Even as the dead heat of the summer persists, the cool, crisp fall air that is the calling card of cross country season isn’t far off. Coming off of a late-season surge that brought the Wisconsin men an eighth-place team finish at Nationals last year, the Badgers only lost two members to graduation. With one of the best runners in the country (senior Morgan McDonald), a large crop of returners and an elite recruiting class, the Badgers could be in the hunt for the national championship come November 18th in Louisville.

How the Badgers perform this fall is dependent on how well the Australian native McDonald runs this season. Limited for much of track season due to injury, McDonald hit his stride in pro races as he set the school record for the mile by clocking a 3:55.79 at the Morton Mile and demolished the undergrad school record in the 5k with a time of 13:15.83. The defending Big Ten Cross Country Champion, McDonald is the third-fastest returning runner in the NCAA behind Syracuse’s Justyn Knight and Stanford’s Grant Fisher, making him a serious contender for the national title.

There will be some changeover behind McDonald, however, as 10k stud Malachy Schrobilgen, who was 25th at NCAAs last year, and 13:57 5k runner Russell Sandvold have graduated. Senior Joe Hardy and redshirt sophomore Olin Hacker will be likely to reinforce the squad behind McDonald, as the duo finished 65th and 66th respectively at NCAAs last year. Both dipped under 14 minutes in the 5k this past track season and should challenge for All-American spots.

Other returners who will be in the hunt for spots in the top seven include last year’s holdovers redshirt sophomore Ben Eidenschink, redshirt junior Tyson Miehe and sophomore Oliver Hoare, as well as redshirt sophomore Zack Snider and redshirt senior Carl Hirsch. Eidenschink was the critical fifth runner at NCAAs as a freshman, Miehe has two years of top seven experience and Hoare ran a quick 3:43.48 in the 1500m in track. Snubbed from representing the Badgers after the Big Ten Championship, Snider responded by having a stellar track season, running a 14:00.74 5k and a 29:48.36 10k. Hirsch hasn’t competed in cross country the last two years but registered the fastest 1500m time for the Badgers this outdoor season by running 3:43.26. In cross country, a team is truly as strong as its weakest link, and how well this group of athletes performs at championship meets will most heavily dictate the team’s finish.

The Badgers could also have incoming freshmen making their presence known at the biggest meets of the year, as they grabbed the 11th and 13th best recruits in the country in Finn Gessner and Seth Hirsch. Both Midwest natives, the two finished second and third, respectively, at Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals. Hirsch also competed at Nike Cross Nationals in 2016, placing fourth. Having shown the ability to step up at the highest stages of high school cross country, Gessner and Hirsch shouldn’t be fazed by collegiate races.

With an ace in McDonald, an experienced set of athletes behind him and two premier incoming recruits, the Badger men should find themselves on the podium at Nationals when November rolls around. Wisconsin is the favorite to win the Big Ten once again, though Minnesota and Michigan State will present significant roadblocks for the Badgers. Stanford and Syracuse appear to be the class of the NCAA, but if all the pieces of the puzzle come together for the Badgers at the right time, they could make a run for the program’s first championship since 2011.

Stats courtesy of tfrrs.org and recruit rankings courtesy of flotrack.org.