November 18, 2015
Without a doubt, the most up-in-the-air event at Saturday’s 2015 NCAA Cross Country Championships is the women’s individual race. Barring major upsets, Oregon’s Edward Cheserek is going to win the men’s race and the New Mexico women will win the women’s team race. The outcome of the men’s team race is less certain, but Colorado is the clear favorite. But the women’s individual race? A lot of stuff can happen there.
To see just how much has changed since last year, let’s revisit the top 11 underclassmen at the 2014 meet (listed with their finish in 2014):
1. Kate Avery, Iona — turned professional in September
2. Sarah Disanza, Wisconsin — redshirted this fall
4. Rachele Schulist, Michigan State — hasn’t raced since September
6. Dominique Scott, Arkansas — SEC/South Central Region champ
7. Crystal Nelson, Iowa State — redshirted this fall
10. Chelsea Blaase, Tennessee — 2nd at SECs, South Regional champ
11. Lindsay Clark, Michigan State — hasn’t raced all fall
12. Elise Cranny, Stanford — hasn’t raced all fall
13. Courtney Frerichs, UMKC – Running great for New Mexico. (4th Wisco, 2nd Mountain West).
14. Jillian Forsey, West Virginia — hasn’t raced all fall
18. Megan Curham, Princeton – doing an internship this fall, not enrolled in school (racing unattached) but will back in 2015.
If you’re counting, we can expect only three of those 11 women to be on the starting line in Louisville. In their absence, we’ve seen the rise and fall of one freshman (NC State’s Ryen Frazier) and the emergence of another first-year collegian, Boise State’s Allie Ostrander, who will look to become the first freshman to claim the title in 30 years. Scott, Blaase and Frerichs are among the women who will look to stop her; we break down the top women below.
What: 2015 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville, Kentucky
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 for free.
If you like fantasy football: LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson 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. Robert’s team is as follows: Aisling Cuffe, Stanford; Chelsea Blaase, Tennessee; Waverly Neer, Oregon; Elizabeth Bird, Princeton; Dana Giordano, Dartmouth; Catarina Rocha, Providence; Maddie Alm, Colorado.
Allie Ostrander, freshman, Boise State
2015 results: 1st World Mountain Running Championships (junior race), 2nd Roy Griak, 1st Wisconsin, 1st Mountain West, 1st West Regional
Generally we’re hesitant to back a freshman to win NCAAs — there’s a reason it hasn’t happened for 30 years. But if you were to pick a freshman to end that streak, she’d have the same resume as Ostrander. Let’s run through a checklist. Pedigree? Check — she won the NXN title last year as a senior in high school and ran 9:58 for 3200 last spring. Dominance? Check — she broke Abbey D’Agostino‘s course record at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational, blazing to a 19:19.5 clocking. She followed that up with a 15-second win over New Mexico stud Courtney Frerichs at the Mountain West Champs and a 21-second victory at the West Regional. Big-race experience? Check — in addition to wins at NXN last year and Wisconsin this year, Ostrander won the junior race at the World Mountain Running Championships in September. She’s never run in an NCAA Championship, but she’s succeeded in her biggest races so far.
Ostrander does have one loss this fall, as Cal’s Bethan Knights beat her by 16 seconds at Roy Griak. But in that race, Ostrander was just a week removed from her tough Would Mountain Running win in Wales and Knights hasn’t raced since. Considering how she’s torn through the competition since that race, Ostrander has to be viewed as the favorite on Saturday, and there’s not much to dislike about her. Notre Dame’s Molly Seidel and Arkansas’ Dominique Scott have been on fire late in the season, but Ostrander beat both of them at Wisconsin. There is some concern that a long season of racing could take its toll on Ostrander, but winning the West Regional by 21 seconds does little to support that theory.
If Ostrander loses on Saturday, it might simply be because she loses to someone better than her rather than choking. Ostrander has been exceptional this fall, but she has not built up the track record of her counterpart on the men’s side, Edward Cheserek of Oregon. We know Cheserek is the best guy in the field because he’s proven it time and again. Ostrander’s resume is a lot shorter and thus there’s more room for doubt. If everyone on the men’s side runs their best race possible, Cheserek wins. On the women’s side, if someone like Scott or Stanford’s Aisling Cuffe (who has run 15:11 for 5k and has yet to race Ostrander this fall) runs their best race, that might be good enough to defeat Ostrander’s best race (we say might because Ostrander has yet to reveal her true ceiling).
