2017 NCAA Women’s XC Preview: #2 New Mexico & #1 Colorado

By LetsRun.com
September 15, 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, 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 * #8 Oregon & #7 Wisconsin * #6 Colorado & #5 Stanford * #4 BYU & #3 Arkansas

Previous women’s previews: #10 Providence & #9 Arkansas * #8 Penn State & #7 San Francisco * #6 NC State & #5 Michigan * #4 Oregon & #3 Stanford

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

2. New Mexico: The Lobos chase their second title in three years

2016 results: 7th NCAAs, 2nd Mountain Regional, 1st Mountain West, 4th Wisconsin Invitational, 4th Notre Dame Invitational

Key returners (lose #2, #3, #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Alice Wright SR 10 15:45/32:29; 5th in ’15; 2nd in last 2 NCAA 10ks
Alex Buck SO 58 17:01
Natasha Bernal JR 96 16:27
Kendall Kelly JR 113 16:26
Charlotte Prouse JR 125 16:03/9:44 SC; transfer from Washington
Ednah Kurgat SO N/A 15:26; 12th in ’15
Elizabeth Weiler SR N/A 16:43; 38th in ’14
Sophie Eckel FR N/A 16:08
Weini Kelati FR N/A 9:12/16:08; ’15 FL champ; set CR in her first collegiate race
Wright was part of a legendary New Mexico squad in 2015 and will look to win another team title as a senior Wright was part of a legendary New Mexico squad in 2015 and will look to win another team title as a senior *NCAA XC Photo Archive

The last time New Mexico raced in Louisville, the Lobos put on the most dominant performance in NCAA championship history, scoring 49 points to destroy the field and win the program’s first national title. The NCAA meet returns to Louisville this fall, and though the 2017 Lobos aren’t quite as loaded as that 2015 edition, they’re more than capable of securing another NCAA crown.

Senior Alice Wright, who finished 5th in 2015, is the only returner from two years ago, and it says something about Wright’s ability that her 19th-place finish a year ago was viewed as a disappointment. But she’s coming off a strong track season where she set a stellar personal best of 32:29 for 10,000 meters and finished 2nd in that event at NCAAs for the second consecutive year. Joining her at the front of the pack is sophomore Ednah Kurgat, who was 12th in that 2015 meet for Liberty and clocked a 5,000 best of 15:26 on the track last spring, a time that only two collegians beat in 2017. Those two have been training well together, according to UNM coach Joe Franklin, and should form one of the nation’s best 1-2 punches.

New Mexico also adds the nation’s #1 XC recruit in Weini Kelati, the 2015 Foot Locker champion. The 20-year-old Kelati could not race in the high school ranks last year as she was overage, but with personal bests of 9:12 and 16:08, the Eritrean is a huge talent, something she demonstrated in her first career race, when she broke the course record at the Lobo Invitational, clocking 16:59 for the 5k course at altitude. Considering the previous CR was held by UTEP’s Risper Kimaiyo, who went on to finish 4th at NCAAs later that year, Kelati’s run was some feat. If Kelati ends up being close to that good, the Lobos are going to be nearly impossible to beat as they could easily put three in the top 20.

There is plenty of depth, as well. Charlotte Prouse, who ran 16:03 (5k) and 9:44 (steeple) as a true freshman in 2016, the latter mark good enough for 6th at the World U20 Champs, transferred in from Washington, and Australian Sophie Eckel, who ran 16:08 on the track last spring, will suit up for her first cross country season. Alex Buck scored for the Lobos last year as a freshman, finishing 105th at NCAAs, and while she didn’t compete in track in the spring, Franklin said she’s “significantly further ahead of where she was last year.” Elizabeth Weiler was an All-American in 2014, though she didn’t race cross country in 2015 or 2016. But, like Kelati, she impressed Franklin at the Lobo Invitational, taking third in 17:36.

“She was very comparable to women that have placed from the 40s to 60s at NCAAs in her first race in a long, long time,” Franklin said. “That doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen in November, but the data doesn’t lie. At least things are possible. She’s done it before.”

