The Warm-Up Lap: Let the Party Begin! Division I “Countable Season” Begins Today
NEW ORLEANS – Most sports have a bugaboo rule that brings out the absolute worst in textbook mansplainin’: offsides in soccer is somehow a shoe store brawl, the infield fly rule requires multiple paragraphs of explication, and, ya know, holding happens on every single play. So I’ll try not to be patronizing in analogically describing the most complex and inaccessible rule in American distance running: team qualification for the NCAA cross country national championships.
Division I is the hairiest. Imagine nationals as a party that you’re trying to get into. There are roped-off lines to get into each of nine doors (representing each of the nine regions); teams are lined up in the order that they finished at regionals. The first two people in line at each door get into the party, no matter how hard they had to fight to get to the front of the line.
These are the automatic qualifiers for nationals, and the extremely simple part. Now there are 18 people in the party, and 13 more get to go in. Those 13 are the at-large teams, and the complicated part.
First, the bouncers only consider the 18 people—two from each line—who were originally third or fourth in their respective lines. Whoever out of those 18 has met (beaten between 9/26 and regionals) the most out of the people who are already inside the party gets to go in next.
Then the process is repeated, one person at a time, until 31 people are in the party. (For example, let’s say you and I are both standing at the front of our separate lines, knowing the same amount of people inside the party. Then, from another line, Brandon gets into the party. I met Brandon at the Roy Griak Invitational, and now I know one more person in the party than you do or anyone else waiting outside does. I get to go in next.)
Here’s the one wrinkle to the process: the widely misunderstood push.1 If I’m standing directly in front of Jerome, who knows the most people of anyone still standing outside, and he would not be let into the party under any other circumstances, then Jerome and I both get to go into the party.
For example, the Dartmouth men had two wins last season, or, keeping with the metaphor, only knew two people inside the party. Directly behind them in line was Harvard, which had six wins—the most out of anyone still standing outside. Dartmouth was permanently blocking Harvard’s entrance to the party, so Harvard “pushed” in Dartmouth and both qualified for nationals.
Why is this relevant to this weekend’s collegiate cross country action? Because Friday, September 26, 2014, is the first day that you’re allowed to start meeting people for this year’s party! Wins accumulated over other national qualifiers before tomorrow don’t count for national qualifying purposes.
The two biggest cocktails kicking off the Division I party circuit this weekend are Boston College’s Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown and Minnesota’s Roy Griak Invitational. The action starts on Friday afternoon at Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain, with the women’s 5k at 3:00 p.m. ET and the men’s 8k at 3:30.
Misleading stat of the day #1: every women’s team that has won the Battle in Beantown has gone on to win the NCAA team title. Last year was the first edition of the meet, and the streak started by the Providence women may very well be continued by Michigan this year.
The No. 1-ranked Wolverines headline a field that mostly features East Coast stalwarts, including national No. 5 Georgetown and, as Letsrun points out in its weekend preview, the top six teams from the Northeast region. The next highest-ranked teams are No. 14 Syracuse, No. 17 Boston College on its home course, No. 18 Providence, and No. 25 Dartmouth.
Somewhat unusually for a national title contender, Michigan is putting all of its cards on the table from day one. The results of the Wolverines/Hoyas and Erin Finn/Katrina Coogan battles will begin to make the women’s national picture much clearer.
Misleading stat of the day #2: every man that has won the Battle in Beantown has gone on to win the NCAA individual title. The streak started by Ed Cheserek last year may very well be continued by, well, Cheserek this year.
More compelling than the individual race, though, is the matchup between No. 3 Oregon2and No. 8 Syracuse. Oregon’s men dominated their home meet on Pre’s Trail three weeks ago, but the Orange have yet to debut their varsity.
Many have pointed out that Eric Jenkins’ finish as the Ducks’ No. 5 man at Dellinger was underwhelming, but he was only 16 seconds behind Cheserek. If its No. 5 is 16 seconds behind Cheserek this weekend, Oregon is in good shape. And if ‘Cuse comes out on top this weekend, it immediately butts into national title conversations.
