NCAA XC Women’s Individual Preview: Kate Avery, Shelby Houlihan and Crystal Nelson Battle in an Exciting Women’s Race

By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2014

The women’s individual race at NCAAs has yet to be run, but there’s already been more drama than an episode of All My Children. Heading into the season, Emma Bates and Aisling Cuffe were the clear favorites until Bates finished sixth at Roy Griak and Cuffe was ruled out for the season with a stress fracture. That left the spotlight to Griak champ Shelby Houlihan, who promptly lost to Crystal Nelson at Wisconsin. But Nelson lost to Rachel Johnson at Griak and Johnson won Pre-Nats, making Johnson the favorite, right? Well Johnson promptly lost to Nelson by 27 seconds at Big 12s. And then, like the aunt in a soap opera that everyone assumed to be dead, Kate Avery emerged to run 19:15 at her conference meet. The favorite for NCAAs has changed seemingly every weekend and who you like on Saturday depends on what you value.

Ranking these women is no easy task, but I’ve done it below. Obviously these aren’t set in stone predictions; they’re just one man’s best guess as to what will unfold on Saturday. The hope is that the 20 minutes these women are out on the course in Terre Haute will provide one last installment of drama in what has been an unpredictable season. Unlike a soap opera though, no one’s going to wake up and realize it was all a dream — what happens on Saturday is permanent.

Event details

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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

If you like fantasy football: I participated in a fantasy draft for the women’s race at the NCAA Championships. That draft was part of the USTFCCCA’s QA2 Max podcast, and the link can be found here. My team is as follows (I had the sixth pick in a six-team draft): Dominique Scott, Arkansas; Katy Moen, Iowa St.; Bethan Knights, Cal; Megan Curham, Princeton; Monika Juodeskaite, Oklahoma St.; Dana Giordano, Dartmouth; Katie Gillespie, West Virginia.

Avery had no problem dispatching BC's Liv Westphal at the Northeast Regional Avery had no problem dispatching BC’s Liv Westphal at the Northeast Regional (courtesy Iona Athletics)

1. Kate Avery, junior, Iona

Previous NCAA finish: 3rd 2013

2014 results: 1st MAAC Championships, 1st Northeast Regional

Why she should win: Avery is the only undefeated woman in the NCAA and though she got a late start to the season (she didn’t race until October 31), she’s looked fantastic in her two races so far, running a blazing 19:15 to win at the MAAC Championships and then destroying the woman who took fourth at Wisconsin, BC’s Liv Westphal, to win the Northeast Regional (Avery won by 23 seconds as Westphal ended up fourth). It’s also instructive to remember why Avery missed the first two months of the season — she was still building back up after finishing fourth in the Commonwealth Games 10,000 in July.

Avery has the highest ceiling of any runner in the field (she has the best 5k pb at 15:27), and she’s the only runner in the field who could turn this race into a blowout. She won’t be afraid to push the pace in an attempt to break the field — she tried it against Abbey D’Agostino last year  and came up a little bit short– and, given her 10k strength, that might be her best strategy for winning.

Why she might not: Avery has yet to race the likes of Nelson and Houlihan, so you can argue that her blowout wins haven’t come against the top competition (though Westphal had been running great until her loss to Avery). And though she was third last year, Avery hasn’t run great at her last two NCAA Championships on the track (9th indoor 3k, 8th outdoor 5k). Avery doesn’t have the best speed in the field (her fastest 1500 time in 2014 is 4:18, though her pb is 4:15), so if it’s a close race, she could falter. I believe she’s the favorite and would actually be surprised if she lost, but of the four races (men’s and women’s team/individual), she’s the most likely of the favorites to lose.

2. Crystal Nelson, junior, Iowa State 

Previous NCAA finishes: 32nd 2013; 192nd 2012

2014 results: 3rd Roy Griak, 1st Wisconsin, 1st Big 12s, 5th Midwest Regional

Why she could win: Nelson won the biggest race of the season — Wisconsin — and followed that up with a commanding 10-second victory at Big 12s over top individuals Katy Moen and Rachel Johnson. She took it easy at Regionals and should be well-rested for NCAAs.

Why she might not: Unlike most of the other women on this list, Nelson has never qualified for NCAAs on the track. That’s pretty remarkable. She’s even admitted she’s surprised herself with her success this year.

This is her first season running at the very front of the pack, and in a championship setting like NCAAs, that could work against her. You don’t like to see an individual favorite finish fifth at Regionals, but it seems clear that Nelson and Moen were told to take it as easy as possible, so I’m not too worried. Nelson has some great results this season, but she doesn’t have a distinctive strength to separate her from the other top individuals.

