Cross country fans have plenty of NCAA conference action to keep an eye on this weekend, and our heads are spinning trying to keep track of it all—and how it plays into the various coaches’ plans for setting up their teams nicely for Regionals (2 weekends from now) and Nationals (another week after that}. Yet the loop battles are often terrific in their own right, and here we have highlighted the five races that we think may turn out to be the most competitive.
1. MOUNTAIN WEST WOMEN
With No. 2 Boise State women set to clash with No. 3 New Mexico, the fireworks could get fearsome at San Diego’s Balboa Park. Last year New Mexico easily won its 10th straight, 22–30, and followed up with a win at Nationals, 174 points ahead of its conference rival. At the ’17 Mountain West meet, the Lobos featured a 1-2-3 finish by Ednah Kurgat, Weini Kelati and Charlotte Prouse. All are back and running strong. Boise State is led by Allie Ostrander (4th last year), Emily Venters (9th) and much-improved Clare O’Brien (28th).
The two teams clashed at Nuttycombe, with Boise State underscoring New Mexico by 39, despite the Lobos’ going 2-3-7 to the Broncos’ 5-9. The difference was the spectacular edge that Boise State piled up with its Nos. 4 & 5 runners. Expect an edge like that to be not as decisive in a smaller Conference race, so this year’s Mountain West could be very close indeed. Omen in Boise State’s favor: head coach Corey Ihmels won the Foot Locker title on the same course in ‘91 (OK, then it was the Kinney Nationals). New Mexico, though, got the nod from the conference’s coaches as the pre-meet favorite, with 7 votes for 1st.
2. PAC-12 MEN
With 3 top 10 teams—and 3 others that are nationally ranked—the Pac-12 scores heavily on top-end quality and if you’re in the area, a trip to Stanford Golf Course will be worth making. No. 4 Stanford won last year, and is again led by defending champion Grant Fisher, while returning its 6 other scorers. Says Fisher, “The best thing I could do for the team is run at the front and try to get as low a stick as I can.”
Colorado was runner-up last year by a mere 6 points, after 6 straight victories. The Buffs’ Joe Klecker, a close 2nd last year, is in fine form, finishing 5th at Pre-Nats. Coach Mark Wetmore knows that a win will be hard to come by: “There may be years when a team can afford to take it less seriously than, say, the NCAA—but this is not one of them for anybody.” Washington, at No. 7 nationally, features Tibebu Proctor, Tanner Anderson and Talon Hull up front. Oregon (No. 11) and UCLA (No. 12) will also apply some pressure to the team standings.
3. BIG 10 WOMEN
Running at Nebraska’s Mahoney Golf Course, the No. 7 Michigan team will be gunning for its third straight win. Of the contenders, Mike McGuire’s squad is the only one to have previewed the course earlier in the season. The competition, though, is as deeper as ever. This is the first time since ’06 that the conference has 5 teams ranked in the top 15 nationally. The Wolverines will have to get past Indiana (10), Wisconsin (11), Penn State (13), Michigan State (14), in addition to No. 21 Minnesota.
Michigan’s Avery Evenson and Hannah Meier should be near the front. Individually, one to watch is Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson, who scored a huge breakthrough in winning Nuttycombe. Northwestern’s Aubrey Roberts will be in the mix, and the fate of Minnesota may rest on the Hasz twins, Bethany and Megan.
4. PAC-12 WOMEN
Colorado, with 5 victories in the last 8 years, is again favored. Ranked No. 1 nationally, the Buffs have to get past a pair of top 10 teams in Oregon (No. 4) and Stanford (6). What Colorado has going for it is depth. Says Wetmore, “If we have a special strength this year, it’s that someone in the front five for us could stumble and there will be somebody coming soon after—or 2 or 3. Depth is not an issue.”
The individual race should be compelling, with Colorado’s Dani Jones facing Oregon’s Pre-Nats winner Jessica Hull, Stanford’s Elise Cranny and Fiona O’Keeffe, and Washington’s Katie Rainsberger. Another one of the Huskies, NCAA 1500 champion Lilli Burdon, will be racing for the first time this year.
5. ACC WOMEN
With 5 nationally-ranked teams, the ACC women’s race in Boston’s Franklin Park will be one to watch. Two-time defending champion NC State is favored. The No. 12-ranked Wolfpack faces off against Notre Dame (18), Georgia Tech (22), Syracuse (25) and Florida State (29). Last year NC State tallied 43 points for a winning margin of 66.
Individually, the Wolfpack is led by Elly Henes, while the Irish can count on Jackie Gaughan and Anna Rohrer. The strongest runner overall may be Dorcas Wasike of unranked Louisville, who was runner-up in the NCAA 10,000 on the track, and 3rd at Pre-Nats.
Obviously, the conference calendar, with some 31 championship meets this weekend, will produce plenty of other highlights. Other meets featuring multiple ranked teams on the men’s side: ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big Sky, Mountain West, SEC. On the women’s side, look to the Big Sky, Ivy and SEC conferences.
And then there’s the West Coast Conference, with ranked powerhouses BYU (2) and Portland (5)—plus their women counterparts ranked No. 9 and 19 respectively. Last year the BYU men came loaded for bear, scoring 15 points on the men’s side, while the Portland men held out top runners. That got folks on the message boards talking. At Nationals 3 weeks later, it was Rob Conner’s Portland squad that took runner-up honors behind Northern Arizona, with BYU finishing 3rd.