WITH SOME OF the top NCAA women’s programs having to rebuild after significant roster losses, sorting out who the favorites are is harder than ever. The nod will tend to go to programs that have done the best job in recruiting, but cross country is not a plug-and-play sport. Will the new recruits adapt well to the new training routine? Will the coach and captains be able to recreate a winning team culture? And in the heat of battle, which of those new recruits with shiny PRs will be ready to take a big step up onto the next level?
A number of phenomenal programs are gearing up for a heck of a fight in Madison, Wisconsin, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, November 17. As with most sporting events, the informed fan gets much more out of the experience. With that said, here are our thoughts on the women’s teams seriously looking to win the Div. I title (and here’s a link to last year’s complete results):
1. New Mexico
Last year’s runners-up return 5 of last year’s top 7. Two of them, junior Weini Kelati and senior Ednah Kurgat, were in the top 5 finishers and rate 1 & 3 in our forecast for this year. Junior Adva Cohen (43) had a great spring, placing 4th in the NCAA steeple. But a trip to Doha to run the Worlds for Israel may complicate her fall. Senior Hannah Nuttall (71) missed outdoors after running 9:07.64 for 3000. Coach Joe Franklin has brought in Australia’s Amelia Mazza-Downie, who has run 15:59.03 and placed 6th in the World Junior 3000. Ireland’s Abigail Taylor and Canada’s Gracelyn Larkin could also contribute, along with British steepler Elise Thorner. Plus Olivia O’Keeffe, who ran 10:14.84 in the 2M as a prep, has transferred from Washington.
The Buffs have a long history of being ready for The Big Dance. But coach Mark Wetmore is soft-pedaling, explaining, “We are pretty cleaned out. There are some good people back from that team, we have a couple good people waiting on the shelf from last year, and we have a couple transfers this year who could be useful.” The Buffs will be leaning heavily on seniors Tabor Scholl (15) and Sage Hurta (22). Who’s new? How about junior Rachel McArthur, the Big East runner-up who transferred from Villanova, and junior Emily Venters (39) from Boise State. Frosh include Emily Covert, a 2-time top 10 finisher at Foot Locker, another Foot Locker finalist in Rylee Robinson, and Anna Shults, top U.S. Junior at the World Mountain Running Championships.
Only 14th last year in a season when everything went wrong, the Razorbacks didn’t lose much, and return a solid squad in Katrina Robinson (41), Carina Viljoen (61) and Taylor Werner (81). Werner, the NCAA runner-up in the 5000 last spring, was held back last fall by a back injury from a car crash. Junior Lauren Gregory also had a rough race last year, but her 15:42.45 in track showed she is progressing. Robinson, a Regional champ last fall, missed track with injury and is still working her way back. Lance Harter got a key transfer in senior transfer Katie Izzo, who ran 16:08.32 last spring for Cal Poly.
Mike McGuire’s squad placed 4th last year and returns Top 100 finishers in senior Anna West (92) and sophs Camille Davre (29) & Anne Forsyth (46). Key among the newbies is Ericka VanderLende, a 9:53.00 HS All-America who then led the Wolverine opener. Brown grad Emma Sloan (16:41.51) has come to Ann Arbor for grad work and has eligibility remaining. Kayla Windemuller (10:23.04 as a prep) has transferred from Baylor with 4 years left.
Big changes at the Farm, as J.J. Clark has taken the reins from Chris Miltenberg, who has moved on to North Carolina. Clark inherits a team that placed 5th last year. They return senior Fiona O’Keeffe (17) and junior Jessica Lawson (44), as well as Ella Donaghu and Christina Aragon. A strong batch of Cardinal recruits features a pair of Foot Locker finalists: Grace Connolly has run 16:35 for cross country, and Kristin Fahy 10:20.03 on the track. Abi Archer (10:24.82), Lily Flynn (2:08.15/4:48.02) and Pan-Am Junior 800 medalist Morgan Foster (2:06.13/4:49.01) could also work their way into scoring positions.
The Cougars finished 7th last year and are in the enviable position of returning that entire squad, headlined by Erica Birk-Jarvis (7) and Courtney Wayment (23). Junior Whittni Orton, runner-up at last year’s Notre Dame Invitational, is back from injury, having made track All-America in the 1500. Newcomers Ember Stratton (runner-up in the ‘16 NXN) and Sophia Lasswell (10:28.15) could make an impact.
7. NC State
The Wolfpack only lost a single runner from the squad that placed 13th last year. Team leader Elly Henes (16) returns along with Dominique Clairmonte (62). Also coming back are Heather Holt, Nevada Mareno, Isabel Zimmerman and Savannah Shaw. Top recruits are Kelsey Chmiel, who finished in the top 5 at NXN in all four years of high school, and Sam Bush (4:48.90).
Mick Byrne tabbed Mackenzie Wartenberger to be the new women’s assistant after the departure of Jill Miller for Northwestern. The Badgers finished 10th last year and return 6 of 7, led by seniors Alicia Monson and Amy Davis. Monson finished 4th last year and won the NCAA Indoor 5000 in 15:31.26 before struggling with injury outdoors. Davis was Big 10 runner-up in the 5000 and made All-America at 10K. Madison Mooney, a 4:47.32 prep, will return from redshirt. She joins a tough recruit class that includes Alexa Westley (16:34.66) and Sarah Shulze (10:22.36).
The Huskies return 5 of 7, including headliners Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon. Rainsberger finished 17th last year; Burdon was 33rd, but was injured during the outdoor season. Soph Anna Gibson (4:43.06) has transferred from Brown and should help. New frosh include Marlena Preigh (2:06.31) and Makenna Schumacher (9:42.56). And two additions from Australia should make things very interesting: Melany Smart has run 16:08.30, and Carley Thomas (2:01.01) has won the World Junior silver at 800.
Third last year, the Ducks lost plenty of big names, but return notables such as Susan Ejore and Isabelle Brauer. Transfers include a 5-time Div. II All-America from Western Colorado, Polish steeplechaser Aneta Konieczek. Soph Moira O’Shea (16:11.46) comes from Penn State and junior Stephanie Ward (16:29.05) from Buffalo. France’s Alessia Zarbo comes in with a 9:25.25 PR for 3K and Great Britain contributes Mari Smith (2:01.46).
Others To Watch:
Boise State, Furman, Michigan State, Mississippi, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Penn State.