2016 NCAA Women’s XC Preview: #10 Michigan State, #9 Oklahoma State, #8 Michigan, and #7 Boise State

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By LetsRun.com
September 19, 2016

Cross country is back, and while the season is not yet in full swing, we’ve already reached the point in the season where meets count for at-large qualifying purposes for NCAAs. A new rule this year means that you can get points at any meet held September 9 or later but for the most part that has meant next to nothing as most coaches are still running B teams. Between the Summer Olympics and the Diamond League, we didn’t have any time to focus on collegiate XC, but given that basically nothing has happened of yet, we have little reason to apologize for being a little late to the party. Now it’s time to get ready for the season. We’re doing that by rolling out previews for the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in the country.

Our pre-season rankings are only a rough estimate of what will happen this fall. While we did correctly predict the top two women’s teams last fall in order (#1 New Mexico and #2 Colorado), we only predicted six of the top 10 teams on the women’s side and five of the top 10 teams on the men’s side, with two of our preseason top five — the Wisconsin and Villanova men — failing to qualify for NCAAs entirely. A lot can change between now and November 19, when the NCAA championships return to Terre Haute, Ind., and while it’s usually easy to predict the top teams, places six through 15 can often be interchangeable depending on who runs well on the day. That’s what happens when you’ve got roughly two guys crossing the finish line every second in the main pack. So consider these rankings a starting point for the national title conversation; we’ll check in periodically throughout the fall and offer analysis as the season unfolds.

Key dates
September 9: 
Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
October 14: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wis.
October 15: adidas Pre-National Invitational, Terre Haute, Ind.
October 28-30: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 11: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 19: NCAA championships, Terre Haute, Ind.

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking her place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2015 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of her.

10. Michigan State: Can a healthy Rachele Schulist propel Spartans back into top 10?

2015 results: 13th NCAAs, 3rd Great Lakes Regional, 3rd Big 10, 14th Wisconsin Invite, 2nd Roy Griak

Key returners (lose #3 from NCAAs last year)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Ali Wiersma SR  11 15:53/33:49; 16th NCAA 10k
Shelby Jackson SR   39 16:16/34:27
Lynsie Gram SO  67 4:37 1500/16:49
Kelsie Schwartz JR  109 16:26
Aubrey Wilberding JR  116 2:04/4:38 1500; made NCAAs in 800
Amber Way SO  122 4:39 1500/16:39
Rachele Schulist SR 9:09/15:36/33:24; 11th NCAA 10k; 4th NCAA XC ’14

Michigan State entered last year fresh off the first women’s national title in program history and with Rachele Schulist (4th in 2014) and Lindsay Clark (11th) both returning, a top-10 NCAA finish looked like the starting point for the 2015 Spartans. So why was head coach Walt Drenth so happy with 13th?

Most consecutive women’s NCAA
XC appearances (active streaks)
Stanford, 23
Michigan State, 15
Michigan, 14
Minnesota, 11
Oregon, 9
Washington, 9

Chalk that up to the injury bug. Clark (knee tendonitis) wound up missing the entire season and Schulist went down with a patellar stress fracture after Roy Griak. Yet up stepped Ali Wiersma (2nd Big 10, 21st NCAAs) and Shelby Jackson (17th Big 10, 79th NCAAs), who led the Spartans to their 15th consecutive NCAA bid (only Stanford, with 23, has a longer active streak) and salvage what could have potentially been a lost season.

“If there was a frustration, it probably revolved around not being able to have a whole team, I guess a well team, from top to bottom,” Drenth said. “But that’s probably where it begins and ends. I thought we were pretty good. We leaned on some true freshmen, which we rarely do. They did an outstanding job. We had people step up into leadership roles, which we were desperate for given our circumstances. I think 3rd at conference and 13th at nationals, I’m not sure we could have run much better.”

Ideally, health won’t be an issue for the Spartans this fall (Drenth said his squad is “relatively healthy” at the moment). Schulist’s recovery from her injury was arduous, as she missed the bulk of the cross country and indoor track seasons last year.