The Curse Breakers
As you likely know by now, no woman has won both a Foot Locker national title in high school and an NCAA XC title in college. The ‘Foot Locker Curse’ has long been a topic of discussion on LetsRun.com. This year, there is not one, but two women capable of ending the “curse,” which has endured since NCAAs on the women’s side started in 1981 (Foot Lockers began in 1979). We’re not going to factor in whether an athlete won Foot Lockers or not in our analysis (judging a runner on a single race from years ago is foolish) but the curse will serve as an interesting side note should one of these ladies win it all in Louisville on Saturday.
Molly Seidel, senior, Notre Dame
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 217th, 2012; 171st, 2013; 19th, 2014. 4:42/9:10/15:48/33:18
2015 results: 3rd Notre Dame Invite, 2nd Wisconsin Invite, 1st ACCs, 1st Great Lakes Regional
When Seidel won her first NCAA title, in June’s 10,000-meter final in Eugene, it registered as a massive upset. Like most observers, we expected it to come down to defending champ Emma Bates of Boise State and Arkansas’ indoor 3k champ Dominique Scott. But 10,000 meters — and one crazy move — later, Seidel was your champion.
“Total disbelief,” Seidel told us, when asked to describe her feelings post-race. “I’m worried I’m going to wake up from a nap and it’s going to be three hours before the race right now.”
If Seidel can add another national title on Saturday, she won’t need to pinch herself; she’s proven all season long she belongs with the top women in the nation. Seidel began her year by taking third at her home invitational on October 2 but moved up to second at the more competitive Wisconsin Invite, where she would have broken D’Agostino’s course record if Ostrander didn’t beat her to it. Those two women were well ahead of the field by the end (Ostrander ran 19:19, Seidel 19:22; third-place Scott was 10 seconds back in 19:32) and Seidel has added two dominant victories in the interim, crushing the ACC field by 32 seconds in 19:36 and taking the Great Lakes Regional title by 14 seconds over teammate Anna Rohrer (who was in turn 15 seconds up on the next runner). Seidel came the closest of anyone in the NCAA field to beating Ostrander and given her last two results, it would not be a surprise to see her make up those three seconds from Wisconsin at NCAAs.
Aisling Cuffe, senior, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 74th, 2011; 21st, 2012; 4th, 2013; 19th, 2014. 4:42/9:04/15:11
2015 results: 9th Fresno State Invite (Stanford pack-ran this race); 1st Washington Invitational; 1st Pac-12s
Sometimes it’s hard to remember, given that she’s run just two serious cross country races in the last two years, but Cuffe is a mega talent. She didn’t just win Foot Lockers in high school — she dominated, winning by a comical 34 seconds and becoming the first woman in 16 years to break 17:00 at Balboa Park (she ran 16:53). At Stanford, she was 4th at NCAAs in ’13 and was denied a pair of titles on the track by D’Agostino (who beat her in the 5k indoors in ’14) and Marielle Hall (who beat her in the 5k outdoors in ’14), two-thirds of Team USA’s 5,000 squad at Worlds this summer. In the spring of 2014, she ran 15:11 for 5,000 (#3 all-time NCAA) and took fourth at USAs in the same event, all at the age of 20.
So why isn’t Cuffe the overwhelming favorite for NCAAs? Well, she missed all of 2014-15 due to a stress fracture and Cardinal coach Chris Miltenberg has been extremely cautious with her this fall, sitting her out of Pre-Nats and the West Regional as an injury precaution. In the two serious races she’s run, Cuffe has won both, clocking a 19:41 to earn a three-second victory at the Washington Invitational and a 19:53 to win by two seconds at Pac-12s. The problem is, we don’t know if the Cuffe of fall 2015 is the same as the Cuffe of spring 2014. Is she 80% of that runner? 90%? 100%? Pac-12s had some solid competition, but no one as good as Seidel, Ostrander or Scott. Was Cuffe holding something in reserve for the big race in Louisville?
We won’t definitively know until Saturday, which makes the women’s race all the more exciting. Cuffe has one of the highest upsides in the field, but she’ll need to be near the top of her game to take down Ostrander, Seidel and Scott, and that’s hard to do if she’s still feeling the effects of her injury.
