2015 Women’s XC Preview: #2 Colorado and #1 New Mexico

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By LetsRun.com
September 19, 2015

The Diamond League season is over and it’s mid-September, which means it’s time for another collegiate cross-country season. While the 2015 campaign has already begun for most schools, teams can’t earn at-large points to help them qualify for NCAAs until September 25, so we’ll be rolling out our previews between now and then. Over the next two weeks, we’ll count down the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in the country and take a look at the top 10 individuals for each gender as well.

Please don’t take these rankings to whatever fictional casino is offering NCAA cross country betting odds and use them as your guide. There’s always uncertainty in preseason predictions, especially this year on the women’s side. Both Providence’s Ray Treacy and Stanford’s Chris Miltenberg admitted that there’s 15 teams who think they can finish in the top five or six at NCAAs, and since we’re only previewing 10, some schools will inevitably be left out. The difference between the #10 team in the country and say #15 is often tiny. Last year, less than 50 points separated the #9 team at NCAAs (377 points) from #14 (415 points — see 2014 NCAA Cross Country Results).

These previews are intended to serve as a rough outline of where things stand at the moment; a lot can (and will) change between now and the NCAA championships on November 21 in Louisville.

If you missed any of our earlier previews, you can find them here:

#10 Arkansas and #9 Michigan#8 Michigan State and #7 Providence * #6 Iowa State and #5 Oregon * #4 Georgetown and #3 Stanford

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking her place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2014 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of her.

2. Colorado: Buoyed by two stud freshmen and three ’14 redshirts, the Buffaloes could be scary good this fall

2014 results: 7th NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 3rd Pac-12, 4th Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #4, #5 from last year at NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Erin ClarkJR1315:57/9:59 SC
Maddie AlmSR224:18/16:14
Kaitlyn BennerSO419:24/16:08; US jr XC champ
Annie KellyJR489:35/16:12
Mackenzie CaldwellSO10434:39:00
Carrie VerdonJR15:59/33:42
Melanie NunSO9:24/16:17
Valerie ConstienFR2nd at USA XC jr race
Dani JonesFR4:39/10:09; 3rd NXN
Brianna SchwartzFR4:42/10:10; FL NE champ in ’14; 6th at FL finals in ’13

You can make a case for several teams in this spot — Iowa State, Oregon, Stanford and Georgetown all have compelling arguments — but we’re going with the Buffaloes, and our reasoning is this: outside of our #1 team, Colorado stands to improve more than any elite team in 2015. Other teams may have more firepower up front than the Buffaloes, but no team in America can match CU’s depth.

The Buffs finished a respectable seventh last year and all but two of those runners (fourth woman Jenny DeSouchet and fifth woman Sara Sutherland) will be back this fall.

“[Seventh] was not our aspiration but it was a young team and not a particularly deep team,” head coach Mark Wetmore said. “I think we came away feeling good about what could come after it.”

Clark was the Buffs lone All-American in 2014; she should have some company in 2015

Clark was the Buffs’ lone All-American in 2014; she should have some company in 2015

Erin Clark, the team’s top finisher in 2014 (31st) took another step forward on the track, winning the Pac-12 title in the steeplechase and finishing second in the 5,000, and should be a capable #1. Kaitlyn Benner, 81st at NCAAs as a true freshman, won the USA junior XC title in February and finished as the top American at World XC (27th); she also ran 9:24 and 16:08 on the track. Senior Maddie Alm also scored for the Buffs at NCAAs last fall and ran PRs of 4:18 and 16:14 this spring. Junior Annie Kelly (9:35/16:12) was less than a second from being CU’s #4 at NCAAs.

That’s a solid core, but when you factor in all the talent CU is adding this year, you see why they can be a podium team. Consider the new additions:

  • Valerie Constien (RS FR) — 2nd behind Benner at USA junior XC champs. 62nd at World XC.
  • Melanie Nun (RS SO) — CU’s #3 runner as a true freshman in ’13 (68th overall). Track PBs of 9:34 and 16:17.
  • Carrie Verdon (RS JR) — CU’s #2 runner for most of ’12 and ’13 seasons; 10th at Pac-12s and 4th at Mountain Regional in ’13 before falling twice in the mud at NCAAs and finishing 132nd. 20th in junior race at World XC in ’13, track PBs of 15:59 and 33:42.
  • Dani Jones (FR) — PBs of 4:39 and 10:09; 3rd at NXN last year.
  • Brianna Schwartz (FR) — 4:42/10:10; FL Northeast champ in ’14, 6th at FL finals in ’13

That right there could be a top-five team if Jones and Schwartz run well right away; the presence of Clark, Benner and Alm mean that the first-years won’t feel the pressure to contribute immediately.

“It’s a little more likely that an 18-year-old female can impact an NCAA aspiring varsity team than a male,” Wetmore said. “So any of our better freshmen, if they train well, wouldn’t surprise me to get into that final roster.

“I am absolutely sure they have what it takes to be contributors here. It may take a while though. We’ll just have to put the work into the bank and make a decision in late October.”

With just one senior (Alm) among their projected top eight runners, the Buffaloes will be national title contenders (perhaps even favorites) for several years to come. But considering Wetmore said earlier this summer that “combined with the men and women, they might be the best two teams we’ve had here” — this from a man who coached both teams to a title in 2004 — it’s clear Colorado has a chance to win it all this year.