3. Shelby Houlihan, senior, Arizona State

Previous NCAA finishes: 8th 2013; 31st 2012; 93rd 2011

2014 results: 1st Roy Griak, 3rd Wisconsin, 1st Pac-12s, 1st West Regional

Why she could win: Watch this race. That’s Houlihan laying waste to 2013 Worlds qualifier Cory McGee and the rest of the NCAA over the final 200 of June’s NCAA 1500 final. If Saturday’s race comes down to a kick, you’d be foolish to beat against Houlihan, who has 2:01 800 speed and made the 800 final at USAs in June. On the men’s side, a 1500 runner isn’t always the best bet given the 10k race distance (two-time NCAA 1500 champ Mac Fleet of Oregon was 220th and 77th in his two NCAA XC races) but they’re usually in contention in the shorter 6k women’s race. Houlihan has beaten everyone else on this list (save Avery) in 2014 and has only lost once (at Wisconsin). Recent history says individual champs can only afford one regular-season loss; following that pattern, Avery, Houlihan or Arkansas’ Dominique Scott all fit the bill.

Why she might not: Houlihan lost to Nelson in their last matchup and her kick might prove useless if endurance monster Avery pushes the pace.

4. Dominique Scott, junior, Arkansas

Previous NCAA finish: 28th 2013

2014 results: 1st Chile Pepper, 8th Wisconsin, 1st SECs, 1st South Central Regional

Why she could win: Like Houlihan, Scott has a strong kick (she anchored Arkansas’ winning DMR at NCAA indoors this year), though it’s not as good as Houlihan’s. Scott hung tough with Abbey D’Agostino at NCAA indoors until 200 to go, taking second in the 3k, and she’s lost just once in XC, finishing 8th at Wisco. She won SECs by 10 seconds and beat Pre-Nats champ Rachel Johnson by 21 at the South Central Regional. Scott has a good mix of 1500/5k speed (pbs of 4:14/15:42) and she’s clearly in good form right now.

Why she might not: Arkansas has run poorly at the last two NCAA meets, with Scott finishing 28th in 2013. Coach Lance Harter places a greater emphasis on track than XC (hence Scott’s great indoor NCAA meet) which may mean that she’s not in peak shape until March or June. Her Regional win is impressive but you’ve got to wonder if winning by that much will come back to bite her with another race just eight days later. Finishing eighth at Wisconsin — by far the best field she’s faced this year — isn’t encouraging, either.

5. Katy Moen, senior, Iowa State

Previous NCAA finishes: 77th 2013; 139th 2012; 248th 2011

2014 results: 4th Roy Griak, 5th Wisconsin, 2nd Big 12s, 4th Midwest Regional

Why she could win: Moen’s credentials this season are tough to beat, as she finished in the top five at two of the biggest invitationals of the season and defeated Pre-Nats champ Rachel Johnson at Big 12s. She has a teammate in Nelson to work with up front, which could help her mentally. She’s been very consistent this fall.

Why she might not: Right now, Moen isn’t even the best runner on her team (the only time she beat Nelson this year was when they ran together at Regionals and Moen finished 0.1 seconds ahead) so it will be tough for her to be #1 in the NCAA on Saturday. Moen hasn’t won a race all season — heck, she’s only finished in the top three once — and it’s rare that someone breaks a winless streak like that at NCAAs. Moen is very good, but an individual title doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

6. Emma Bates, senior, Boise State

Previous NCAA finish: 2nd 2013

2014 results: 6th Roy Griak, 6th Wisconsin, 1st Mountain West, 2nd West Regional

Why she could win: Bates is the top returner from last year, and after struggling at Griak and Wisconsin, she has been running better of late, winning Mountain Wests and taking second at the West Regional. At Regionals, Bates was just 2.6 seconds back of Houlihan; she was 6 seconds back at Wisconsin and 28 seconds behind at Griak. She’s also a great NCAA runner. Check out her NCAA Championship results:

Race Result
2014 outdoor 5k 4th
2014 outdoor 10k 1st
2014 indoor 3k 4th
2014 indoor 5k 4th
2013 XC 2nd
2013 outdoor 5k 7th
2013 outdoor 10k 3rd
2013 indoor 5k 14th
2012 outdoor 5k 7th

She’s the reigning NCAA 10k champ and proved in that race that she is as tough as it comes with a championship on the line. Bates hasn’t been quite as dominant as she was last fall (she didn’t lose to an NCAA runner until NCAAs) but she’s trending upward and could be peaking at the right time.

Why she might not: In some ways, it’s crazy that I have Bates who was second last year, only sixth this year, but Bates’ only win this season came at the Mountain West Championships, where her main competition was teammate Marisa Howard. She’s 0-3 against Houlihan and the 6k distance doesn’t favor Bates, who is a better 10k runner (her 32:20 pb is the best of anyone in the NCAA). It would be a nice story for Bates to move up to first after narrowly missing out last season, but her 2014 results indicate that a finish in the 4-8 range is more likely. Last year, remember, the course was very muddy and slow so it ran much more like a 7 or 8k than 6k. This year, it’s not wet at all.

