2014 Women’s XC Preview: Entirely Homegrown Michigan is #1, Michigan State is #2

By LetsRun.com
August 30, 2014

The 2014 NCAA cross country season kicks off next month and LetsRun.com is previewing what to expect this fall. We’re counting down the top 10 teams in America, two at a time. Then we’ll move on preview he individual races at NCAAs this fall. A lot can change between now and November 22 in Terre Haute — who thought Kennedy Kithuka would lose his title to a freshman last year? — so these rankings aren’t set in stone. Consider them refreshers on where each team is at entering the season and a rough guideline of what to expect his fall.

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking her place at NCAAs in 2013 and subtracting the number of seniors in front of her. We believe that Megan Patrignelli (listed as a senior in ’13) will return in 2014. Sara Sutherland (Texas) will run as a grad student at Colorado. Waverly Neer (Columbia) and Brianna Nerud (Syracuse) have transferred to Oregon. If you know of any other transfers or seniors returning in 2014, please let us know.

2. Michigan State: “Our philosophy is always the same: just see how good you can be.”

2013 results: 6th NCAAs, 3rd Great Lakes Regional, 1st Big 10, 4th Wisconsin Invite, 2nd Roy Griak Invite

Key returners (lose #5 from NCAAs last year)

Article continues below player.
Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Leah O’Connor SR 26 4:15/16:09/9:36 SC; NCAA steeple champ
Rachele Schulist SO 32 16:01
Katie Landwehr JR 33 4:31/10:09 SC
Lindsay Clark JR 49 4:25/16:09
Angela Swain SR 103 4:31 1500
Shelby Jackson SO 115 16:49
Sara Kroll SR Redshirted in ’13; team’s #1 finisher at NCAAs in ’12; 9:26/16:16
Julia Otwell SR Redshirted in ’13; team’s #2 finisher at NCAAs in ’12; 16:04/34:00
Ali Wiersma SO 16:18

When you return six of your top seven from the sixth-best team in the country last year, you’re in a really good place. When you return six of your top seven and add in your top two runners from two years ago, you’re in an even better place. And that’s exactly where Michigan State finds itself in 2014.

Leah O'Connor (middle) and Katie Landwehr (right) are part of a strong Spartan core in 2014. Leah O’Connor (middle) and Katie Landwehr (right) are part of a strong Spartan core in 2014.

Sara Kroll (53rd at NCAAs in 2012) and Julia Otwell (113th) both redshirted in 2013, but they’re back as fifth-year seniors ready to take a shot at the national title. Head coach Walt Drenth made the decision at the start of last season to redshirt them because of a promise he had made to their class that they would get to graduate together. What he didn’t count on was the rapid development of a team that relied mainly on freshmen and sophomores.

“Honestly my expectations were if we could be in the top three at the conference meet and top 10-15 at nationals it would be a good year,” Drenth says. “We were going to lean on some young kids who had decent experience but hadn’t proven themselves…Once we went to Minnesota [and finished second at the Roy Griak Invitational], it was clear that they had put in a lot of work over the summer and it was going to pay dividends.”

Rachele Schulist, Katie Landwehr and Lindsay Clark all stepped up to finish in the top 71 in 2013 and should finish even higher this year with another year of training. And of course there’s senior Leah O’Connor, whose breakout spring saw her win the 1500 and 3000 steeple titles at Big 10s before running a big PR of 9:36 to win the steeple at NCAAs. Add in the returns of Kroll and Otwell and the Spartans have six scoring-worthy runners — a nice insurance policy in case someone gets hurt or has a bad day.

Michigan State has been consistently good this century — it’s qualified for the last 13 NCAA meets — but this year finally has a chance to be great. It won’t be easy with regional rivals Michigan and Butler looming, but with O’Connor, Kroll and Otwell all in their senior year, the Spartans have to be all-in.

“Our expectations haven’t changed much,” Drenth says. “Our philosophy is always the same: just see how good you can be. There are clearly some expectations from the outside, but internally we just want to be as good as we can be. If you look at their high school marks, this is not a group of highly-decorated high school runners. But they’ve made progress by buying in our system, so it doesn’t make much sense to change the formula.”

