By Jonathan Gault
October 19, 2016
The women from the University of Washington have been of the surprise teams of the 2016 NCAA cross country season. Ranked just 11th in the USTFCCCA coaches’ pre-season poll (and #12 three weeks ago), the Huskies reeled off big wins at their home invitational on October 1 and the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational last weekend. Now after putting all seven of its finishers in the top 50 in Madison (just one of whom is a senior), Washington is up to No. 2 in the most recent poll and looking like a legitimate national title contender.
On Monday afternoon, I caught up over the phone with Huskies coach Greg Metcalf, who talked about Wisconsin, a looming showdown with No. 1 Colorado at Pac-12s and whether this is his best squad since the 2008 team that went 1-2-3-4-5-6 at Pac-10s and won NCAAs.
Let’s start with the women. Obviously that was a great run by them [at Wisconsin]. What were your thoughts on how they ran?
I think our women went out and they were pretty aggressive and assertive early on. I think at that first split, I think we had 71 points or something like that. So we went out and we probably paid the price a little bit (Editor’s note: Washington wound up winning with 124 points). But I think we’ve got nine women — we had two women in the open race that were first and [sixth] — but I think one to nine, our group’s pretty good. We had seven in the top 50. Amy-Eloise Neale (4th overall) had probably the best run of her college cross country career. Before the race, I’d say the goal was to have five in the top 40 and seven in the top 60 and we had five in the top 45 and seven in the top 50, so we were about what I honestly thought going in. I was pleased with our women and excited with how it went but even more excited for the coming weeks and to see where this can go.
You mentioned Amy-Eloise Neale. She was your #2 woman at the Washington Invite but she was your #1 on Friday. Were you surprised by how well she ran?
Amy is just an incredibly tough, talented young woman. Had a great track season, she made the NCAA final last year at 1500 meters, she ran 4:13, and she had just a great summer. She’s a tough competitor.
I just watched the race video a few minutes ago because I hadn’t seen it yet. And so I watched it and Amy-Eloise Neale, with 1000 meters to go, you couldn’t even see her. Looking at the splits, she ran 6:19 for the last 2000 meters, so she’s basically running 5:00 pace the last 2000 meters of the race. So she made up some ground.
Honestly, nothing that she does surprises me. I think it’s just different. [At] the UW Invite, Charlotte Prouse went right out front and had a large lead at 3000 meters and kind of coasted to the finish line (for the victory) so she was kind of doing it out in front. And then this race they were grouped together so the race just unfolded differently than the UW Invite (Editor’s note: Prouse finished one spot behind Neale in 5th at Wisco).
I was looking through her (Neale’s) past results and from March 2014 to January 2016, I didn’t see any for her in a Washington uniform. What happened to her for those two years?
I’m not going to give you a great answer to that question, but I just think she left high school and her high school career was, for the most part, perfect. I think everything kind of went well.
I think she came to college and I think early on the transition probably wasn’t as easy as she imagined it would be. Like a lot of college students, she went through some ups and downs.
She made the World Junior final her freshman year in the steeple in Eugene, Oregon. While she was getting ready to go run, she was at a team training camp. She went to high school in the state of Washington, but her parents are British. So she made the UK junior team. She goes to their training camp, we leave the World Juniors and she had a tibial stress fracture. So we were kind of out of commission for that next fall. And then she just never kind of got it rolling again.
And then finally last January, she started to regain momentum and had points during the indoor season when she was pretty good. And then the outdoor season, gosh, from April 1 until the second week of June at the NCAA championships, I think she didn’t PR every weekend but she just kept gaining momentum. Now she’s a 4:13 girl who I think, based on what we’re seeing right now, will run significantly faster than that this spring.
Mentally, was it difficult? Like you said, she ran well in high school and then had maybe a little rough transition. Was it mentally difficult for her just to get back in that racing mindset after such a long break?
