November 18, 2015
Officially, Joe Franklin‘s New Mexico Lobos will be racing against 30 other teams at Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships at Louisville’s E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park to see who is the best team in the land. To be honest, that race doesn’t hold much drama. In its four major races this year (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Mountain West, Mountain Regional) UNM has scored 29, 32, 24 and 50 points, good for an average of 33.8 points per meet (which would be lower if the Lobos hadn’t run as a pack at regionals). For context, the New England Patriots are currently averaging 33.7 points per game. When you’re averaging the same points per contest as a football team, that’s generally a sign that you’re doing something right. Unofficially, the Lobos are racing against history – might they be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)?
The question isn’t whether New Mexico wins its first NCAA title on Saturday; it’s how much do they win by?
Colorado may have technically beaten the Lobos at the Mountain Regional, and Mark Wetmore/Heather Burroughs have themselves a heck of a team in Boulder. But unlike regionals, the Lobos won’t be holding back in Louisville, which is trouble for the Buffaloes and the rest of the NCAA.
Just how good is New Mexico? We run the numbers and try to come up with an answer below, followed by a look at Colorado and the other podium contenders.
The Greatest Team of All Time?
As we wrote in the intro, New Mexico has put together a season for the ages in 2015. It began at Notre Dame, where UNM went 2-4-5-6-12 for 29 points but really took off at Wisconsin, where the Lobos put five in the top 10 to score 32 against the deepest field of any regular season meet. At last year’s Wisconsin meet, last year’s NCAA champ, Michigan State, scored 87. Their #2 runner at Wisconsin was Leah O’Connor, a two-time NCAA steeple champ who was 9th at Wisco. If she’d finished ninth at Wisconsin this year, she would have been New Mexico’s fifth scorer.
At their conference meet, the Lobos went 2-4-5-6-7-8 (24 points). UNM could have rested its top three runners and still defeated Boise State, a team currently ranked eighth in the country. Only Allie Ostrander — the Wisconsin champ and NCAA favorite — and Hannah Everson (Pre-Nats runner-up) prevented a 1-6 sweep.
UNM did lose at regionals (49-50 to No. 2 Colorado) but that doesn’t worry us. New Mexico packed it up, going 9-10-11-12-13-14 in that race without 15:45 woman Alice Wright.
At the beginning of the year, we knew New Mexico would have the country’s best top four. Wright (20th NCAA XC ’14), Courtney Frerichs (15:47/9:31 SC/13th NCAA XC ’14), Rhona Auckland (15:27/32:22/19th World XC sr. race) and Calli Thackery (15:42/6th NCAA 5k) comprised a murderer’s row that no NCAA team could hope to match. So far, all four have come through in spades. The only question was at #5, but that position hasn’t been a concern at all in 2015. If anything, UNM seems to find another #5 runner in every race. Check out the performances from the Lobos other runners in 2015:
|Date – Meet||Athlete||Overall place (team place)||Proximity to “Big Four”|
|10/2 – Notre Dame||Molly Renfer||12th (5th)||12 seconds behind Thackery|
|10/16 – Wisconsin||Molly Renfer||10th (5th)||12 seconds behind Wright|
|10/30 – Mountain West||Molly Renfer||6th (4th)||1 second ahead of Thackery|
|10/30 – Mountain West||Heleene Tambet||8th (6th)||.3 of a second behind Thackery|
|11/13 – Mountain Regional||Molly Renfer||11th (3rd)||.1 of a second ahead of Auckland|
|11/13 – Mountain Regional||Whitney Thornburg||13th (5th)||4 seconds behind Auckland|
Obviously you have to take these performances with a grain of salt. When teammates finish within a second of each other (and the team coasts to a victory), that often means that one or both athletes were holding back. But 10th at Wisconsin doesn’t lie: Renfer, like predecessor Sammy Silva, is a 5th year from Harvard finding huge success in the desert, after being unable to even make the NCAA meet at Harvard. Tambet and Thornburg, another Harvard import, could score for any other team in the country and are good insurance policies in case of an emergency.
We hope the critics who try to discount Joe Franklin’s success at New Mexico as it’s done in large part thanks to foreigners and transfers see the table below. Check out how much Renfer and Thornburg have improved since getting out of Cambridge.
|Athlete||2014 Wisco Finish||2015 Wisco Finish|
There’s no doubt that recruiting plays a huge role in NCAA success, but not all of it. Culture and coaching play a role as well.
When a team runs as well as New Mexico has this fall, it inevitably draws comparisons to the great teams of the past. Determining how teams from the past stack up against teams from the present is difficult, but we have some tools to help us. The simplest measure is NCAA point total. That measure isn’t perfect (it’s weighted toward teams from the early 1980s, when women’s running was not as deep and fewer teams qualified for NCAAs) but it’s a good starting point.