“We just had to be really patient,” Drenth said. “With the return came a lot of aches and pains that probably raised red flags that wouldn’t normally raise red flags. That patellar stress fracture probably set her back a little bit from a confidence standpoint. It’s such a rare injury that everything that happens wrong, you think, ‘Oh man, what’s next?'”

But Schulist recovered well enough to finish 11th at NCAAs in the 10,000 in a big personal best of 33:24, and Drenth is optimistic about what the future holds.

“I think that she’s learned a lot about herself and she’s made some progress [since the spring], no doubt about it,” Drenth said. “Is she back to form for 4th place? She doesn’t have to be. From our team standpoint, if she’s in the top 25, now we’re splitting hairs in terms of points.”

Indeed, Schulist and Wiersma, who ran well on the track last spring (15:53, 16th at NCAAs in 10k), are potential top-20 finishers, and Jackson, who dropped her 5,000 pb by 33 seconds down to 16:16, is a capable #3. How far the Spartans go will be determined by their #4/#5 runners. Michigan State is still holding auditions for those spots, with junior Kelsie Schwartz (16:26 pb, MSU’s #5 at NCAAs in ’15) and sophomore Lynsie Gram (MSU’s #4 at NCAAs in ’15) the leading candidates on paper. At the Spartans’ home meet on Friday, sophomores Erin McDonald (5th overall, #3 team) and Amber Way (6th overall, #4 team) both made their cases; Jackson was only 11th (#5 team) and Schwartz only 27th (#12 team) while Gram did not race. We’ll get a better picture after Roy Griak on Saturday.

“I don’t think they can take a shot at winning the nationals but I think that they can be at least a top-10 team if everybody’s healthy at the end,” Drenth said. “You call me on Monday, I might have a completely different answer for you…We just haven’t done enough quantified work to have a real sense of how we’re going to fit together.”

9. Oklahoma State: Can the Cowgirls contend for a first-ever podium finish?

2015 results: 7th NCAAs, 1st Midwest Regional, 1st Big 12

Key returners (lose #1 from NCAAs last year)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Natalie Baker SR  19 16:53/34:12
Kaela Edwards SR  33 4:32 mile/9:06; NCAA mile champ
Anna Boyert SR   63 4:20 1500/9:26
Molly Sughroe JR   64 4:42 mile
Aurora Dybedokken JR   123 4:19 1500/9:19/16:00; 2nd NCAA 5k
Abbie Hetherington JR   136 2:06/4:26 1500
Savannah Camacho           SR 2:02/4:17 1500
Dybedokken, Edwards and the rest of the Cowgirls could be even better in 2016

Dybedokken, Edwards and the rest of the Cowgirls could be even better in 2016

For the last few years, Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith tried, in vain, to make cross country runners out of his mostly middle distance athletes. It wasn’t working; the Cowgirls missed NCAAs in 2013 and 2014.

“Last year we had so many middle distance women that I kind of thought you know, I’ve been trying to make these middle distance women into cross country runners and it’s just not working so I’m not going to do it this year,” Smith said. “We’re going to change the way we train, we’re going to train like we would in track, we’re going to prepare to be great middle distance runners in the spring and not worry about the cross country season. And all of a sudden we had the best we’ve had since I’ve been there.  Sometimes it’s serendipitous.”

Indeed, OSU wound up winning its first conference title since 1986 and its seventh-place finish at NCAAs was the second-best in program history. The bulk of that squad returns so Stillwater in 2016, with Ingeborg Loevnes (35th NCAAs), who was forced to return to medical school in Norway, the only casualty. But the other Cowgirls should be back and better than ever this fall. Kaela Edwards, always a strong 800 runner, expanded her range last year and won the NCAA mile title indoors; she figures to improve on her 70th-place NCAA finish. And Aurora Dybedokken has shown the potential to fill the shoes of fellow Norwegian Loevnes at the front of the pack after taking second in the NCAA 5,000 in June.

