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Previewing Syracuse at the NCAA XC Championships (Part 1)

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Today, we’ll look at the Orange and what we might see on Saturday

Cross Country: NCAA Championships
Can Syracuse repeat this scene on Saturday?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Since it’s NCAA Cross-Country Championship Week, we’re going to do a couple of different previews to get you ready for Saturday’s race (The men will start at Noon). The Syracuse Orange are looking to repeat as champions, but with the meet venue moving from Louisville to Terre Haute, what does that mean for their chances?

I decided to look back at the last two NCAA meets held in Terre Haute (2013 and 2014). Here are how the Orange’s 7 runners finished in those meets, along with the time between the 1st and 5th runners, and Oregon Ducks standout Edward Cheserek’s winning time.

2013-15 NCAA XC Results

In 2013, Syracuse finished 10th as a team, which wasn’t far from where they were expected to be. The team was relatively close through the top five runners with a 38 second split, but was unable to really put any runners into a top scoring position. To win a national title in cross country, you typically need two top-20 finishers as well as a solid 3-4-5. Syracuse was building good depth, but needed some better finishes to become contenders. The 10th place finish was a building block for what came next as a younger group of runners were preparing to take over for Graves, Molke and Whelan.

The following year, the Orange came away from Terre Haute disappointed with a 5th place team finish. As an alum who never thought Syracuse would get to that level, it is weird to type that sentence, but the team had higher expectations heading into the race. That race was run at a tactical, or methodical, pace for about 8k which resulted in just a massive group of runners getting bunched up. You can see that Cheserek was 38 seconds slower than in 2013, which shows how the race differed in 2014. Once again, Syracuse maintained a 38 second split among their top five, but again their lead runners were too far back from the front to enable the Orange to reach a podium finish.

Last year, Syracuse took advantage of a faster course, and pace, on their way to winning the national championship. You can see that of his three wins, this was by far Cheserek’s fastest winning time and I believe the early pace was a big factor for the Orange. The hard early pace wasn’t part of Colorado’s plan and the pack being spread out made it easier for the Syracuse Big 3 of Knight, Bennie and Hehir to run their race without being impeded. Even though the top five split went up to 45 seconds, putting three runners in the top 10 more than made up for the bigger gap as Syracuse edged out a talented Colorado group in search of a three-peat.

What does all of this mean for 2016? Well, Cheserek is back and looking to cement his legacy with a fourth individual title. More importantly, Villanova Wildcats star Patrick Tiernan is also back this year. Last year, it was Tiernan who made King Ches work to maintain a fast pace and I’d expect him to do the same again. Tiernan is an experienced runner, who doesn’t have a team place hanging on his performance. He knows that he can’t beat Cheserek in a sprint, so it’s to his advantage to push things.

If Tiernan does this, the pack should string out like last year and let the Syracuse guys run without being surrounded by 50-60 runners. I’d expect Justyn Knight to stay with the lead group. He’s probably not going to win, but he could place 2nd to Cheserek, which gives Syracuse a needed low score at the top. Colin Bennie has been a bit behind his 2015 season, but he’s been progressing the last two meets and has the talent to finish in the top 10 again. If this happens, the Orange will be in good position heading to the 3-4-5 spots.

Last year Joel Hubbard and Philo Germano made up ground in the final 2k to secure the title. This year, Syracuse will be looking for them and Iliass Aouani to find their way into the top 25. In most years, the champion is the team that scores under 100 points and getting all 5 runners in that top 25 would make the Orange tough to beat. This will be something to watch during the race as team scores update.

So, wondering who the Orange will be battling on Saturday....we’ll take a closer look at them later this week.