Through whipping wind, up hill and dale, Saturday's NCAA Cross Country championships lived up to the hype, and then eclipsed the hype, delivering both great individual performances and deep showings from the best teams in the country.
The day began with a bang, when New Mexico's Ednah Kurgat, in her first year with the Lobos, capped off a perfect season by setting the DI women's NCAA record with a 19:19.5, a truly masterful race which she led for miles en route to a New Mexico championship.
It was quite a way to start the day, but people named Kurgat weren't done dominating their respective races: in the DII women's side, Caroline Kurgat of Alaska-Anchorage torched the field for an individual title, winning by more than half a minute. It was an impressive tour de force. On the whole, Adams State won the DII women's team title, as they were expected to.
And the Adams State men's team completed a DII sweep by taking the DII men's team title, while Tiffin's James Ngandu turned in another dominating performance, beating the DII field by more than 30 seconds himself for a decisive first-place finish.
Things were a little more dramatic in the DI men's race, where three men were essentially deadlocked heading into the final 400 meters of the 10K: Northern Arizona's Tyler Day and Matt Baxter, and Syracuse's Justyn Knight. As things whittled down to the end, Knight overtook Day, then out-sprinted Baxter, for his first individual NCAA title, winning by just a few seconds over the dynamic NAU duo. The Lumberjacks of NAU ended up taking the team title by a wide margin, as expected, for their second straight championship.
On the DIII side, North Central (Ill.) out-paced the entire pack of DIII men's runners, winning the team title by more than 100 points, while Wisconsin Eau-Claire's Darin Lau stretched a minor lead into a major lead and won by a dozen seconds. And for the women, a brutally chilly and windy race -- gusts reached 30 miles per hour -- proved taxing, but Chicago's Khia Kurtenbach crossed the finish line as the individual winner, and Johns Hopkins brought home the program's fifth title with a really tight 1-through-5 spread.
So, to recap:
- In DI Women, Ednah Kurgat won individual title, and New Mexico won team title
- In DI Men, Cuse's Justyn Knight won individual title, and Northern Arizona won team title
- In DII Women, Alaska-Anchorage's Caroline Kurgat won individual title, and Adams State won team title
- In DII Men, Tiffin's James Ngandu won individual title, and Adams State won team title
- In DIII Men, Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Darin Lau won individual title, and North Central (Ill.) won team title
- In DIII Women, Chicago's Khia Kurtenbach won individual title, and Johns Hopkins won team title.
It was quite a day.
Here's a preview of what to watch on Saturday:
7 storylines to keep an eye on at DI cross country championships
Adam Hermann | NCAA.com
Cross country meets can fly by in the blink of an eye, no matter how much running you watch during the season. It takes some prep to make sure you don't miss a race's most interesting stories.
Let us get you caught up to speed so, come the sound of the gun, you can enjoy yourself and be the smartest XC viewer possible. Here's what we're watching this weekend in championship action:
4 things to watch in the women’s race
1.) Ednah Kurgat could run a perfect season
New Mexico’s Ednah Kurgat has been staggeringly good this year. She didn’t appear in the Lobos’ season-opening invitational, but ran in their next four events and won all four races, including a decisive victory at the Mountain Regional on Nov. 10, en route to being named the NCAA Division I Mountain Region Women’s Athlete of the Year.
She dominated plenty often, including a 16-second win at Nuttycombe in which she missed the course record by just four seconds, and a 16:01.8 5K in her first race with the team, setting a Notre Dame Invitational women’s record. After sitting out a year when she transferred from Liberty, Kurgat has just been a machine, and this race seems to be hers to lose.
2.) Can Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer repeat?
If anyone has a shot at keeping Kurgat from crossing the line first this weekend, it’d be last year’s champion, Missouri senior Karissa Schweizer. Schweizer became the first women’s individual champion in Missouri history with her dramatic finish in last year’s race, passing four runners in the final quarter-mile to run a 19:41.6, which was a PR.
