DIII Men’s Nationals Preview

DIII Men’s Nationals Preview

MASON, Ohio – The NCAA Division III cross country championship is one of the best-kept secrets1 in sports.  After three months of mostly silent and isolated races (in other words, the typical season of a DIII athlete) runners can’t help but notice that the crowd at nationals is massive, shirtless, raucous, and— is that a spear? The partisans from Tufts and WashU are the most notorious, but more schools do than don’t send a van-ful of heavily painted, deliriously exhausted teenagers to whatever frozen non-coastal outpost is hosting NCAAs that fall. (From 2002 to 2015, nationals will have been in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, or Indiana every year)

That wild excitement capping off months of mild somnolence can lead to a shockingly unpredictable race in an otherwise typically predictable sport.  St. Olaf’s national championship a year ago is a perfect example of this.  Sports information departments are not exactly prone to bold proclamations; I don’t think it was particularly bold when North Central’s wrote before last year’s race that “It’s no secret that North Central is the national favorite.” And in his inimitably droll way, Phil Lundin didn’t react to his team winning one of the closest championships in NCAA history2 with a “Ha ha, told you so!”

He said “I’m shocked, I’m stunned.”

I was there. If you go to any DIII cross country meet in the middle third of the country (or, in fact, the Illinois high school state meet), the very first thing you notice is that a ridiculously high percentage of the adults there are wearing a red winter hat with one of those fuzzy balls on top— in other words, they’re North Central fans. Not much less than a majority of the people there older than 23 are NCC alums, parents, members of the coaching tree, whatever.

So last year, we were all staring up at the scoreboard waiting for the scores to be processed and official.  I was pretty far back, meaning that dozens and dozens of red hats were the main thing I noticed between me and the scoreboard. When

OFFICIAL

ST. OLAF 84
NORTH CENTRAL (ILL.) 86

flashed on the screen, the predominant sound was “ah.” Like when you just miss making the train, but your night isn’t ruined. Hardly anyone said a word; I swear that I saw the sea of hats barely dip in unison.

The implication of a missed train not ruining your night is that another one will be along soon.  And since St. Olaf split a home-and-home with No. 3 UW-Eau Claire and lost to No. 4 UW-La Crosse by one, North Central has seemed like a predestined juggernaut.

In November, though, that curve has begun to bend dramatically.  NCC has shown mild signs of regression, while St. Olaf has improved every race.  Their race at the Central Region meet might have been the best performance by a Division III team this year. North Central’s races at Oshkosh and Notre Dame were impressive, but Olaf’s race last weekend gets the nod for its timing.

Conventional wisdom is suddenly leaning towards the Oles.  Over at Flotrack, the clear-eyed Scott Rodilitz outright picked3 a repeat champion.

Key individuals on the two teams seems like they’re crossing streams.  NCC’s Troy Kelleher is slightly regressing from his early-season form, while St. Olaf’s Jake Brown is improving every meet. We’re right back where we ended last year: the Oles and Cardinals are much better than everyone else, and it’s not obvious which team is better.

Let me be clear: North Central is the favorite.  In their worst race of the year, they still beat Eau Claire by 57 points, while Olaf has beaten Eau Claire by 4 and lost to them by 5.  And while Eau Claire did put three in North Central’s top 7 at regionals (as opposed to just one four weeks prior), nearly every Cardinal ran faster than he did on the same course in the regular season.

But Grant Wintheiser, Brown, Paul Escher, Jake Campbell, and co. standing on top of the podium would not be shocking or stunning this time.

Either way, it would be a familiar finish for North Central.  It would be their 16th title, or, astonishingly, their 16th second-place finish. One of Al Carius’s funniest quotes ever came when he was talking about John Crain’s tendency to be a bridesmaid: “You can always count on Johnny for second.”  Well, maybe that line was a little less biting than it reads.  Maybe it was just one second-place expert recognizing another.

What about the rest of the podium teams?

Between the Oles, Cardinals, and Blugolds, the first three trophies seem pretty well sewn up. The fourth will probably go to UW-La Crosse; the Eagles have finished a combined 13 points behind Eau Claire in two races against them and have beaten St. Olaf in their only try.  But, as mentioned above, the golden law of DIII nationals is that people WILL blow up. If one of those teams falters, there are a number of dark horses lurking.

Out of the other six regions, we can safely rule out the West and South/Southeast. they haven’t had a podium team since now-DII Humboldt State took second in 1979, and don’t have any teams ranked in top 15. Great Lakes champ Wabash and Mideast champ Carnegie Mellon would be ecstatic with a podium finish; Carnegie has never cracked the top five, while Wabash has been third and fourth once each.

The two schools with the best shot of displacing Olaf and the three Midwest teams are Colby and St. Lawrence.  This is uncharted territory for the Mules; as I wrote earlier this fall, last year’s 22nd place was their first ever trip to nationals. The Saints are a much more grizzled group, as this is their seventh straight trip to NCAAs. It’s hard to know what to make of them. They ran about as well as Williams at Paul Short, and have faced scant competition since. \

On a perfect day for them and a disastrous day for multiple favorites, No. 9 Williams, No. 8 MIT, No. 12 WashU and No. 11 SUNY Geneseo could find themselves in trophy position.  None of these teams came particularly close to winning their regional meets (Geneseo almost lost its conference meet to No. 24 Cortland)

The Individual Race

Wintheiser has been third at nationals the last two years, and one of the most consistent runners in the nation in that time.  In every single cross country race he’s run since the beginning of the 2012 season, he’s finished first, second, or third. Eli Horton beat him once in 2012 and once in 2013; other than that, no one currently in Division III has beaten him.

His enigmatic challenger is WashU’s Drew Padgett, who has only raced twice this fall. Padgett
has turned in two dominating wins in two tries, beating Horton in September and the entire Midwest in November. He and Wintheiser will battle to be the best thing since sliced bread.

If those two run each other into the ground, Horton, Colin Cotton of Williams, and John Guzman of Occidental (6th a year ago and the West/SCIAC champ) could be there to pick up the pieces.

I’ll be on the ground in Mason. If you can’t be, follow along on twitter  and at the Results Wall.  The only guarantee is that times will be faster than the last time that Wilmington hosted.

 

1. Or maybe it just stays secret from everyone who doesn’t have intensely personal connections to it.  Either way, it’s fun. (Back to story)

2. Out of the 262 men’s and women’s NCAA cross country championships that have been held, here’s the complete list of meets that have been closer.  In the 1942 D1 men’s race, Indiana and Penn State tied at 57.  The men of Villanova beat Oregon 85-86 in 1970, and Colorado beat Stanford 90-91 in 2001.  And in the 1988 D2 men’s race, Edinboro and Minnesota-Mankato tied at 77. That’s it. (Back to story)

3. No one loves predictions more than Flotrack does. (Back to story)