By Chris Lotsbom, @chrislotsbom
(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

TERRE HAUTE, IND (19-Nov) — The magic of the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course struck again here on a bone-chilling day, as Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan and Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer earned upset victories at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. Tiernan denied Oregon’s Edward Cheserek the opportunity to make history by earning his fourth straight title, something no athlete has ever accomplished on the Division I level. Schweizer, an underdog entering the meet despite winning the Midwest regional last week, overtook Michigan’s Erin Finn in the final 50 meters to secure the school’s first individual NCAA Cross Country title.

Northern Arizona coach Eric Heins will retire on top.  His Lumberjack men defeated Stanford 125 to 158 points, backing up their pre-meet billing as favorites. For the women, Oregon edged Michigan by just one point, 125 to 126, with top-ranked Colorado falling to third with 134 points after their top woman, Erin Clark, finished 133rd.


PHOTO: Patrick Tiernan of Villanova (center) runs with Justyn Knight (left) of Syracuse and Edward Cheserek of Oregon on the final lap of the 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
PHOTO: Patrick Tiernan of Villanova (center) runs with Justyn Knight (left) of Syracuse and Edward Cheserek of Oregon on the final lap of the 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

Toeing the starting line in his final collegiate race for Villanova, Patrick Tiernan had only one goal: an NCAA title. The tall Australian earned a runner-up finish in 2015 which left a sour taste in the Olympian’s mouth.  He wanted to win, and he wanted to win badly.

“Just coming into it with the mentality that I wasn’t coming second again,” Tiernan began. “I finished second last year, and as good as it was, you always want to go it one better. My last race; you can’t leave the NCAA without a championship.”

Well aware of the strength of the field –including Cheserek’s unbeaten streak at these championships, and the hot streak of Syracuse’s Justyn Knight– Tiernan was calculating through the opening kilometers. He’d find his spot in front and comfortably hit the first kilometer with the entire field close in tow. At 5-K (15:17.1), roughly 40 men were within a second of the lead. Cheserek stood out in his green hat and yellow singlet, as did Knight in his orange vest.

Squeezing the tempo ever so slightly, Tiernan, Knight, and Cheserek began to break away approaching the 8-K point. In under two minutes a pack of eight turned to three, with Tiernan, Knight, and Cheserek the protagonists. Tiernan looked comfortable, his arm carriage and leg kick steady thanks to specific training done with the Villanova sprint staff.

“The first lap wasn’t crazy,” Tiernan said. “I think we went through in about 15:15, 15:20 or something. It started getting quick about 6-K, and then with 2-K to go, I wasn’t intending to make a move, but I found myself moving away just a little bit, so I just figured I’d make the most of it and get after it.”

While Tiernan was taking control of the tempo, Knight was keying off his taller rival. With wind gusts in the 20 MPH (32 KPH) range, Knight didn’t want to get caught in no-man’s land battling the wind.

“Me, Ches and Tiernan pulled away and we just held strong,” Knight described. “I just tried to draft as long as possible. I was on Tiernan’s back a while, then he pulled away, closed in, then he pulled away again. He deserved to win today.”

To the amazement of the thousands of spectators running all across the course, Cheserek was the first to fade from the leading trio. The announcement of Tiernan and Knight all alone drew gasps from the crowd: some wanted to witness Cheserek making history earning four consecutive titles, while others wanted to see King Ches dethroned. Today, it would be the latter.

In the final kilometer Tiernan was able to break from Knight. Entering the final 400m straightaway, Tiernan gained momentum when he heard cheering from the Villanova women’s team and encouragement from coach Marcus O’Sullivan. He’d cross the line first to win in 29:22.0.

“Honestly, you just have to be confident. Everybody in the race is on an equal level when you get there, and anybody’s beatable at the end of the day,” said Tiernan, speaking to reporters as a throng of fans waited for his autograph.

For more than a year, Coach O’Sullivan knew that the title could belong to Tiernan at the end of today.

