2014 NCAA XC Women’s Preview: Can Michigan State Complete a Dream Season?

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By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2014

Earlier this week, I previewed the men’s team race at Saturday’s NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. Today, it’s the women’s turn.

To get you ready for the races on Saturday, LetsRun.com will be running plenty of pre-meet coverage on the site this week, with breakdowns of the men’s and women’s team and individual races as well as our annual prediction contest. I’ll be onsite in Terre Haute with Robert Johnson beginning on Thursday, where we’ll give you the scoop from the course, the pre-meet press conferences and the big day itself.

Below, a full breakdown of the women’s team race.

Event details

What: 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships

Where: LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course, Terre Haute, Indiana

When: 12 p.m. ET (women’s race); 1 p.m. ET (men’s race)

How to watch: In person ($10 admission) or streaming online on NCAA.com

Just like on the men’s side, there is a commanding favorite in the women’s race at NCAAs. Michigan State has rolled through every team it has faced this season, getting better and better as the year goes on. Here’s a look at the Spartans’ results so far:

DateMeetMSU ResultComment
9/5/2014Bill Dellinger Invitational1st, 20 pointsDestroyed #3 Oregon; 4 in front of Ducks’ #1, 6 in front of Ducks’ #2
9/27/2014Roy Griak Invitational1st, 66 points5 in the top 22
10/17/2014Wisconsin adidas Invitational1st, 87 pointsWent 2-9-14-32-35
11/2/2014Big 10 Championships1st, 26 points7 in the top 17 produced third-lowest score in meet history
11/14/2014NCAA Great Lakes Regional1st, 28 pointsO’Connor/Schulist go 1-2; 6 in the top 15 in toughest region in country

Score the rest of the Big 10, one of the country’s top conferences (four other teams in the top 22), combined against Michigan State and the Spartans win, 26-30. The Spartans couldn’t quite match that dominance against the toughest region in the NCAA (the Great Lakes), but still managed to put four in the top six and six in the top 15 en route to a commanding victory in Madison last Friday. MSU has yet to face #2 Georgetown this season, but it has proven itself against the other top teams, embarrassing #3 Oregon on its home course, beating #4 Arkansas by 104 at Wisconsin and trouncing #5 Iowa State twice, at Roy Griak (by 36) and Wisconsin (by 125).

What’s most impressive about the women from East Lansing is that they’ve gotten better every time out. Winning Roy Griak and Wisconsin was impressive, but scoring a combined 54 points at Big 10s and the Great Lakes Regional was even more so. Now there’s just one meet remaining on the schedule and, like the Colorado men, MSU merely needs to run an average race to claim the NCAA title. A great race could see the Spartans post a score in the 60s or 70s and stake their claim as one of the greatest teams of this century. Here is the full list of teams that have scored under 100 at NCAAs since 2000, with their conference and Regional point totals.

SchoolPoints at ConferencePoints at RegionalsPoints at NCAAs
2014 Michigan St.2628???
2009 Villanova302386
2008 Washington152579
2004 Colorado253263
2002 BYU152985
2001 BYU173162
spartans

Michigan State snapped Michigan’s three-year win streak at the Great Lakes Regional. (Courtesy Michigan State Athletics)

A commanding win by Michigan State would make it the best team since the 2008 Washington squad that perfect-scored Pac-10s against a field that included #2 Oregon. Could the Spartans score in the 60s? To do that, they’d have to go something like 4-6-15-18-25 in the team score (68 points). That’s very tough, but it’s also achievable for these Spartans.

NCAA steeple champ Leah O’Connor won Big 10s and the Great Lakes Regional; sophomore Rachele Schulist (16:01 5000 pb) finished next to O’Connor at Regionals and was 2nd at Wisconsin. Putting them 4-6 in the team score isn’t a huge stretch. Junior Lindsay Clark (16:09 5000 pb) was 14th at Wisconsin and 4th at Big 10s –15th is doable for her. Senior Julia Otwell (7th Big 10, 32nd Wisconsin, 16:10/34:00 pbs) was a step ahead of Clark at Regionals, so finishing a few steps behind at NCAAs is feasible. Michigan State’s #5 is likely to be senior Sara Kroll (2012 Big 10 champ, 11th 2014 Big 10s, 35th Wisconsin, 16:16 5000 pb) or sophomore Alexis Wiersma (13th Big 10s, 14th Great Lakes, 16:18 pb); if one of them has a good day, 25th in the team score is about right. Sub-70 would take a very good day by the Spartans; chances are that they don’t do it. But the fact that I’m even considering this conversation is a testament to MSU’s skill.

Finally, it bears noting that Michigan State is an almost entirely homegrown squad. Thirty-seven of the 41 women listed on the Spartans’ roster are from the state of Michigan, including all seven runners who competed at Regionals. It’s a credit to Drenth as a recruiter and the high school coaches and athletes of Michigan that a state that ranks only ninth in population (just under 10 million) has produced so much talented runners (the University of Michigan projected to have an all-Michigan top seven when it received the preseason #1 ranking in August).