“She’s way better now than she was this time last year,” Smith said. “If she can convert that success on the track last year to confidence in cross country, she’s really, really good. She’s a great athlete. It’s gonna take a little bit of her convincing herself that she can also run cross country. Because right now I hink she feels like, ‘Look what I did on the track, I’m so much better than I am in cross country. But part of it is that she made a lot of big improvements from November until June of last year and that doesn’t go away.”

Smith is also high on Lithuanian junior Gintare Zenkeviciute, who ran 16:39 as a freshman and who Smith says looks “fantastic” right now.

Should Oklahoma State’s returners continue to improve, it’s not hard to imagine the Cowgirls topping their seventh-place finish from last year. But Smith knows that’s easier said than done.

“What I thought was great last year was the attitude, the approach, how things went,” Smith said. “There was so much excitement at practice every day…The problem is, once you do something great and you’re running without pressure, without stress and you’re surprising yourself and everybody else every week, that’s a different feeling from okay now we’re good, there’s pressure on us, we have to do this, we have to move up, we have to get better. It’s a different approach and you’ve got to be able to adapt as a coach, as a program and as an athlete to that new set of circumstances. Sometimes that goes well for teams, sometimes it doesn’t.”

8. Michigan: Erin Finn leads another strong Wolverines squad

2015 results: 6th NCAAs, 1st Great Lakes Regional, 2nd Big 10, 1st Pre-Nats, 1st Greater Louisville Classic

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

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Erin Finn SR  9 9:01/15:23/31:51; 2nd in NCAA indoor 3k/5k
Gina Sereno JR  43 9:16/16:08/33:35; Big 10 5k/10k champ; 13th NCAA 10k
Jaimie Phelan JR  48 4:15 1500/9:29; 8th in NCAA 1500
Sophie Linn JR  80 16:47
Jamie Morrissey JR  106 2:06/4:44 mile
Claire Borchers SO 4:43 mile/10:08 steeple
Finn was 19th last year despite some major footwear problems (Photo: Michael Scott)

Finn was 19th last year despite some major footwear problems

Any discussion about the 2016 Michigan women’s cross country team has to begin with Erin Finn. One year ago in Louisville, Finn hit a stroke of outrageous bad luck and lost both of her shoes. Somehow, she still managed to finish 19th overall and took out that frustration on her track opponents. If not for Molly Seidel, Finn would be a double NCAA champ right now, taking second behind Seidel in both the 3,000 and the 5,000 at NCAA Indoors in March. Buoyed by that success, Finn redshirted outdoors to focus for the Olympic Trials, where her 31:51 10,000 at Stanford made her the sixth-fastest American of 2016. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in the form of a stress fracture in her foot, deferring Finn’s Olympic dreams to 2020.

That injury has healed, however, and Finn enters the season as one of the top contenders for the NCAA individual crown. Her 31:51 makes her the fastest returner among collegians this year (and would have made her the sixth-fastest collegian of all time had she run it in a Michigan singlet), while her 15:23 5,000 from indoors was second only to Allie Ostrander. If we were picking NCAAs right now, we’d put Ostrander (who was 2nd at NCAAs last year and 8th in the Olympic Trials 5k) ahead of Finn, but a lot can change in two months.

Finn kicked off her 2016 campaign with a dominant 17:04 victory at the Sycamore Cross Country Invitational in Terre Haute on September 10. Don’t be fooled by the time; Finn won by 45 seconds on a course that was wet from two and a half inches of rain (nobody broke 25:00 in the men’s race). Both Finn and Michigan coach Mike McGuire recognize that Finn has the chance to do something special when she returns to Terre Haute for NCAAs on November 19.

“We’re not consumed by it but it’s definitely out there,” McGuire said. “We went to Terre Haute for a reason this past weekend. And we’re going back there again at Pre-Nats for a reason…Obviously, she wasn’t challenged [on September 10] but she had some observations about that course that she’ll keep to herself right now but keep in her memory bank going down the road…She likes the Terre Haute course. Some kids shun that course and some kids embrace it. Erin really embraces the challenge of the course, the history of the course, the great athletes who have run on that course in the past. All those things are sources of motivation for her between now and November.”

