2015 Women’s XC Preview: #4 Georgetown and #3 Stanford

By LetsRun.com
September 18, 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 other previews, you can find them all here:

*#1 New Meixco and #2 Colorado
*#3 Stanford and #4 Georgetown
*#5 Oregon and #6 Iowa State
*#7 Providence and #8 Michigan State
*#9 Michigan and #10 Arkansas

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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.

4. Georgetown: Hoyas aim for fifth top-five finish in six years 

2014 results: 4th NCAAs, 1st Mid-Atlantic Regional, 1st Big East, 1st Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #1, #5 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Samantha Nadel SR 15 4:39/9:05
Andrea Keklak SR 16 2:04/4:17
Haley Pierce JR 23 9:25/16:11
Kelsey Smith SR 50 4:22/9:36
Sarah Cotton JR 53 16:14/34:44
Audrey Belf FR 4:45/10:10; 7th FL

It has been a tumultuous summer for the Georgetown track and field/cross country program. Director of track and field and cross country Patrick Henner resigned in July. After allegations of sexual misconduct and racial bias within the program, a university investigation was conducted and though the investigation found no evidence of racial bias within the program, a separate university investigation into the men’s program “found that inappropriate locker room behavior and the creation of offensive materials relating to unofficial team events violated the University’s policies regarding sexual misconduct, harassment, non-discrimination, and hazing.” The investigation found no wrongdoing by Henner or his staff, but he resigned and is out although he did get a glowing recommendation from the Athletic Director. Though the sanctions imposed in the wake of the investigation only concern the men’s track team, including the cancellation of seven weekends of competition, the entire program has been affected by the allegations. On July 17, women’s track alum Chelsea Cox began a blog titled “My Georgetown Experience.” Fourteen athletes, a mixture of current and former members of the men’s and women’s teams, added their own experiences over the next four days.

(Related: MB: Georgetown coach Pat Henner resigns (but gets glowing recommendation from AD) – 7 meets are cancelled)

Georgetown has racked up three podium finishes in the past five years and is well-positioned for another on in 2015 Georgetown has racked up three podium finishes in the past five years and is well-positioned for another on in 2015

Now it will be up to Michael Smith (who was promoted from women’s coach to Henner’s old position of director of track and field and cross country) to lead the Hoyas into a new era. (As of publication Smith had not responded to an interview request).

Running-wise, 2015 should be a big season for Georgetown. The Hoya women wound up on the podium last fall, taking fourth at NCAAs, just one point behind third-place New Mexico. Despite losing #1 runner Katrina Coogan, the Hoyas are still in a very strong position heading into 2015 — all five of its 2014 underclassmen rank among the top 53 in team scoring among returners.

There’s great depth here, but to repeat the podium performance, it would help if someone stepped forward into the front-runner role vacated by Coogan. Senior Samantha Nadel is the woman most likely to make that jump, as she ran 9:05 for 3,000 meters indoors and placed 11th in that event at NCAAs before sitting out the outdoor season. If Nadel can move up from 37th last year to the teens in 2015 and teammates Andrea Keklak (4:17 1500; 40th last year), Haley Pierce (16:11 5,000; 57th last year) can bump up 10-15 places, Georgetown will be very strong through three runners.

Georgetown will also be relying on its sixth and seventh runners from a year ago, senior Kelsey Smith and Sarah Cotton, to step up as reliable scoring members of the team. Smith hasn’t raced since March, but she was the team’s #2 at Pre-Nats last year (19th overall). Cotton, meanwhile, lowered her 5,000 PR by almost a minute on the track in the spring, running 16:14 at the Penn Relays. Add in top freshman recruit Audrey Belf (7th at Foot Lockers in 2014) and Georgetown has the depth to land on the podium again.

The Hoyas’ result at NCAAs will depend on the tightness of their pack. Our #3 team on this list, Stanford, has two of the top women in the country in Aisling Cuffe and Elise Cranny and a sub-16:00 talent in Vanessa Fraser; Georgetown will almost certainly be behind the Cardinal through three runners, but the Hoyas have the potential to make that up on the back end if Smith, Cotton and/or Belf come through. Even if they can’t, a podium finish is still very realistic.

3. Stanford: Cardinal pack a powerful 1-2 punch; do they have the depth for the program’s first podium finish since 2012?

