Syracuse Orange standout Justyn Knight battled wind, cramps, and a talented field to win the first NCAA individual championship in school history. Knight only took the lead in the final stretch as he surged at the right time to pass Northern Arizona's Matthew Baxter to claim the title in a time of 29:00.11 for the 10k course.
It was a warm and windy day in Louisville but the duo of Baxter and Tyler Day set a fast early pace, opening with a 4:30 mile and forcing the rest of the field to adjust their strategy. Knight fought off cramps and kept in touch with the lead pack. Alabama’s Gilbert Kigen made a move to the front before the 4k mark in a move that was pretty daring considering the wind. Day and Baxter surged to the front before the final 2k outer loop and when the leaders rounded the corner to the homestretch Knight had a gap to close.
Justyn surged to the front right in front of the Syracuse tailgate and pushed ahead in the final 200 meters to hold off Baxter and take his 1st NCAA title. After the race he spoke about overcoming the challenges and the feeling of finally getting the title he’s been chasing.
Northern Arizona dominated the field to repeat as champion as the Orange struggled after Knight and finished 13th. You could see in the faces of the Syracuse runners that it was a difficult effort to maintain the fast early pace and the team didn’t have their usual ability to rally as the race moved on. Colin Bennie (56th in 30:15.3), Aidan Tooker ( 109th in 30:49), Philo Germano (142nd in 31:04), Joe Dragon (174th in 31:22), Dom Hockenbury (198th in 31:36) and Iliass Aouani (234th in 32:21) were the Orange runners. After they race they vowed to be back next season when the meet moves to Madison Wisconsin and there is no reason to doubt that Syracuse won’t rebound from a tough day.
Seniors Bennie and Germano who end their Syracuse careers with a NCAA Championship and All-American honors forever linked to their names. Syracuse’s other competitors on Saturday left the course disappointed, but the returning runners will take this experience and use it to grow as competitors. They can look to Justyn’s 143rd place finish in his freshman year to show how challenging this race is and how one result doesn’t define a career.
For the Syracuse women, senior Paige Stoner delivered a school-best 17th place NCAA finish. In becoming the first woman to crack the top 20 at the NCAA meet, Stoner solidifies her place among the all-time Orange elite runners. While overshadowed by Justyn’s title, Paige deserves a lot of credit for an amazing race on Saturday. The last time she faced a talented field in Wisconsin she finished 24th. To improve on that performance against a deeper group of competitors caps her outstanding season on a very strong note.
Paige matched her ACC winning time of 19:52 for the 6k course. She was followed by Shannon Malone (73rd in 20:30), Madeleine Davison (187th in 21: 25), Rachel Bonner (196th in 21:32), Eva Scott (242nd in 22:27), Chelsie Penello (243rd in 22:28), and Maggie Toczko (249th in 22:55) were the other runners on Syracuse’s 26th place team. Stoner and Penello are seniors but the Orange women hope to add depth and talent to this group in 2018. Like Northern Arizona, the New Mexico Lobos defended their team title behind individual winner Ednah Kurgat.
It was a great weekend to be part of the historic performances among a large and vocal Orange contingent. Syracuse is showing the rest of the NCAA XC world that they have the best fanbase in the sport.