Preview — NCAA Women’s Cross Country Champs

Washington’s Haley Herberg (294) pulled a huge upset at the Pac-12 Championships. (KIM SPIR)

THE WOMEN’S TEAM PICTURE for the NCAA XC Champs, like the men’s, is filled with unknowns. One important one is the COVID testing that each team will be subjected to. As Arkansas’s Lance Harter points out, a single positive on a team could wipe out much of a squad after contact tracing. “Any time there’s a test, there’s a possibility you can fail,” he warns.

First, let’s look at the final USTFCCCA Coaches Poll of the season, which came out on March 05 and has the contenders in a logical order:

1. Arkansas Tackling Indoors First

Harter’s Razorbacks haven’t run an overland meet since they captured their 21st SEC crown over Alabama at the end of October. On the track, Katie Izzo and Lauren Gregory have been on fire, both breaking 9:00 at 3000 and 15:40 at 5K. Plenty of depth is running behind that pair. Seniors Abby Gray (9:11.01, 16:24.08), Krissy Gear (4:34.72, 9:08.55), Logan Morris (9:09.45, 16:02.63) are all solid. Not far off on the track are junior Gracie Hyde (9:18.03, 16:21.47) and SEC XC frosh of the year, Taylor Ewert (9:26.42, 16:44.44).

The squad faces a unique dilemma, being defending NCAA champions in both cross country and indoor track with the events just days apart. Harter is publicly downplaying their chances to do both successfully: “I think our No. 1 ranking is a bit of a misnomer. We’re going to be prioritizing the indoor meet. We might not [have] the traditional competitive spirit that we’ve had in the past.”

Even with track being first priority, competitors would be wise not to sleep on the Razorbacks.

2. BYU Has Track Thoughts Too

The Cougars won the Silver State Challenge over Boise State and Washington, among others, with 3 runners making the top 10: Anna Camp-Bennet, Aubrey Frentheway and Lexy Halladay.

In late February, the Cougars won the West Coast Conference over Portland and San Francisco, putting 5 into the top 11.

Like Arkansas, the Cougars may not be running at full-strength. Neither of the team’s biggest track names this winter — Courtney Wayment (4:30.47/8:54.90) and Olivia Hoi (8:56.91) are among the entries. Whitni Orton, who was 7th in ’19 but hasn’t raced since October, is listed.

3. New Mexico Has Depth

The Lobos may have lost plenty, with defending individual champion Weini Kelati going pro, as did potential transfer Fiona O’Keeffe from Stanford. However, the Lobos did not look weakened in winning the Battle Born Challenge in Las Vegas, defeating Stanford by 25 points.

That win was attributable to depth, as none of Joe Franklin’s squad got into the top 5. Adva Cohen led at 6th, with Gracelyn Larkin in 10th. A 12-15-17 finish clinched it, with a 16.6-second spread for the top 5. Some of those names in that pack give an indication of how quickly the Lobos are reloading. Larkin hadn’t raced in a year. Amelia Mazza-Downie is an Australian in her first collegiate race. And just arrived from Norway is 9:57.95 steepler Andrea Modin Engesæth.

New Mexico is a different team in March than it was in the fall; and with none of the top runners doing indoor track, the program is solidly focused on Stillwater.

4. Stanford Back Together

After not racing or training together for months, the Cardinal women reunited to place 2nd to Colorado at Florida State, then managed another runner-up finish at Silver State to New Mexico. The latter result showed some serious low-stick potential, as senior Ella Donaghu won, followed by frosh Zofia Dudek.

That laid the groundwork for the Pac-12, where Stanford defeated Colorado by 20 points, with Donaghu, Dudek and senior Julia Heymach finishing 2-3-4. Seniors Jessica Lawson (9th) and Christina Aragon (12th) also look ready.

Says Donaghu, “I think every week it’s been amazing to see how every week we get better, every race we get better. I think we’re ready to take another step forward.”

5. NC State Has Been Track-Centric

Laurie Henes’ ACC champions having been running track all winter, with solid results. The team is a rarity among the top contenders in not having raced on grass since last October.

Two of the Wolfpack harriers have been under 16:00 for 5K indoors (Hannah Steelman 15:47.43, Kelsey Chmiel 15:58.22) and much-ballyhooed frosh Katelyn Tuohy is racing again after missing the fall with an injury.