“For those historians, I think it’s the first time in 43 years that we’ve had a winner on the men’s side,” O’Sullivan said, referencing Victor Zwolak’s win in 1963. “What a culminating race for a great kid. I knew he was in great shape, but it’s still hard. I love this race because it’s just open to anybody. I’m just proud of him. I think he’s just a great individual, and he so believed in himself. Like, he really believed he could do this and that’s a testament to his mental and his mindset.”

Knight improved from fourth last year to second today in 29:27.3, while Cheserek, who was deeply disappointed, was third in 29:48.0. Cheserek held off Northern Arizona’s Futsum Zienasellassie (29:49.8), and was not happy entering the media mixed zone.

“What happened? You see what happened,” a clearly frustrated Cheserek told reporters. “It’s kind of disappointing because this is my last year and…  It was a good race. Everybody was tough over there.

“I was a little bit tired, but I was going to try my best for my teammates, and that’s it,” he added before abruptly walking away.

In the team race, Northern Arizona wanted to go out on top for coach Eric Heins, who is stepping down from the program on November 30. All season long, the Lumberjacks have had their sights set on the title, hoping to become the first team in school history to win an NCAA title.

That they did. Behind Zienasellassie, Matthew Baxter was 11th; Tyler Day 23rd; Andy Trouard 37th; and Cory Glines 84th, rounding out the team’s scoring with 125 points and a spread of under a minute (56.6 seconds). Coach Heins was on the verge of tears as he left the awards podium clutching the trophy.

“It’s amazing. I’m kind of numb right now, it feels so amazing,” he said, shaking his head. At first, Heins thought his team lost the title in the final 1000 meters. Yet when the places were tallied up, NAU were champions. “At 8-K we heard we were up and I just tried to start yelling to them hold their position cause we’re winning right now.

An hour before the race, Heins took a moment to himself to soak up the atmosphere of an NCAA Championship one final time. He’ll now move to Houston to join his wife Kaci and son Chase, where Kaci accepted a job as the education supervisor at the Space Center Houston.

“The phone started to buzz from friends watching and I said ‘Is this official? Is this official?’ Then my assistant coach started to get stuff, Coach Smith started to get stuff, and we figured if everyone’s saying the same thing then it must be official,” Heins said. “It’s fantastic. This University does a great job with athletics, they do it the right way, and to bring home a national title to show that is such an honor to be part of that.”

Runner-up Stanford (158 points) was led by fast-closing Grant Fisher in fifth (29:57.9). Defending champions Syracuse (164), Ole Miss (196) and Arkansas (206) rounded out the top five teams.


 PHOTO: Karissa Schweizer of Missouri (left) sprints past Erin Finn of Michigan (center) and Anna Rohrer of Notre Dame to won the 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

PHOTO: Karissa Schweizer of Missouri (left) sprints past Erin Finn of Michigan (center) and Anna Rohrer of Notre Dame to won the 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

In a finish for the ages, Missouri junior Karissa Schweizer surged from third to first in a matter of seconds down the stretch of the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. Sneaking up on Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer and then Michigan’s Erin Finn, the 20-year-old Schweizer shot into the lead with 50 meters left to earn her first NCAA title in stunning fashion.

The move surprised even Schweizer, a fast improving harrier from Urbandale, Iowa.

“Extremely surprised. I’m just proud of my team and really excited to be here. It was nice to have everyone here,” Schweizer said, speaking to Race Results Weekly.

Entering the meet with little pressure, Schweizer played her cards perfectly. She was not at the pre-race press conference for the meet favorites yesterday, and wasn’t on the radar of prognosticators despite victories at the Midwest Regional and SEC Championship this year. When Schweizer went out with Finn, Rohrer, and Boise State’s Brenna Peloquin as part of a giant lead pack, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary for the Tiger.

After 3-K was when the race rapidly developed, with Finn and Rohrer putting on boxing gloves and hammering one another with surge after surge. Peloquin would do her best to hold on as Schweizer, Kansas’s Sharon Lokedi, and Oregon’s Katie Rainsberger trailed steps behind.

“Once I hit the 4-K, that’s when the race started. It was all about me just trying to stay in contact as long as I could. I wasn’t trying to think too far ahead and think about the kick at the finish,” Peloquin said, describing the race’s development. “There was a lot of battling with Erin and Anna. Probably a K to go and I tried to hold on as long as possible.”

