Men's Cross Country Season Preview
Sept. 19, 2009
At last year's NCAA Championships the Husky men lost their No. 1 runner, senior Jeremy Mineau, to a foot injury right before the race went off. Yet even without their team leader, seven Huskies stepped up and earned an 18th-place finish, outpacing their No. 21 ranking. Washington had not received a single vote in the preseason poll, yet wound up in the Top-20 for the second time in three seasons. This season the Dawgs return six of their seven runners from the NCAA meet plus several key additions, and while they begin the year ranked 24th in the nation, once again they will be looking to hit their stride when it matters most.
'For the men it's just about being ready at the right time,' says 13th-year head coach Greg Metcalf. 'There were teams at the Pre-National meet last year that beat us by 200 points that then did not make it to the National Championships or that we beat at the National Championships. So timing is everything. The goal is the same every year with this group: finish among the top-three at the Pac-10 Championships, get to the national meet, and then go be a Top-10 team. That's the goal every year.'
Washington has a wealth of senior experience to draw upon this year. Jake Schmitt, Kelly Spady, Colton Tully-Doyle, Chris Ahl, and Alec Bromka are all entering their final years, and all have NCAA Championship meet experience. When the postseason rolls around and the distance climbs to 10,000-meters, the Huskies have been prepared, and plan to follow the same basic script this year. But this year's team has some added firepower as well, most notably the return of a healthy Max O'Donoghue-McDonald, and redshirt freshman Joey Bywater. Coach Metcalf also welcomes a new assistant coach to the mix, as Jason Drake left head coaching duties at Washington State to help take the Huskies to the next level.
'This group's different, the vibe of our team so far,' Metcalf says. 'It might be in part the addition of Coach Drake; practice just has a little different feel to it. I've always believed seniors play an invaluable role in your team's success at the national meet. Our seniors have been to the national championships more than previous groups so those experiences will hopefully pay dividends at the NCAA Championships.'
But that cold November Indiana day is still several weeks and a number of big meets away, and Washington, while loaded with potential, will need some time for the season's picture to come into focus. However the runners Coach Metcalf is counting on at the top of the lineup is not likely to change. Schmitt and Spady went 1-2 at Nationals last year, and both have All-America aspirations for their senior seasons.
Schmitt has the top track credentials of anyone on the squad. He has qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships at 10,000-meters each of the past two years, and finished ninth in the 5k at the 2009 NCAA Indoor meet, earning his first All-America honor. Schmitt was 58th at NCAA Cross Country last year, tops on the team.
'Jake had kind of had a little up and down summer with a knee issue that we've been getting through, but just in the last week all of a sudden you can see the light bulb go on and his training has been very consistent,' says Metcalf. 'Jake is ready to go have a great cross country season and be better than he was a year ago. His goals are to be an All-American, and I think he's a top-25 guy on a given day, and that's how he prepares and operates on a daily basis.'
Spady, a Mukilteo, Wash. native, was the final piece that helped push the Dawgs to nationals last year, as he made his season-debut at Pac-10's and took 15th, missing All-Pac-10 honors by one spot. He then took 24th at Regionals, earning All-West Region, and was 86th at NCAA's in his first national meet competition.
'I'm just incredibly proud of what Kelly's done this summer,' said Metcalf. 'He has been a little up and down with injuries throughout his career. But his first three weeks of practice he's exhibited tremendous patience and control and he looks great. Kelly's a senior and he wants to do everything in his power to reach his goal of being an All-American this season. He's tough enough and talented enough I think to go do that. He's been a positive force for our team and done a great job taking care of himself. Kelly and Jake are a great place for our team to start.'
Two runners that were frequently neck and neck last year were Tully-Doyle and junior Jordan Swarthout. Tully-Doyle has improved every season since joining the squad from UC Santa Barbara. He went top-40 at Pac-10's and then was UW's fifth and final scorer at nationals in 154th-place. Swarthout peaked at the perfect time last year, running in UW's top-three for the first time in his career at NCAA's, where he was 108th overall.
'Colton had the best summer of training he's ever had. He ran PR's on the track indoors and outdoors at every distance. He's become a very valuable part of our team. He's ready to run better and that's his expectation and our expectation. Jordan will run probably somewhere between five and seven on our team, and he was 103rd at the NCAA Championships last year. If you put five in the top-100 at the NCAA Championships you're going to be somewhere around 10th-place. Our guys have talked about that of course. Last year without a doubt his best race was the NCAA Championships. Guys that do that once tend to do that again, so that's exciting for us. Jordan walked on to our team and he's been one of the biggest success stories.'