She hasn’t slowed down this season, racking up four wins, setting course records (hello, Vanderbilt’s Commodore Classic) and obliterating the SEC and Midwest Regionals heading into this weekend’s race. Her experience and savvy in big races vs. Kurgat’s explosiveness will be a great matchup to watch on Saturday.
3.) Does Mark Wetmore get No. 8?
To say coach Mark Wetmore has had a tremendous run at Colorado might be an understatement. In his 23 years at the helm of the Buffs’ program, he’s won seven team championships, and at least one title in men’s and women’s team and individual categories, a 4-for-4 showing.
Now, Colorado’s latest women’s team might be the one to bring Wetmore his first women’s team title since 2004. Wetmore, who was named USTFCCCA Mountain Region Women's Coach of the Year for a seventh year in a row, has tremendous depth: the Buffs’ five scorers finished between seventh add 16th at the Mountain Region Championships, where they took down Kurgat and No. 2-ranked New Mexico.
Colorado’s fifth and final scorer, sophomore Briann Schwartz, ran a 20:33.7, which is a tremendous time for your tail runner, and just four spots behind her was the team’s potential tiebreaker, senior Melanie Nun. Six in the top 20 at a regional final, against the second-best team in the country? Wetmore’s team is in good shape.
4.) Time watch
At the turn of the century, the NCAA went from 5K to 6K being the standard distance for the women’s championship. In this current decade, 42 runners have broken the 20:00 mark. A handful will do so this year, but it’ll be interesting to see if Schweizer and Kurgat push each other toward the most recent sub-19:30 time, which was set by Molly Seidel of Wisconsin five years ago (19:28.6). The two could also opt for place over pace and focus on winning via strategy rather than blazing speed. In any case, keep an eye on the clock.
3 things to watch in the men’s races
1.) NAU vs. BYU is going to be awesome
After a year of one-upsmanship, we finally get the race college XC fans have been waiting for all season long: defending champion and No. 1-ranked Northern Arizona will face off with No. 2 BYU in this weekend’s marquee matchup.
NAU sports a tremendous 1-2 combo in Matt Baxter and Tyler Day, one of the three best duos in the country, along with Alabama’s Gilbert Kigen and Vincent Kiprop, and… BYU’s Rory Linkletter and Connor McMillan.
The depth on both teams is outrageous, especially in Northern Arizona’s case — just look at its performance at Nuttycombe, when the Jacks put three runners in the top five at one of the most competitive races of the season.
But BYU’s perfect 1-2-3-4-5 finish at the West Coast Conference final was more than enough evidence that the Cougars can put up a fight worthy of the defending champs.
All of this to say, Saturday’s battle between these two teams should be a fitting end to a season that has been building and building all year long.
2.) Can Justyn Knight finish his career with a title?
They’re expected to vie for the team title, but neither NAU nor BYU sports the race’s individual favorite. That’d be Syracuse’s Justyn Knight.
He’ll face staunch competition from Grant Fisher of Stanford, among others, but Knight, a senior, has dominated the 2017 season, including his third straight Northeast Regional individual title. Outside of last year’s NCAA Championship, when he finished runner-up, and the 2015 championship, Knight hasn’t lost a race since the 2015 ACC Championship.
It’s been an outrageous run for Knight, and a national championship individual title would be a fitting capstone. Whether the Orange can turn what will likely be a great race from Knight into competition with BYU and NAU, however, is another question entirely. It’s possible, in theory. But Knight will probably be Syracuse’s shining moment on Saturday.
3.) Time watch
Of the 27 sub-29:00 10K times in NCAA XC men’s history, only five have come in the last 15 years. The most recent time under that brutal 29-minute threshold was 2015, Oregon’s Edward Cheserek (28:45). The four best times in the history of the event, of course, all came in that wild 1976 run, when Washington State’s Henry Rono won with a 28:06.6.
Don’t expect anyone from this year’s field to come anywhere near Rono’s time, or even the best time since turn of century (Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka, 28:31 in 2012) but we could certainly see a sub-29:00 from Knight or Fisher, which would be lots of fun.