Over the final mile, Rohrer jumped out to what was reported as a ten-step lead on Finn. Yet the fiery Michigander would not relent. She’d return the blow with a surge of her own.

Entering the final 400-meter stretch with a cold crosswind cutting like a knife, Finn began to gain on Rohrer in her green Notre Dame singlet, and ultimately drew even with her rival. Finn pulled ahead and believed she was destined for victory as the finish line drew closer and closer.

“I really thought I had it, you know?  When I was catching back up to Anna, and when I passed her,” Finn began. Yet she had no idea that Schweizer was gaining on her right shoulder.

It was with 50 meters left that Finn looked to her left and saw no one. At the very same moment Schweizer passed on her right side, catching the leader by surprise. Finn gritted her teeth and scrunched her face trying to mount every bit of energy she had, but the earlier battles with Rohrer had zapped her legs. She could not respond to Schweizer’s move.

“Karissa just gave a blow I couldn’t handle. Mad props to her. She’s a great athlete. It’s really hard right now.  I thought I really had it, and I definitely couldn’t have given any more when she passed me, my legs were giving out. I’m so proud of my effort, and I’m definitely disappointed right now,” Finn said.

For Schweizer, the middle part of the race was all about saving energy. She’d drift as much as 15 meters behind Finn and the leaders, but never gave up hope.

“I just wanted to stick with them and I knew if I could stick with them anything could happen. So, I was nervous because they were kind of pulling away, but I knew I had another gear so I just went for it,” she said.

“Not until about 40 or 50 meters to go [did I know I had it]. It was just another gear. I couldn’t even feel my legs. I just went for it.”

Schweizer finished in 19:41.6 to Finn’s 19:44.2, with Rohrer 4/10ths of a second behind in 19:44.6. The three comprised one of the closest finishes in meet history.

“I was prepared for a really tough race and that’s what it was. With about a K to go I was feeling good, and I made a move, and I held on as long as I could,” said Rohrer.

Schweizer’s win is the first victory in school history for Missouri, and helped her team to a 16th place finish. Atop the awards stand she’d laugh in amazement at the moment, smiling when her teammates and friends started Missouri Tiger chants.

With the individual title determined, all eyes shifted towards the team competition. Oregon freshman Katie Rainsberger finished fourth in 19:51.1, giving hopes to a Duck title. But it would take every ounce of energy for Maurica Powell’s squad to upset the might of the NCAA, in particular Finn’s Michigan Wolverines.

As the top 100 women funneled through the finish chutes, Powell and Michigan coach Mike McGuire tried to tally their placings. After their respective teams were finished and recovering, the pair found themselves next to one another trying to figure out results. Each kept counting and coming up with the same number: in the raw score they each thought they had 164 points.

“Before we saw the score, before we saw anything, I was blown away by their composure and how they ran today,” Powell said of her Ducks. Behind Rainsberger, junior Alli Cash was 14th and seniors Samantha Nadel, Ashley Maton, and Maggie Schmaedick were 21st, 61st and 64th. Entering the meet ranked 12th, the Ducks were longshots for a title. But no-one told Powell and her team. “We were five for five today” in terms of great performances, she said.

It took at least 45 minutes to announce team scores, and when they did Oregon was proclaimed champions by one point over Michigan, 125 to 126. It turned out that at the finish line, Oregon’s Schmaedick out-kicked Michigan’s number five scorer Jaimie Phelan by one-tenth of a second. That one-point swing proved to be a difference maker.

“It’s amazing. There’s no words to describe it. It’s been amazing,” said Rainsberger, Oregon’s top scorer.

Colorado, who was billed as the best team entering the meet, finished third with 134 points. Colorado’s Erin Clark, a pre-meet favorite, fell all the way back to 133rd place. NC State (223) and Stanford (255) were the fourth and fifth place teams.

The 2017 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships will be held in Louisville, Ky., where they were held in 2015.


More info and video from Pat’s NCAA XC Win –

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