September 4, 2014
Yesterday, we took a look at who we think will be the top 10 men at NCAAs in Terre Haute this fall and today it’s the women’s turn. Both previews were difficult to put together as there’s often little to separate the top runners, but the women’s preview was especially tough as 10 of the top 16 finishers from NCAAs last fall will not return (that includes New Mexico’s Sammy Silva, who is out of eligibility even though she was listed as a junior last year). As was the case with our men’s preview, this is not meant to be a definitive ranking but rather our best guess right now based on last year’s results, track accomplishments and gut feeling.
In case you missed any of our 2014 XC preview coverage, here it is:
1. Emma Bates, senior, Boise State
Previous NCAA finishes: 2nd (2013)
Track credentials: 2014 NCAA 10,000 champ; 6th at 2014 USAs (10,000), 4th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000, indoor 5,000 and indoor 3,000; PRs of 15:33 (5,000) and 32:20 (10,000)
Bates lost two cross country races last year: an early season run at the Bill Dellinger Invitational, to high schooler Alexa Efraimson (who has since turned pro) and NCAAs (to the departed Abbey D’Agostino). Otherwise, she was perfect, with wins at Pre-Nats, Mountain West, the NCAA West Regional. Neither D’Agostino nor Efraimson will run at NCAAs this fall — where Bates was the runner-up last year — and with them out of her way, Bates enters as the favorite for the 2014 NCAA crown.
She’s far from the unanimous pick that Edward Cheserek is on the men’s side, but Bates beat her closest rivals — Stanford’s Aisling Cuffe and Iona’s Kate Avery — twice each last fall and followed that up with her first NCAA title in the 10,000 on the track. Cuffe is extremely good too, as she beat Bates in the 5,000 at NCAAs indoors and out, but Bates’ wins over Cuffe last fall and her NCAA title (Cuffe is still looking for her first) earn Bates the nod as the preseason #1.
2. Aisling Cuffe, senior, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes: 4th (2013), 21st (2012), 74th (2011)
Track credentials: 2nd at 2014 NCAA indoor/outdoor 5,000; 4th at 2014 USAs (5,000); 15:11 5,000 PR is #3 all-time in NCAA
It’s going to come up, so we may as well address it: the Foot Locker curse. Since the first Foot Locker (then Kinney) Cross Country Championships were held 35 years ago, no girls’ champion has gone on to win an NCAA XC title. Cuffe won Foot Lockers as a senior in 2010 so the question naturally becomes: Will Aisling Cuffe Reverse the Curse?
While it’s one of those fun streaks to follow, the fact that Cuffe won a race almost four years ago has little to do with whether she’ll win a race 10 plus weeks from now. Yes, many Foot Locker girls champs don’t amount to anything in college because they developed early or overtrained. But for those that do, winning Foot Lockers doesn’t hurt them. Sheila Reid didn’t outkick Jordan Hasay in 2011 because Hasay won Foot Lockers in high school; Reid won because she was better on that day. If Cuffe doesn’t win NCAAs this fall, it will be because someone else was better than her — not because of something she did four years ago.
There’s not much between Cuffe and Bates and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those two kicking together up the long finishing straight in Terre Haute (the women’s race has come down to a kick two of the last three years). Like Bates, Cuffe had an outstanding track season, and though she didn’t win NCAAs last spring, her competition in the 5,000 was stronger than Bates’ in the 10,000.
Cuffe has steadily improved throughout her NCAA XC career, going from 74th as a freshman to 21st as a sophomore and 4th as a junior. Last spring, she added another tool — a kick — as she got down to 4:18 for 1500 and anchored Stanford to a pair of 2nds in the Penn Relays 4×1500 and DMR (losing to Villanova and NCAA indoor mile champ Emily Lipari each time). Cuffe has clearly found a formula that works under coach Chris Miltenberg and won’t have to improve much more to win the NCAA XC title and break the Foot Locker curse.
Course conditions could be a deciding factor. When it’s sloppy and muddy, as is often the case in Terre Haute, the women’s 6k race runs more like an 8k which favors Bates. If it’s fast and firm, the 5k runner Cuffe benefits.
