Colorado's Blake Theroux (58) looks to lead the Buffaloes to a regional title and a national championship berth. Photo by Alan Versaw.
It may not be the best of years to be from the mountain region. The mountain men (and women!) are brutal this year.
Before we get to the details of that story, however, it's worth a brief discussion on why the Mountain Region is the Mountain Region. The schools that participate in this region include Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, Wyoming, Nevada-Reno, Utah State, Utah Valley, Utah, Brigham Young, Southern Utah, Weber State, Northern Colorado, Colorado State, Colorado, Air Force, Northern Arizona, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Texas Tech, and Texas-El Paso.
If that seems a bit like a gerrymandered region, it is. But there is a method to the madness, if madness it is. Each of these 20 schools is at an elevation in excess of 3000 feet above sea level. If I've done my checking correctly, Texas Tech is the lowest elevation of these schools at approximately 3250 feet above sea level. Other reasonable candidates to be included in the region might be Boise State, Idaho, and Arizona, but these schools are located at elevations ranging from 2500 to 2800 feet above sea level. In short, they don't make the cut.
Depending on your tastes in measurement systems, the cut appears to come at 3000 feet or 1000 meters of elevation
In case you're wondering, Wyoming boasts the highest elevation of the schools in the region at about 7160 feet above sea level. Other schools at over 6000 feet include Air Force and Southern Utah.
So much for lessons in geography. Let's get to why this is such a brutal region from which to make your way to the NCAA DI National Championships meet on November 23.
For starters, this is a deep region, a very deep region. As deep as it is high.
Stop and think about recent NCAA cross country powers. You simply must include Brigham Young, Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado on that list. That's pretty tough for a region that gets only two automatic qualifiers to the national meet. And, you could make a compelling case for two or three more teams from the region as NCAA cross country powers. There is no easy pass over the mountains to Terre Haute, Indiana.
And, let's not have any smart remarks about trying Hoosier Pass, okay?
The women's side of the Mountain Region offers less resistance than the men's this year. Truthfully, this is a year of opportunity for the women as we're not seeing the kind of depth of national power teams among the Mountain Region women that we are accustomed to seeing. New Mexico, who won the Mountain West Conference title almost two weeks ago, comes in ranked at #8 nationally. The Colorado women, who came within a eyelash of catching #1 Arizona at the end of the PAC-12 meet a day later, come in ranked at #10 nationally.
If things go according to form, these will be the two women's teams getting automatic berths to nationals. Among the regions other schools, only BYU received votes in the last poll. Realistically, for any other school to make it, they must beat at least one of the big three of New Mexico, Colorado, and BYU at the Mountain Region meet. That is no small order. And, right now, BYU is, at best, a bubble kind of team for nationals, so beating the Cougars, while helpful, is no guarantee of making it in.
Weber State, Northern Arizona, and Colorado State are the teams in best position to make that kind jump. Colorado State is particularly intriguing due to how well they showed at the Mountain West Conference meet on November 1. If CSU could make another jump from the level they showed at the Air Force Academy, they could be the surprise story of the Mountain Region women. Weber State, fresh off a Big Sky Conference title, also seems to be making their move when it counts the most. And Weber State has theoretical advantage of having made it last year and thus knowing what it takes. It also doesn't hurt that they get to stay in town for this one.
The scenarios are more complex on the men's side.
Weighing in from the Mountain Region in the national rankings are Colorado at #1, Northern Arizona at #2, BYU at #5, New Mexico at #11, Colorado State at #23, Southern Utah at #27, and Air Force at #29 (tied). Ouch.
Not all of these teams are going to qualify for nationals. That means there will be an enormous amount of importance attached to the third and fourth place finishers from this region. Given the current rankings, the third and fourth place teams appear to be very likely to be national qualifiers. Finish fifth and you are done. Nobody can afford a sub-par race. There are simply too many ways other teams from the region could move ahead and bump you out.
So, for the men, it all comes down to high noon on the Riverside Golf Course in Riverdale, Utah, on Friday. The women will race at 1:15.
Individual races seem to be wide open for those seeking top places. Isaiah Bragg of Air Force and Samantha Silva are the top finishers from the MWC meet who will be running in the Mountain Region. Blake Theroux and Shalaya Kipp are the top representatives from the PAC-12. Matt McElroy and Summer Harper bring in top credentials from the Big Sky Conference meet, though it's worth noting that the Big Sky women's race was a three-mile affair. Chris Brower and Diana Hawk come into the meet as the top representatives of the Western Athletic Conference (where the women ran 5K). Kennedy Kithuka and Sharlene Nickle come from the Big 12. Jason Witt and Andrea Harrison were BYU's top finishers in the West Coast Conference meet. Anthony Rotich comes out of Confernce USA with sterling credentials. And there are not a few more, especially out of the more prominent of these conferences, who could figure among the individual leaders as well.