And not to be dismissed is the individual ACC champion, senior Dominique Clairmonte, who hasn’t raced since then. Also key is soph Mariah Howlett, who ran 7th at the conference meet last fall. Elly Henes (15:49.96 this winter) is out of XC eligibility.

6. Colorado Is Making Progress

The Buffaloes put 4 in the top 11 at the Pac-12 race in their runner-up finish to Stanford. That put them 35 ahead of Washington.

Junior Rachel McArthur (Pac-12 5th) is the team leader, and a trio of powerful seniors aren’t far back: Abby Nichols (8th), Madie Boreman (10th) and transfer Micaela Degenero (11th).

Says coach Mark Wetmore, “We were in big trouble last October when we took a look at ourselves down in Oklahoma. They made a lot of progress. They still have a lot of room to go.”

7. Michigan State Was Strong At Conferences

With new head Lisa Breznau at the helm, the Spartans won the Big 10 at the end of January with an impressive 28-point margin over Minnesota. Junior Jenna Magness led with a 3rd-place finish, and senior teammate India Johnson finished just a few strides behind. Magness confirmed her fitness at the Big 10 Indoor a month later, winning the 5000 by nearly 100m in 15:51.46. Senior Lynsie Gram finished 3rd, and Johnson 4th.

Those three will need to place relatively high while towing some of their teammates along, in order to run to potential. Magness will be doubling back from the NCAA 5000, where she is the No. 2 seed.

8. Michigan Escapes From Quarantine

The Wolverines weren’t able to compete in the Big 10 Champs in January when a C19 positive sent the school’s athletic program into quarantine. Only after a 15-point performance at the Florida State Winter Last Chance (admittedly, against weak competition) did the NCAA send the team an invite to its 19th straight nationals.

The challenge, according to coach Mike McGuire, will be getting his key runners to bounce back from Indoors, where Katelynne Hart and Jenna Metwalli will be in the distance medley and team leader Ericka VanderLende in the 5000.

“They get two off days to recover,” he notes. It’s going to be a challenge.”

9. Northern Arizona Made For The Course?

The Lumberjacks jumped up in the poll after winning the Big Sky Winter meet with 5 in the top 8. Junior Taryn O’Neill led the way. The team’s scoring strength lies in its pack. Finishing within 6 seconds of each other in places 5-6-7-8 were 32:47.00 runner Jessa Hanson, Bryn Morley, Pipi Eitel and Delaney Rasmussen.

Given the team’s mountainous training locale (with altitude to boot), perhaps the hilly nationals course will play in their favor?

10. Boise State Has Good Grouping

Second to New Mexico at the Mountain West race, Corey Ihmels’ Broncos were understandably thrilled to put two runners in the top 5: South African grad student Tyler Beling and junior Olivia Johnson placed 3rd and 5th. The next three (12-14-18) came within a 9-second grouping: Portuguese frosh Ines Borba, and juniors Christina Geisler and Yukino Parle.

Other teams to watch

Alabama, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington.

Individuals To Keep Your Eyes On

In alphabetical order:

Mercy Chelangat: SEC champion last fall, the Alabama junior is not running the indoor, despite having a 15:48.38 recently.

Ella Donaghu: Stanford’s Pac-12 runner-up placed 8th last time around and convincingly won two big winter invites.

Bethany Hasz: Minnesota’s Big 10 winner in XC and the 3000 this winter says, “It will be fun to put myself in there and see what happens.”

Haley Herberg: The Washington senior shocked in winning the Pac-12. She had never finished higher than 3rd in any collegiate XC race. Is there more there?

Bailey Hertenstein: The Indiana junior has only run track this winter but will be concentrating on XC this weekend. She was 31st in ’19.

Callie Logue: The Iowa State junior won the Big 12 indoor 5000 but will be fresh on Monday. The Big 12 champ in XC last fall, she placed 2nd to Donaghu at the Florida State Classic.

Taylor Roe: The Oklahoma State frosh finished 4th in two big winter invites and knows the course well.

Others to watch: If BYU’s Whitni Orton is healthy enough to run, she’s a possibility. Stanford frosh Zofia Dudek shouldn’t be overlooked. The former Foot Locker champion was 3rd at the Pac-12.