3. Kate Avery, junior, Iona
Previous NCAA finishes: 3rd (2013)
Track credentials: 8th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000; 4th at Commonwealth Games 10,000; PRs of 8:56 (3,000), 15:27 (5,000) and 32:33 (10,000)
Avery led for 4 kilometers of last year’s race en route to finishing 3rd and should be a threat to finish in the top three again this fall. Avery didn’t have quite the same success as Cuffe and Bates during the NCAA season (here highest finish at NCAAs on the track was 8th in the 5,000 outdoors) but she ran extremely well at the Commonwealth Games, finishing as the top non-Kenyan in fourth in a PR of 32:33. Though Avery’s track season went later than most (the 10,000 final was on July 29), she’s still got plenty of time between now and November 22 to be race ready. With Iona not expected to do much as a team, there won’t be any panic to rush Avery back to racing before she’s ready.
4. Shelby Houlihan, senior, Arizona State
Previous NCAA finishes: 8th (2013), 31st (2012), 93rd (2011)
Track credentials: 2014 NCAA outdoor 1500 champion; 3rd 2014 NCAA indoor mile; 7th at 2014 USAs (800); PR of 4:10 (1500)
It’s always interesting when 800 runners run cross country. Houlihan is not a pure 800 runner, but she was good enough to get 7th at USAs in the event this year. Houlihan certainly has terrific range — she won NCAAs in the 1500 in dominating fashion and beat Cuffe to win the 5,000 at Pac-12s — and that makes her one of the most intriguing runners in the nation this fall.
Houlihan was a solid 8th at NCAAs last fall and should improve on that after getting down to 4:10.89 for 1500 (3-second PR) in July. We still give the advantage the longer distance types such as Bates, Cuffe and Avery, but Houlihan’s championship experience and versatility mean that she’s a serious threat to win it all in Terre Haute.
5. Erin Finn, sophomore, Michigan
Previous NCAA finishes: 30th (2013)
Track credentials: 6th in 2014 NCAA 10,000; PRs of 15:26 (5,000) and 32:41 (10,000)
Finn ran well in XC last fall, but it wasn’t until outdoor track that the then freshman truly hit her stride. The Michigan native ran massive PRs of 15:26 and 32:41, crazy fast times for a 19-year-old freshman. Finn pulled off the 5,000/10,000 double at Big 10s and went on to place sixth in the 10,000 at NCAAs in June. Her improvement from cross country to track alone should be good for 15-20 places and once you factor in graduation (only 6 of the top 16 from last year return in 2014), Finn should be fighting it out for a top 10 spot. She’ll need to be up there as the Wolverines should be in contention for the team title and even a minor difference in points could be enough to sway what figures to be a close women’s race.
6. Elise Cranny, freshman, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes: none
Track credentials: 4th in 1500 at 2014 World Junior Championships; PR of 4:10 1500 (#3 all-time HS, would have led NCAA last year)
Freshman are hard to predict, and Cranny may be even more so as Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg said Cranny may not race until the Wisconsin Invitational in the middle of October, or possibly not even until Pac-12s on Halloween. But there’s no denying her talent, as Cranny may be the most coveted high school recruit since Jordan Hasay. A freshman woman hasn’t finished in the top six since Colorado’s Allie McLaughlin in 2009, but there are several reasons why Cranny will match that achievement this fall.
Cranny’s specialty is the 1500, and no high schooler has been as good in that event as Cranny without turning pro before college. Cranny’s 4:10.95 PR is #3 all-time among high schoolers and just .06 slower than the pb of Houlihan, last year’s NCAA 1500 champ. Cranny took fourth at World Juniors in July, which is tied for the second-best finish in history by a U.S. runner in an event longer than 800 meters (Cain’s gold in the 3,000 is the best).
Cross country is a little different, of course, but it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Cranny running with the top group at NCAA XC. Cranny was 2nd at NXN last fall, 3.7 seconds behind winner Alexa Efraimson. Efraimson also beat Emma Bates earlier that season (the two were credited with the same time) and Bates went on to get 2nd at NCAAs. Therefore, Cranny was likely in shape to finish in the top 10 at NCAAs last fall had she run. She’s in better shape now, so the top 10 is certainly a realistic expectation in 2014.
That being said, the large NCAA field can be intimidating. We’ll be more confident in Cranny is she runs at the large Wisco Invite as that experience would be valuable.