Only nine women’s teams have scored fewer than 70 points at NCAAs but six of those teams ran in the meet’s first six editions, from 1981-1986. Back then, NCAA women’s cross country was in its infancy, making it easier for top teams to post low point totals. Since 1986, just three teams have broken 70, none since 2004. If MSU can do it on Saturday, the Spartans have to go down as one of the top teams in NCAA history.

Who can challenge the Spartans?

With all due respect to Arkansas and Oregon, two teams certainly capable of a podium finish, I don’t envision any scenario in which either of them threatens Michigan State on Saturday. Arkansas lost to MSU at Wisconsin and is the same team now as it was then. Oregon is a solid team, but it lacks the requisite low sticks to challenge the Spartans.

Case in point, on Sunday, I participated in a fantasy draft for a USTFCCCA podcast. There were six journalists with teams, each of which hadseven women per team (42 spots total). Putting together my pre-draft rankings, I found it difficult to put any Ducks in my top 40 — their highest finisher at Pac-12s (Frida Berge, 6th) was just 13th at the West Regional. Their top finisher at the West Regional (Molly Grabill, 11th) was just 11th at Pac-12s. None of those results screamed All-American to me, and my fellow drafters concurred — the only Oregon runners selected were Grabill (33rd) and Waverly Neer (37th). Meanwhile, four Spartans were chosen, including two in the top 11. The pre-meet rankings of six journalists obviously are just a prediction, but Oregon would need a huge race from one of its runners to have a top-10 individual. Michigan St., Georgetown, Arkansas and Iowa St. all have at least one top-10 threat (two in the case of Michigan St. and Iowa St.). It’s just tough to win without a stud up front; no women’s team has won NCAAs without a top-10 individual since BYU in 1999 (and its top finisher was 11th).

I’m counting out #6 Wisconsin and everyone below the Badgers because Michigan State has crushed Wisconsin in each of its last three races, two of which came on the Badgers’ home course. If Wisconsin can’t get close to the Spartans in Madison, no one ranked lower than them is sniffing MSU at a neutral site. In my mind, there are two teams that could legitimately challenge Michigan State.

#2 Georgetown

2014 results

DateMeetGtown ResultComment
9/26/2014Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown2nd, 77 pointsDidn’t run Haley Pierce/Samantha Nadel
10/4/2014Paul Short Run2nd, 127 pointsDidn’t run Katrina Coogan/Samantha Nadel/Kelsey Smith
10/18/2014Pre-National Invitational1st, 110 pointsDidn’t run Samantha Nadel; Coogan third overall
10/31/2014Big East Championships1st, 19 points1-3-4-5-6-8-9
11/14/2014NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional1st, 38 pointsCoogan was individual champ

It’s tough to get a read on the Hoyas because we haven’t seen them at full strength yet. They looked good winning Pre-Nats on October 18, but they did so without Samantha Nadel, their top runner at NCAAs last year (47th). Nadel stepped into the fold at Big Easts, where Georgetown looked dominant, almost perfect-scoring #23 Providence. But beating up on the Friars doesn’t tell us much about how the Hoyas stack up against the rest of the country. Georgetown’s conference win (19 points) was more dominant that Michigan State’s (26) or Iowa State’s (29) but the Big 10 and Big 12 are more competitive than the Big East.

The first question about Georgetown is who are they going to run on Saturday? The Hoyas have a clear-cut #1 in Katrina Coogan (daughter of Mark Coogan, the former Olympian/Dartmouth coach that heads up New Balance’s elite team in Boston), but after that, things go haywire. Here’s a list of the 12 women – yes 12 – who have scored for Georgetown in a major meet this season:

Katrina Coogan (#1 at Battle in Beantown, #1 at Pre-Nats, #1 at Big Easts, #1 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Haley Pierce (#2 at Paul Short, #6 at Pre-Nats, #2 at Big Easts, #2 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Samantha Nadel (#3 at Big Easts, #3 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Madeline Chambers (#4 at Battle in Beantown, #1 at Paul Short, #3 at Pre-Nats, #4 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Sarah Cotton (#7 at Paul Short, #7 at Big Easts, #5 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Andrea Keklak (#2 at Battle in Beantown, #4 at Pre-Nats, #4 at Big Easts)
Hannah Neczypor (#8 at Battle in Beantown, #3 at Paul Short, #5 at Big Easts, #7 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Kelsey Smith (#3 at Battle in Beantown, #2 at Pre-Nats, #6 at Big Easts)
Annamarie Maag (#6 at Battle in Beantown, #5 at Pre-Nats, #9 at Big Easts, #6 at Mid-Atlantic Regional)
Rachel Paul (#7 at Battle in Beantown, #4 at Paul Short)
Kennedy Weisner (#10 at Battle in Beantown, #5 at Paul Short)
Autumn Eastman (#5 at Battle in Beantown, #7 at Pre-Nats, #8 at Big Easts)

