Cross Country: The Future is Now
AS WELL AS the Stanford men's cross country team performed last year – third at the NCAA Championships – the season was characterized by confusion. That's not the case in 2016, and the Cardinal is a title contender.
"I learned as much in those four months as I have in any other season, about how important team synergy and team unity is," said men's coach Chris Miltenberg, Stanford's Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field.
Because of injuries to twin fifth-year seniors Jim and Joe Rosa, and graduate transfer Collin Leibold, Stanford's lineup never was set, and its anticipated top seven did not run together until the NCAA Championships. This year, Miltenberg knows what he has and hopes the team will benefit by having a full season together.
"Last year, the challenge with Jim and Joe coming back from injury was this unknown looming presence that was hanging over," Miltenberg said. "When are they going to race? That made it hard for some of our younger guys to really value their contribution enough. It's like they were placeholders until Jim and Joe came around.
"Now, we're in a clear situation with 10 healthy guys. That clarity is probably the most valuable thing going right now. Every one of them matters. Our roles are very clearly defined and they're all excited to embrace them."
As Stanford begins racing in earnest, with the men in Virginia on Friday, and men and women competing at the Stanford Invitational on Oct. 1, this is the most anticipated season in years. The men are ranked No. 4, and are Flotrack's choice to win the national title. And the women are No. 7 and boast one of the greatest freshman classes in collegiate history.
Miltenberg believes No. 4 is accurate now, but has no doubt about the men's team's potential.
"With our trajectory, we can be as good as anybody in the country at the end of November," Miltenberg said. "I rarely say things like that. I usually try dulling those expectations, but I think our guys are at a place now where it's time to embrace the expectations. We're the team that we've been talking about building for a while."
Sean McGorty, a two-time NCAA track runner-up last year – at 3,000 meters indoors and 5,000 outdoors, both to Oregon's Edward Cheserek – may be the top American in the NCAA. And Olympic Trials qualifier Grant Fisher, the top American freshman last year, is regarded as the future of U.S. running.
They lead a veteran squad that also features 2014 cross country All-America Sam Wharton, and potential All-Americas in Jack Keelan (13:40, 5,000) and Garrett Sweatt (28:51, 10,000). Keelan, a junior in eligibility, has the makings of a breakout star.
Two years ago, Stanford placed five in the top 40 on the way to a surprising runner-up finish. Miltenberg anticipates a similar showing will be required to win.
"I think we can do that," Miltenberg said. "That's where the bar has gotten to now. If you'd have said that 10 years ago, I think people's minds would have been blown. Five years ago, if you won the national championship and your fifth man was in the top 100, you were really good. You have to adjust your mindset now. The parity has gone way up."
Stanford has great depth, going 10 deep. And that depth should come into play at NCAA's.
"We don't have to have perfect days at NCAA's or anywhere along the way," Miltenberg said. "If we've got seven guys putting out the best effort they can, we can be a great team, because we can balance each other out too."
Miltenberg said he would like to rest Fisher or other young runners at the NCAA West Regionals. With good depth, he feels he can pull that off. The Nos. 6-10 runners are 8:46 steeplechaser Steven Fahy, national high school 5,000 champions Alex Ostberg and Will Lauer, Pac-12 1,500 finalist Patrick Perrier, and potential star Blair Hurlock. Stanford's four freshmen, rated as the nation's No. 1 class, will redshirt.
McGorty was seventh at NCAA cross country last year and followed with a 3:53.95 indoor mile and an outdoor season with multiple victories over fellow contenders Patrick Tiernan of Villanova and Justyn Knight of Syracuse. In the NCAA 5,000, McGorty, who has a 13:24.25 best in the 5,000, lost to the seemingly unbeatable Cheserek by only 0.51.
Can McGorty compete for a title, even with the senior Cheserek attempting a four-for-four NCAA cross country sweep?
"He definitely can," Miltenberg said. "He's ready to run with anybody in America. The thing with crpss country, he can run better and not finish better than seventh. When you get to that level -- that top 10 in an NCAA meet -- the parity is so high and the guys are so good, that on any given day those top 10 guys can finish in any order.
