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Stanford cross country opens 2019 season under new leadership

Coming off a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, Stanford men's and women's cross country opens the 2019 season on Saturday with the John McNichols Invitational in Terre Haute, Indiana. It will be the first competition under newly-appointed head coach J.J. Clark. (JOHN TODD/isiphotos.com)

The Stanford cross country program turns the page to a new era this fall, as former head coach Chris Miltenberg and nearly his entire coaching staff have relocated to the University of North Carolina. The 2019 season begins Saturday with the John McNichols Invitational in Terre Haute, Indiana, marking the first competition under recently-appointed head coach J.J. Clark.

After seven years at the helm of Cardinal cross country, Miltenberg leaves behind a program with unprecedented growth and consistency, tasking a relatively young, yet talented team with maintaining Stanford’s status as a formidable force in the collegiate distance scene. 

In late July, Clark, a former coach at the University of Tennessee and University of Connecticut (UConn), was tapped as Miltenberg’s replacement. Before coming to the Farm, he spent five years as the head coach of the UConn women’s cross country and track and field programs. Before then, he coached at Tennessee from 2001 to 2014, leading the Lady Vols to indoor national team titles in 2005 and 2009.

Clark steps into the position after a particularly memorable and successful year for the Cardinal distance crew. Stanford was deemed the No. 1 men’s cross country and track and field program of the year for the first time in program history. The award is given to the program with the highest cumulative finish at the NCAA Championships in the cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field seasons. 

At last year’s cross country national championships, the Cardinal men and women both finished fifth, making Stanford just one of two schools to place both teams in the top five. Under snow conditions at the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course in Madison, Wisconsin, graduating senior Grant Fisher ’19 matched the program’s highest individual finish with a runner-up performance to Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald. While no Stanford runner has ever won the individual title, Fisher was the closest Cardinal to accomplishing the feat since Chris Derrick ’12 finished runner-up in 2011.

Just days after graduating in June, the 12-time All-American signed with the Nike Bowerman Track Club, capping a senior year that saw him finish runner-up in four national championship appearances and rewrite the American collegiate 3k record at the Millrose Games. Fisher’s absence will certainly be felt this year, but the team will be in the hands of several reliable veterans, including sixth-year Steven Fahy and rising senior Alex Ostberg. 

Fahy, the reigning Pac-12 and NCAA steeplechase champion, returns to the Farm for his final season after petitioning for a sixth year of eligibility after injuries kept him off the cross country course last fall. Despite the adversity, his title-winning successes in the outdoor track and field season show promise of a strong season to come this fall.

Ostberg was a team captain last year and has built a resumé that includes a sub-four minute mile and a 13th-place finish at the cross country championships. He had a breakthrough track season and was a recognizable force last fall, running consistently as Stanford’s No. 2 runner.

Fellow All-American Alek Parsons, a sub-13:50 5k runner, will be another potent weapon in Stanford’s armory. The rising senior stepped up as Stanford’s No. 3 runner, earning his first All-America honor after finishing 30th at nationals. While any team would be fortunate to have just one or two athletes with the qualities of Fahy, Ostberg or Parsons, Stanford can pride itself on its depth and strength, characteristics most teams strive for in championship racing.

Stanford’s arsenal also includes the reigning third-place finisher in the outdoor 5k, Thomas Ratcliffe. He has the looks to be a primary contributor this fall, along with rising junior DJ Principe, the team’s No. 4 finisher at nationals last year. Principe finished 24th at the Pac-12 Championships, helping Stanford earn it’s second-straight conference title. Classmate Connor Lane is another runner to watch out for. 

Despite missing the cross country season last year, Lane crushed his lifetime best in the 5k by 17 seconds at the Payton Jordan Invitational in May. He clocked 13:42, alongside Ostberg, who also broke his personal best by the same margin in that race. Suffice it to say, Stanford has one of the deepest teams in the nation, not to mention the No. 2 recruiting class, according to The Stride Report.

The Cardinal recruited Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) Champion and course record-holder Liam Anderson from Redwood High School (CA). The 8:51 two-miler was named the Gatorade National High School Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, following in the footsteps of Cardinal greats, Fisher (2014-15) and Derrick (2008) as Stanford-bound winners. If he doesn’t redshirt his first season, Anderson could prove to be a dangerous addition to the lineup for many opponents. 

The recruiting class also includes two other national stars in Devin Hart from Pleasant Borough High School (NJ) and Ryan Oosting from Arlington High School (MA). Hart claimed the New Balance indoor two-mile national title to runner-up Oosting, who won the 2017 New Balance outdoor national title in the 5k. The three national champions will be joined by Millrose Games high school mile winner Matt Rizzo, and Charles Hicks, a ninth-place finisher at NXN.

With a mix of young talent and veteran experience, Stanford men’s cross country will be an exciting team to watch as it seeks its third-straight Pac-12 title and sixth-straight top-five finish at the national championships. 

On the women’s side, fifth-year senior Elise Cranny ’18 led the Cardinal to a fifth-place finish at the national championships last year. She placed 11th individually, marking her highest showing at the championships. With it being her final race in a Cardinal uniform, the Human Biology major from the small town of Niwot, Colorado etched her name into the school record books after earning her 12th All-America honor, the fourth-most in Stanford history. The three Cardinal women ahead of her — Lauren Fleshman (15, 1999-2003), Erica McLain (13, 2005-08) and Arianna Lambie (13, 2003-08) —  are all in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame.

A few months after completing the cross country season — and with it her collegiate career — Cranny signed with the Nike Bowerman Track Club, joining former teammate Vanessa Fraser and leaving the Stanford women’s distance program in the hands of rising senior Fiona O’Keeffe. The California native was a persistent front-runner throughout the 2018 season, often pacing with Cranny in the lead pack. In front of a home crowd at the Pac-12 Championships last year, Cranny and O’Keeffe split the duty up front before finishing third and fifth, respectively. The two front runners propelled Stanford to a third-place conference finish.

With Cranny’s absence, the Cardinal women will rely heavily upon O’Keeffe’s veteran experience, as well as that of rising senior Christina Aragon, who was a key contributor as the No. 4 runner her sophomore season before missing last year to injuries. O’Keeffe and a healthy Aragon could prove to be an invaluable 1-2 Cardinal punch for the relatively young women’s team. 

The lineup also consists of the “J” crew — rising juniors Jess Lawson, Julia Heymach and Jordan Oakes. Lawson comes off a sophomore campaign that saw her establish herself as one of the program’s most vital runners. She was a consistent No. 3 runner for the Cardinal in fall, finishing 44th at nationals, just four places away from her first All-America honors. In the outdoor track season, she and rising senior Ella Donaghu made their first appearance at the outdoor championships, finishing 10th and sixth, respectively, in the 1,500-meter final. 

Both earned the much-deserved All-America honor and return as integral members of the team this season. With the exception of Cranny, all of the Stanford women in last year’s championship race return this fall, as the team seeks a top-five NCAA finish for the fourth-consecutive year.

Fortunately for the women, Stanford has the sixth-best recruiting class in the nation, according to The Stride Report. The new additions include Abi Archer, the 10th-place finisher at NXN; Grace Connolly, a two-time Massachusetts Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year; and Kristina Fahy, the 25-place finisher at Footlocker XC Championships and sister of sixth-year Steven Fahy. 

While questions or doubts may loom as to the success of the post-Miltenberg era of Stanford cross country, the overwhelming talent and leadership on both teams indicates this year will be nothing less than exciting. Clark and his arsenal of elite caliber talent will be a site to watch this year as the program seeks to find its new identity while maintaining its history of excellence.

Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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