Amy, when she stands on the start line, she’s just such a great competitor I think she expects greatness out of herself every time she races. And so I think when you have an athlete like that, when you put them on the starting line, I think you just have to be prepared to go do it. She went through stuff. I think she had some ups and downs, but I think she persevered and now we’re sitting here days after the Wisconsin Invite and watched her finish fourth at a monster cross country meet when a year earlier she probably envisioned that she was never going to do it again.
Your #2, (sophomore) Charlotte Prouse, also looked like she made a leap from last year outdoors as well. Do you just attribute that to being a year older now or is there anything she’s done differently that’s helped her reach a higher level this year?
I think being a college freshman is hard. Charlotte had flashes of brilliance. She ran 16:0x for 5k, she ran 4:22, she ran under 10:00 a few times. She makes the NCAA final [in the steeple].
The crazy thing for Charlotte: last year at the Pac-12 championships, first water pit, she got tripped up and broke her arm in the water pit. She crushed the barrier, rolls over the barrier, lands in the pit. And all of a sudden we’re hosting the Pac-12 championships in Seattle and Charlotte Prouse, 600 meters in, is in last place.
But it was the turning point in her career. She gathered herself, she was patient, she worked her way through the field. She ended up finishing third place on a day that she could have easily just walked off the ended up walking off the track because she broke her arm. But she got through that and I think it just gave her, “I can do this.”
She’s a Canadian kid. She goes and finishes 6th at the World Junior Championships and runs 9:44. And so I think she got a chance to go run on the big stage, run against some of the best junior athletes in the world. She was leading, I think, a mile into the steeple. And that moment, combined with her freshman year, the things that she learned, she showed up on our campus this year with perspective. She’s a more confident young woman than she was a year ago and her racing right now is an example of that.
Your top seven, they all ran so well [at Wisconsin]. Would you say there is one who improved out of nowhere that you didn’t expect to be there or has it just been a jump across the board?
I think that we have interchangeable parts all over. We have two freshmen in Kaitlyn Neal and Nikki Zielinski, I think they’re the freshman equivalent of adding two lightning bolts to our team. They’re tough, they’re tenacious. They’re pretty talented kids. They’ve just done a great job. They’re fearless on race day, and they’ve stepped in added a certain level of aggressiveness and toughness that maybe our team needed a little more of.
I look at our team right now and I think Katie Knight was our seventh girl this weekend and she was the Pac-12 champion at 10k. Anna Maxwell (UW’s #6 at Wisco) ran 4:12 last year for 1500 meters.
But [in terms of biggest improvement], probably right now, Kaylee Flanagan, our only senior on our team. Kaylee’s a 16:19 5k girl who I think she was 30-something (36th) this weekend at Wisconsin. She’s probably the one that’s improved a ton. I think she’s been very purposeful in everything she’s done this fall. And I’m excited about where she is headed.
You said you went and rewatched the race video just now. Was there anything you learned from it watching it the whole way through a second time?
Our team was aggressive. In the coming weeks, I don’t really want to change that. But to go really win at the high level, you’ve got to be able to close. And that’s the one thing that our group can do a better job with. And when we are firing on all cylinders, I believe our team is very capable of doing that.
What were your expectations for the women at the start of the season?
At a full disclosure: I am a believer. I understood and I looked at our personnel, and I thought that we could be very good. But I’ve also thought that we could go finish fourth place in the Pac-12 championships and then go be fourth place at the NCAA championships. With Oregon, Stanford, Colorado and us, I think there are four really, really good women’s teams.
The goal is to find a way to stand on the podium (top 4 at NCAAs), and that is the big goal. That was our expectation when I walked away from our training camp. At the NCAAs last year, we had a woman qualify at 800 meters, two in the 1500, one in the steeple, one in the 10k. We had women all over the place and I think success on the track equates to success on the track. And that’s where the confidence in this group grows.
Do you feel like this is your best team since your title team back in 2008?