Finn is the clear star in Ann Arbor, but the rest of the Wolverines figure to be formidable as well. Junior Gina Sereno put together an outstanding track season, winning the Big 10 5k and 10k titles in Finn’s absence. She’s a very solid #2. Behind her, Jaimie Phelan, who dropped five seconds off her 1500 pb to run 4:15 last spring and take eighth at NCAAs, should improve on her 100th-place finish at NCAAs last year.

Perhaps the most interesting prospect is junior Avery Evenson, who is running her first cross country season in four years. Evenson, who was recruited by the Wolverines out of high school, spent 2013-15 training as a triathlete in Colorado Springs, placing 5th at the world junior champs in 2014 and 4th at the world U-23 champs last year. Evenson joined the Wolverines last year but didn’t run track due to a plantar injury. However, she was Michigan’s third woman at the Sycamore Invite and is a big-time talent (she was an individual NXN qualifier in high school).

Juniors Sophie Linn and Jamie Morrissey both have NCAA experience, while 10:08 steepler Claire Borchers figures to contend for a scoring spot this year as well.

“I don’t think we’re as good as we were last year at this time but I think we could get there,” McGuire said.

Indeed, McGuire said that the biggest key to Sereno’s success last year was staying healthy, which allowed her natural talent to shine through. He’ll be relying on a similar approach for his other athletes this fall.

“We have some really, really talented athletes in this program,” McGuire said. “We’ve just gotta continue to piece things together. If we can keep ’em healthy, they get better. It’s an attitude we try to permeate through the team.”

 

7. Boise State: Led by the nation’s best runner, the Broncos should be even better than in 2015

2015 results: 11th NCAAs, 2nd West Regional, 2nd Mountain West, 6th Wisconsin Invite, 1st Roy Griak

Key returners (lose #7 from NCAAs last year)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Allie Ostrander SO 1 8:54/15:21; 8th Olympic Trials 5k
Brenna Peloquin SO 4 15:55/32:58; 8th NCAA 5k/10k
Minttu Hukka JR 24 16:09; NCAA steeple qualifier
Anna McDonald SR 95 16:49
Alexis Fuller SO 117 4:25 1500
Gracie Tostenson JR 124 16:27
Megan Lacy SR   Stanford transfer; 16:35/34:53
Ostrander was second as a freshman last year and enters 2016 as the favorite

Ostrander was second as a freshman last year and enters 2016 as the favorite

In three years at the helm of Boise State cross country, Corey Ihmels has transformed the program from an afterthought to a fringe national title contender. The Broncos made it to nationals in 2014 for the first time in history, placing 11th, and replicated that 11th-place finish last year despite graduating two stars in Emma Bates and Marisa Howard. With two true freshman in the top 10 at NCAAs last year, Allie Ostrander and Brenna Peloquin, Boise State is poised for a long run of success.

Last fall, Ostrander came within five seconds of becoming the first freshman to win the NCAA cross country title in 30 years then proceeded to run 8:54 and 15:21 indoors. Though she was forced to drop out of NCAA indoors due to injury and wound up redshirting outdoors, she made it to the final of the Olympic Trials in the 5,000, placing eighth in 15:24 off just five weeks of training. If the petite Ostrander can stay healthy, she’s the NCAA favorite this fall. Her classmate Peloquin excelled on the track, taking eighth in the 5k and 10k at NCAAs, and together the super sophs form the nation’s best 1-2 punch.

In all, Boise State returns six of seven from last year, and with Ostrander and Peloquin up front, the Broncos merely need adequate performances from the #3/#4/#5 spots to break into the top 10. Should runners like Gracie Tostenson (who went from 17:05 to 16:27 in the 5k last year) and Minttu Hukka (51st at NCAAs last fall, 16:09 5k) continue to improve, Boise State could do a lot better than that. Stanford transfer Megan Lacy also has talent (16:35/34:53 in 2014) but has failed to break 17:00 the last two years on the track.

Boise State has a wide range of outcomes in 2016. If Ostrander and Peloquin run like they did last year and the supporting cast comes through, this could be a podium team. If Ostrander or Peloquin gets hurt, however, they could tumble down to the teens or 20s.


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