Seeks Three-Peat
Before 2016, NAU had never captured an NCAA DI team championship in any sport. That fall, the Lumberjacks boasted a 33-point margin of victory over runners-up Stanford for their historic first win; last year, the Lumberjacks put just 74 points on the board to defeat runners-up Portland by 53 points.
NAU returns nearly everyone from that team, including low-stick sure-bets Matthew Baxter and Tyler Day, who were second and third at nationals in 2017 and both of whom are capable of winning the race outright on Saturday; breakout star Peter Lomong, who underwhelmed during the track season but finished eighth at NCAAs last year and has strung together three straight top-10 finishes at major races this fall; Geordie Beamish, last year’s fifth man who owns a 5K PB of 13:53; Luis Grijalva, a blue-chip recruit who ran 13:49 as a true freshman in the spring; and Blaise Ferro, a 13:50 performer who has developed into the squad’s No. 4 man and will make his debut NCAA Championship performance.
The biggest question marks for the Lumberjacks are whether or not Lomong can reproduce his out-of-character top 10 NCAA finish this year, and how large the gap will be from frontrunners Baxter and Day to the No. 3, 4 and 5 men.
The potential for a big gap is where a team like BYU—fourth last year—starts to look extremely dangerous. The Cougars don’t have an obvious frontrunner to run tit-for-tat with Baxter and Day, but typically boast a very lean spread that could give them an edge if NAU’s fourth or fifth guys have a bad day.
Then again, BYU was picked to challenge NAU for supremacy last year but never came close to leading the race. The Cougars’ top runner and true freshman Casey Clinger placed 24th and the rest of the top five placed 30th, 39th, 42nd and 65th in the overall standings. While Clinger is away on a religious mission this fall and cannot compete, he is essentially replaced in the line-up by freshman Conner Mantz, who is competing in his first season since his own mission trip. If Mantz, Rory Linkletter, Connor McMillan and Brayden McLelland can pack up and get ahead of NAU’s No. 3, 4 and 5, then we have a race on our hands.
One team with a huge question mark next to it is Portland, last year’s surprise runners-up. Longtime head coach Rob Connor always has an ace or two up his sleeve—Logan Orndorf was his No. 2 guy at regionals in his debut race of the season and the Pilots won the West Region with probable top man Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse hanging out in 26th place.
The other teams battling for a top four podium spot are Wisconsin and Stanford. Stanford has a four-year podium streak going, while the Badgers have not climbed the stage since 2012. Both squads have serious individual title contenders in Grant Fisher and Morgan McDonald, which adds to the drama.
Individual Battle: Home Favorite Morgan McDonald Faces Grant Fisher
Last year, NAU’s Baxter and Day caught everyone off-guard by hammering the gas from the get-go to keep their team title hopes alive. This year, both men are back with equally strong team title aspirations, but without the element of surprise. Count on them to pound the gas again—but who will hang with them?
The only individual NCAA champion in the field is Stanford’s Fisher, who used a peerless kick to capture the 2017 NCAA Outdoor 5K title in the pouring rain. He placed fifth in both 2016 and 2017 at the NCAA XC Championships and after publicly admitting a lack of focus in his junior year, a win in Wisconsin seems practically scripted for Fisher, who broke four minutes in the mile and won two Foot Locker Nationals titles as a high schooler.
McDonald, meanwhile, cuts a more enigmatic figure.
The native Australian has raced more frequently and with better results outside of the NCAA than during the collegiate season over the past two years, including a 13:15 5K PB, 3:55 mile, debut at the IAAF World Championships and an eighth place finish at the Commonwealth Games.
Still, what better incentive is there than to compete as a redshirt senior on your home course for the national championships? Teammate Oliver Hoare’s surprise NCAA title in the 1500m this spring surely added some fuel to the fire for McDonald.
Other athletes with outside potential for the win include Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State, who was runner-up to McDonald at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, and James Sugira, a freshman at Eastern Kentucky who has enjoyed an undefeated season since placing fourth at Nuttycombe.