7. Dominique Scott, junior, Arkansas
Previous NCAA finishes: 28th (2013), 140th (2011)
Track credentials: 2nd at 2014 NCAA indoor 3,000; 6th at 2014 NCAA outdoor 5,000; PRs of 4:14 (1500); 9:02 (3,000) and 15:42 (5,000)
Scott gets the nod here based on her performance at indoor NCAAs (2nd in the 3,000 and anchor of the winning DMR) and a strong outdoor season that saw her run 4:14 for 1500 and take sixth in the 5,000 at NCAAs. Scott won SECs in XC last year and, like every Arkansas runner at NCAAs, probably should have been a little higher up than she actually finished. Even if track remains the focus at Arkansas under coach Lance Harter, Scott has enough talent that top 10 in XC is a realistic goal.
8. Leah O’Connor, senior, Michigan State
Previous NCAA finishes: 44th (2013), 122nd (2012), 198th (2011)
Track credentials: 2014 NCAA steeple champ; 7th in 2014 NCAA indoor mile; PRs of 4:15 (1500) and 9:36 (3,000 steeple)
O’Connor has never even been an All-American at NCAA XC before, but expect that to change in 2014. O’Connor put together a dominant season on the track, culminating in a seven-second win in the steeplechase at NCAAs. She’s more than just a steepler, though, as she was 7th in the mile at NCAA indoors and ran 4:15 outdoors in the 1500 to win Big 10s.
Before NCAA outdoors, O’Connor was viewed as a good steepler with good 1500 speed, but after her convincing victory, she’s now a great steepler and a real threat to do some damage at NCAA XC. O’Connor needs to make a jump from her XC form last year but if she comes to Terre Haute in the same kind of shape she was in at NCAA outdoors in June, O’Connor will finish in the top 10.
9. Colleen Quigley, senior, Florida State
Previous NCAA finishes: 6th (2013), 12th (2012), 79th (2011)
Track credentials: 6th at 2014 NCAA indoor mile; 2nd at 2013 NCAA steeple; PRs of 4:15 (1500) and 9:38 (3,000 steeple)
Quigley missed the end of last track season due to injury but before that point she was running well as she placed 6th at indoor NCAAs in the mile and recorded a 4:16.04 1500 on May 4 at Stanford. She’s run well at NCAA XC the last two years and as long as she stays healthy, she should be a threat for the top 10 once again as a senior.
10. Sarah Collins, junior, Providence
Previous NCAA finishes: 39th (2013), 10th (2012)
Track credentials: PRs of 15:31 (5,000) and 33:36 (10,000)
Collins was only 39th last year, but she’s got a good coach in Ray Treacy and has a lot of upside as she’s still very young for a junior — she doesn’t turn 20 until September 15. She was 10th as a freshman in 2012 and ran 15:31 on the track last spring, the fourth-fastest 5,000 PR among returners, though she was just 16th at NCAAs outdoors. With Emily Sisson and Laura Nagel gone, the hope is that Collins will rise to the occasion and lead the Friars with a top-10 finish at NCAAs.
Freshman to watch: Sarah Baxter, Oregon
Previous NCAA finishes: none
Track credentials: PR of 10:06 (3200)
Obviously Cranny is a freshman to watch as well as we’ve ranked her sixth but Baxter should also have a major impact right away for the Ducks. There’s no other way to put it: Sarah Baxter was one of the greatest high school cross country runners of all time. She’s the only girl to win 2 NXN titles and she was undefeated going into her final XC race of high school before losing to two other all-time greats in Efraimson and Cranny. She holds the course record at the fabled Mt. SAC 3-mile course with a blazing time of 16:00 and ran 10:07 on the track last spring for 3200 before cutting her season short due to a stress reaction.
Assuming Baxter has fully recovered for the fall, she will be a threat to finish in the top 10 as she was just four seconds behind Cranny at NXN last year. As long as neither turns pro, NCAA XC will be just one of many battles between Cranny and Baxter as the two battle for Pac-12 and NCAA supremacy over the next four years.
We initially had Baxter in our top 10 but got cold feet after interacting with one of the many coaches we spoke with when working on our NCAA preview. Here is what a top girls coach had to say about Baxter/Finn when we had them both in our top 10:
Discuss this preview in our forum: LetsRun.com’s 2014 NCAA XC Women’s Pre-Season Individual Top 10 is now out.
More: LRC Top 10 Men’s Individual Preview: King Ches And Then Who? Edward Cheserek is the heavy favorite but who can pull off the big upset like he did last year? Remember in recent years, people thought Lawi Lalang and Kennedy Kithuka would never lose a college XC race. Our top 10 has 5 Americans and 5 foreigners in it. Could Stanford really have three in the top 10?
NCAA Team Preview: LRC Notes On The Team Races: Great Lakes Women And PAC-12 Men Lead The Way