TERRE HAUTE —
It took a great five-man pack from Wisconsin in 2011 to interrupt Oklahoma State from winning three straight NCAA men’s cross country titles at LaVern Gibson Championship Course.
The Cowboys got back to their title-winning ways last fall in Louisville, Ky., and coach Dave Smith’s team arrived Friday in Terre Haute for the Pre-Nationals as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Repeat and three-peat championships are pretty common through the sport’s history.
Oregon reiterated its 2007 team title over runner-up Iona by doing it again in 2008. The now former Ducks coach, Vin Lananna, also won repeat titles when coaching Stanford, defeating runner-up Arkansas in 1996-97. If not for Lananna’s Cardinal squads, the Razorbacks might have won an all-time best six consecutive titles under coach John McDonnell.
Regardless of all that recent history, Smith — a former Michigan State standout — appears to have a team capable of contending for a second set of repeat titles.
Four titles in five years would place the Cowboys in the discussion among the elite accomplishments in the sport’s history with programs like Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Michigan State, an eight-time winner from 1939-59.
Figuring out how to stay at the top is a fun puzzle to attempt to solve, Smith is finding.
“We’re facing different challenges. It's one thing to be the hunter. It’s another to be the hunted,” Smith said. “At the end of the year, even if you don’t win, there was something on the ladder to climb. Every year we don’t win, it's a disappointment. It’s hard to outperform our expections. The only surprise outcome can be negative.”
Smith is looking for positives today but not necessarily in the form of first place. Only two of his top seven — Craig Nowak and 2012 All-American Joe Manilafasha — are racing today as he looks to narrow 12 or 13 runners down to his top 7 to 10.
For many teams, today’s races represent a chance to earn points toward at-large berths to the NCAA championships. But since Smith figures his squad can finish top two in his region for an automatic berth, it’s a chance to develop his program’s depth.
“We’re in pretty good position. Couple guys dinged up, couple coming back from injuries,” Smith told the Tribune-Star on Friday. “It looks like a team that can challenge for a title. It’s the deepest we’ve ever had.”
Tom Farrell and Shadrack Kipchirchir, both 2012 cross country All-Americans, will not run. Neither will ShaneMoskowitz nor Kirubel Erassa. Oregon transfer Chad Noelle and veterans like Oklahoma native Taylor Monaghan, Tommy Casey and Neil Smith are hoping to prove they could be valuable members in the team’s run for a championship next month.
“Monaghan’s a guy that’s a sixth-year senior. He didn’t have eye-popping credentials out of high school. He was a 9:24 [two-miler],” Smith said. “He’s just been a little better every year.”
Edging Oregon in 2009 created a buzz that has attracted talent.
But Smith, who was still on campus in Stillwater, Okla., visiting with recruits Friday morning, said it takes more than just bringing in top-tier talent to sustain success.
“We still have up-and-down years. We’ll have a year we get everyone we want. Then a a year where you don't get anybody,” Smith said. “But we have five or six guys that are blue-collar type guys. Guys that came here, knew that they would have to earn their stripes.”
So it’s he Cowboys’ young guns and blue-collar workers looking for a strong performance and gaining valuable experience today.
“There’s only one place you can simulate the numbers, the quality of field,” Smith said. “They do a great job at Indiana State. The coaches, grounds people, even the announcer, are first-class professionals. So, Pre-nationals, it's got the atmosphere of the national championships. It’s really important for youngsters to experience it.”