The two biggest reasons for optimism with this year's group are Bywater and O'Donoghue-McDonald. Bywater redshirted last fall but had a very impressive first year on the track, running 3:44 for 1500-meters to make the Pac-10 final and West Regionals. O'Donoghue-McDonald showed loads of potential as a freshman in 2007, running second on the team at Regionals, then lost a year to injury. But in just the first few weeks of practice, he has proven to be back at 100% and is already making a niche for himself as a vocal leader on the squad.
Max and Joey have what people like to label X-factor. They're leaders, they're gamers; they're talented and tough,' Metcalf says. 'Watching them the first three weeks reinforces what I anticipated when we first recruited them. It will be fun to get them in uniform at the same time. Max has energized our team because he's healthy right now and taking great care of himself, and he's had the best two weeks of training that he's had in two years. I'm excited to go watch both of them run, and the bigger the meet the better they're both going to be.'
Washington should possess a much greater level of depth this year than last, as Metcalf will have a large pool of candidates to draw from for spots ranging from seven to nine, which is the cap for Pac-10's this year. Ahl and Bromka have NCAA experience, while sophomore Cameron Quackenbush has made huge strides over the summer and put in more miles than anyone according to Metcalf. Redshirt freshman Rob Webster also can't be counted out, as his coach credits both his heart and attitude.
Seven freshmen will jump on board this fall as well, and will get a chance to show what they can do early on. While most will likely redshirt, it's possible one of two could force their way into the lineup if early progress continues on into the year.
'The freshmen are a very energetic and talented group of young men. There's maybe three right now that I envision that can make our team,' Metcalf says. 'Gareth Gilna was the No. 3 prep miler last year. He ran altitude adjusted 4:06 for the mile. Gareth's had a great summer of training. It's up in the air if he will redshirt but we'll learn more once we see him adjust to 8,000-meters. James Cameron is a Southern California kid that has run 4:08 for 1600, 9:09 for 3200, and was a Footlocker finalist. Both of them will turn it over a little at the Sundodger and then go from there. Bryan Tibuaduiza is super talented; he looks great when he runs and has got some skills but he might be another year away from impacting.'The other rookie of note is Drake, who brings more than a decade of coaching and recruiting some of the nation's best runners to Washington. He assisted at Colorado for a number of team titles, and will play a large role in operations for the entire track program in addition to daily coaching duties.
'Jason's been a very mature addition to our coaching staff. He's got great ideas and he's been a part of national championship program at Colorado. He's coached elite athletes, so his ideas and thoughts are a new piece of the puzzle and I think he will positively affect both our men and women for sure,' says Metcalf.
When Washington has reached the national meet in recent years, it has gone above and beyond rankings and outsider expectations, but reaching Terre Haute out of the West Region is enough of a challenge in and of itself. The Huskies were the 18th best team in the nation last year when it mattered most, even without their de facto No. 1, but they would never have had a chance to prove it if not for a convoluted point system of Team A beating Team B netted them an at-large bid after Regionals. The West has been the dominant region several years running now, and Oregon and Stanford are the preseason Nos. 1 and 3, meaning to get one of the two automatic bids to nationals a team would have to take out one of the early national title favorites. That makes it all the more imperative that Washington produces during the regular season as well as peaking in November.
'With the men, we look at it in chunks. September, October, and November; the goal is to get better in every one of those chunks,' Metcalf says. 'We will be patient, go to Notre Dame for our first test, and then from there we'll iron out some kinks and reassess our personnel and needs. Our men need to go to Springfield, Oregon that second week of November and run well. If we get through that and go on to nationals, and then go out and race like we did a year ago and I think we could be a top-10 team at the end of the year. But getting there will be tough for sure because it's packed in the West.'
It's evident that Coach Metcalf is having a great deal of fun just being around the team on a daily basis. That stems from a group running with an abundance of energy; that embraces the process and is willing to do the work necessary to be better.
'Our group just did a great job this summer,' says Metcalf. 'They're excited about the progress that they've made just the first three weeks of practice. We'll know more definitely the closer we get to October and our strengths will begin to show themselves. We've got to be healthy and get to the end of the year full of life and healthy and excited about racing. Watching them run so far they're very workmanlike in their approach. That generally says a team is carrying a certain amount of confidence right now and that has our staff excited about what they'll do when it really matters.'