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A closer look at Syracuse Cross Country’s National Title Aspirations

This is how the Orange can get back on top this season

Cross Country: NCAA Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s cross-country teams are preparing to reclaim the NCAA title this season. They enter the 2017 season as one of the favorites holding onto a #3 ranking in the USTFCCCA poll, so let’s take a look at what the experts are saying about Syracuse’s title chances.. which recently featured an in-depth look at how Chris Fox built this Syracuse program has the Orange 2nd in their preview. Syracuse is also 2nd in FloTrack’s pre-season rankings and the very in-depth rankings put together by Isaac Wood for his Wood Report at Citius Mag.

So how does SU get back on top of the podium in Louisville? Most NCAA Champions have a “low stick” (runner in the top 10), a strong #2 and #3-5 runners that than can step up at the championship meet. Let’s take a deeper look at how this year’s Orange team fits that criteria.

Cross Country: NCAA Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The “Low Stick”

A lot of the expectations for the Orange start with the runner at the front of the pack, Justyn Knight. Justyn’s the favorite to win the individual title this November and even if he isn’t the individual champion, odds are that he’s going to finish in the top 3, like he did when the Orange won in 2015.

While last year’s race showed that no one is immune to an upset in this sport, Justyn has a lot going for him this Fall. When he failed to win the 5,000m title during outdoor it seemed that the disappointment could potentially create some doubt this Fall. That concern was muted by his performance in London this summer. Coming off a top 10 finish at Worlds added more confidence to a guy who wasn’t lacking in it before. I think that wiping the bitter taste from his mouth, along with delaying his start to the XC season, plays in Justyn’s favor this year.

Can he pull along the rest of the Orange? Look what Oklahoma State Cowboys Head Coach Dave Smith told

Really, really good is an understatement. Justyn’s the best Syracuse distance runner ever, and one of the most accomplished athletes to don the Orange. I think he’s ready to win that elusive title this year and start Syracuse with the lowest score possible.

Who’s your #2?

Colin Bennie has finished 8th and 17th in the last two NCAA Championships. He’s qualified for NCAA Championships on the track and he’s a 5th-year senior. Even with that resume, he’s coming into this season with relatively low expectations. Some of that is due to a 2016-17 season that didn’t see him take a step forward, while some of it is the expectation that other runners will improve at a higher rate. It will be very interesting to see where Colin places at Wisconsin in a couple of weeks especially if Knight doesn’t run. That’s a race where he’ll face some top talent and can make his case to be in that top-10 mix.

If Colin can find the form to once again finish in the top 10 in Louisville, Syracuse will be in very good position to win.

Can 3, 4, 5 come alive?

The biggest question facing Syracuse in 2017 is where will the last three scorers finish at Nationals? When a meet looks to be as close as this year’s NCAA meet projects, these three runners are going to decide the winner. Last year the Orange had the lead at the 8k split, but were unable to match Northern Arizona down the stretch. In 2015 Philo Germano’s fantastic final 2k clinched the Orange victory. What will this season bring?

One thing Syracuse has this year is a lot of potential options to fill these key spots. Germano’s back and this year he’s being counted on to use his experience to provide a steadying influence at the big meets. Aidan Tooker broke out during the outdoor season. He’s got the speed, but how will he adapt to the jump up to the 10k? Iliass Aouani was solid in 2016, but faded at NCAA’s and hasn’t raced yet in 2017. Kevin James and Joe Dragon have started strong this Fall while Griff Molino, Mickey Burke, Simon Smith and Dom Hockenbury are pushing to crack the top 7. The wildcard this season is Noah Affolder. The talented freshman has the potential to be a difference-maker, but is returning to form after an injury and the Syracuse coaches won’t rush him back.

Since teams get to start seven runners at the NCAA meet, it’s usually worth it for coaches to go with their top five, and use the final two spots on a steady runner, and someone with the ability to deliver a huge performance. Syracuse has a lot of steady guys in their top 10-12 runners, but Aouani and Affolder fit the “lightning in a bottle” pick. Both have All-American potential and we’ll watch to see if either is in the mix at Wisconsin or the ACC Championships.

As we get closer to NCAA’s we’ll take a look at the other top teams. If there is something you’d like to know more about, drop a comment below and I’ll be sure to respond.