As we said in our Men’s Top 10 Teams preview, making predictions about a cross country nationals is a fool’s game. A busload of assumptions can go wrong while some of the most delightful surprises of the year have a way of making us look silly. We’d rather position our harrier previews as less of a prediction than as a viewer’s guide.
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
With 3 who placed in the top 12 last year including winner Ednah Kurgat, there’s not at this early juncture any logical argument for predicting the defending champion Lobos squad won’t repeat. For graduated Alice Wright (14) swap in last year’s JUCO titlist Adva Cohen, who steepled 9:29.74 for 5th in the Euro Champs. Joe Franklin’s squad has also added several more talents and one of them, Hannah Nuttall, has a familiar last name. The 21-year-old Briton has PRs of 4:16.49 and 9:11.46 and dad John won the ’89 NCAA men’s title for Iowa State. Mom Alison Wyeth placed 5th in the ’93 World Champs 3000, and in ’96 each parent won a British harrier crown. New Mexico is deep too, featuring 5 who ran last year’s race back, Kurgat being joined by Weini Kelati (7), Charlotte Prouse (12), Alondra Negron (85) & Alex Buck (105).
Third the last two seasons and 2nd in ’14, the Buffaloes have a reputation for point-minimizing race strategy at the autumn spectacular. Senior miler Dani Jones (10), the ’17 NCAA indoor 3000 winner, led the group last year, with Sage Hurta (35), Makena Morley (50) and Madie Boreman (62) all in the top 100. Steeplechaser Val Costien, 5th at the NCAA in 9:48.40, didn’t run for the Buffs in Terre Haute last fall and the senior should amp up their team punch; her frosh sister Elizabeth is also on the roster. Colorado often lays low—make that high up in the Rockies—for much of the fall but is taking an atypical approach this year. “We hope to take advantage of the chance to visit [Wisconsin] twice this year in late-September and middle-October, with the hope that we may learn a little bit more about that race course, and should we advance to the NCAA Championships, we could be a little more comfortable there,” says coach Mark Wetmore.
How is it possible to pick the Ducks so high? True, last year’s 5th-place team’s top 2 would-have-been returners have transferred north to Washington. The good news is that new coach Helen Lehman-Winters brought in two high placers from last year’s race, Weronika Pyzik (5) and Isabelle Brauer (15), with her from USF, the runner-up school last time around. Still aboard are Carmela Cardama Baez (34) and NCAA 1500 champ Jessica Hull (93). The key will be to develop a supporting cast.
With 5 who helped Chris Miltenberg’s Cardinal a 4th-place finish last year back, the crystal ball says the team looks equally imposing in ’18. Fiona O’Keeffe (13), has a trio of top-70 returner mates to back her up, a mile-leaning group: Elise Cranny (5), Christina Aragon (57) and Ella Donaghu 69. Frosh Caitlin Collier reached the World Junior 1500 final over the summer; her forte is middle distance but she won 4 Florida prep harrier crowns. The Cardinal are loaded with erstwhile prep stars who could step up; like junior Hannah Debalsi, a 9:55 HS performer.
5. NC State
While not heavily loaded with high-placing NCAA tracksters, what the Wolfpack brings is 5 returners. Three from the ’17 team that placed 8th placed in the top 100: Elly Henes (32), Dominique Clairmonte (58) and the only senior in the threesome, Rachel Koon (82). Henes’ parents were NC State stars, father Bob a 7-time All-America. Mom Laurie (née Gomez) won the ’91 NCAA 5000 and is the Wolfpack women’s coach. Redshirt frosh transfer from Stanford Nevada Mareno was the Foot Locker XC runner-up in ’16 and placed 3rd at the elite prep meet in ’15. Senior Ryen Frazier (150) put up big prep marks in ’15 (4:39.84, 10:02.86i and 16:20.72).
6. Boise State
It always helps to have a low stick and that coach Cory Ihmels is likely to have in 2-time NCAA steeple champ Allie Ostrander. The junior from Alaska, an NXN winner as a prep, placed 4th in Cross last year to lead a 6th-place team finish. Soph Emily Venters (53) and soph Claire O’Brien (77) raced in the top 100. At the World Juniors this summer Veners placed 9th over 5000 (15:59.05). Should redshirt junior Brenna Peloquin return to anywhere near her levels of ’16 (6th in XC, 8th in the track 5K and 10K), the Broncos will be even more formidable.
The Powells, Maurica & Andy, guided Oregon distance runners in recent years, notably to the ’16 crown. Now they’ve moved on to rival Washington, with juniors Katie Rainsberger (16) and Lilli Burdon (12) Ducks who tagged along. That high-powered pair will team up with 4 returners from a Husky squad that placed 21st: Emily Hamlin (155), Allie Schadler (209), Kiera Marshall (223) & Nicole Zielinski (234). Hamlin steepled 10:00.35 last spring and Neal raced the 10,000 in 33:21.20. Frosh Olivia O’Keeffe, sister of Stanford’s Fiona, has 4:44/10:14 track credentials.
The Badger squad, assuming it makes it out of a stacked Regional, will enjoy homefield advantage in Madison, returning 6 from ’17 when it placed 10th. Alicia Monson (139), a junior this fall, was Wisconsin’s No. 4 runner last year in Louisville yet picked up a 15:38.32 for 5000. A frosh to watch is Vivian Hacker; no blockbuster performances as a prep but dad Tim won the NCAA men’s crown in ’85.
Perhaps we’re underrating the team coached by 8-time U.S. steeplechase ranker Robert Gary. The Paladins finished 7th in ’17 and have 6 runners back, Savannah Carnahan (46) and Gabrielle Jennings (60), both juniors, tops in the group. Carnahan ran 15:49.89 for 5000 last spring, Jennings steepled 10:02.67. Krissy Gear, a soph this fall, raced to 10th in the World Junior steeple (10:00.99 PR).
Twins Samantha (30) & Jessica (31) Drop, now juniors, paced the Bulldogs’ 17th-place finish in ’17. Jessica went on to bolster her 5K credentials with an Indoor 4th and Outdoor 7th and Samantha took 21st in the track 10K. XC mentor Patrick Cunniff returns all 7 from last season’s crew, runner-up team in the SEC and South Regional.
Others To Watch: Arkansas, Iowa State, Michigan State, Utah State, Villanova.