2017 NCAA Women’s XC Preview: #4 Oregon & #3 Stanford

By LetsRun.com
September 14, 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 * #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

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

4. Oregon: A new-look Ducks squad shoots for a repeat

2016 results: 1st NCAAs, 4th West Regional, 4th Pac-12s, 2nd Pre Nationals, 2nd Washington Invitational

Key returners (lose #3, #4, #5 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Katie Rainsberger SO 3 4:09/9:00/16:13; 3rd in NCAA indoor 3k; 10th at USAs in 1500
Alli Cash SR 6 9:06/16:00
Carmela Cardama Baez SO 41 9:18/16:07; transfer from Florida State
Jessica Hull JR 45 4:13/9:08/16:29
Emma Abrahamson SR 61 4:18
Judy Pendergast SO 102 15:52; transfer from Harvard
Susan Ejore JR N/A 2:06/4:25/9:37; 2017 NJCAA 800/1500 champ; 2016 NJCAA XC runner-up; transfer from Monroe (N.Y.) College
Kate Murphy FR N/A 4:07/9:10
Will the Ducks have more to celebrate in 2017? Will the Ducks have more to celebrate in 2017?

Teams that finish fourth at their conference meet and fourth at their regional meet do not win national titles. Until the 2016 Oregon Ducks, that is. For most of the year, Oregon was not particularly deep, one through five, and entering the national meet, head coach Maurica Powell said that on a good day, she thought the Ducks would be able to score just under 200 points. But Oregon’s three three studs ran to their potential (Katie RainsbergerAlli Cash and Samantha Nadel) and fourth and fifth women Ashley Maton and Maggie Schmaedick delivered huge runs, allowing the No. 12 Ducks to spring the biggest upset (by ranking) in NCAA history and beat Michigan by a single point.

Though three of their five scorers from last year are out of eligibility, Oregon returns its top two in Rainsberger (4th last year) and Cash (14th). Rainsberger was simply sensational as a true freshman as in addition to her 4th-place finish at NCAA XC, she was 3rd in the indoor 3k, 4th in the outdoor 1500 at anchored Oregon to 3rd in the DMR (as well as an NCAA record earlier in the season), helping the Ducks earn an unprecedented triple crown (NCAA titles in XC, indoor and outdoor track). After the NCAA season concluded, she ran 4:09 and made it to the USA final at 1500 meters. She should score in the single digits once again this fall. Cash, a fifth-year senior, is a reliable #2.

Beyond them, this is a very different Ducks squad than the one that climbed the podium last year, but there is plenty of talent. Jessica Hull (79th last year) has run 4:13 for 1500 and 9:08 for 3k and Emma Abrahamson was 112th last year. But Oregon’s hopes lie on the backs of three transfers. Carmela Cardama Baez comes to Eugene from Florida State, where she ran 16:07 last year and placed 73rd at NCAAs, and she’s joined by Judy Pendergast, who was one of the nation’s top freshmen last year (15:52 5k) but transferred from Harvard after coach Patrick Wales-Dinan left the program amid controversy. Note, Pendergast isn’t your normal Ivy grad running a fifth year at Oregon – she’s an undergrad who gave up the chance for Harvard diploma to run for the Ducks. Finally, there’s Kenyan Susan Ejore, who was 2nd at the junior college cross country championships last year before winning juco national titles in the 800 and 1500 last spring. Though her PRs aren’t overly impressive, she should improve significantly in Eugene with better facilities and training partners.

Oregon also picked up arguably the nation’s top recruit in Kate Murphy, whose 4:07 1500 PR is over faster than any NCAA woman ran last year and puts her #3 on the all-time high school list behind Alexa Efraimson and Mary Cain. But Murphy was nowhere near those times last spring (her SBs were 4:59 for 1600 and 10:54 for 3200 per Athletic.net). According to an Instagram post in August (Murphy’s account is now private), Murphy was diagnosed with something called popliteal artery entrapment syndrome, a vascular disease that can restrict bloodflow in the legs. When she returns to running, and how good she will be, is anyone’s guess, but we’re not counting on her to be a factor this fall.

