Buffs Ready For Unusual Cross Country Season
BOULDER — While no two seasons are ever the same, the 2020 NCAA Cross Country season will likely be an extremely unique case. The University of Colorado cross country teams will start the 2020 season in February of 2021. And the Buffaloes are not the only team to start the delayed many other NCAA Division I schools postponed the start of several seasons this past fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there were some schools and conferences that raced their usual season, August through October. But the big prize, the NCAA Championship, did not happen on November 21, 2020, in Stillwater, Okla., as originally scheduled. To accommodate those postponing seasons, the NCAA moved the championship back to March 15, 2021, but kept the location the same.
With so many teams having already completed their regular seasons, there will not be a regional championship following the winter round of conference championships to select the teams that will move on to nationals. Instead, it will be a selection committee.
"This year's selection to the NCAA Cross Country Championships is purely subjective and in the hands of a committee who will meet on March 6," CU head coach Mark Wetmore said. "It will look at the performances of all of the teams in the country going all the way back to September and select the field of 31 teams based on just rankings. All of the conference meets will be the most heavily weighted performance."
The Buffaloes will race in the Pac-12 Championships on March 5, a day before the selection committee meets. CU's men are the defending champion, while the women placed fourth in 2019. At the 2019 national championship, the men placed third, one point behind runner-up Northern Arizona, while the women finished 10th. To return to nationals, both will need to do well at the conference meet, but it doesn't start there.
Colorado will open its season on February 5 at the Florida State Winter Classic in Tallahassee, Fla. FSU, the host of the 2021 NCAA Championship, has set this meet up similarly to a pre-national type meet, although it does not have the depth of a typical pre-national meet. Following that, the Buffs will have two more meets on Feb. 19 and 20 before concluding the regular season. According to Wetmore, "we plan to do some combination of both."
Another unusual aspect of this season is that the cross country season will be going concurrently with the indoor track season. The NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship is scheduled March 12-13, in Fayetteville, Ark.
While it's a little unusual to run two seasons at once, it can't be ruled out.
"Every coach in the country is looking at that chessboard strategically," Wetmore said. "Some I suppose will begin indoor track seasons, see how their individuals are looking, see how their teams are looking, and decide whether to use those individuals in cross country races eventually. We will do it the other way around. We will start with a cross country season. See how the individuals look and see how the teams look, withholding the option of switching somebody like a Lalo Herrera or a Rachel McArthur, quickly over to an indoor track qualifying attempt. But our distance runners are beginning the season as cross country runners."
While the CU men have high hopes for the season as the defending Pac-12 Champions, there is some rebuilding to do as they graduated a pair of All-Americans in Joe Klecker and John Dressel. Alec Hornecker, who placed 38th and earned his first All-America honor in 2019, returns to the team, as does Herrera, who was an All-American in 2017. Another key returner from the 2019 team is Kashon Harrison, who was the 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the year.
The Buffs return a total of six letterwinner in addition to a pair of redshirt freshmen and have added seven newcomers to the roster. From that group, there could be several candidates who emerge and challenge for a spot on the varsity roster.
"We've had a few interruptions along the way, as had almost all teams, but some people I hoped might be major contributors, may not be," Wetmore said about the men's team when asked how they will look this season. "And so, we will need people to rise up out of the emerging team members. So, Hunter Appleton looks pretty good right now. Jace Aschbrenner, a true freshman, could get some varsity duty. Austin Vancil, who was varsity for us last year, might take a nice step for us. We race on the fifth of February and we will not be brilliant. But then we have a month to try to get brilliant."
Appleton ran unattached in 2019 and ran well in those races, finishing fifth at the RoadRunner Invitational, while Vancil competed in several races for the Buffs. Vancil was CU's sixth man twice in 2019, once at the pre-nationals and the other time at NCAA Mountain Regionals.
Others who will be vying for spots on the roster include senior Paxton Smith and graduate transfer Ethan Powell (Kansas State). Smith has done well for CU and in 2019 recorded his best Pac-12 finish (35th). Powell had success at KSU, recording a 26th place finish at the NCAA Midwest Region Championship in 2019, which was also the best finish for any KSU runner since 2004.
The women's team has a little more depth than the men, returning six letterwinners, including postseason scorers Holly Bent, Annie Hill and Rachel McArthur. Those three are likely to be in the line-up, but there are a few other returners who will be vying for positions as well in Madi Boreman, Liz Constien and Bailey Nock.
Like the men, the women added seven newcomers, including a pair of graduate transfers, Micaela DeGenero (Michigan) and Abby Nichols (Ohio State). DeGenero was a three-time All-Big 10 honoree in cross country. Nichols recorded a fifth-place finish at the 2019 Big Ten Cross Country Championship and went on to record a 41st place finish at nationals.
"We have two graduate transfers who both look very good right now and if I had to pick my top seven today, they would be in there," Wetmore said. "There will be a lot of new names in the roster."
Another possible new name in that roster is redshirt freshman Emily Covert, a two-time Minnesota State High School League Class AA State Cross Country Champion. She did not race in 2019 but has been training throughout the fall and according to Wetmore, "could help us."
Every year there is also a freshman who rises to the call. Rylee Robinson started to race last season, but ended up redshirting due to injury. Given the amount of talent on the roster, the Buffs will be posed to make some waves.