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Katherine Wright | | September 23, 2019

3 men’s cross country teams that can challenge Northern Arizona for the NCAA championship

The top men's cross country teams to watch in 2019

In three years, Northern Arizona has made history.

Only four programs in DI men's cross country history have won back-to-back-to-back national titles: Villanova (1966-68), UTEP (1978-1981), Arkansas (1990-93 and 1998-2000) and Northern Arizona (2016-18). And just two began their three-peat with the program's first championship trophy: Villanova and Northern Arizona.

The Lumberjacks recorded their first national title in 2016 and have won the following two, including last November's title in Madison, Wisconsin. A four-peat hasn't been done since Arkansas (1990-93) did it and the first to do it was UTEP (1978-1981). The Lumberjacks can be the third program in cross country history to win four consecutive championship and it seems like they'll have a good shot.

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Northern Arizona remains a top title contender because of its returning roster and No. 1 standing in the USTFCCCA rankings. Five Lumberjacks finished within the top-30 in the 2018 championship 10K, two more than fourth-place Colorado. And six of seven represented Northern Arizona in the top-40. Entering 2019, three of their best six in 2018 returned. 

So who are the three teams that can ruffle Northern Arizona's reign and hoist its own championship trophy at the Nov. 23 title meet in Terre Haute, Ind.? Here are three that currently reside in the top-10.

No. 2 BYU

BYU finished second to Northern Arizona in the 2018 championship 10K, and similar to the Lumberjacks' offseason, the Cougars lost two of last year's top-30 finishers. 

But unlike Northern Arizona, BYU returns its best runner, Conner Mantz. The sophomore recently won West Coast Conference runner of the week after winning the individual title at the Autumn Classic with a time of 21:12.

Teammate Zac Jacklin followed 14 seconds later (21:26.8) to place second and Jacob Heslington (21:34.2) finished closely behind. Overall, the team swept their first race of the season with a perfect score of 15. It was the Cougars' 11th-consecutive Autumn Classic championship.

No. 4 Colorado

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Three of Colorado's runners placed within the top-11 during the championship 10K. One graduated but its top-2 finishers from last season, John Dressel and Joe Klecker, are back.

The Buffaloes recorded their first race of the season at the Wyoming Invitational. They placed second behind Wyoming's 47 with 51 points. Seniors Dressel and Klecker were not the leaders, however, in the first race of the season. Junior Alex Hornecker's led the team with a third-place finish (15:18.9). Klecker finished shortly behind in fifth (15:19.5).

No. 7 Stanford

Stanford might be a bit of a wildcard selection, considering the other three strong competitors not named above (No. 3 Washington, No. 5 Iowa State and No. 6 Portland). This week, the Cardinal jumped three spots in the USTFCCCA poll and was awarded one first-place vote — the only team besides Northern Arizona with first-place recognition. 

Two Cardinal finished in the top 30 at the 2018 national championship. Grant Fisher, the senior with the second-best overall time (29:08.8), graduated, leaving junior Alek Parsons, who finished 30th (29:52.6), the most successful runner from last season. 

He began the season placing 12th at the John McNichols Invitational. There, the Cardinal faced off with the Lumberjacks for a glimpse into a possible postseason matchup. They placed second (51) to Northern Arizona (31) with six Cardinal finishing among the top 25. In comparison, four Lumberjacks placed within the top six. 

Stanford's Thomas Ratcliffe finished second (23:51.1) behind Iowa State's Edwin Kurgat (23:47.4). Northern Arizona's Luis Grijalva (23:58.7), Theo Quax (24:03.2), Abdihamid Nur (24:04.1) and Brodey Hasty (24:04.6) swept the next four spots. 

The first head-to-head matchup between the reigning champion and Stanford shows that the Cardinal still has a big gap to fill but enough potential to make that happen between now and Nov. 23.

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