Each year the HOKA McNeil Invitational draws some of the top teams from around the state of Texas to Round Rock. A midseason showdown like no other, McNeil provides teams with their first look at the course for the state meet.
McNeil also serves as a great measure of fitness at this point in the year, as the course presents challenges in a way that tests true fitness like few others can.
As in years previous, the entries for this year's meet are sizable and stacked with talent as many top boys and girls teams plan to make the trip. McNeil is always a meet with plenty of excitement, and this year's entries point towards the return of that excitement. So, let's take a look at some predictions for the HOKA McNeil Invitational.
1. Six Boys Teams Have A Chance To Win
We rarely have the privilege of seeing such stacked fields outside of the state meet at this point in the season, however the boys division at this year's meet is nothing short of incredible. In the 6A division, we see CCCAT #2 Austin Vandegrift, #4 McKinney Boyd, #6 Coppell, and #10 Waxahachie with teams like Bridgeland and Round Rock also making up the most impressive field to date.
Based on statistics, Vandegrift looks to be the slight favorite heading into this weekend however teams like Round Rock and Coppell sit right behind them in terms of average times. It could be argued that teams like Bridgeland haven't gotten a fair chance to showcase their true abilities yet given the courses they've run and the competition they've faced so they remain a team to watch closely this weekend.
As for teams like McKinney Boyd and Waxahachie, this weekend serves as a phenomenal opportunity to continue their hot starts to the year. There's no doubt this race will be tight and that its results will tell us a lot about who is for real and who isn't.
2. The Top Five Boys Are Separated By Ten Seconds Or Less
Much like the team battle, the battle for the individual win will be tight with plenty of contenders. This year's field boasts some of the top runners in the state, including Abilene junior Andruw Villa who currently holds the second-fastest time in the state with a 14:58 run at the Lovejoy XC Fall Festival. However, Villa isn't the only one bringing top times to McNeil as a whopping seventeen boys have run under 15:35 this year.
Other notable boys at the front of this field include Lewisville Marcus junior Parker Noffz who holds a personal best of 15:15, Southlake #1 XC Invite winner Max Miller, Texas A&M Invitational Winner and 9:00 3200m runner Benjamin Montgomery, along with many more great competitors.
This race will likely start very fast and be decided by who has enough poise and pace over the back half of the course to assert themselves and make a definitive move. This race will come down to the wire, and anyone at the front of the field has the potential to win it.
3. The Race Will Be Won Based On The Fifth Runner
When going into as big of a meet as McNeil, it's easy to sometimes get lost in the big names headlining the entries and forget where the race is won. The bottom line of any cross-country race is that you need a fifth runner across the line to win no matter the size of the meet.
With the volume of top teams in attendance this Saturday, the performance of each team's depth in the midfield will undoubtedly have the biggest impact on the outcome of the team battle as at such a big meet, ten runners could be separated by about two seconds or less.
Of the teams mentioned above, Round Rock currently has the smallest split with a tight group only 41.4 seconds apart. However, they're followed closely behind by Waxahachie who are only 1.2 seconds behind, Coppell who retain a split of just over 50 seconds, and Bridgeland who hold a split around 54 seconds. These tight splits make the performance of key depth pieces all the more important and if one of these pieces can have a big day, it could change the entire dynamic of their team's race.
4. Final Team Predictions
This year's team battle will undoubtedly be close as the level of talent within the top teams is high and will make for an incredibly deep field where every move matters. Given these factors, Vandegrift will come out victorious on Saturday.
In terms of the team race, Vandegrift come in ranked the highest, and based on their performances at both the Southlake #1 XC Invite and the 42nd Annual Woodbridge Cross Country Classic, it's very difficult to see anyone beating them. The duo of Hudson Haley and Dylan Schieffelin have been at or near the front of every race so far this year and they'll remain an extremely difficult team to challenge because of that.
As for second place, Round Rock will battle with Bridgeland however based on their strong showing last weekend at Lovejoy, Round Rock will come out ahead. They took a big step forward last weekend and kept it close with some of the top teams in the state and they'll use this momentum to hold on for second.
Bridgeland will secure the final spot on the podium thanks to a strong performance from Benjamin Montgomery up front and the continued improvement of their young depth. They've run tough courses to start the year however that'll pay off and Bridgeland will find themselves securing the final spot on the podium.
5. Final Individual Predictions
Similar to the team battle, the race for the individual title will be extremely close due to the level of talent and will likely come down to whoever has the most left over the back half of the race. Given this key factor, Andruw Villa will come out victorious.
Villa finished second at the competitive Loveyjoy XC Fall Festival largely thanks to his ability to maintain his composure and finish strong over the final mile. Success at Old Settlers Park is heavily dependent on this quality and for that reason, Villa will come out victorious over a close field due to a strong finish.
In second place, Benjamin Montgomery will continue his string of impressive performances to start the year and push Villa to the end. Montgomery is undefeated to start the year and has shown an impressive level of maturity and focus in the way he's been able to win both of these races and that will help him again this Saturday.
As for third place, Hudson Haley will bring home the team victory for Vandegrift with another strong performance to add to his already impressive season. Haley has consistently been at the front of every race so far this year and he'll continue this trend and help his team earn a hard-fought victory.