Preseason DI Men’s Individual Preview: Can Anyone Dethrone The King?
Can anyone dethrone the King?
It takes only those five words to name the biggest individual storyline for the 2015 men’s Division I cross country season.
The monarch in question, of course, is Oregon’s Edward Cheserek. After upsetting reigning national champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech as a frosh in 2013, the Duck sidestepped a sophomore slump in a furious kick-to-the-finish breakaway NCAA win in 2014.
Coincidentally, five is also the number of individual NCAA titles Cheserek won in his 2014-15 academic year: that cross country crown, indoor mile and distance medley relay wins, and outdoor 5000 and 10,000 trophies.
Without question, that makes Cheserek the most decorated and most feared distance runner in the collegiate ranks. The stamina to outlast the field at 10,000 meters (after all, he once ran for 12 hours), the wheels to win an indoor mile title – he’s the complete package.
So, can anyone dethrone the King in 2015?
If they can’t, Cheserek will become the first man in NCAA DI history to win the individual title in three consecutive years.
Legends Gerry Lindgren and Steve Prefontaine won titles in three consecutive appearances, but both redshirted the year after winning their second title for the Olympics.
Henry Rono won two in a row in 1976 and 1977, broke four world records on the track in 1978, and followed that up with a fifth-from-last finish at NCAAs in ’78 after taking a wrong turn. He came back to win in 1979.
What will it take to overthrow the Cheserek hegemony?
Well, here’s the list of collegians who have taken down Cheserek over the past two years during the NCAA season, including races on the track (in which the objective was to win):
Aaron Nelson, Washington (2013 Bill Dellinger Invitational)
Kennedy Kithuka, Texas Tech (2013 Pre-Nationals)
Chris O’Hare, Tulsa (2013 Pre-Nationals)
Anthony Rotich, UTEP (2013 Pre-Nationals)
Lawi Lalang, Arizona (2014 NCAA Outdoor 5000 meters and )
Maksim Korolev, Stanford (2014 West Regional – XC)
Jordy Williamsz, Villanova (2015 Penn Relays 4xMile Relay)
Eric Jenkins, Oregon (2015 NCAA Indoor 3000 meters)
What were the keys to victory for his foes in those races?
He finished fourth to Kithuka, O’Hare and Rotich at Pre-Nationals in 2013 in what was his first big collegiate race after coming in in less-than-peak fitness, and would ultimately score easy victories over the trio a month later at the NCAA Championships on the same course in Terre Haute. Don’t count on catching an out-of-shape Cheserek again. Same goes for Nelson’s win against him in his second-ever collegiate race a few weeks prior.
Lalang was out-sat-and-kicked by Cheserek during the indoor championships at 3000 meters in 2014, so he adopted a very different strategy for the outdoor season: run as fast as you can. After running 3:35 to edge Cheserek at 1500 meters at the Pac-12 Championships, it took an NCAA Championships record 13:18 and a furious 200-meter kick for Lalang – one of the most decorated distance runners in college history – to barely topple Cheserek at NCAAs.
The long legs of Korolev were able to carry him to an upset over Cheserek down the closing straightaway at the 2014 West Regional, but the tables were turned on the two-time top-five finisher the following week in Terre Haute. Cheserek covered the final two kilometers in a blazing 5:40.4, a clip no one in the field came within three seconds of (with Korolev nearly 10 seconds back by the finish line).
The man who came closest to matching him in 2014 was teammate Eric Jenkins, who closed in 5:43.8 for second-place. Jenkins would manage to out-kick Ches indoors at 3000 meters, but could not surpass him in runner-up outdoor finishes both at 5000 and 10,000 meters.
And finally, that infamous Penn Relays 4 x Mile relay. After a pedestrian three-quarters of a mile, Cheserek bolted to the lead but was eventually overtaken by Jordy Williamsz on the homestretch – a sit-and-kick approach that backfired.
