5 Collegiate Conference XC Races To Watch

Nuttycombe winner Alicia Monson of Wisconsin is favored in the Big 10 clash. (MIKE SCOTT)

AND NOW the collegiate cross country season starts to get real, with virtually all of the Div. I Conference championships on the line this weekend. Good races won’t be hard to find, but while some of the powerhouses don’t have to go to the well to win their Conference (the No. 1 Arkansas women in the SEC, for instance), others are going to have to dig deep. Those are the races we will be watching closely this weekend, as they’ll offer us the most tea leaves to forecast how Regionals (November 15) and Nationals (November 23) will play out.

1. Big 10 Women: How To Separate The Big 3?

The latest women’s poll has the Big 10’s top three squads tangled at 7-8-9 nationally. Indeed, Wisconsin (7), Michigan (8) and Michigan State (9) are nearly inseparable on paper. They’ll be battling Sunday morning on the Ohio State golf course, a surface that could be a bit soft after Thursday/Friday rain. Some are calling it the deepest field in loop history, with 8 teams ranked in the national top 25. Mike McGuire’s Wolverines will be going for four straight, led by prize frosh Ericka VanderLende. It will be their first clash of the season against rivals Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Badgers have the individual favorite in defending champion Alicia Monson, winner of this year’s big Nuttycombe race, while the Spartans, runners-up last year, are all about depth.

2. Pac-12 Men: Stanford vs. Colorado, A Battle Of No. 3s

Two-time defending champion Stanford and challenger Colorado are tied for No. 3 in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll. Buff head Mark Wetmore is downplaying his changes for Friday’s race in Monmouth, Oregon, saying, “After some number-crunching… it seems to me that Stanford is a little better than our men. But we all have to handle the conditions. We all have to handle a course we’ve never been on before. We all have to be ready on that day. I know they are close enough and within reach that we could win if we do things well.” Stanford may have lost Grant Fisher, but has three returnees who have been in the top 10 before: Steven Fahy, Alex Ostberg and Thomas Ratcliffe. Two other loop teams are in the national top 10: Washington (7) and UCLA (10).

3. WCC Men: Can Portland Challenge BYU?

No. 2 BYU will be facing off against No. 12 Portland in a Friday race in Van Nuys, California, that could be most interesting in terms of strategy. Last year BYU won with a jaw-dropping 21 points, while runner-up Portland held out some of its top talent and focused instead on winning the West Regional. The Cougars are still loaded after a track season that saw them put 6 men in the NCAA 10,000 final, even if only 2 are back this fall, and beating Colorado at the Pre-Nationals. Says BYU head Ed Eyestone, “We know that Portland has a very good team, so we need an elevated performance from this men this weekend. I like Connor Mantz’s chances up front.” The question is, will Portland show up to play?

4. Pac-12 Women: 3 Of The Nation’s Top 5 Teams

With No. 2 Stanford facing off against Washington (3) and Colorado (5), this Friday race will drop a lot of hints about how Nationals might look in 4 weeks. Not since ’10 have the Cardinal captured the title, though, and this will be an important test of the new coaching staff, J.J. Clark and assistant Ricardo Santos. Maurica Powell’s Husky women, fresh off a big win at Pre-Nationals, are led by frosh Mel Smart and senior Katie Rainsberger and carry a solid scoring punch in Lilli Burdon, Shona McCulloch and Allie Schadler, who ran the Terre Haute race together. For Colorado, it’s the first time since joining the Pac-12 that the Buffs haven’t been defending champions. It will still be an uphill climb. Says Wetmore, “Washington beat us 2 weeks ago without running their top runner. We are facing a very good Stanford team that ran well at Madison. We will need to be fitter than we were 2 weeks ago, tactically better than we were 2 weeks ago and luckier than we were 2 weeks ago.” It is likely we’ll see a new champion this year, as the defending team from Oregon is only ranked No. 20 coming in.

5. Mountain West Women: How Strong Is New Mexico?

It’s not so much that we’ll see a riveting team race like last year’s when New Mexico scored 33 and that just barely held off Boise State’s 35… though we might. Friday’s race at Utah State will bring together the Lobos, currently ranked =11, while Boise State is a tick behind at 13. Throw in Air Force (14) and we should have an intriguing race. What’s just as compelling is the chance to see where New Mexico’s low sticks are and gauge their potential impact on the individual race at Nationals. Last year, Weini Kelati won the Conference with Ednah Kurgat 2nd. That translated well to Nationals, where Kelati was runner-up to Colorado’s now-graduated Dani Jones, and Kurgat ran 5th. At Nuttycombe a few weeks ago, Kelati placed 2nd to Wisconsin’s Monson, while Kurgat was far back in 18th in what might just have been a bad day. This weekend will help us sort that out.

Here’s the link to all the links for the Conference races.