All of that makes for a national title contender. The Lobos have, on paper, the best top three in the country. If they can get good runs at the #4 and #5 spot, they have a great chance to win it all.

We won’t have to wait long to see how New Mexico stacks up against our preseason No. 1, Colorado: the two teams are scheduled to square off at the Joe Piane Invitational at Notre Dame on September 29.

1. Colorado: After coming up short in 2016, the Buffaloes try to finish the job in 2017

2016 results: 3rd NCAAs, 1st Mountain Regional, 1st Pac-12, 1st Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #7 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Dani Jones JR 11 4:08/9:02; NCAA 3k champ
Kaitlyn Benner SR 14 9:09/15:56
Mackenzie Caldwell JR 23 16:15/33:52
Sage Hurta SO 24 4:18/10:07 SC
Tabor Scholl SO 26 4:22 1500
Makena Morley JR 27 15:58/33:39
Madie Boreman RS FR N/A 4:19/9:46 SC; 2nd NCAA steeple
Melanie Nun SR N/A 16:13/33:46; 68th in ’13
Colorado has made the last two NCAA podiums but has not won it all since 2004 Colorado has made the last two NCAA podiums but has not won it all since 2004 *NCAA XC Photo Archive

Colorado should have won the NCAA title last year, and Mark Wetmore knows it.

“It was a big disappointment,” said Wetmore, who is entering his 23rd year as CU coach. “It was difficult to get over. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over it. It’s just a wound. We had to come back and sit down and scratch our heads and figure out why it didn’t go the way we wanted it to.”

The Buffaloes entered the 2016 NCAA meet as a unanimous No. 1 in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll, undefeated and the overwhelming favorites to claim a third national title. But the team’s top runner, Erin Clark (2nd Pre-Nats, 2nd Pac-12s) bombed and finished 133rd and the rest of the squad could not pick up the slack after getting out slowly. That paved the way for Oregon — a team Colorado had drilled at the Pac-12 meet just three weeks earlier (33 to 88) — to pull the upset. Colorado wound up third — a terrific year for most programs, but a disappointment given the talent on hand and the way the season had progressed until that point.

“Colorado was the best team in the nation last year, they just weren’t the best on that day,” said Michigan coach Mike McGuire, whose Wolverines finished one spot ahead of Colorado. “But you have to be the best on that day.”

The good news for Wetmore and the Buffs? The bulk of that 2016 squad returns, with Clark the only loss to graduation. Colorado has two studs up front in Dani Jones, who anchored Colorado to victory in the DMR at NCAA indoors before coming back to win the 3k the next night, and Kaitlyn Benner (15:56 5k pb; 26th at NCAAs last year) and an extremely tight pack behind them: Mackenzie CaldwellSage HurtaTabor Scholl and Makena Morley went 39-40-42-43 at NCAAs last year. Plus CU adds redshirt freshman Madie Boreman, who finished 2nd in the NCAA steeple final last year. This group is so deep that Melanie Nun, who ran 16:13 and 33:46 on the track last year, may not even crack the top seven.

This is a group of women who have run well for Colorado in the past, one that is just as talented as the 2016 squad and more experienced. Colorado endured an off day from one of the best runners in the country last fall and still came up just nine points shy of the national title. This year, the Buffs look set to finish the job and win for the first time since 2004.

The choice between #1 and #2 wasn’t an easy one for us but we’re more confident in Colorado’s depth at 4 and 5 but New Mexico’s firepower up front should make the Buffs very nervous all season long.

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

More: Men’s previews: #10 Oklahoma State & #9 Iona * #8 Oregon & #7 Wisconsin * #6 Colorado & #5 Stanford * #4 BYU & #3 Arkansas *#2 Syracuse & #1 Northern Arizona 

Women’s previews: #10 Providence & #9 Arkansas * #8 Penn State & #7 San Francisco * #6 NC State & #5 Michigan * #4 Oregon & #3 Stanford *#2 New Mexico & #1 Colorado

Archive: Complete NCAA XC Coverage and Photo Archives

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