Obviously we can’t use New Mexico’s NCAA point total to evaluate them since they haven’t run the meet yet, but we can apply that measure to other teams to see what they have to beat.
Lowest women’s NCAA XC point totals, 1990 – present*
|Team||NCAA point total||NCAA scorers (overall place)|
|2001 BYU||62||Michaela Manova (5), Jessie Kindschi (8), Tara Northcutt (9), Lindsey Thomsen (28), Sarah Taylor (30)|
|2004 Colorado||63||Renee Metivier (2), Liza Pasciuto (13), Christine Bolf (14), Sara Slattery (28), Natalie Florence (30)|
|1993 Villanova||66||Carole Zajac (1), Jen Rhines (2), Becky Spies (7), Tosha Woodward (31), Emer Molloy (48)|
|1993 Arkansas||71||Deena Drossin (6), Megan Flowers (8), Shelley Taylor (9), Sarah Schwald (14), Amy McKinley (53)|
|1999 BYU||72||Elizabeth Jackson (11), Kara Ormond (16), Tara Rohatinsky (17), Sharolyn Shields (23), Laura Heiner (26)|
*The first women’s NCAA XC meet was held in 1981; we’re discounting performances in that decade as the depth in the NCAA wasn’t great early on.
For reference, let’s also include the best team of the last decade, the 2008 Washington Huskies, who went 1-6 at a Pac-10 meet that included eventual NCAA runner-up Oregon.
|2008 Washington||79||Christine Babcock (7), Kendra Schaaf (12), Marie Lawrence (25), Katie Follett (26), Amanda Miller (34)|
Given that no team has scored in the 50s in 30 years (and that it’s never happened since the NCAA meet expanded to 31 teams in 1998), we feel safe in saying that if New Mexico cracks 60 points, they’re the greatest women’s team ever. If the Lobos score more than 70, it’s hard to make the case that they’re the best ever when three other teams have broken 70 (two post-1998). If they score somewhere between 60 and 70, the debate becomes very interesting.
As good as the Deena Drossin-led (now Kastor) 1993 Arkansas team was, you can’t be the best team ever if you didn’t win NCAAs. And we have to throw 1993 Villanova out too — if your fifth scorer was 48th overall in a 22-team field, you can’t stack up to a team like 2001 BYU, 2004 Colorado, or even 2008 Washington.
So let’s see what the remaining candidates (plus New Mexico) did during the regular season (we’re keeping 2008 Washington in contention because going 1-6 on the #2 team in the country at conference is ridiculous).
|Team||Meet #1||Meet #2||Conference||Regionals|
|2001 BYU||Stanford Invite. 2nd||Pre-Nats. 2nd (74 points)||Mountain West. 1st (17 points)||Mountain Regional. 1st (31 points)|
|2004 Colorado||Rocky Mountain Shootout. 1st (16 points)||Pre-Nats. 1st (94 points)||Big 12s. 1st (25 points)||Mountain Regional. 1st (32 points)|
|2008 Washington||Tiger Invite. 1st (19 points)||Pre-Nats. 1st (36 points)||Pac-10s. 1st (15 points)||West Regional. 1st (25 points)|
|2015 New Mexico||Notre Dame Invite. 1st (29 points)||Wisconsin Invite. 1st (32 points)||Mountain West. 1st (24 points)||Mountain Regional. 2nd (50 points)|
Sorry, BYU. It says here if you lose a regular-season meet you were trying to win, you can’t be considered the greatest team of all time. That leaves us with 2004 Colorado and 2008 Washington (with 2015 New Mexico’s fate to be determined after NCAAs).
The case for Colorado as the greatest of all time is that the Buffs rolled through everyone and scored 63 at NCAAs to Washington’s 79. But 94 is a lot of points at Pre-Nats, especially considering Pre-Nats consisted of two races in those days. When you factor in Washington’s much lower score at Pre-Nats and the Huskies’ utter domination at Pac-10s (again, they went 1-6 on the #2 team in the country), they had a better season overall.
There’s one more way to look at these teams, and that’s by PRs. Let’s take a run down their orders based on NCAA finish (projected for UNM). All PRs listed are current as of that year’s NCAA meet.
|2004 Colorado||2008 Washington||2015 New Mexico|
|#1||Renee Metivier (4:45mi/9:12/15:49)||Christine Babcock (4:16)||Courtney Frerichs (15:47/9:31 SC)|
|#2||Liza Pascuito (4:51 1600m/10:37 3200m)||Kendra Schaaf (4:20/16:05)||Rhona Auckland (15:27/32:22)|
|#3||Christine Bolf (9:46/16:26/34:13)||Marie Lawrence (4:48 mile/10:15 SC)||Alice Wright (15:45/32:46)|
|#4||Sara Slattery (16:27)||Katie Follett (2:06/4:15/16:01)||Calli Thackery (15:42)|
|#5||Natalie Florence (9:29/16:10/33:40/10:28 SC)||Amanda Miller (2:06/4:16)||Molly Renfer (2:08/4:40/16:25)|
Colorado and Washington are basically even (Washington had more milers stepping up, Colorado more 5k/10k women stepping down) but New Mexico’s track bests are far better than either of them.
