NCAA Cross Country Championships Preview

The stage is set for Monday showdowns in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Written by: Sean McKeon

Teams have been training since June to be ready for the long-awaited NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships that will take place in Terre Haute, Ind. on Monday, November 23. After months of preperations it comes down to 6,000m for the women and 10,000m for the men, to prove who is the best collegiate runner and which is the best team in the nation. Story lines are abundant on both sides; here we give you the breakdown of the top storylines to look for when you, surely, tune in to watch the race live on Versus:

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Men’s Individual Championship

The men’s individual race promises to be a two-man showdown. Chris Derrick of Stanford is the only undefeated runner in the nation, and for that reason I say he is the favorite. Coming in a close second for race favorite status is last year’s runner-up, Sam Chelanga of Liberty. Chelanga lost to Derrick at pre-nationals in an epic collapse, after gapping the young Cardinal by a significant margin in the first half of the race. Chelanga has a few things on his side: he is the NCAA 10,000m record holder, he has been in this position before, and he is not bearing the pressure of being the favorite to win. Although he did choke at pre-nationals, Chelanga has the best resume heading into Monday and cannot be counted out.

A slew of  dark horses will challenge these two from behind. While I expect Chelanga to take the race out very hard, Derrick will need to shake off these others if he wants a solo shot at taking Chelanga down later in the race. Leading my list is Aussie David McNeil of Northern Arizona. McNeil is experienced and took 2008 NCAA champion Galen Rupp to the line this spring in the 5000m at the NCAA outdoor championships. McNeil had a poor early season due to an elongated track campaign, but looks ready to roll in Indiana. Derrick’s teammates Elliot Heath and Justin Marpole-Bird were a strong 2-3 at the West regional, overtaking top contenders like Brandon Bethke of Arizona State and Luke Puskedra of Oregon. With the team title their main objective expect all of the Cardinals to run inspired.

There’s an exciting wild card in German Fernandez of Oklahoma State. The 2009 NCAA 1500m champion suffered setbacks this summer but looks like he is ready for a big race. Fernandez could be top-5 or top-25, but don’t discount the current American junior 5000m record holder.

Competitor.com says: 1. Chelanga, 2. Derrick, 3. McNeil, 4. Fernandez, 5. Heath

Men’s Team Championship

As with the individual race, expect a two-team battle for supremacy in the men’s team competition. The contenders are overwhelming favorite Stanford and unpredictable Oklahoma State. Stanford has not lost a meet the entire year, a legitimate shot at an individual title, and five runners that with top-20 potential. There is a reason they are the favorites: they haven’t had a bad race yet.

Oklahoma State cannot say the same, but not for lack of trying. The main reason the Cowboys can’t be considered the favorite is the health of one Sophomore stud named German Fernandez. A pre-season individual title favorite was hit with the injury bug over the summer, but looks like he could be finally getting his legs back. Teammates John Kosgei, 8th in 2008, Ryan Vail and Colby Lowe are all top-15-caliber runners. If the Cowboys want to upset the Cardinal they will need Fernandez and his troops to land three men in the top 10 and another two inside the top 20, otherwise forget about it.

The battle for the other podium spot is likely a three-way matchup among defending champion Oregon, Alabama, and Portland. The Ducks return Luke Puskedra, 5th in 2008, but have looked weak, getting beaten by Portland in the West regional. The Piolts from the northside of the state are led by Alfred Kipchumba, who looks poised for a top-15 finish. Alabama is the wild card with an all-African top-5. They don’t have a strong #1 but will group up and possibly have the most impressive 1-5 split of the day. If they can bunch up well in the top 35 or so, they may nab a podium spot. If it is relatively cold and/or windy, discount Alabama and look to a team from Oregon to take the final podium spot.

Competitor.com says: 1. Oklahoma State, 2. Stanford, 3. Portland, 4. Alabama, 5. Oregon

Women’s Individual Championship

Why don’t we just give Jenny Barringer the trophy, spare the field the embarrassment and let the other women race for the lesser positions? All right, that may be an exaggeration, but in my mind it’s not a matter of if the Colorado senior is going to win, it’s by how much. Last spring, Barringer, who has already graduated, decided to hold off on a six-digit contract and finally win an individual cross country title for the Buffaloes. If she doesn’t win it will be the biggest upset in NCAA history, bar none.

If there were to be some type of epic collapse there is a very small group of women who could take the title. This group is led by 2008 runner-up and 2009 NCAA 1500m champion Susan Kuijken of Florida State. The Dutch superstar is the only woman with comparable stats to Barringer over the 800-1500m disciplines, but lacks the stamina over the longer distances. Kuijken’s only hope is that Barringer goes for a course record and misjudges the effort early on. If Barringer is in distress over the final mile, expect Kuijken’s speed to be the determining factor in her hunt for a national title.

As for the other top women, Villanova’s Sheila Reid has the distinct honor of being the other runner, besides Barringer, to be undefeated on the season. She will need to fight off a contingent of top women from the west region, including Washington’s Kendra Schaff and Christine Babcock and Oregon’s Jordan Hasay and Nicole Blood. Illinois’ Angela Bizzarri, 2009 NCAA 5000m champion, and Penn State’s steeplechase specialist Bridget Franek will certainly be factors in the chase pack.

Competitor.com says: 1. Jenny Barringer, 2. Susan Kuijken, 3. Jordan Hasay, 4. Angela Bizzarri, 5. Kendra Schaff

Women’s Team Championship

The defending champion Washington Huskies appear primed to repeat after another solid season. Led by Kedra Schaff, Christine Babcock and Mel Laurence, all top-25 from 2008, the Huskies are deserving of their #1 national ranking. They are undefeated and look as strong as in 2008, when they won the national title. Who will contend with the Huskies? Many fans may look to northwest rival Oregon as the top challenger, but a surprise out of the east will likely land itself next to Washington on the podium.

At the beginning of the season the Villanova Wildcats were ranked #5 in the nation, along with four other mid-atlantic teams. In what is probably the most competitive region, next to the west, the Wildcats proved their mettle throughout the season andcome to Terre Haute ready to dethrone the defending champions. Led by standout Sheila Reid and Amanda Marino, Villanova is poised for a big day. Reid has had a breakout season and Marino was a highly respectable 27th in 2008. If they can squeeze two women into the top 10 and three in the top 20 they will have a shot at the upset.

Let us not forget about Oregon. The 2008 runners-up return virtually everyone, and add a new #1 in Jordan Hasay. The one thing the Ducks have going for them is their front runners, Hasay, Nicole Blood and Alex Kosinski. They will need top-15 performances from these women if they want to finish in the top two again. If the Ducks are to falter look for Liz Costello’s Princeton Tigers or Jenny Barringer’s Colorado Buffaloes to take a run at the podium. The #6 ranked Buffs are the dark horse in the team race and cannot be overlooked. Coach Wetmore is a wizard when it comes to the national championship and with a virtual guaranteed single-point effort from Barringer, they will be well on their way toward an upset.

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