Oklahoma State takes third team title
Brian Hendrickson, Special to NCAA.com
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - Dave Smith admitted to being nervous about his fifth runner as the Oklahoma State men's cross country coach prepared for Monday's national championship.
Johnathan Stublaski secured that spot for most of the year and finished among the top 20 in three races. But he also admitted to losing focus during a disappointing 28th-place performance in the Big 12 Championships before sitting out the South Regional to concentrate on school. Smith wondered whether he should turn to another runner to secure the back position that he expected would determine the national champion.
"I told him, `You don't have to be nervous, man,'" Stublaski said. "And I told him, `I've got this. I know that I'm focused right now.' And it turned out all right."
It turned out better than all right, actually. With Stublaski anchoring the rear with a solid 30th-place team finish, Oklahoma State rolled to its second consecutive national championship Monday at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course at the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center, pulling away to a dominant 120-point victory over Florida State.
And that dominance came through depth: All five of the Cowboys' scoring runners placed among the top 30 of the team scores, each of which earned All-America honors. Girma Mecheso (seventh) and German Fernandez (eighth) led the Cowboys. No other team had more than three runners among the top 40.
Florida State finished second with 193 points, while Wisconsin (223) finished third and Stanford (237) fourth.
"We needed a fifth man to come through," Smith said. "We've said it all year. I put a lot of pressure on those five, six, seven guys all year. And they came through. Unbelievable job."
And unbelievably easy -- at least, far more so than Smith expected.
The Cowboys' coach worried that No.2-ranked OSU could be beaten on a couple fronts. Top-ranked Stanford's front three of Chris Derrick, Jake Riley and Elliott Heath were dominant, while Smith felt Wisconsin could win with its overall depth. Oklahoma State needed to compete with Stanford's front runners, while also holding its own from behind.
But a couple bad breaks hurt Stanford from the start. Freshman Erik Olson fell at the start of the race and had to recover to finish 109th in the team points. Then Heath, who finished 8th at the West Regional, finished a disappointing 36th in team points (42nd in individual standings), taking away the Cardinal's advantage up front.
"We had a couple guys who had off days, and it hurt us," said Stanford coach Jason Dunn. "It's the story of cross country. You've got to have a fourth and a fifth (runner). You're only as good as your fifth runner. ... Crazy things happen in the national meet, and unfortunately we experienced that first hand today."
It opened the door wide for Oklahoma State to run through. The Cowboys moved in front at the 5-kilometer marker and steadily increased their lead through the second half. Once Smith saw that comfortable lead at the midpoint, he relaxed and felt assured that the race was in hand.
"That's been the way we've run all year," Smith said. "We've timed everything to run better the second half of the race. So when we were leading at the 5k of the race, that was a good sign."
Now the Cowboys can count themselves in an elite class. Oklahoma State's second straight national title makes them just the fourth in the last 29 years to repeat as champions, joining tradition-rich programs Oregon, Stanford and Arkansas. And the Cowboys don't believe their run is finished.
All seven runners in Monday's title race will be back next year - three are undersclassmen. So the Cowboys' third national title in school history on Monday may not be its last.
"We have very young team," Stublaski said, "and it's very promising for next year."