Cross Country: Reflections on the Threepeat

First, if you want to read a couple thousand words on what happened Saturday, go to the main page thread on the NCAA meet and read the comments. No need to repeat all that.

Second, if things are chronological, this post will bump down a really good one on how wrestling is doing heading into Thanksgiving. Go back and read that.

To start with, at no point in that Saturday article and comment section was men's cross country ever mentioned. They had a really good day, placing 17th after coming in ranked 28th. They spent most of the season unranked, and were an abysmal 8th at the ACC meet and looked unlikely to have anyone at NCAA's. They turned things around at the regional by working from well off the front of the pack, taking third (they were ranked eighth in the region) when anything worse would probably have left them at home. A coach from another top five team said after that race "I knew the wizard (Geiger) would come up with something here." They doubled down on the come-from-behind strategy in Charlottesville, as at 1-km their first man was 229th (out of 255) and they were in 31st of 31 teams, more than 200 points behind 30th. I think they are the only team in the meet to improve their score at every kilometer, and while you can kind of guarantee that by going out slow enough, that was pretty close to a top-end finish for this lineup. Second year in a row of strong national race for the men.

Now for the women. When Amaris Tyynismaa transferred to State in January, it looked like this could be one of the best teams of all time. That team never ran - Tyynismaa and Samantha Bush had nothing close to the kind of buildup you would want, and then when they finally came through with great-for-the-day races at NCAA's, Kelsey Chmiel was out. How it played out Saturday is well-documented. But throughout the season it never really seemed like things were lining up right - at least not to someone who was paying close attention and had some amount of (non-staff) team-adjacent knowledge. As I said in the meet article, I did not think going into last week we had enough to get the win, and that was with zero awareness that Chmiel might be out.

So what's next? Tuohy is almost certainly going pro. Chmiel is done. Bush is, I'm pretty sure, done (she ran the whole season other than the NCAA finals in '19, and I don't think there is any alchemy that gets you a fifth year out of that.) Ditto with Tyynismaa (only ran two meets in '21, but one was SEC, and I think championship meets void any possibility of an injury waiver.) But one of the things about how this season ended up is NC State is not replacing the 1-3-9-15 those four had in '22, but the 5-25-28-DNR from this year. Incredibly difficult, but not unimaginable.

Realistically, just keeping the ACC title streak going probably requires something like a top 5 team - Notre Dame has to be so frustrated to have zero titles to show for the past eight years - and would be a great achievement. True freshman Leah Stephens had what is the typical "great freshman" campaign - looked best early in the season and not as much later. 43rd doesn't look great when she was in the top 25 in the middle of the race, but it was at the very optimistic end of what I was expecting, and the only three freshmen in the top 30 were Kenyan. Stanford has an Australian freshman with Tuohy-like HS times and she was 59th. A healthy full year in the program and Stephens (who was ranked third nationally with a 9:50 3200 as a senior) could be a top 20 NCAA finisher. State actually has another true freshman (national record-holder in the steeplechase) I'd rated even higher than Stephens, and second who was close, but based on their results competing unattached this fall they weren't close to ready to contribute. We probably need at least one to step up next fall.

The other runners Saturday were redshirt freshmen Grace Hartmann (63rd) and Hannah Gapes (73rd) and redshirt junior Gionna Quarzo (102nd - Quarzo would have scored for every other team in the meet besides Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State.) Hartman this spring in the 1500 and 5000, and Quarzo over multiple years in the 10,000, have the kind of track results that project as XC all-Americans, but I don't just pencil them in. Quarzo's had two years now as 7th runner at nationals when her track results suggest better, and to me Hartman looks more like a track runner. I have no idea with Gapes - she's from New Zealand and was hurt much of her first year, so this fall was a pleasant surprise. Her NZ marks are good but not among the top five HS times on the NC State roster. The fifth runner for the 2022 title, redshirt soph Brooke Rauber, did not compete this fall while returning from injury. But she was 90th at NCAA's, and nothing else about her profile is on par with Hartman. There's at least one top ten national recruit, but no one to my knowledge who projects as better than Stephens, and Stephens is just about a best-case first-year scenario if you're not Katelyn Tuohy or Kelsey Chmiel.

To me, it looks like a third-fifth place lineup - it is very hard to project anyone being the big gun up front you need to win, unless that person is a transfer. But this time last year, I didn't have any inkling Amaris Tyynismaa would be in Raleigh in January, and no idea in 2020 that Hannah Steelman would leave Wofford for State. NC State probably is the absolute top of the list right now for a high-end transfer, so we'll see what happens the next six months. It's exceptionally greedy to talk about winning again, but I'd love to see two big guns to keep the train running.