"Sean doesn't need to swing for the fences to finish first or second for us to be a great team. He just needs to make sure he's in the lead pack with a mile to go and then go beat as many guys as he can. Make sure you put the ball in play. We need seven guys to do that, versus talking about Sean swinging for the individual win. That's what we'll be talking about every day, not just with him, but with all of our guys."
The Rosas were fixtures in the Stanford lineup since 2011 and the last link to the great Chris Derrick, a four-time NCAA top-10 placer from 2008-11. Jim Rosa was a two-time NCAA top-6 finisher and Joe reached the NCAA podium twice in track. They are the only graduation losses from the NCAA top seven.
"I don't think you replace guys like Jim and Joe," Miltenberg said. "But you take the team and craft and sculpt that to be the best possible with the guys you have. I loved the team we were with them, but I really love the team that we have without them too, because this is the natural evolution of things. Guys have grown. It's their team.
"I'm sure there will be something that we don't foresee happen in the next 10 weeks, but I like the resilience of the guys we've got here. No matter what gets thrown our way, we'll be ready for it. Maybe that's what we've lacked in years past."
ELIZABETH DeBOLE WAS NAMED women's head coach, receiving the title for the duties she's already performed as an assistant. DeBole recruited a high-powered five-woman class that should be impactful, though nothing is certain when predicting freshmen success.
The class features of World Under-20 1,500 bronze medalist Christina Aragon and U.S. Junior Championships 5,000 record-holder Fiona O'Keeffe. Hannah DeBalsi is the No. 5 high school two-miler of all-time, Ella Donaghu is the No. 7 high school 1,500 runner ever, and Sarah Walker has run 2:03.70 in the 800.
"They've done phenomenal things in high school and have really great resumes," DeBole said. "What comes with that is a maturity about the sport. They love it and they're excited about it. They know what works for them and what doesn't, and their communication skills with me are great.
"They're going to fit in really well with the group that we already have, which is the most important thing. I'm really protective of our culture. I think what we have is really cool, and they mesh really well with that."
Aragon, coming off an appearance in the Olympic Trials 1,500 semifinals, will join Donaghu and DeBalsi in the lineup. Walker will redshirt and O'Keeffe, who entered fall camp with an injury, may do the same.
Stanford graduated two-time Pac-12 champion Aisling Cuffe and the team's No. 2 at last year's NCAA Championships, half-miler Claudia Saunders. However, Stanford returns Elise Cranny, who missed last season with an injury, and cross country All-America Vanessa Fraser (15:41.64, 5,000 PB), last year's team No. 1 at nationals. Of last year's NCAA top seven, all-region runners Sophie Chase, Danielle Katz, and Julia Maxwell also return. The Cardinal has placed 14th the past two years.
Cranny, Aragon, and Donaghu represent three of the seven-fastest high school 1,500 runners of all-time. Cranny, the NCAA runner-up and Pac-12 champ in the 1,500, brings a versatility that allows her to stand out at all distances. In 2014, she was second in the Pac-12 cross country and went on to set a U.S. junior record (8:58.88) while finishing second in the NCAA indoor 3,000.
The talent clearly is there, but so is the need, with such a young group, to temper enthusiasm.
"I would like them to set goals for themselves and not expectations," DeBole said. "If we go to the national meet and get 15th .... So what? As long as we're doing the best we can and everyone's going out and giving 100 percent, then that's all you can ask. You can't say it was a failure. But the group is mature enough that they already understand that."
Women's cross country has been one of the most successful programs at Stanford. The Cardinal has won five NCAA team titles, 14 regional crowns, and 20 conference championships. No team in the country has advanced to the NCAA Championships for 23 consecutive seasons as Stanford has.
"I want our women to write their own history," DeBole said. "Stanford has such an incredible history in distance running, but I also think it's important to focus on themselves rather than upholding a legacy. This is a completely new group, with its own story and its own goals.
"We're proud of what past teams have accomplished, but we're really excited about where we're going in the next few weeks, months, and years."