6A Boys Preseason Preview: Caden Leonard

With many preseason training camps either already started or set to begin this week, now is the right time to finally start talking about cross-country again. The 2023 season saw the continuation of Southlake Carroll's dominance as the Dragons once again ran away with the team title while Caden Leonard picked up the individual title as well.

The 2024 season presents an interesting scenario as for the first time in a while we see the majority of the top contenders returning. The top six finishers from last year's meet and eight of the top ten will all return this season, setting us up for one of the most exciting title battles we've seen in recent memory.

While there's no doubt that there are more formidable contenders than ever, it'd be wrong not to put the returning state champion at the top of the pile to begin the year. Caden Leonard's 2023 season was nothing short of incredible as he took the Texas scene by storm and never looked back. He won over half of his races including the UIL State Championship and ran under the 15:00 mark on multiple occasions to solidify himself as the state's top runner.

Here Is What Caden Leonard Brings To The Table

He also placed third at the NXR South Regional Championships which qualified him for Nike Cross Nationals where he'd finished just outside the top 20 in 21st. He finished the season with a personal best of 14:55.80 and showcased his excellent ability to perform at the highest level which is why putting him at the top to start the year is a no-brainer.

However, an ability to perform on the grass is equally as important as the ability to perform on the track and Leonard's track season was equally if not more impressive than his cross-country campaign. When looking back at his results from the spring it's easy to see that being fit for the state and national meets was the main priority. He only raced three times outdoors and twice indoors before the championship season rolled around so we knew we'd see his peak fitness towards the end of May.

Leonard opened up the month with a blazing fast 8:51.57 3200m at the UIL State Championships which saw him narrowly outleaned by Bridgeland's Benjamin Montgomery for the state title. Despite narrowly missing out in the 3200m, he'd walk away with a state title over 1600m later that evening where he ran a comparatively easy 4:09.39 when contrasted with the performances that followed.

Like most of the nation's top runners, Leonard's season didn't end at the state meet and his best work was yet to come. He opened up his postseason campaign with a blazing-fast 4:04.02 full mile at the RunningLane Track Championships in Huntsville where he placed third. He then followed that with another 4:04 performance at the HOKA Festival of Miles which saw him place ninth amongst the best runners in the country as only a sophomore.

Further Justification On Leonard's Top Preseason Ranking

It's hard to argue that Leonard doesn't have the perfect set of circumstances heading into the fall. He's the returning state champion, he's already run under 15:00 multiple times, he won a state championship on the track, and he's coming off a track season where he ran 4:04.02 and 8:51.57. All of these factors give him all the momentum in the world and being in the Southlake Carroll program provides yet another source of motivation and stability.

Given the success he found later in the season this spring, It wouldn't surprise me if were to only see very little of Leonard until roughly late September or the beginning of October. The training schedule of a team like Southlake Carroll is already inherently different from most other teams as the state meet isn't the peak of their season.

However, with the performances that Leonard has been able to produce so far, it stands to reason that he'll likely be scheduled to peak for a meet like NXN where he can potentially contend for a national title. Holding him from a fair amount of early-season racing worked wonders for the back half of his track season in the spring so we should expect the same in the fall if his goal is to contend on a national scale.

It'll be interesting to see how much volume Southlake Carroll wants to get out of Leonard's training depending on how fast they want him to run and when they want him to compete. His spring schedule heavily emphasized the 1600m, which stands to reason that running fast was more of a priority than stacking miles. However, coming into the fall with greatly improved speed means that they'll likely want to get more volume out of him to really round out his skillset and prepare him for the long season ahead.

Another interesting factor when discussing Leonard's potential training is his comfort with sustained speed over shorter distances and how that plays into his preparation for a slew of fast races this fall. Speed work isn't a priority over a long cross-country season, but when you have a guy that's this fast it opens up opportunities in terms of how you want that athlete to train and run his races from a strategic point of view.

All of these training-related factors boil down to one thing which is how fast Leonard can run this season if given the opportunity. He comes into the fall with a 14:55.80 personal best but with his 3200m PR down to the low 8:50s and his 1600m PR down to 4:04, we should expect to see him with a lot more pace in his pocket. Based on his striking progression last fall and the further leaps he made in the spring, I think we could see him dip into the 14:30s in the right race.

This season will surely be full of nothing but races against the state and nation's best, but if there's anyone whose shown an ability to handle it well it's Leonard. He'll have no shortage of challengers for the state title but if I had to back him to repeat based on how he's looked over the last six months I'd do it.

Is Caden Leonard A National Level Talent?

As for his ambitions on the national level, the likelihood of him being the state's first national champion in a while isn't as high, but he's surely got the ability to do it. When removing graduating seniors from last year's NXN results Leonard would currently be seventh and only about ten seconds off the win. While ten seconds may seem like a fairly sizable gap, that's nothing to a guy who shaved eight seconds off his 1600m PR in about a month.

Outside of the data-driven analysis, there's something to be said for the championship experience Leonard has accumulated over the last two years. Leonard has run in a combined twelve state and national meets so far and that amount of championship experience is invaluable. On top of that, in these races, he's proven to be incredibly well-rounded from 1600m to 5000m and he's proven he can win a tactical race with his kick and that he can take a race from the front and control it.

In the end, while the battle for the state crown is sure to be a tight one given the amount of returning talent, you'd be a fool not to bet on the returning state champion. Caden Leonard has given us plenty of evidence as to why he's the state's best runner on the grass and one of the best on the track. He's continually improved at such a rapid rate which is all the more impressive when you understand just how high of a level he's competing at every month.

In terms of his ambitions on a national scale, watch how Caden Leonard's season unfolds because if his current progression continues, Texas could have a national champion on its hands come December.