Dominique Scott, senior, Arkansas
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 140th, 2011; 28th, 2013; 6th, 2014. 4:08/8:52/15:32/32:11
2015 results: 1st Chile Pepper, 3rd Wisconsin, 1st SECs, 1st South Central Regional
Scott doesn’t face the same concerns as the other women we’ve discussed. Unlike Ostrander, she’s got plenty of experience — Scott is a fifth-year senior making her fourth appearance at NCAA XC. Unlike Seidel, she’s been a player on the NCAA scene for some time, anchoring Arkansas to a DMR win at NCAA indoors in 2014 and doubling back to take second in the 3k the following night. And unlike Cuffe, she’s had no injury issues.
No, the problem with Scott is simpler: last time she faced Ostrander and Seidel, they took her lunch money and left her sitting on the curb. Scott’s 19:32 at Wisconsin was in no way a bad performance, but Ostrander and Seidel dropped her in the late stages of the race and she wound up 10 seconds behind Seidel and 13 behind Ostrander. Since then, Scott has dominated, winning SECs by 17 seconds and the South Central Regional by 15. But that’s what NCAA title contenders do: Ostrander and Seidel have won by similar margins.
Scott does have a few things working in her favor. She’s got the fastest 1500 PR in the entire field at 4:08, and she beat the eventual NCAA champ (Rhianwedd Price of Mississippi State) in the 1500 at SECs in May. Her other PRs (8:52/15:32/32:11) are also very impressive; she has the best range of anyone in the country. Scott is also the top returner from last year’s meet, and history shows that the top returner generally runs very well the following year.
|Year||Top returner||Place (previous year place)|
|2014||Emma Bates||3rd (2nd)|
|2013||Abbey D’Agostino||1st (2nd)|
|2012||Jordan Hasay||3rd (2nd)|
|2011||Sheila Reid||1st (1st)|
But there’s a difference between running well and winning. Scott is an exceptional runner, but so are Seidel, Ostrander and Cuffe. It will take everything she’s got to take home the title.
- Chelsea Blaase, senior, Tennesse. Blaase is the #2 returner from 2014, rolled at the South Regional and has already won in Louisville this year, taking the Greater Louisville Classic title on October 3. But most NCAA champs don’t lose by 17 seconds at their conference meet, as Blaase did to Scott.
- Hannah Everson, senior, Air Force. Everson was second at Pre-Nats, 3rd at the Mountain West Champs (behind Ostrander and Frerichs) and won the Mountain, one of the toughest regionals in the country, by 10 seconds.
- Courtney Frerichs, senior, New Mexico. Frerichs was 2nd at Notre Dame, beating Molly Seidel on her home course. She’s been the #1 runner on the top team in the country, taking 4th at Wisconsin and 2nd at the Mountain West Champs before pack-running regionals with her teammates and finishing 10th. If Joe Franklin gives Frerichs the green light to go for the individual win, Frerichs, who was 13th last year (#3 returner) could be a factor.
The Undefeated TOTAL Longshot
- Blanca Fernandez, senior (grad student), Temple – The first-year NCAA runner hasn’t lost a race all year as she’s won Paul Short, the Princeton Invite, AAC and the Mid-Atlantic Regional. Of course, she really hasn’t had to race anyone of note all year either. She’s the U-23 Spanish 1500 champ and has pbs of 2:06 and 4:14.
Want Info on Women We Didn’t Mention?
There are a slew of talented runners who didn’t make our preview, but if you enter the LetsRun.com NCAA Prediction contest, you’ll get info on every runner that was in the top 10 at their regional. It’s free and you could win more than $200,000.
This is an exciting year. Any of the four women we listed above could win it and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Last time NCAAs were in Louisville, we were treated to a thrilling three-way kick between Betsy Saina, Abbey D’Agostino and Jordan Hasay. Hopefully Saturday’s race can match that.
1. Ostrander. She may be a freshman, but Ostrander has destroyed everyone since losing at Griak and she set the course record at Wisconsin.
2. Cuffe. No one in the field is in the same area code as her 15:11 5k PR. But how she runs all depends on her health — is she fully recovered from her stress fracture? Was she held out of Regionals just to keep her healthy or is something wrong? The Stanford website said she’s “expected” to run nationals.
3. Seidel. Beat Scott convincingly at Wisconsin and hasn’t lost since.