Unsung Accolades: My Top 5 Underdog Performances of XC 2014

Photo by TrackAndFieldPhoto

Photo by TrackAndFieldPhoto

Edward Cheserek (451) repeated as D-I national champion, but teammate Eric Jenkins (456) put together a brilliant 2014 XC season, too.


By Tyler Brinks

Coinciding with Saturday, December 13’s Foot Locker High School National Championships, the USATF Club Cross Country Championships was the last cross-country event of 2014.

Starting back in mid-August, cross-country has been around for four months now. So, since the cross-country season is finally over, I want to assess the range of spectacles that the XC community displayed this fall.

In 2014, cross-country—a sport filled with excitement and unpredictability—presented the contrary. Dominant performances and victories by pre-race favorites became a trend this year.

Individuals like Edward Cheserek of Oregon and Grant Fisher of Grand Blanc High School waited patiently before striking with big surges, leading to emphatic, expected national titles; Colorado’s men and Michigan State’s women both won NCAA Division I national championships after holding No. 1 seeds all year; and the Adams State men and the Grand Valley State women both performed proficiently and predictably on the Division II national stage, each placing three athletes in the top five.

Each of these moments stood out this fall, stealing headlines and exciting fans. If we delve a bit further into the results, however, I think we can find some more things to gawk at. 

Seeing that the favorites thrived this year, let’s look at a few athletes and teams that overachieved and established themselves as contenders for the upcoming track season. Here is my top-five list of those who exceeded everyone’s expectations—except their own, of course—starting with No. 5.


5. New Mexico Lobos women’s team

The New Mexico Lobos women’s team, seeded ninth in the USTFCCCA Coaches Poll heading into the D-I national meet, finished in third place, claiming its first-ever podium finish. 

After a sixth-place finish at the Wisconsin Invite, the Lobos established themselves as a worthy Top 10 team, but they didn’t make a resounding statement as a championship-caliber team—that would come later. As the season progressed, the Lobos won the Mountain West title in a mediocre team race, then finished second to Colorado at the West Regional. 

So, it wasn’t until the NCAA championships that New Mexico revealed the magnitude of its team depth. When they left Terre Haute, Indiana, the Lobos had two All-American finishers—freshman Alice Wright (20th) and senior Charlotte Arter (22nd).

Arter is the first back-to-back Lobos All-American since the mid-1980s, and all five of their scorers finished within one minute of each other.


4. Portland Pilots men’s team

The University of Portland Pilots were ranked 10th heading into the NCAA championships, and they finished third. What’s more impressive than hurdling seven spots to a podium finish? They only finished five guys in the race.

Two of their consistent top scorers—David Perry and Ryan Poland—were unable to finish the race due to injuries sustained during the 10K. There was no room for error, and Portland’s men got the job done, besting their in-state foes—the Oregon Ducks—in the process.


3. Eric Jenkins, Oregon

While not entirely an underdog, Eric Jenkins of Oregon astonished the field with his second-place finish at the NCAA D-I championships, finishing runner-up to his teammate Edward Cheserek.

Jenkins had credentials coming into the season—his unofficial indoor 3K of 7:46.21 (which he ran in 2013 but was disqualified for impeding another runner) is the third-fastest time by an American collegiate athlete ever, behind Galen Rupp and Adam Goucher. 

However, after Jenkins transferred from Northeastern to U of O, he was forced to sit out last year’s XC season. His capability was discounted for most of the year, partly because of Cheserek’s performances and partly because of his inexperience on the big stage, but Jenkins proved that he is a top-notch competitor this November.

Jenkins’ finish this fall leads me to believe that this American will show us big things in the coming months and years, hopefully wearing the USA uniform proudly someday. After his most recent accolade, Jenkins has me convinced that he’s the real deal.


2. Olin Hacker, Madison West High School

Olin Hacker, a Wisconsin high school senior from Madison West, raced to two runners-up finishes in the NXN and Foot Locker national championships. With personal bests (PB) slower than the pre-race favorites in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs—he has a 1,600-meter PB of 4:11 compared to Grant Fisher’s 4:02 for the full mile—he unleashed his potential in his last few cross-country meets.

Hacker finished with a Wisconsin Division 1 state title, a course record at the NXN Heartland Regional and then two runners-up finishes at the national championships. At the Foot Locker Midwest Regional, Hacker finished 10th, grabbing the last qualifying spot before he bested all but one athlete in the field at nationals. Hacker will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison next fall.


1. Sarah Disanza, Wisconsin

And speaking of Wisconsin… Sarah Disanza, a true sophomore, finished second at this year’s NCAA D-I national championships. She placed 104th in 2013. 

“Anytime you come out and you finish runner-up at the NCAA championships, that’s amazing,” Wisconsin head coach Mick Byrne said enthusiastically of his athlete, per UWBadgers.com.  

Disanza’s runner-up finish was huge improvement from her performance last year, and a drastic improvement after not qualifying for NCAAs at all during her freshman track campaign. Rightfully so, Disanza is eager for her racing to continue, per UWBadgers.com: 

“It’s incredible, especially because it’s obviously so early in my career, so it just gets me really excited to see what’s to come.”

With these improvements, I’m excited, too, Sarah.

Oh, and by the way, Disanza ran a 15:20 indoor 5K on December 6 at the Boston University Season Opener. The time set more than one record, per Badger Track & Field:

Folks, a 15:20 this early in the season? Keep an eye on Disanza.


Final Thoughts

After Ryan Hill won a Club XC national title on Saturday, he was asked about his possible participation in the February USA Cross Country Championships, to which Hill shared that he and many of his Bowerman Track Club teammates will be gearing up for indoor track at that time.

With snow looming and temperatures dropping, I await the impending indoor track season. Surely the indoor season will have many more moments to discuss. Pay attention to favorites, but don’t overlook the athletes nipping at their heels—they’ve earned your respect.

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