It should be noted here that Oregon’s 1-5 spread in Boston last fall was a mere nine seconds, but Cheserek has said that, terrifyingly, at this point last year he was in "terrible shape."
The other big place for DI teams to grab wins this weekend is Roy Griak. The women team race is outstanding featuring No. 3 Michigan State, No. 9 Iowa State, No. 11 Butler, No. 20 Boise State, No. 22 Vanderbilt, No. 28 hosts Minnesota, and No. 30 North Carolina.
The men’s race is slightly diluted with the advent of the Boston meet, but still has three ranked teams in No. 24 Texas, No. 27 Iowa State, and No. 29 Colorado State.
Perhaps the most compelling matchup in the country this weekend, though, is the strength v. speed v. athleticism showdown in the Griak women’s individual race. The 2014 NCAA champions in the 1500, steeplechase, and 10,000—that’s Shelby Houlihan of Arizona State, Michigan State’s Leah O’Connor, and 2013 national XC runner-up Emma Bates of Boise State, respectively—will face off for the right to mark themselves as the early-season favorite to win nationals.
The men’s 8k at Griak is at 12:20 p.m. CT, followed by the women’s 6k at 1:10.
Divisions II and III throw themselves a party at the end of the year, too, but these meets aren’t as specifically connected to who gets in. In fact, the regular season in DII is a purely academic exercise: the number of teams that qualify out of each region (based on regional results) is set in stone based on the previous year’s NCAA results. In DIII, there’s no algorithm for at-large selection, but performance in these meets is still considered when the committee selects the 16 at-large teams.3
Still, DII and DIII teams tend not to shy away from heavy regular-season racing against high-level competition.
The best DII fields of the weekend are actually at DI meets: between Griak, Stanford, and the Oklahoma State Jamboree, five of the top seven women’s teams and four of the top seven men’s teams are in action.
Griak is the best of the bunch, with Grand Valley State (No. 1 women/No. 2 men), No. 4 Minnesota Duluth women, and dual-gender No. 7 Augustana (S.D.) all risking their rankings in Minnesota. The men (No. 4) and women (No. 5) of Chico State head three hours south to Stanford, and the No. 5 Metro State women are showing their stuff at Oklahoma State.
In DIII, the two-time defending national champion Johns Hopkins women and their No. 9-ranked male compatriots are the only DIII teams racing in Boston tomorrow. The two best meets of the weekend are Williams’ Purple Valley Classic and Wilmington’s DIII Pre-Nationals.
New England regionals are being held at Mt. Greylock this year, so Purple Valley is essentially a NESCACs/regionals preview. Three of the top eight women’s teams (No. 2 Williams, No. 4 MIT, and No. 8 Middlebury) and six out of the top 32 overall are in the field, while the top men’s teams are the No. 6-ranked hosts and No. 8 MIT.
Of particular interest will be Williams and Middlebury in the men’s race, which were both harshly punished in the national rankings for what may have been less than full efforts earlier in the season.
The last time Wilmington hosted nationals, in 2006, it was a muddy disaster in which only six men broke 27 minutes. The hosts are debuting a new course this fall, and giving it a test drive on Saturday at Pre-Nationals will be none other than the newly minted No. 1 North Central (Ill.) men. Overall, six ranked men’s teams and two ranked women’s teams (led by No. 17 NYU) are racing at pre-nats on Saturday.
If you made it this far, congratulations. (Congratulations?) You’re an extremely hardcore college cross country fan. For the hardcore fan, or indeed anyone regardless of the softness of their core, Kyle and I will be live-blogging this weekend’s action here. Tune in for quick results, reactions, and analysis.
Women’s Top 30 – DI
Women’s Top 25 – DII
Women’s Top 35 – DIII
All of the rules are somewhat obtusely laid out here.
That’s simple enough; you don’t need the party analogy to get extended. But I’m going to give it to you anyway. Admission to the DII party is strictly based how cool your friends were at last year’s shindig. YOU picked great music, and YOU didn’t get caught reaching into the fridge for a slice of ham and attempt to pass it off as “making a withdrawal from the ham bank.” Come on in. Meanwhile, the DIII bouncers have a private conference call and emerge with a list inscribed on stone. Deal with it.