2017 NCAA Women’s XC Preview: #10 Providence & #9 Arkansas

By LetsRun.com
September 11, 2017

The track season is over, the days are getting shorter and temperatures are gradually dropping across the United States. Cross country season is here.

The NCAA Cross Country Championship is always one of the best events on the running calendar, and the 2016 edition in Terre Haute, Indiana, was one for the ages. In the men’s race, Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan upset the unbeatable Edward Cheserek of Oregon as Northern Arizona sent coach Eric Heins out as a champion by delivering the program’s first national title. In the women’s race, Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer was the surprising champion, sprinting by Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer and Michigan’s Erin Finn in the home straight. The wildest outcome of all came in the women’s team race as No. 12 Oregon sprung a massive upset, defeating Michigan by one point, in part because Oregon’s Maggie Schmaedick (64th, 20:38.1) beat out Michigan’s Jaimie Phelan (65th, 20:38.2) by one-tenth of a second.

The 2017 edition will have a tough job surpassing that excitement, but with its enthusiastic fans and meritocratic simplicity — everyone runs the same distance, over the same course, at the same time — NCAA XC always delivers.

Below, we’ve done our best to forecast who the top teams will be at the national championships two months from now in Louisville. A lot can change between now and November 18, and while it’s usually easy to predict the top teams that have a shot at the title, 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 runners 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.

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Key dates
September 8: 
Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
October 13: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 14: Pre-National Invitational, Louisville, Kentucky
October 27-29: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 10: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 18: NCAA championships, Louisville, Kentucky

Men’s previews: #10 Oklahoma State & #9 Iona

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking her place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2016 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of her.

New additions in italics

10. Providence: The Friars chart a return to the top 10

2016 results: 13th NCAAs, 1st Northeast Regional, 1st Big East, 3rd Wisconsin Invitational, 1st Notre Dame Invitational

Key returners (lose #3, #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Millie Paladino SR 33 4:12/16:23
Brianna Ilarda SR 38 15:46/9:56 SC
Katie Lembo SR 77 16:11/34:36
Abbey Wheeler SO 82 16:10
Mackenzie Barry SR 123 16:57
Catarina Rocha SR N/A 16:03/33:40; 39th in ’15
Hannah Bennison FR N/A 9:33 3k; 24th World XC U20 race
Maria Coffin FR N/A 10:36; 10th FL
Ilarda is one of several accomplished seniors on the 2017 Providence squad Ilarda is one of several accomplished seniors on the 2017 Providence squad

Providence ran like one of the best teams in the country for most of 2016 and entered the NCAA meet ranked third nationally, poised for a second straight podium appearance. But during the race, the Friars got out poorly and never recovered, sliding down to 13th place.

“Going into the meet, we had run well at Wisconsin and our conference meet, but just had a bad nationals for us,” head coach Ray Treacy said.

Providence does lose a three-time All-American in Sarah Collins, but they get back a two-time All-American in Catarina Rocha. Rocha has had a nagging side stitch issue that caused her to redshirt last fall and cost her a chunk of training this summer, but she looked solid in returning to action at a meet at UNH on September 2 (2nd in 17:21; she ran 17:28 there in 2015) and Treacy fully expects her to return to her All-American form.

In addition to Rocha, the Friars have two women who earned All-American honors on the track last year as Millie Paladino and Bri Ilarda. Paladino improved her 1500 pb from 4:21 to 4:12 and finished 7th in the NCAA indoor mile, while Ilarda PR’d in both the 5,000 (15:46) and the 3,000 steeplechase (9:56), finishing 7th at NCAAs in the indoor 5k and 8th in the outdoor steeple. That gives Providence three strong seniors who should run near the front of any pack.

A fourth senior, Katie Lembo (16:11 5k), adds depth, while two freshmen, Hannah Bennison and Maria Coffin, could make a difference immediately. Running for Canada, Bennison was the top non-African/Japanese finisher in the U20 race at World XC in March (23rd), while Coffin took 10th at Foot Lockers last year. Add in Abbey Wheeler (16:10 5k), who scored for Providence as a true freshman at NCAA XC last year, and the Friars could roll seven deep.

Though the cupboard is far from bare with Bennison, Coffin and Wheeler, this is a senior-heavy squad who will be all-in for 2017. After a rough 2016 NCAA meet, expect the Friars to turn it around in Louisville.

“I’m expecting, certainly, a top-10 performance at least, I would think,” Treacy said.

No argument here.

9. Arkansas: Stacked with talent, the Razorbacks may be the most improved team in the nation

2016 results: 19th NCAAs, 1st South Central Regional, 1st SEC, 5th Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #3, #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Taylor Werner SO 8 9:06/15:51
Devin Clark JR 63 16:15/9:49 SC; 48th in ’15
Nikki Hiltz SR 86 4:10/9:24; 2nd NCAA 1500, 6th USA 1500
Abby Gray SO 97 16:06
Therese Haiss SR 99 4:16; 5th NCAA mile
Lauren Gregory FR N/A 4:41/10:05; 3rd NXN
Ashton Endsley FR N/A 10:25; 6th ’15 NXN
Arkansas season rests on whether Hiltz left and Haiss can translate their track performances to the grass Arkansas’ season rests on whether Hiltz (left) and Haiss can translate their track performances to the grass

Arkansas was only 19th last year, but after a stellar 2017 track season, the sky is the limit for the Razorbacks this fall. Taylor Werner was 16th in Terre Haute last year as a freshman — the #2 frosh in the field, behind only Katie Rainsberger of Oregon — and should lead Arkansas again this year. But she’ll have company near the front. Nikki Hiltz was only 154th at NCAA XC in 2016, but she broke out on the track, coming up .02 shy of an NCAA 1500 title and taking 6th at USAs, ahead of pros such as Shannon Rowbury. Expect her to be vastly improved this fall.

Therese Haiss, like Hiltz, a former Oregon transfer, is another woman who made big progress on the track last year, running 4:16 outdoors and finishing 5th in the mile at NCAA indoors. She could improve by over 100 places at NCAAs this year after taking 173rd in 2016. Abby Gray ran 16:06 as a true freshman last year, while Devin Clark ran 9:49 (steeple) and took 48th in XC as a true freshman in 2015-16. If Gray progresses and Clark reverts to her old form (she was only 118th in XC and redshirted indoors and outdoors last year), the Hogs will be dangerous.

And that’s before we even account for Arkansas’ recruiting class. Lauren Gregory (4:41/10:05, 3rd NXN) seems set to follow in the footsteps of Werner and Clark as a freshman sensation and could earn All-American honors in her first year in Fayetteville, while Ashton Endsley (10:25, 6th NXN in 2015) would be the top recruit for many teams in the country.

There are a few questions about this group, namely: How did a team with this much talent only finish 19th last year? But that was before Hiltz and Haiss broke out on the track. If they can carry over what they accomplished in the 1500/mile to 6k cross country, Arkansas will be a top-10 team in 2017.

Talk about 2017 NCAA xc on our messageboard / fan forum: Official 2017 NCAA XC Preview Discussion Thread.

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