For decades, Ole Miss’ distance running program sat in bottom-feeding purgatory. The early aughts were particularly dreary for the Rebel cross country outfits, with multiple and consecutive last-place finishes at the SEC championship meet.
That all changed on Friday, when the Ole Miss cross country men grabbed the program’s first ever SEC championship. That’s right: the distance men have finally brought home the conference hardware after years of kicking around the conference basement.
Just look at how jacked up these skinny boys are.
That there is Ole Miss ace Waleed Suliman and fellow sophomore Ben Savino LOSING BOTH THEIR MINDS at the announcement that the Runnin’ Rebs had nabbed the narrow upset over perennial powerhouse Arkansas, 36-44. That’s a very slim margin of victory in this very peculiar sport.
Wait, you said that this was a narrow upset? Over... Arkansas?
Yes, we said that.
NCAA cross country is one of the most interesting scoring sports in the world. Seven runners line up per team, and the full field of 98 runners goes at the gun. Each team’s top five runners score and the total score is calculated from the sum of each of the scoring runners’ placement in the overall finishing order. Ole Miss’ top five finished 4-6-7-8-11 for a grand total of 36 points. Since lowest score wins, the Rebs beat out Arkansas’ five finishers, who ended the day 1-3-9-14-17 for a total 44 points.
Here’s the full field finish sheet (LSU what you doing, fam?).
Arkansas’ distance program boasts historically the most Olympic distance runners in the conference. The Hogs are dominant year after year, because they recruit well internationally and at home, and training in the Ozarks affords hilly enough terrain to put a lot of shit into your legs during any given workout. Oxford has some hills and Thacker Mountain and ... that’s about it for elevation changes.
Even more notable here is that Ole Miss’ cumulative finishing time of 1:55:33 is 15 seconds slower than Arkansas’ collective finishing total. This is an eight-kilometer race — which checks in at just a hair under five miles — and so each of Ole Miss’ seven runners averaged just north of 23 minutes over the Auburn course. That’s an outstanding group effort, especially considering sophomore Michael Coccia came un-paced after losing his damn shoe.
So how’d they pull off the upset?
Ole Miss won this race with depth and strategy.
Not until recently have XC statisticians begun measuring a team’s scoring spread, which clocks the time that lapses between the group’s first scorer and last. So for instance, back at the SEC Preview meet in September, Ole Miss’ finishing spread was 31.9 seconds. That means that the Rebs’ first and fifth scorers crossed the finish line 31.9 seconds apart from one another. That’s a very good finishing spread.
On Friday at the conference meet, the Rebs’ finishing spread was 14.5 seconds. The middle three scorers — the heart of the lineup, in baseball terms — finished with effectively the same exact race time, crossing the line in order, 6-7-8. That’s where this thing was won.
You said strategy. Isn’t the strategy in XC to run the fastest and finish first?
Yes, but cross country is a team sport that often calls upon a team’s second and third best guys to do a bit of rabbit work for runners four and five. Because the team with the lowest score wins, and because score is based on collective team finishing marks, passing opposing runners or holding teams back by way of “bunching” drives a team’s collective score down two- and threefold at a time. Arkansas’ fourth and fifth guys finishing up in the teens did the Hogs no favors, especially with Ole Miss’ top five platoon essentially running the first 7,500 meters of this race as a single unit.
This Ole Miss finish sheet is a cross country coach’s absolute dream. The guys paced well, clumped together, worked as a team, and willed one another over the Auburn golf course to notch five scorers in the top 11 finishers. Just an utterly magisterial performance, and well earned.
Did you say Auburn’s golf course?
Yes. College cross country races are run on host programs’ golf courses. Auburn’s touches up- and downhill here and there, but on the whole it’s a fast finish. Especially when it’s overcast and balmy — perfect racing conditions — just as it was on Friday.