Rachel Johnson after taking third at NCAAs in the steeple this spring Rachel Johnson after taking third at NCAAs in the steeple this spring

7. Rachel Johnson, senior, Baylor

Previous NCAA finish: 107th 2013

2014 results: 2nd Roy Griak, 1st Pre-Nats, 3rd Big 12s, 2nd South Central Regional

Why she might win: Johnson, who was a national champ in high school (she won NXN in 2010), beat Nelson to take second at Roy Griak and won Pre-Nats by 15 seconds. Those two performances are as good as anything anyone else has done this season.

Why she might not: She has tailed off in her last two races, as Nelson smoked her at Big 12s and Scott did the same at the South Central Regional. If NCAAs were held in the middle of October, Johnson may well have been your 2014 champion. She’s still a top-10 runner but it’s hard to imagine her making up that much ground on Nelson and Scott.

8. Liv Westphal, senior, Boston College

Previous NCAA finishes: 17th 2013; 85th 2012; 78th 2011

2014 results: 1st Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown, 4th Wisconsin, 1st ACCs, 4th Northeast Regional

Why she might win: Westphal exploded onto the scene in September, destroying Michigan’s Erin Finn by 21 seconds (in a 5k!) to win the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown. From there, she took fourth at Wisconsin and comfortably won ACCs by 14 seconds over Florida State’s Colleen Quigley. Unlike years past, the Frenchwoman put in a full summer of base training (in the past, she raced track over the summer) and that should help her improve on her 17th-place finish from 2013. She was 6th at the 2013 European U-23 XC Championships as well. And that fourth-place finish at Regionals can be chocked up to Westphal trying to go with Avery when she didn’t need to and paying for it. If she runs her own race, she’s likely second.

Why she might not: Read those last two sentences again: Westphal tried to go with Avery at Regionals and ended up fourth, 27 seconds back. There’s no reason to think that Avery won’t break her again on Saturday. Even Westphal’s 6th at Euro XC doesn’t look as impressive when you see that Avery was fourth in that race. Best-case scenario, Westphal rebounds and finishes in the top five. Worst-case, she tries to go with Avery again and blows up. Either way, she’s not beating Avery, and therefore she’s not winning.

Rachele Schulist embraces Leah O'Connor after the latter's NCAA steeple title in June Rachele Schulist embraces Leah O’Connor after the latter’s NCAA steeple title in June

9. Leah O’Connor, senior, Michigan State

Previous NCAA finishes: 44th 2013, 122nd 2012, 198th 2011

2014 results: 2nd Bill Dellinger Invite, 9th Roy Griak, 9th Wisconsin, 1st Big 10s, 1st Great Lakes Regional

Why she might win: I wrote in my team preview that Michigan State keeps getting better and that’s due in large part to a string of huge performances by their senior leader. The 2014 NCAA steeple champ, O’Connor was ninth at Roy Griak, followed that up by taking ninth against a better field at Wisconsin and winning her last two races at Big 10s and the Great Lakes Regional. She and teammate Rachele Schulist (2nd at Wisco) made it look easy at Regionals, pulling away to win by 13 seconds over third-place Sarah Disanza of Wisconsin. With no reason to let off the gas at NCAAs, O’Connor will be going all out and that could propel her to a level we haven’t seen from her yet this season — and that’s saying something, considering that she blitzed a 19:26 6k to win Big 10s.

Why she might not: O’Connor was only ninth in her two major invitationals this season and her previous NCAA XC performances aren’t stellar. Like Blake Theroux on the men’s side, coach Walt Drenth may instruct O’Connor not to take risks by running at the very front and competing for the individual win and instead tell her to try and lock up a top-10 finish.

10. Elise Cranny, freshman, Stanford

Previous NCAA finishes: none

2014 results: 1st Washington Invitational, 7th Wisconsin, 2nd Pac-12s, 3rd West Regional

Why she might win: Cranny’s 4:10 1500 pb is the best in the field and even though this is her first NCAA Championships, she is no stranger to the big stage, as she took fourth at World Juniors in the 1500. She won Washington and ran well at Pac-12s and the West Regional. She’s the most likely of anyone to experience a major breakthrough in a race as she’s still only 18 years old.

Why she might not: Like Bates, she’s 0-3 against Houlihan and wasn’t particularly close to either of those two runners at the West Regional (14 seconds behind Houlihan, 11 behind Bates). She was only seventh at Wisconsin and hasn’t won a race against big-time competition in college (the runner-up in Cranny’s lone victory, NAU’s Melanie Townsend, was just 8th at the Mountain Regional and 16th at Pre-Nats). No freshman woman has placed in the top five since Colorado’s Allie McLaughlin in 2009 and only one freshman woman, NC State’s Suzie Tuffey in 1985, has ever won NCAAs. Cranny could win an NCAA XC title before her career is done, but it’s not happening this year.

More: Women’s Team Preview for 2014 NCAAs

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