As well as the Stanford men's cross country team performed last year, finishing third at the NCAA Championships, the season was characterized by confusion. That's not the case in 2016, and the Cardinal is a title contender.
"I learned as much in those four months as I have in any other season, about how important team synergy and team unity is," said Stanford's men's coach Chris Miltenberg.
Because of injuries to twin fifth-year seniors Jim and Joe Rosa, and graduate transfer Collin Leibold, Stanford's lineup never was set, and its anticipated top seven did not run together until the NCAA Championships.
"Last year, the challenge with Jim and Joe coming back from injury was this unknown looming presence that was hanging over," Miltenberg said. "When are they going to race? That made it hard for some of our younger guys to really value their contribution enough. It's like they were placeholders until Jim and Joe came around.”
This year, Miltenberg knows what he has and hopes the team will benefit by having a full season together.
"Now, we're in a clear situation with 10 healthy guys,” he said. “That clarity is probably the most valuable thing going right now. Every one of them matters. Our roles are very clearly defined and they're all excited to embrace them."
Stanford opened its season at the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational, where Miltenberg sought out a tough course and strong competition.
He got it, along with 82-degree temperatures and a good measure of humidity, the Stanford men finished fifth in the 14-team field.
Garrett Sweatt led the Cardinal with a 10th place finish, running 24:09.1 over the hilly 4.97-mile course at Panorama Farms.
"Our guys came in carrying a lot of training fatigue and hit a hard course, and the most hot and humid conditions I've ever seen for a cross country race," said Miltenberg. "We wanted to practice putting in a hard fighting effort when things were not perfect, and we certainly got that today."
Stanford's roster was thinned to the minimum five for team scoring. Its' top two runners, All-Americans Sean McGorty and Grant Fisher, were being rested, as was redshirt freshman Alex Ostberg. Two others did not finish.
Sam Wharton was Stanford's No. 2, with in 17th (24:24.9). Will Lauer, a redshirt freshman, was Stanford's No. 3, finishing 23rd in 24:40.3.
The men are ranked No. 4, and are Flotrack's choice to win the national title.
Miltenberg believes No. 4 is accurate now, but has no doubt about the men's team's potential.
"With our trajectory, we can be as good as anybody in the country at the end of November," Miltenberg said. "I rarely say things like that. I usually try dulling those expectations, but I think our guys are at a place now where it's time to embrace the expectations. We're the team that we've been talking about building for a while."
McGorty, a two-time NCAA track runner-up last year – at 3,000 meters indoors and 5,000 outdoors, both to Oregon's Edward Cheserek – may be the top American in the NCAA.
And Fisher, an Olympic Trials qualifier, the top American freshman last year, is regarded as the future of U.S. running.
They lead a veteran squad that also features 2014 cross country All-America Wharton, and potential All-Americas in Jack Keelan (13:40, 5,000) and Sweatt (28:51, 10,000). Keelan, a junior in eligibility, has the makings of a breakout star.
Two years ago, Stanford placed five in the top 40 on the way to a surprising runner-up finish. Miltenberg anticipates a similar showing will be required to win.
"I think we can do that," Miltenberg said. "That's where the bar has gotten to now. If you'd have said that 10 years ago, I think people's minds would have been blown. Five years ago, if you won the national championship and your fifth man was in the top 100, you were really good. You have to adjust your mindset now. The parity has gone way up."
Stanford has great depth, going 10 deep. And that depth should come into play at NCAA's.
"We don't have to have perfect days at NCAA's or anywhere along the way," Miltenberg said. "If we've got seven guys putting out the best effort they can, we can be a great team, because we can balance each other out too."
Miltenberg said he would like to rest Fisher or other young runners at the NCAA West Regional. With good depth, he feels he can pull that off.
The Nos. 6-10 runners are 8:46 steeplechaser Steven Fahy, national high school 5,000 champions Alex Ostberg and Will Lauer, Pac-12 1,500 finalist Patrick Perrier, and potential star Blair Hurlock. Stanford's four freshmen, rated as the nation's No. 1 class, will redshirt.
McGorty was seventh at NCAA cross country last year and followed with a 3:53.95 indoor mile and an outdoor season with multiple victories over fellow contenders Patrick Tiernan of Villanova and Justyn Knight of Syracuse.
In the NCAA 5,000, McGorty, who has a 13:24.25 best, lost to the seemingly unbeatable Cheserek by only 0.51.
Can McGorty compete for a title, even with the senior Cheserek attempting a four-for-four NCAA cross country sweep?
"He definitely can," Miltenberg said. "He's ready to run with anybody in America. The thing with crpss country, he can run better and not finish better than seventh. When you get to that level -- that top 10 in an NCAA meet -- the parity is so high and the guys are so good, that on any given day those top 10 guys can finish in any order.
"Sean doesn't need to swing for the fences to finish first or second for us to be a great team. He just needs to make sure he's in the lead pack with a mile to go and then go beat as many guys as he can. Make sure you put the ball in play. We need seven guys to do that, versus talking about Sean swinging for the individual win. That's what we'll be talking about every day, not just with him, but with all of our guys."
The Rosas were fixtures in the Stanford lineup since 2011 and the last link to the great Chris Derrick, a four-time NCAA top-10 placer from 2008-11.
Jim Rosa was a two-time NCAA top-6 finisher and Joe reached the NCAA podium twice in track. They are the only graduation losses from the NCAA top seven.
"I don't think you replace guys like Jim and Joe," Miltenberg said. "But you take the team and craft and sculpt that to be the best possible with the guys you have. I loved the team we were with them, but I really love the team that we have without them too, because this is the natural evolution of things. Guys have grown. It's their team.
"I'm sure there will be something that we don't foresee happen in the next 10 weeks, but I like the resilience of the guys we've got here. No matter what gets thrown our way, we'll be ready for it. Maybe that's what we've lacked in years past."