2015 Women’s XC Preview: #6 Iowa State And #5 Oregon

By LetsRun.com
September 17, 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 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.

6. Iowa State: Cyclones reload after program-best 2nd-place finish in 2014

2014 results: 2nd NCAAs, 1st Midwest Regional, 1st Big 12, 3rd Wisconsin Invite

Key returners (lose #2, #5 from last year at NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Crystal Nelson SR 4 15:49
Bethanie Brown JR 22 9:19/16:09
Perez Rotich JR 27 4:23/16:30
Erin Hooker SO 88 16:11
Heidi Engelhardt JR 112 9:40
Becky Straw FR 16:03/33:52; 8th in jr race at Euro XC

Iowa State coach Andrea Grove-McDonough owes her team a tattoo.

“Beginning of the year [in 2014], I said ‘If you guys are top 10 [then I’ll get one],” McDonough said. “And then I said, ‘No, no, no.’ I saw how good they were, I could tell. So then I said ‘Oh no way, [I’ll do it] if you guys are top five.’ Then I quickly changed that right before [NCAAs], I said ‘No no, you’ve gotta be top three.’”

Perhaps motivated by their coach’s pledge, the Cyclones responded with a second-place finish at NCAAs, the program’s best since it took runner-up honors in Milwaukee in 1985.

“I should have said win,” McDonough added with a chuckle.

As of yet, McDonough has yet to fulfill her end of the bargain.

“I’m kind of waiting for them to grab me and shove me in there,” McDonough said. “I will say I had every intention of doing it but they kind of let it go. But when they read this, they’ll be on my case and I suspect maybe the next time you see me it will be there.”

The Cyclones reached the NCAA podium for the first time in 29 years in 2014 The Cyclones reached the NCAA podium for the first time in 29 years in 2014

Grove-McDonough might want to wait a little longer before getting inked as this year’s Iowa State team, ranked #1 in the USTFCCCA preseason coaches’ poll (they slipped to #2 in the poll that came out Tuesday), could be even better than the 2014 edition. The Cyclones lose a top-10 talent from a year ago (Katy Moen) as well as Margaret Connelly, their fifth scorer at NCAAs. But top woman Crystal Nelson, last year’s Wisconsin Invite champ, is back for her senior year and she’s joined by Bethanie Brown, who was 37th as a freshman in 2013 before falling back to 53rd after battling injuries in 2014. New import Becky Straw, who has run 16:03 on the track and was eighth in the junior race at the European Cross Country Championships, should also step into the Cyclones’ top five immediately. McDonough is also confident that junior Perez Rotich can build on her breakout performance at NCAAs a year ago (she was 65th).

“To have the breakthrough she had at the national meet was so big for her,” McDonough said. “For me, frankly, I’m seeing a different athlete [this fall] than I’ve seen…just her attitude, especially at practice.”

The key to this team’s fate will be Nelson. The senior put together an outstanding cross country season last fall, but she was also battling thoughts of suicide and an eating disorder, two issues which came to a head in February. She revealed her problems to McDonough and later her teammates, and with their help and the help of therapists, doctors and trainers at Iowa State, she’s doing much better now.

“Coach McDonough was like a mom to me,” Nelson told the Iowa State Daily. “I think she was the person who really got me through it and was my biggest supporter.”

After taking four to five months off completely from running, Nelson is training again and completed her first full workout with the team last Tuesday. Her fate this season is yet to be determined.

“We will not run her if she’s not going to be a difference maker,” McDonough said. “If we can get her back — I don’t even mean all the way to being top 10 necessarily — if we can get her back to being an All-American, top 20, we will run her. But if we can’t and she’s just a couple weeks shy, we will hold her and save that eligibility for the year after.

“She makes a lot of progress in a short period of time. So assuming we don’t have any setbacks we’re optimistic. But at the end of the day, too, we’re going to do what’s best for her.”

Despite holding the preseason #1 ranking, McDonough admits that “there are more question marks about this team than last year.” McDonough herself didn’t vote the Cyclones #1 (she voted for New Mexico) but also believes that this group is capable of winning a national title, with or without Nelson.

“I haven’t been shy about going around the country in recruits’ living rooms and wherever I can and saying our goal is to win a national title,” McDonough said. “Whether that is realistic or not, that remains to be seen. But that’s our ultimate goal and if we can’t do it this year, we’ll figure out a way to get back there next year.”

The presence of a fully-fit Nelson would obviously make a huge difference for the Cyclones. And if she and the rest of the Iowa State women run to their potential, they could have a nice phrase to ink onto the blank space on their coach’s body — “national champions.”

5. Oregon: Will the deep Ducks find a front-runner?

2014 results: 6th NCAAs, 1st West Regional, 1st Pac-12, 2nd Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #3 from NCAAs last year)24+25+35+36+39

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Alli Cash SO 24 4:16/10:25 SC
Waverly Neer SR 25 9:08/15:37/33:26
Molly Grabill SR 35 15:47/33:26
Frida Berge SO 36 4:18/16:17/10:09 SC
Annie Leblanc SR 39 2:01/4:15
Maggie Schmaedick JR 76 9:35/16:09/33:46
Sarah Baxter FR 16:40; two-time NXN champion
Ashley Maton JR 4:18/16:30
Brianna Nerud JR 4:45/9:50/10:00 SC

At first glance, a #5 ranking might appear low for a team that finished sixth a year ago and loses just one runner from its top seven — and adds in prep stud Sarah Baxter, a two-time NXN champion in high school who redshirted last year. That’s a testament to the depth in women’s college cross country right now — almost every team ranked ahead of the Ducks has a marquee addition to rival Baxter. This Oregon team could win it all; it could just as easily wind up 10th.

What it comes down to is the Ducks’ ability to find a consistent low stick, something they lacked in 2014. Oregon had a different #1 runner in each of its four biggest meets last year (Pre-Nats, Pac-12s, NCAA West Regional, NCAAs). The Ducks won the tough NCAA West Regional despite placing no individuals in the top 10. At NCAAs, the Ducks’ top finisher was 59th but they still managed to finish sixth overall.

Oregon Berge (left), Cash (middle) and Grabill (right) formed a tight pack for the Ducks at NCAAs last fall

With the bulk of that squad returning, Oregon could be very dangerous if one or two of its runners can take the next step and run in the top 20 or so at NCAAs. And the Ducks have several women capable of doing just that. Fifth-year seniors Molly Grabill and Waverly Neer went 4-5 in the NCAA 10,000 in June; both will be looking to go out with a bang in their final cross country seasons. Sophomore Alli Cash was the team’s top finisher at NCAAs a year ago and won the season-opening Dellinger Invitational on Friday.

Then there’s Baxter, who has the biggest ceiling of them all. A high school legend, Baxter set the course record at the fabled Mt. SAC course and ran 10:06 for 3200 on the track as a junior. So far, Baxter hasn’t done much as a Duck after suffering an injury at the end of her high school career. She redshirted all three seasons last year, competing just twice unattached with unremarkable times of 4:29 and 16:40. At Dellinger, Baxter was Oregon’s sixth woman. But the talent is there, and one needs only to look at fellow Duck Eric Jenkins (who was UO’s 5th man at Dellinger last year) to see how little early-season performances can mean. If Baxter can live up to her high school potential, it gives Oregon a formidable weapon in its chase for a second national title in four seasons.

If one of the Ducks emerges to run at the front of the pack, Oregon has the depth behind them (Frida Berge, Annie Leblanc, Maggie Schmaedick, Ashley Maton) to find itself on the podium. If it can put two in the top 20 at NCAAs, you’re looking at a title-contending team.

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