NCAA Nationals: Who Gets In?
Understanding the selection process for cross country’s premier event
By John A. Kissane
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
On Nov. 17, a total of 255 men and 255 women will compete in the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships at E. P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky. The breakdown goes like this: 31 seven-person teams (217 athletes) plus 38 individuals who are not members of any of those 31 teams.
So which teams make up that field? The easiest to understand is the automatic qualifying. The week before nationals, on Nov. 9, nine regional meets — the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Mountain, Northeast, South, South Central, Southeast and West — are held around the country. Each region automatically advances the top two teams (seven runners apiece), as well as the top four individual finishers not on qualifying teams. If you’re doing the math, you’ll see that 162 runners automatically make it to nationals based on the results of the regionals.
That’s the easy part, because there’s no analysis or decision-making involved. But filling out the fields with 13 more teams and two additional individuals is where things get dicey. This task falls to members of the NCAA Division I Track and Field Subcommittee, who will announce their selections the Sunday following regionals (i.e., Nov. 11) after they've analyzed regular season, conference and regional results and applied selection criteria to determine the at-large qualifiers.
“It’s a really fair system, without any backroom politicking,” says Dartmouth men’s coach Barry Harwick, who also serves as President of the NCAA Division I Cross Country Executive Committee. “We’ll run our meet on Friday and the guys will be getting results from the other regions on the trip home, and by the time we get back we’ll pretty much know who the 13 at-large qualifiers are, before they’re announced. That shows the transparency of the system.”
The selection process is somewhat complicated, but here is a brief overview of how it works:
• The subcommittee begins its work by placing the third- and fourth-place teams from each of the nine regions onto a board. Then they review the season performances of those 18 teams, to determine “wins” they might have against the 18 automatic qualifiers during a maximum of seven competition opportunities. The first at-large berth is awarded to the team with the highest win total. The subcommittee is required to review no fewer than 18 teams at all times during the selection process, so with the selection of each at-large team, the subcommittee immediately moves the next team from that same region (based on regional finish place) onto the board of 18 teams and again evaluates all 18 together. Each time an at-large selection is made, remaining teams having beaten the newly selected team are awarded a “win” to add to their point totals.
• Teams must be considered for at-large berths in the order of their regional finish, and a fourth-place team may not be selected for an at-large berth ahead of a third-place team from the same region. Lower-finishing teams may be selected ahead of higher-finishing teams from different regions. (For instance, a team finishing fourth in the West region can get in ahead of a team finishing third in the Great Lakes region.)
But what happens if the fourth-place team from one region (say, team X) has more wins than the third-place team from the same region (team Y)? That’s where the so-called “push process” comes in. The subcommittee is obligated to extend at-large bids to both teams X and Y, so in effect team Y “pushes” team X into the national championship meet. Also, points (wins) will not be awarded to teams having defeated any team advancing into the championships by virtue of the push process.
If any two teams under consideration tied for total wins, the committee will look at head-to-head results. If head-to-head wins and losses are equal (e.g., each of the two teams has a record of 2-2 against the other), the committee may give greater consideration to the most recent competition. Furthermore, wins can only be accumulated against an opponent’s “A” team, which is considered to consist of four or more individuals who competed at the regional meet.
Regular-season scheduling — and a team’s travel budget — can help a team that’s on the qualifying bubble. “Teams with the ability to travel outside their regions have some advantage, in that they’re able to compete against more of the highly ranked teams to get wins,” Harwick says. “So teams without the financial wherewithal to travel are stuck if they finish outside the top two at regionals.”
In addition to selecting 13 at-large teams, the subcommittee will also select two at-large individuals. These will be the two highest-finishing nonautomatic qualifiers from the nine regional meets. For instance, in 2011, Lauren Sara of Connecticut, who finished sixth at the Northeast regional, and Duke’s Madeline Morgan, sixth at the Southeast regional, received the women’s at-large individual bids.
Here are the top four ranked teams in each regional, as of Nov. 5:
Men Women Great Lakes Great Lakes 1. Wisconsin (6) 1. Michigan (6) 2. Michigan (12) 2. Michigan State (11) 3. Indiana (20) 3. Toledo (18) 4. Notre Dame (28) 4. Notre Dame (23) Mid-Atlantic Mid-Atlantic 1. Princeton (13) 1. Georgetown (9) 2. Georgetown (24) 2. Penn State (15) 3. Villanova (NR) 3. Villanova (25) 4. Penn State (NR) 4. West Virginia (NR) Midwest Midwest 1. Oklahoma State (1) 1. Iowa State (2) 2. Oklahoma (8) 2. Oklahhoma State (21) 3. Tulsa (19) 3. Minnesota (28) 4. Illinois (NR) 4. Tulsa (NR) Mountain Mountain 1. Colorado (2) 1. Weber State (13) 2. BYU (7) 2. New Mexico (17) 3. New Mexico (16) 3. Colorado (24) 4. Northern Arizona (18) 4. Colorado State (NR) Northeast Northeast 1. Iona (4) 1. Cornell (8) 2. Syracuse (14) 2. Connecticut (16) 3. Columbia (22) 3. Providence (20) 4. Providence (NR) 4. Boston College (27) South South 1. Florida State (23) 1. Florida State (1) 2. Georgia (26) 2. Florida (14) 3. Florida (NR) 3. Vanderbilt (NR) 4. E. Tennessee State (NR) 4. Mississippi (NR) South Central South Central 1. Texas (5) 1. Arkansas (12) 2. Arkansas (10) 2. Texas (22) 3. Texas A&M (29) 3. SMU (NR) 4. McNeese State (NR) 4. LSU (NR) Southeast Southeast 1. Eastern Kentucky (15) 1. Duke (10) 2. Virginia Tech (17) 2. William & Mary (19) 3. Virginia (21) 3. NC State (30) 4. NC State (NR) 4. Kentucky (NR) West West 1. Stanford (3) 1. Oregon (3) 2. Portland (9) 2. Ariziona (4) 3. Oregon (11) 3. Stanford (5) 4. Arizona State (25) 4. Washington (7)