Put it all together and what have you got? Those aforementioned men have a combined 13 NCAA titles to their credit – including two cross country crowns – with dozens of All-America certificates hanging on their collective walls. Lalang and O’Hare are the last two men to have held the collegiate record in the mile, with Lalang also owning world-class career-bests at 1500 meters and 5000 meters. Jenkins owns career bests across the board in the same league as Cheserek.
Now that we’ve got the blueprint, back to the original premise: Can anyone dethrone the King?
The next-best returner behind Cheserek might night check off many of the same boxes as those aforementioned usurpers, but Futsum Zeinasellassie of Northern Arizona has one crucial characteristic on his side: cross country season is his season.
After debuting as a frosh in 2012 with a 31st-place effort, he’s rattled off back-to-back fourth- and third-place finishes in Terre Haute the past two seasons. In doing so, he’s demonstrated great closing strength in both races. He ran the fastest final 2000 meters in 2013 – faster even than Cheserek – and was one of the few men over the final 2k in 2014 to come within single-digit seconds of Cheserek with the third-fastest split overall.
Track may not be his strongest suit, but he’s coming off a season in which he set significant career-bests in nearly every event between 800 meters and 10,000 meters.
While he may not be the next-best returner based on 2014 results, four-time NCAA champ Anthony Rotich of UTEP cannot be left outside the conversation of men who could topple Cheserek – considering he’s one of only two men in the field who have a victory over The King (in a victory didn’t come in a 10,000-meter track race at Stanford).
While he was 11th last year in Terre Haute and 19th the year before, his breakthrough race came in 2012 – on the same course in Louisville where NCAAs will be held this year – with a fourth-place overall finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. From there, he’s gone on to win three consecutive steeplechase titles in the spring and an indoor mile title in 2014.
With all those national titles, a sub-four mile career-best, a 13:31 5k career-best and a win over Cheserek already on his resume, he’s just as likely as anyone else in the field – maybe more – to upset Ches in 2015.
After Futsum, the next two returners are the Colorado duo of Ammar Moussa (fifth) and Ben Saarel (seventh). Neither had nationally prominent track success in 2015 – Saarel made NCAA outdoors at 1500 meters while Moussa set PRs at both 5000 and 10,000, making NCAA indoors in the former – but on the trails is where these two and the rest of the Buffaloes shine.
Saarel in particular has been a consistent top-10 talent in the fall, having finished seventh and eighth in his two trips to Terre Haute. Will coach Mark Wetmore remove the reins from Moussa, Saarel or any of the other Buffalo men and let them chase individual glory? Likely not, if it interferes with the team goals.
Indiana State’s John Mascari has been the hometown hero the past two years at NCAAs. The Terre Haute native broke through as an All-American his sophomore year in 32nd, and made the top-10 leap a year ago in eighth place. The reigning Great Lakes Region champ – much like Futsum – couldn’t carry that momentum onto the track, however. He ran a very good 28:32.22 over 10,000 meters at Stanford in April, but did not advance to NCAAs in late May.
Rounding out the returning top-10 finishers is Malachy Schrobilgen of Wisconsin, who finished 10th as a sophomore a year ago. He parlayed that into a solid track season, running career-bests at both 3000 meters (7:56.58) and 10,000 meters (29:17.07), the latter of which came in an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
Some more names to watch out for:
Jim Rosa, Stanford – Redshirted 2014 with injury, but finished fifth at NCAAs in 2013.
Patrick Tiernan, Villanova – Ninth in 2013 and had a strong regular season – he beat Futsum in early October – before finishing 18th overall.
Edwin Kibichy & Ernest Kibet, Louisville – Mascari has had home-field advantage the past two years in Terre Haute with two All-America results. Can Kibichy (23rd) and Kibet (32nd) work that same magic in Louisville this November?
Pierce Murphy, Colorado – Of the returning Colorado men, Murphy’s track season was the most exceptional. He set career-bests at 1500, 5000 and 10,000 meters, and scored a pair of first-team All-America honors at 10,000 meters outdoors and 5,000 meters indoors. He was 35th a year ago.