New Mexico can render this whole argument moot on Saturday. The Lobos may not have a performance as good as UW’s 15-point Pac-10 outing, but their Wisconsin win was more impressive than Washington’s Pre-Nats showing (it came against a deeper field than Pre-Nats, which was two races at that point). Add in their crazy track PRs and if UNM can score in the 60s on Saturday, they probably have the strongest case of anyone for greatest team ever. If they’re in the 70s, you can make a case for any of the three schools (depending on what you value).
The rest of the podium contenders
The team with the best chance to upset New Mexico is No. 2 Colorado. The Buffs defeated New Mexico at the Mountain Regional, and while UNM wasn’t going all out, we doubt Colorado was either. Before that, CU beat No. 5 Oregon at Pac-12s, 45-51, another impressive victory. In Erin Clark (Pre-Nats champ) and Kaitlyn Benner (2nd Mountain Regional and Pac-12s), the Buffs have two low sticks and Maddie Alm is a very capable #3.
The problem is that New Mexico is much better at #4 and #5 and Colorado hasn’t been blasting teams all year like New Mexico has — they were only second at Pre-Nats, scoring 151 to Michigan’s 131. Wetmore prides himself on his teams making jumps from Pre-Nats to NCAAs, but it would take huge days from the Buffs’ #4/#5 runners and at least one, probably two blowups from Lobo runners for CU to spring the upset.
For the other schools hoping to land on the podium, it’s a similar story. Almost all of them have two women who at their best can hang with New Mexico’s top two, but no one can come close to matching the Lobos’ depth at #3 through #6.
No. 3 Arkansas has been surprisingly good this year, as their runner-up showing to New Mexico at Wisconsin was the team’s only loss. Veteran Dominique Scott should finish in the top five on Saturday and she’s been complemented by a talented supporting cast that has stepped up big-time, none more than true freshman Devin Clark. The Texas state champ last year was 18th at Wisconsin and 8th at SECs. No. 4 Providence has looked brilliant at times, but coach Ray Treacy said the team looked flat at regionals. To get on the podium the Friars will need a big run from Catarina Rocha. The junior was 33rd last year and had been running with teammate Sarah Collins early in the season, but Rocha hasn’t been the same since missing Wisconsin and was only the team’s third woman at regionals.
Realistically, there are about 10 teams that could land on the podium. Oregon was third at Pre-Nats and came up just six points short of beating Colorado at Pac-12s; Michigan has already won on the NCAA course twice this year (Greater Louisville Classic and Pre-Nats) but was upset at Big 10s by Penn State; Virginia has put together a terrific season, taking third at Wisconsin and winning ACCs and the Southeast Regional. Boise State has the individual favorite in Allie Ostrander and put three in the top five at the West Regional. Penn State (Big 10s/Mid-Atlantic) and Oklahoma State (Big 12s/Midwest) both pulled off conference/region sweeps and should not fly under the radar. NC State could be dangerous if Notre Dame champ Ryen Frazier gets back on track (she was only the team’s fourth runner at regionals).
These teams are all very even and it’s much more likely that one of them has a great day and surprises Colorado for second than it is that any team takes down New Mexico. There’s always an upset podium team at NCAAs, so don’t be shocked if a squad like Notre Dame (led by Foot Locker champs Molly Seidel and Anna Rohrer) finishes in the top four.
Before we make our prediction, we want to encourage you to make your predictions. You could win $200,015 by doing so: LRC $200,015 LRC Running Warehouse NCAA XC Prediction Contest.
1) New Mexico. The only question is how many points they score. We’ll set the over/under at 65.
2) Colorado. We had them #2 in our preseason poll and, hiccup at Pre-Nats aside, we still like them there.
3) Michigan. Apart from Big 10s, they’ve looked great this season and they’re very familiar with the course.
*Women’s Individual Preview Here: LRC 2015 NCAA XC Women’s Individual Preview: Can Allie Ostrander Become the First Freshman in 30 Years to Win NCAA XC? Or Will Molly Seidel or Aisling Cuffe End the ‘Foot Locker Curse’?
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). The 2015 NCAA cross country championships will also be streamed online for free.