Gosh, right now they’re pretty exciting, for sure. We were second place in 2011. We got beat by Georgetown by eight points and by 400 meters to go, we were going to win the NCAA title. That group had some firepower — Katie Flood, Megan Goethals, Justine Johnson, Christine Babcock and Lindsay Flanagan. That group was pretty good. But since 2008, one through nine, this is as good a group as we’ve had, yes.
I’m sure you saw the results at Pre-Nats. Colorado won that race, they’re in your conference. How do you feel you stack up against them given that your next meet is the Pac-12 championships?
On a piece of paper, the Pre-National results are interesting. Elise Cranny did not run for Stanford. If you plug her back in and look at what (Colorado’s) Erin Clark did (2nd at Pre-Nats), right now I would say that Erin Clark and Elise Cranny would probably finish 1-2 at the Pac-12 meet and then maybe our two are third and fourth on a piece of paper.
So right now I look at the Pac-12 meet, Colorado’s the best team in the country. If I just score it right now, I’d say Colorado wins the Pac-12 championships, they’ll score somewhere around 51 points or something like that. Right now based on how we ran, looking at the form chart, we could conceivably be second place. We just need to be a little better than we were last weekend.
The (No. 5) Oregon Ducks, Katie Rainsberger is a superstar, Samantha Nadel ran much better, Alli Cash was dealing with a little early-season injury but it looks like she just started getting back into it so she’s a young woman who can make lots of headway in the coming weeks and (No. 11) Stanford’s got a group of youngsters that are scary good. The Pac-12, if I’m a cross country fan, I’m going to make it to Tucson, Arizona, to go watch this thing (on October 28) because it’s going to be entertaining.
You came up with 51 points. That’s not exactly a round number. I’m wondering have you already mapped this thing out and scored it on paper?
Yes. I shouldn’t have said that. JD (Jason Drake), my assistant, he loves spreadsheets. If you look at it and walk away from the Pre-National/Wisconsin weekend, the courses are roughly similar. I would say that maybe — because we were there — maybe the Wisconsin Invite, maybe the course was a little slower. It was windy and the ground was a little soft.
But if you just equate them equally, then you can pump all the results in. So right now on a piece of paper, we have Colorado winning the meet with 51 points, us second with 57, Stanford with Elise Cranny winning with 78 and Oregon with 87.
Very interesting. I actually would love to see how that compares to the actual results in a couple weeks.
We’ve been pretty close the last two years when JD does this. The one thing it’s missing is Oregon State’s results and USC, I think has a girl, she might squeeze in their some place. But they’re going to be pretty close, so we’ll go see.
Colorado, they’re probably going to be the No. 1 team in the polls (the polls came out on Tuesday and the Buffaloes are indeed No. 1). Do you like having them in your conference, facing them before NCAAs?
Sure. The year we were second in 2011, it was the very first edition of the Pac-12 championships. Colorado pounded us at the meet, okay. I think we beat Stanford by one point for second (actually two points). And then, at the NCAA championships we ended up turning the tables on Colorado (and finishing 2nd overall).
I think it’s fantastic. The more our athletes are exposed to high-level competition, the better they become. In two weeks, we’ll get a chance to race our conference and we’re going to walk away like “Okay, we’re pretty good” or “Gosh, we’ve got some work to do, can we get better the next three weeks?”
Speaking of NCAA championships, you guys have a course out there. Have you bid on any of those? Are you guys interested in hosting?
We did, actually. We actually ran a meet at Chambers Bay golf course, where they hosted the U.S. Open in 2015. And it is right on the shores of Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains in the background. We’ve worked with the folks at Chambers Bay and we put in a bid to host the NCAA championships for the next opportunity to host.
And what year would that be?
I think the window was open 2018 to 2022. We bid for every one of those years. We’d love to get one.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Talk about UW’s potential hosting of NCAAs on our world famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: Who’s with me? Sign me up for NCAA XC at Chambers Bay on Puget Sound in Washington