1. New Mexico: New additions Courtney Frerichs and Rhona Auckland look to power Lobos to program’s first-ever NCAA title

2014 results: 7th NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 3rd Pac-12, 4th Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #4, #5 from last year at NCAAs)

NameClass# returner from NCAAsCredentials
Courtney FrerichsSR7Transfer from UMKC; 15:47/9:31 SC; 2nd NCAA steeple
Alice WrightSO1015:45/32:46; 8th NCAA 10k
Calli ThackerySR174:15/9:07/15:42; 6th NCAA 5k
Heleene TambetJR4316:44/34:32
Rhona AucklandJR15:27/32:22; Euro U23 XC champ, 19th World XC
Molly RenferSR 5th year from Harvard; 4:18/16:25
Whitney ThornburgSR 5th year from Harvard; 16:27/35:04

Thanks to a clutch final two kilometers, the New Mexico women recorded their first-ever podium appearance at NCAAs last year, taking third place with 188 points. That result was largely the result of a tremendous final two kilometers, as the Lobos’ top five gained a ridiculous 82 places from the 4k mark to the finish. Almost half of that was courtesy of fourth woman Tamara Armoush, who moved from 113th to 73rd (she wasn’t even the biggest Lobo mover; sixth woman Nicola Hood picked up 46 places to finish 111th). Every one of those places wound up mattering as New Mexico finished just one point ahead of fourth-place Georgetown.

“Somebody strange out there that nobody’s talking about is going to end up getting close to the podium or on the podium,” head coach Joe Franklin said. “It happens every year. And that was us last year.”

New Mexico made it onto the podium last year for the first time ever by finishing third; the Lobos will try to climb two spots higher in 2015

New Mexico made it onto the podium last year for the first time ever by finishing third; the Lobos will try to climb two spots higher in 2015

Things couldn’t be more different in 2015. Coaches can’t keep their mouths shut when it comes to the Lobos.

“New Mexico, they’ve racked up the transfers and international athletes,” Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg said. “In many ways, they’re the team to beat.”

“It’s very hard to see anybody beating New Mexico,” said Providence coach Ray Treacy. “They’ve got so much strength up front.”

“I voted New Mexico [#1 in the preseason coaches’ poll],” said Iowa State coach Andrea Grove-McDonough, whose Cyclones nevertheless earned the preseason #1 ranking in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll. “I think that frankly, they’re a no-brainer. On paper, to me, they seem unbeatable.”

It’s easy to see why coaches feel that way. Sophomore Alice Wright (20th at NCAAs in ’14) would be the #1 woman on most teams; she could easily be New Mexico’s third-best runner thanks to the addition of transfers Courtney Frerichs (from the University of Missouri-Kansas City) and Rhona Auckland (from the University of Edinburgh). Frerichs was 13th at NCAA XC last year, ran 15:47 for 5,000 indoors and finished second at NCAAs in the steeplechase. Her 9:31.36 clocking in that race puts her #4 on the all-time NCAA list, behind only Jenny SimpsonEmma Coburn and Colleen Quigley. Auckland’s resume is even more impressive. The 22-year-old Scot won the European U-23 XC Championships in December, finished 19th in the pro race at 2015 World XC (ahead of every American) in March and tallied PRs of 15:27 and 32:22 this summer. Add in returning senior Calli Thackery (43rd at NCAAs, 15:42 on the track, 6th in NCAA outdoor 5,000) and New Mexico has the best top four in the country.

Of course, you need five runners to win an NCAA title.

“You have those four and then you have this other group that’s kind of knocking on the door,” Franklin said. “They have not had massive times yet but have run very well in their own right.”

That group includes Heleene Tambet, who has scored for the Lobos at NCAA XC in each of the past two years, and Harvard fifth-years Molly Renfer (16:27 5k) and Whitney Thornburg (16:27), who will look to follow the path to success blazed by former New Mexico All-American Sammy Silva.

If one of those women — or someone else on the roster — can act as a serviceable fifth scorer, the Four Horsewomen up front should put New Mexico on the podium, perhaps at the top of it.

Once again, New Mexico is a team built on foreigners and transfers. Auckland, Frerichs, Renfer, Thackery and Thornburg all attended a different university before arriving in Albuquerque. The Lobos’ top seven could easily include four Brits (Auckland, Wright, Thackery and Renfer) and one Estonian (Tambet). Franklin said that he doesn’t actively seek to construct his roster that way.

“We always try to recruit local first and expand out,” Franklin said. “This last year was really the first year we really got the best New Mexican women to come to University of New Mexico with Natasha [Bernal] and Mackenzie Everett…From my time at Butler (1994-2007) we had a good relationship with kids in the UK and it’s just continued. It’s not necessarily that we go out searching. It just kind of happens.”

Indeed, Franklin says he receives lots of emails from foreign prospects about running collegiately in the United States. When he sees an athlete who might be a fit for his program, he’ll vet the prospect by consulting one of his contacts overseas. If everything checks out, he’ll start the process of bringing them to Albuquerque.

UNM moved up to #1 for the first time in program history in the most recent coaches’ poll released on Tuesday, but the affable Franklin feels no pressure. His goals for his team aren’t centered around performance, but rather ensuring that his team is relaxed and prepared for the trials to come.

“[The goal is] making sure you’re healthy when you get to November,” Franklin said. “It seems so trivial but that’s the goal, making sure that you don’t take things so seriously…Have fun, enjoy life, and make sure you’re healthy when you get to November.”

That’s not a bad plan. If Frerichs, Auckland, Wright and Thackery do make it to November healthy, it should be easy to enjoy life. After all, it’s hard not to have fun when you win a national championship.


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