Expectations for Drenth may not have changed but LetsRun thinks the Spartans are very good.But the crazy thing is they aren’t in our minds even the top team in the state. Our pre-season #1 team is:

1. Michigan: True Home-Grown Team Is Our Pre-Season Favorite

“We want to be better than we were last year. If we’re better than we were last year, we’ll see what happens when the championship part of the season comes up.”

2013 results: 4th NCAAs, 1st Great Lakes Regional, 2nd Big 10, 6th Pre-Nats

Key returners (return entire top seven from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Erin Finn SO 15 9:15/15:26/32:41
Shannon Osika JR 38 4:17/9:24/16:09
Taylor Manett JR 39 4:28/16:40
Brook Handler SR 43 4:15/16:04
Anna Pasternak JR 72 4:38/10:08 SC
Megan Weschler SR 108 16:36/10:11 SC
Alex Leptich SR 160 16:31/10:03 SC
Taylor Pogue SR Team’s #3 finisher at Pre-Nats missed final 3 races in ’13; 9:37/16:29

Michigan was a good team last year, as they finished fourth and got on the podium at NCAAs for the first time since 2006. The Wolverines should be even better in 2014, as they return all seven finishers from NCAAs as well as senior Taylor Pogue, who was their #3 woman at Pre-Nats but missed Big 10s, regionals and nationals. Interestingly, all seven finishers plus Pogue are Michigan natives.

Rising senior Brook Handler was 64th a year ago. Rising senior Brook Handler was 64th a year ago.

More encouraging than who they return is what that talent did on the track last spring. Head coach Mike McGuire is encouraged by the performances of three women — sophomore Erin Finn, junior Shannon Osika and senior Brook Handler.

Of the three, Finn has the best chance to make a big impact at NCAAs this fall. “She was good last year, but I think she’s going to be way better this year,” McGuire says. Finn was 30th at NCAA XC, the top freshman, but ran outstanding times of 15:26 for 5,000 and 32:41 for 10,000 on the track, taking 6th in the 10k at NCAAs. She has the chance to be a top-10 finisher in Terre Haute in November. Osika ran PRs of 4:17 (1500) and 16:09 (5,000) on the track, while Handler ran 4:15 and 16:04 and finished 6th at NCAAs in the 1500. Those three, in addition to Pogue and Taylor Manett (57th at NCAA XC) form an intimidating top five that stacks up well against anyone in the country. There’s depth behind them too, with Anna Pasternak, Megan Weschler and Alex Leptich, who have all run 10:11 or better in the steeplechase.

Michigan is not a commanding favorite, but the potential of a very low score from Finn up front with a strong pack behind her makes the Wolverines the team to beat. McGuire knows that winning the first national title in school history will be difficult, however, and he doesn’t have to look far to remind himself why.

“Obviously in Michigan State, we have a team 62 miles away that’s pretty darn good,” McGuire says, before listing off several other teams that he believed could contend for the national title. There’s also the chance that an under-the-radar team could make a big jump at the end of the season. “Somebody will step up,” McGuire says. “I don’t think we were necessarily under podium consideration going into last year [when we finished 4th].”

McGuire doesn’t have a specific goal in terms of place at nationals, but it’s obvious that Michigan is among the best teams in the country. A second conference title in three years is a possibility, and if the Wolverines can accomplish that, they’d have to be taken seriously as a threat to win it all.

Erin Finn *More NCAA XC Photos Erin Finn *More NCAA XC Photos

“We want to be better than we were last year,” McGuire says. “If we’re better than we were last year, we’ll see what happens when the championship part of the season comes up.”

2014 Women’s XC Preview: #2 Michigan St., #1 Michigan
#4 Arkansas & #3 Georgetown
*#6 Florida State & #5 Butler
*#8 Stanford, #7 Oregon
*#10 Iowa State & #9 Colorado

2014 Men’s XC Preview: #2 Stanford & #1 Colorado
*#4 Oregon & #3 Northern Arizona
#6 Portland & #5 Oklahoma State
*#8 Wisconsin & #7 Indiana
*#10 Villanova & #9 Iona

Archives: *2013 NCAA XC Coverage *2013 NCAA XC Photos *2013 NCAA XC Banquet Photos

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