W&M XC Part 1: An Embarrassment of Riches, 35 Joint NCAA Appearances
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
A mile into the women’s CAA Championship meet in 2018, Lauren Kroepfl and Lauren Finikiotis smirked at each other. They had been leading the pack but now a puppy dog was running alongside the runners. They knew that it was time to take control of the race. Coming through the finish, every teammate fought their way to pick off as many of the opposing runners as possible. As the last green & gold uniform came through the finish, everyone knew it was going to be a close call between the Tribe and Elon.
Coach Jones led the team away from the finish line and formed a huddle. From a distance, they saw Coach Heacock walking toward them. What news would he have? The finish had been a thriller; William & Mary won by 2 points and gained the CAA Championship title for the 23rd time.
The team had won, but it had also come together after a challenging season and put everything on the line. The CAA is the first of 3 meets that culminate with the NCAA Championships. Our joint teams have appeared 35 times at NCAA. On the way to NCAA, the combined teams have captured 65 conference titles.
The CAA XC is a championship meet that William & Mary has dominated through the years. In November of 2019, the men’s team captured their 20th title in a row, which is the second-longest active streak in the nation and represents only the 4th streak of over 20 years. This was also the 27th CAA win for the program overall. The women recaptured their title in 2018, their 23rd win, moving them into a tie for third all-time in NCAA Division I history.
Cross country runners have at best 5 years of eligibility. Coaches in both the CAA and NCAA hope that there will be some vulnerability in the top-tier programs as runners graduate. This was the case in 2001 as it was the second season without Matt Lane, one of the best distance runners of his era in the entire country, not just the collegiate ranks. Perhaps things would not work out so well for William & Mary because they were missing the top two scorers from that team due to injuries. Where were the top guys going to come from? None of the runners who showed up in Williamsburg that year would arrive with that thought. Everyone knew this was their shot to break into the top of a great team. From the first day back on campus you could see the dedication in the way everyone had approached the solitude of summer training.
Other teams knew that their hopes for some vulnerability in the Tribe were dashed when the Tribe scored 17 points at the CAA Championships. The team then snagged a 2nd place finish in the Southeast Region that year, good enough for an automatic qualifying bid from our region into the 31-team field. Just like that, the streak for the men’s 20th title at CAA was on.
Only 31 teams qualify for the NCAA cross country championship meet (compare that to 68 teams for the men’s basketball tourney). 18 cross country bids to nationals are automatic with 2 from each of the 9 regions. The 13 at-large bids are based on an exceedingly complex formula.
To advance to the national meet, William & Mary needs to place first or second in the Southeast Regional meet or advance with an at-large bid. With over 330 men’s teams and 350 women’s teams in the country, cross country remains the most selective NCAA championship.
Despite the steep odds in qualification, the men’s program has qualified for a total of 25 team appearances; and from 1997–2010 had the third-longest run of consecutive D1 NCAA Championship appearances. In fact, between 1994 and 2010, the men only missed the NCAAs once---in 1996. Walt Drenth had left for Arizona State in August of 1996 and Andy Gerard didn’t come on board at W&M until December. The highest team placing was in 1973, with a 4th place finish. More recently, the 2009 team placed 5th, the 2006 team was 8th, the 1997 team 9th (making up quickly for the missed chance in 1996), and the 2000 team was 10th.
The average place for those 25 trips the men took to the Championship meet is 15th in the nation. It is a remarkable achievement to witness when everything works and the team has broken into a top-10 ranking. William & Mary boasts 6 top top-10 rankings.
Those championship performances have outsized value when calculating the best programs of all time. Using a model that only had three inputs: the finish place in the NCAA championship meet, the number of teams competing in the meet, and the number of teams in the NCAA that year, two track writer fanatics (Rick Miller and Mark Gomes of Faster Than Forty) calculated the top college cross country teams of all time.
The format of the championship meet makes this a strong model as cross country is the only sport in which all of the top teams actually compete head-to-head in one race. They analyzed the NCAA championship results from 1961 to 2010, scoring every team via the model. The result of all this computation yielded a 13th place for W&M on the All-Time Ranking of NCAA programs.
Every one of those championship appearances had to be fought for and earned. In 2002, the men’s program lost its top 2 runners from the 2001 16th place team at NCAAs to graduation, but gained an All-American back from injury so there was some optimism early in the year. A strong start in the first few meets was met with a bad showing at the mid-year Pre-Nationals meet. The team did not get the at-large points it needed to support a bid to nationals, so the pressure was on to get an auto bid by finishing in the top 2 teams at the Southeast Region Championship.
Outside of the top 3 runners, it was a fairly young, inexperienced, and unproven team that year. The team went out and executed a very solid race at Regionals and earned an auto bid with a 2nd place finish. The night before nationals the coach leveled with the team. They were a good team and had accomplished a lot. They would do well to finish in the top 25 and if they didn’t learn the lessons from Pre-Nationals it risked something worse.
After the race and as the team cooled down as a group with a few miles around the course as they always did, they could start to hear the team finishes being read out. They heard 25th- Indiana… a tie for 23rd between Texas and NC State… 22nd - Notre Dame… 21st ..SMU…the team started to get excited. Maybe they surprised themselves and finished in the top 20! As they got into the mid-teens the excitement started to fade and eventually turned into a sense of foreboding. “We blew it,” they thought. “There's no way we finished that high” someone said. And then they heard it. “14th place…William & Mary.” They all started jumping around and eventually just piled onto each other in the middle of the course screaming in disbelief.
These are the same tears of joy that streamed down the faces of the women’s t0eam in 2018 as it captured the CAA Championship. As they hugged each other, they knew that the team had come together after a challenging season and put everything on the line.