Even without Murphy, however, Oregon should still be a podium team. Another national title would require another amazing day from all five scorers, but with Rainsberger, Cash and Pendergast leading the way and decent depth behind them, a top-four finish is realistic.

If you want more on the team, senior Emma Abrahamson has been maintaining a vlog for the 2017 cross country season.

3. Stanford: This may be the most talented roster in the NCAA, but can they put it together at nationals?

2016 results: 5th NCAAs, 1st West Regional, 3rd Pac-12, 6th Pre-Nationals

Key returners (lose #4 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Courtney Smith SR 19 32:08; transfer from Harvard
Fiona O’Keeffe SO 21 4:22/15:46; 5th in NCAA 5k
Christina Aragon SO 22 4:08; 7th in NCAA 1500; World U20 1500 bronze in ’16
Vanessa Fraser SR 37 15:25/33:55; 7th at USAs in 5k
Ella Donaghu SO 56 4:14 1500
Elise Cranny JR 89 4:09/8:58/15:49; 12th in ’14
Abbie McNulty SR 109 16:40/34:33
Julia Maxwell SR N/A 16:18
Hannah DeBalsi SO N/A 16:32; 2nd at FL in ’13, 5th in ’14
Nevada Mareno FR N/A 10:00 2-mile; 16:36; 3rd + 2nd at FL last 2 years
Julia Heymach FR N/A 16th at FL; 4:40/10:14
Jessica Lawson FR N/A 9:24 3k/16:38
Jordan Oakes FR N/A 10:19; 31st at FL
Aragon left and OKeeffe led the Cardinal as freshmen but they will have plenty of support in 2017 Aragon (left) and O’Keeffe led the Cardinal as freshmen but they will have plenty of support in 2017

Stanford jumped up nine spots in the standings last year to 5th overall on the strength of one of the best recruiting classes in NCAA history. Three of the Cardinal’s five scorers — Fiona O’KeeffeChristina Aragon and Ella Donaghu — were true freshmen, and O’Keeffe got even better during the track season, running 15:46 to place 5th in the NCAA 5,000 final. Aragon ran well on the track too, taking 7th in the NCAA final as a freshman, though when you’ve run 4:08 as a high schooler, the bar for success is pretty high.

Those freshmen are now sophomores and they’re joined by two upperclassmen studs in Vanessa Fraser (15:25, 7th at USAs) and Elise Cranny (4:09, 2016 NCAA 1500 runner-up). There are question marks about both — Fraser’s best NCAA XC finish is 40th, while Cranny has not always been able to stay healthy (she redshirted in 2015 and was only 158th last year after not running the conference or regional meets) — but if they’re at their best, this Stanford squad has as good a shot at the national title as any team in the country.

The Cardinal brought in another great recruiting class in 2017, highlighted by Nevada Mareno, who finished 3rd and 2nd at Foot Lockers the last two years and ran 10:00 on the track for two miles. Expect her to step in right away and challenge for All-American honors. The biggest addition, however, might be Harvard’s Courtney Smith, who transferred to Stanford for her senior year after Patrick Wales-Dinan’s departure. Smith has often been injured during her career, and it’s been 10 months since Smith’s last race, a 35th-place finish at NCAAs last year. But when she’s healthy, she’s among the best in the NCAA, as shown by her 32:08 10,000 pb (#10 all-time NCAA).

In the best-case scenario, Cranny and Smith stay healthy, Fraser finally delivers an XC performance commensurate with her track times and the sophomores build on their impressive freshman year. If that happens, Stanford could well be your national champion. But cross country seasons are rarely that simple, and we don’t know the current injury situation (coach Elizabeth DeBole did not respond to our interview request). With all this talent on the roster, DeBole will be expected to deliver Stanford’s first title since 2007 sometime in the next few years. This year is as good as any to get it done.

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

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