Loaded Field of Returners Set to Vie for Division II Individual Men’s XC Crown
NEW ORLEANS – Looking for the most hotly contested individual title race of the 2014 cross country season? You might want to give the Division II men a shot.
Five of the top 12 returners from last year’s NCAA Championships race in Spokane, Washington, are back at it again in 2014 – and they’re more highly credentialed than ever.
Defending individual XC champ senior Tabor Stevens of Adams State – also the two-time defending DII steeplechase champion – is just the tip of the iceberg. Standing an imposing 6-5, he is head-and-shoulders above the field in stature only, despite his impressive resume. Just take a look at the group who’s chasing him.
Along with junior Mike Biwott of American International (fourth in 2013), senior Aaron Dinzeo of California (Pa.) (fifth), junior Johnnie Guy of Southern Indiana (ninth) and junior Kevin Batt of Adams State (12th), those five combined last year for four national track titles, three runner-ups and three more third-place showings.
Here are their top-five accomplishments since departing Spokane:
|Tabor Stevens||NCAA steeplechase champ (defended)
Outdoor 5000 meters – runner-up
Indoor 3000 meters – 3rd
|Mike Biwott||Outdoor 10,000 meters – runner-up|
|Aaron Dinzeo||Outdoor 10,000 meters – 3rd
Outdoor 5000 meters – 5th
|Johnnie Guy||Outdoor 10,000 meters champ
Outdoor 5000 meters – 3rd
Indoor 5000 meters – 4th
|Kevin Batt||Indoor 5000 meters champ
Outdoor 5000 meters champ
Indoor 3000 meters – runner-up
As last year’s top runner for the national championship team at Adams State – the winners of five of the last six national team titles – there is no shortage of pressure on Stevens from individual, team and program legacy perspectives. But he does have the unique opportunity to become the most decorated cross country runner in school history should he repeat as national champion – a feat, remarkably, none of the other four ASU men’s XC champs ever achieved.
His 11 second victory over last year’s runner-up Vegard Olstad of Western State – who has since transferred to Oklahoma State – after coming through the midpoint of the race in fourth was a brilliant display of the strength that has made him among the best DII steeplechasers in history. He very nearly negative split the race, 14:54 and 14:56, while most other runners experienced a double-digit drop-off from the first half of the race to the second.
The Grizzly – who was also the indoor mile champ in 2013 – would be the 10th man in Division II history to repeat as the king of cross country, and the first since Nicodemus Naimadu of Abilene Christian won his fourth in a row in 2007. Incidentally, it was Stevens who smashed Naimadu’s former Division II Championships steeplechase record of 8:36.84 this past spring with an 8:35.05 of his own.
Obviously "Tabor Flav" is already a proven XC winner, but historically speaking, Stevens is in the minority of DII steeple champions who also won a national XC title later that year. Only three other men have done that: Reuben Mwei of Adams State in 2009; Naimadu in 2005, ’06 and ’07; Samson Obwocha of Texas A&M-Commerce in 1985; and Mike Vanatta of Southeast Missouri State in 1984.
Historically, the winners of the outdoor 5000- and 10,000-meter races at NCAAs have had much more success carrying over their momentum to the fall – good news for Stevens’ roommate Batt and Southern Indiana’s Guy (see the sidebar interview with him here), respectively.
Nine men have won the 5000 meters outdoor title and proceeded to claim the individual XC crown in the fall a combined 12 times – most recently Micah Chelimo of Alaska Anchorage in 2012 – while eight men have pulled the 10,000 meters/cross country double a combined 11 times (some double track champs may overlap).
Batt, the reigning indoor and outdoor 5k champ and a sub-4 miler indoors for the all-time DII record, is also the only active DII man who’s been able to beat Stevens head-to-head. Though he is the No. 5 returner this year after a 12th-place showing in 2013, the Australian who competes internationally for Ireland was the national cross country runner-up in 2012 by a tenth of a second over Stevens in 2012 and last fall was runner-up ahead of Stevens’ third at Roy Griak.
On the track, Batt topped Stevens in both of the national championships in which they both competed: the indoor 3000 and the outdoor 5000.
Guy had a breakthrough outdoors to win the national 10,000 meters crown, surging late in the race to defeat Biwott of American International – the No. 2 returner from last fall – while also finishing third at 5000 meters behind Batt and Stevens. As such, he now knows he is a man with a target on his back for this upcoming fall, especially when combined with the fact that his ninth-place finish a year ago makes him the No. 4 returner.
His display of strength in the closing stages of the outdoor 10,000 meters race this spring bodes well for the Screaming Eagle junior. While he held steady in last fall’s race at ninth place from the midpoint split to the finish line, 26 of the 40 All-Americans ran the second half of the race faster than Guy.
Plus, Guy has some pressure to kindle a winning streak by twins at the Division II cross country championships: last year’s women’s winner Jennifer Agnew of U-Mary was also a twin. Johnnie’s brother, Josh, also runs for USI and was 51st a year ago.
While Stevens didn’t even win a meet prior to winning the whole shebang in Spokane – although an impressive third in the DI race at Roy Griak certainly counts for something – American International’s diminutive Biwott was perhaps the Division’s most prolific runner during the regular season. He registered five wins – plus a runner-up showing in the DI race at Paul Short – before finishing fourth at NCAAs.
Biwott led the way through much of the early stages of last fall’s championship race, crossing the 5-kilometer halfway point in the lead with 10 other guys within four seconds before slipping back to fourth. He cooled off a bit during the track season, with a runner-up showing to Guy of Southern Indiana at 10,000 meters outdoors highlighting a campaign that also included seventh-place national showings at 5000 meters both indoors and outdoors.
The No. 3 returner from a year ago, Dinzeo of California (Pa.) may not have had an indoor track season, but he was able to effectively carry the momentum of his fifth-place finish at XC nationals – up from 20th in 2011 before missing the 2012 championships – into the spring.
In just his second outdoor meet, he finished fourth at 10,000 meters in the Stanford Invitational against largely Division I and pro competition in 28:40 for the 12th-best time in DII history, before going on to ultimately finish third at the DII championships in that event. He was also fifth at 5000 meters.
A non-exhaustive list of others to keep an eye on:
- Matt Daniels, Adams State – Did not run at NCAAs last year but finished fourth behind Batt and Stevens in 2012 for a 2-3-4 ASU finish.
- Derek Alcorn, Colorado Mines – A three-time All-American who finished 33rd a year ago
- Brayden Burgleigh, Shippensburg – Finished 47th a year ago but won the indoor mile title in 2014
- Victor Samoei, Alaska Anchorage – Last year’s only freshman All-American in 32nd place