2014 results: 14th NCAAs, 3rd West Regional, 2nd Pac-12, 7th Wisconsin Invite

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

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Elise Cranny SO 7 4:10/8:58; 2nd in NCAA 3k
Emma Fisher SO 36 10:26 3200
Sophie Chase JR 62 4:51/10:19 2 mile
Vanessa Fraser SO 71 15:54, 13th in NCAA 5k
Molly McNamara SR 84 4:20
Claire Howlett SO 93 9:32/16:45
Abbie McNulty SO 108 4:55/9:45
Aisling Cuffe SR 15:11, 2nd in NCAA 5k in ’14, 4th at NCAA XC in ’13
Hannah Long FR 4:40/10:20/19th at FL
Claire Smith FR 4:23/9:37/16:31

The 2014 Stanford women were one of the youngest teams in the entire country, with their top seven at NCAAs consisting of five freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. True freshman Elise Cranny led that squad to a 14th-place finish at NCAAs, the program’s second-worst showing since 1993.

“I think we had a couple people maybe last year as freshmen went to the NCAA meet and got a little overwhelmed,” head coach Chris Miltenberg said.

But overall, Miltenberg believes that the experience his runners gained in 2014 will pay dividends this year.

“14th place, I don’t think that defines what we did over the course of the season, how much we grew and learned,” Miltenberg said. “And I think that sets up that group for a lot of progress heading into this year.”

Cranny was 12th at NCAAs in '14, the best finish by a freshman last year Cranny was 12th at NCAAs in ’14, the best finish by a freshman last year

Stanford has two big things working in its favor. One is Cranny, one of the best distance prospects to come through the NCAA in some time. Cranny’s times in high school weren’t quite on the level of Mary Cain or Alexa Efraimson, both of whom went pro rather than compete at the NCAA level. But aside from those two women, Cranny’s HS PR of 4:10.95 in the 1500 is 3.55 seconds faster than any other U.S. high schooler in history. And it bears remembering that Cranny actually beat Efraimson at World Juniors last year (Cranny was 4th in the 1500, Efraimson 6th).

Cranny’s freshman year began very well, with a 12th-place finish at NCAA XC and a pair of runner-up finishes at NCAA indoors in the 3,000 and as anchor of Stanford’s DMR. Her progress skidded to a half in the outdoor season (she was 4th at Pac-12s in the 1500 and 10th at NCAAs), something that Miltenberg takes full responsibility for.

“That was my fault completely,” Miltenberg said. “I think by the end, to be honest with you, she was tired. If you look at it, she had raced in the World Juniors until [July 27, 2014]. We took a break in August and into September but even though you’re taking a training break, it was August and she was already excited to get to college and start getting going. If you look at her calendar year, you could almost argue that she had been going — by the time she hit June [2015] — for almost two years straight without a real substantial break.”

The other thing working in the Cardinal’s favor is the return of Aisling Cuffe. Cuffe put together a magnificent 2013-14 season, including a 4th-place finish at NCAA XC, a 15:11.13 5,000 PB (#3 all-time NCAA) and a 4th-place showing at the USATF Outdoor Championships. But she suffered a stress fracture last fall, and Miltenberg chose to redshirt her all three seasons in order to make her return from injury as smooth as possible.

Both Cuffe and Cranny should be major factors at NCAAs, but we may have to wait until November to see what they’re really capable of. Miltenberg, who coached World Champs bronze medallist Emily Infeld at Georgetown, is focused on his athletes’ long-term development, and as a result he encourages them to race as deep into the summer as possible as preparation for professional careers. For Cuffe and Cranny, the plan is to race well all the way through the Olympic Trials in July 2016.

“With someone like Aisling, I want her to race really, really well this fall and I have no doubt she will,” Miltenberg said. “But our #1 priority is I want to be setting her up to run great all the way into July and well beyond this year too.”

Sophomore Vanessa Fraser is as good a #3 runner as you’ll find in the NCAA, boasting a 15:54 PR and a 13th-place finish in the 5,000 at NCAA outdoors. The Cardinal’s season will be defined by their #4 and #5 runners, whose identities are yet to be determined. Sophomore Emma Fisher was the team’s #2 at NCAAs a year ago (75th overall), followed by junior Sophie Chase (136th) and they will be counted on to make progress in 2015. Miltenberg also believes that Claire Howlett and Abbie McNulty, both of whom ran at NCAAs for Stanford last fall as true freshmen, will be improved in their second year in the program.

“I’m really, really excited about our rising sophomores,” Miltenberg said. “Freshman year is a long, hard year and they grew a lot, probably way more than any of the results on paper show and then they had a great summer.”

Freshmen Hannah Long and Claire Smith could also make an instant impact, but Miltenberg says he will be bringing them along slowly and cautiously this fall.

With such a strong front three, Stanford won’t need a massive improvement at the #4/#5 spots to land on the podium, but to beat teams like New Mexico (who are arguably level with Stanford through three runners and better through four) and win the program’s first national title since 2007, the Cardinal’s depth will be vital.

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