Georgetown clearly split its squad for the Battle in Beantown/Paul Short since those races were run in consecutive weeks (though some runners pulled double duty), but even if you remove those meets, nine women have finished in the Hoyas’ top five in their last three meets. So it’s anyone’s guess as to who coach Michael Smith elects to run in Terre Haute (My call and message to Coach Smith was unreturned). He could go with the seven that ran at Regionals — Coogan, Pierce, Nadel, Chambers, Cotton, Maag and Neczypor — but that would leave Keklak and Smith on the bench, and both of them finished in the top four at two meets each, including Pre-Nats. Perhaps Keklak and Smith are dinged up and Smith wanted to rest them; perhaps they’re done for the season? We won’t know until we get to Terre Haute and have a chance to ask Smith in person.

No matter who suits up, Georgetown has enviable depth and will contend for a podium spot. But to challenge the Spartans, the Hoyas need Nadel to exceed her 2013 finish (Georgetown’s not beating MSU if its #3 is 47th) and hope for good days from Pierce and the rest of the gang (this is where Smith — 19th at Pre-Nats — and Keklak — 31st — could pay off). If the Hoyas are to make a real run at Michigan State, Smith will have to pick exactly the right roster for Saturday — and then hope that his charges deliver their best race of the season.

#5 Iowa State

2014 results

DateMeetIowa St. ResultComment
9/27/2014Roy Griak Invitational2nd, 102 points36 pts behind Michigan St.
10/17/2014Wisconsin adidas Invitational3rd, 212 pointsNelson+Moen go 1-5
11/1/2014Big 12 Championships1st, 29 points1-2-4-9-13 for fourth straight title
11/14/2014NCAA Midwest Regional1st, 66 pointsCyclones take it easy but still win comfortably
Connelly

Connelly en route to a fourth-place finish at Big 12s. (Courtesy Cyclones.com)

Yes, the Cyclones have lost twice already to Michigan State, but there are reasons to believe that they can challenge the Spartans if the stars align in Terre Haute. The first is the recent performance of fifth-year senior Margaret Connelly (undergrad at Brown), who had her best race of the season at Big 12s, taking fourth, just two seconds behind Pre-Nats champ Rachel Johnson of Baylor. If Connelly, who was rested for Regionals, runs like that again on Saturday, she’ll be a top-20 finisher and will match up well with MSU’s #3. The second reason for the Cyclones to be confident is that they will finally have sophomore Bethanie Brown available to race. Brown hasn’t featured since Roy Griak, where she was 16th (two places ahead of Michigan State’s #4). Brown’s health will determine whether she can replicate her 2013 finish of 37th (23rd in team scoring). If Brown places 37th again, the Cylones are an entirely different team than the one that was blown out by the Spartans at Wisconsin.

The biggest thing the Cyclones have going for them is that they have an incredible 1-2 punch in both Crystal Nelson and Katy Moen, whom I have in my top 5 in the individual race (Nelson has won both Wisco and Big 10s this year). So two very low sticks, but even assuming great races from Connelly and Brown, Iowa State still faces a sizable disadvantage at #5. One of Michigan State’s greatest strengths is that they have six runners capable of scoring well for them, so even if one of their top women has an off day, the Spartans won’t skip a beat. Iowa State’s #5, either sophomore Perez Rotich or freshman Erin Hooker, is fine for a podium squad and might have been good enough to win the title last year, when Providence scored 141. But the winning score is going to be a lot lower this year, and to beat Michigan State, you can’t have your #5 back in 158th (as Rotich was last year, when she was Iowa St.’s fifth).

For coach Andrea Grove-McDonough — who has made Iowa State into a national title contender in just two years after transforming the program at UConn — and the Cyclones to win the championship, they’ll need to gain points at places #1 through #4 and hope that’s enough to overcome the deficit at #5. That means Nelson and Moen both placing in the top seven and Connelly and Brown finishing in the top 20 and 35. Under an ideal scenario, that would create a 20-30 point cushion for the Cyclones’ #5. Hooker (9th Big 12s, 14th Midwest Regional) and Rotich (13th Big 12s, 13th Midwest Regional) have run better in their last two races than they did at Wisconsin (107th for Hooker, 83th for Rotich). Whether they can deliver in the pressure-cooker environment of NCAAs could determine who wins the national title.

LRC Prediction

1. Michigan State — O’Connor and Schulist is a great 1-2, Clark is the best #3 in the country and the Spartans have a great 4-5-6. Sparty Party.
2. Iowa State — The Cyclones put up a valiant effort but the gap at #5 proves too much to overcome.
3. Georgetown — Pre-Nats champs are deep with a great #1 but their #2 is too far behind Michigan St./Iowa St.
4. Arkansas — 2nd at Wisco and stellar performance at SECS, but this is a track-first program.
5. Oregon — Lack of clear #1 keeps Pac-12/West Regional champs off the podium.

More: LetsRun.com’s Individual Race Women’s Preview


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