2016 NCAA Women’s XC Top 10 Countdown: #2 Providence and #1 Colorado – Is #1 Colorado Wetmore’s Best Team Ever?

By LetsRun.com
September 21, 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). So we apologize if we’re a little late to the party (between the Summer Olympics and the Diamond League, we didn’t have any time to focus on XC) but 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.

Previous women’s previews: *#10 Michigan State, #9 Oklahoma State, #8 Michigan, #7 Boise State *#6 New Mexico, #5 NC State, #4 Oregon, #3 Stanford

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.

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2. Providence: Buoyed by two transfers, the Friars should land on the podium again

2015 results: 4th NCAAs, 1st Northeast Regional, 2nd ACCs, 1st Big East, 5th Wisconsin Invite, 1st Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown

Key returners (lose #6 from NCAAs last year)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Sarah Collins SR  10 9:11/15:31/33:36
Samantha Jones SR  14 5th year from Wake Forest; 16:12
Catarina Rocha SR  17 9:18/16:03/33:40
Lauren Mullins SR  29 9:25/16:14/34:00
Millie Paladino JR  37 West Virginia transfer; 4:21/9:28
Katie Lembo JR  49 9:21/16:11/34:36
Brianna Ilarda JR  60 9:25/16:19/9:59 steeple
Emily Bushey SR  105 4:27 1500/9:37
Providence has made it onto the podium at three of the last four NCAA championships Providence has made it onto the podium at three of the last four NCAA championships

The Friars are all-in for 2016. With six of seven returning from last year’s fourth-place team and a senior-laden squad, this is Providence’s best chance at a national title since they won it all in 2013. Seniors Sarah Collins and Catarina Rocha, both All-Americans a year ago, are back, and they’re joined by grad student Samantha Jones, who was 34th a year ago for Wake Forest– defending national champ New Mexico is the only other school to return three women from the top 40.

“They know it,” coach Ray Treacy says of national title expectations. “The ladies we have on the team are used to being on the podium so they don’t expect anything else at this point. Sarah’s been on the podium every time she’s raced for us [at NCAAs]. With a team like this coming back from last year, they do expect it. We feel if we can keep training at the level we’re training at and get better as the season goes along, we’ll be thinking along those terms I would hope in November.”

Behind those three, there’s a ton of depth; Lauren MullinsKatie Lembo and Brianna Ilarda all own 5k PBs below 16:20. Add in West Virginia transfer Millie Paladino (77th at NCAAs in ’15) and freshman Abbey Wheeler (10th NXN) who, like Treacy’s star pupil Molly Huddle, is a native of Elmira, N.Y., and Providence is well-equipped to handle a bad race by one of its top runners. They just crushed the field at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown despite missing three of their top runners in Rocha, Mullins and Jones.

Mullins (plantar fasciitis) and Jones (knee/IT band) are coming off injuries and will likely be held out until Wisconsin, but the Friars should be formidable once they’re operating at full capacity. Treacy is also pleased that the NCAA championships are returning to Terre Haute this year, as he feels the layout at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course suits his team better than the flat Louisville course.

“It’s a little bit tougher, a 5k/10k course rather than a 1500/5k course,” Treacy said. “Louisville’s not as tough and grinding as Terre Haute can be. When we won it in 2013 [in Terre Haute], we were tied with Georgetown at 4k and still won by 50-60 points.

“It’s hard to get on the podium, there’s no guarantees. There area a lot of great teams, deep teams this year. [But] if everybody gets 100% healthy and ready to go, I think we have as good a shot as anybody.”

1. Colorado: The deepest Buffaloes squad ever

2015 results: 2nd NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 1st Pac-12, 2nd Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #3 from NCAAs last year)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Erin Clark SR  6 9:08/15:54/9:48 steeple; 5th NCAA 3k; Pac-12 steeple champ
Kaitlyn Benner JR  8 9:09/15:56; 8th NCAA 3k
Dani Jones SO  22 4:13
Melanie Nun JR  31 16:17
Makena Morley SO  47 Montana transfer; 16:49; 3rd at 2014 Foot Locker
Val Constien SO  73 16:49/10:05 steeple
Carrie Verdon SR  81 15:59/33:42
Mackenzie Caldwell SO 16:15/33:52
Madie Boreman FR   4:46 mile
Sage Hurta FR   4:47 mile, 10th at Foot Locker

Put an embarrassment of riches in the hands of one of the best cross country coaches ever and you get a national title contender, in this case the 2016 Colorado Buffaloes. In 2015, Colorado had a team good enough to win it all in a normal year — no one had scored as few points as the Buffs at NCAAs (129) and lost since 2003. But they ran into a buzzsaw in New Mexico and wound up getting blown out in Louisville. New Mexico has taken several hits this year, leaving the door open for Colorado.

“We have a pretty deep roster,” Buffs coach Mark Wetmore said. “We have 12 or maybe even 14 good runners who will be contending for the seven spots. I wouldn’t want to have to pick ’em today. Right now it just looks like big blob of pretty good runners….I’m sure whoever ends up our 12th will be the best 12th we’ve ever had.”

Of course, you don’t get bonus points for having a good #12, but whichever five women end up scoring for Colorado in Terre Haute figure to be very good. The Buffaloes return three women who have broken 16 minutes for 5k, two of whom — Erin Clark and Kaitlyn Benner — placed in the top 20 at NCAAs last fall. Dani Jones was 49th as a true freshman in 2015 and should be better this year, while another second-year athlete, Montana transfer Makena Morley, has vast potential. Morley was 97th last year but with women to push her in training, the four-time Foot Locker finalist could be much improved in 2016. Melanie Nun has finished in the 60s twice at NCAAs and Carrie Verdon has strong track PRs (15:59/33:42) and will be eager to finally put it together at NCAAs (her best finish is 132nd in three appearances). Mackenzie Caldwell made NCAAs on the track last year in the 10k. The Buffs also have two freshman whom Wetmore believes will be in the mix for a top-seven spot in Madie Boreman and Sage Hurta.

Wetmore said in August that he thought this could be Colorado’s best team ever. That’s saying a lot, considering the 2004 team put five women in the top 30 at NCAAs. This year’s group could match that if everything breaks right at NCAAs. But the beauty of the 2016 Buffaloes is that everything doesn’t have to break right. This roster is deep enough, #1 through #7, that Colorado doesn’t need to have its best day to win a national title. NC State, Oregon and Providence all have stacked teams. Stanford is a dynasty in the making. But right now, Colorado are your NCAA favorites.

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