September 12, 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.
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
Previous women’s previews: #10 Providence & #9 Arkansas
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
8. Penn State: Nittany Lions look to crack the top 10 for the first time since 1994
2016 results: 18th NCAAs, 1st Mid-Atlantic Regional, 2nd Big 10, 1st Penn State National, 3rd Roy Griak Invitational
Key returners (lose #5 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Jillian Hunsberger||SR||20||16:01/33:29; 10th NCAA 10k|
|Greta Lindsley||JR||77||9:36/10:22 SC|
|Victoria Crawford||JR||151||4:33 1500|
|Tessa Barrett||JR||DNF||9:07/15:28/34:22; 5th NCAA indoor 5k|
|Danae Rivers||RS FR||N/A||2:02/4:16; 3rd NCAA mile|
When Elizabeth Chikotas, Jillian Hunsberger and Tessa Barrett were freshmen in the fall of 2014, Penn State finished 7th at Big 10s and failed to advance to the NCAA Championships. Since then, those three women have turned around the program and their fourth year (Chikotas and Hunsberger are seniors, Barrett is a redshirt junior) could be their best yet — and potentially the best in the history of Penn State cross country. The Nittany Lions’ best-ever finish is 6th, though that was back in 1982 (the second year of the women’s NCAA meet) when there were just 15 teams in the field. More impressive was the 1993 squad that finished 7th in a 22-team field, but the 2017 edition could be better still.
The turnaround began in 2015, when Penn State won the Big 10 title (Chikotas, Hunsberger and Barrett all finished in the top 12 overall) and the team made it back to nationals, finishing 16th. Last year was almost as impressive; the Nittany Lions finished second at Big 10 (behind a Michigan team that would come one point shy of the NCAA title) and took 18th at nationals — despite the fact that Barrett, the former Foot Locker champ, dropped out of the race. Give Barrett her 2015 place (38th) and Penn State cracks the top 10. This year, Barrett could be a top-10 finisher as she ran 15:28 indoors (#4 in the NCAA), though she was not as good outdoors, failing to break 16:00 and finishing 20th at NCAAs.
With all three returning along with Kathryn Munks (16:28/34:05 as a freshman last year), Penn State has some serious firepower. They’ve also got a potential ace in the hole in Danae Rivers. A mid-d specialist, Rivers ran 2:02 and 4:16 on the track last year as a true freshman and finished third in the NCAA indoor mile final. But she’s committed to running XC this year, and in her season debut at the Dolan Duals on September 1, she finished right with Hunsberger and six seconds ahead of Munks. Granted, that was a 4k race in the first week of September, but Rivers has the talent to help out as a potential fourth or fifth scorer at NCAAs.
One thing worth noting: neither Chikotas nor Barrett raced in either of Penn State’s first two races of the season. That may be nothing to worry about, but we don’t know for sure as head coach John Gondak did not respond to our attempts to contact him.
UPDATE: A source informed us that Chikotas has a broken foot and is out for the season.
7. San Francisco: The best Dons team ever is all-in for the podium
2016 results: 6th NCAAs, 3rd West Regional, 3rd WCC, 6th Wisconsin Invitational, 6th Roy Griak Invitational
Key returners (lose #2, #7 from NCAAs)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Charlotte Taylor||SR||5||15:29/32:11; NCAA 10k champ|
|Marie Bouchard||SR||73||9:23/9:45 SC|
|Lizzie Bird||SR||N/A||9:18/16:49; 58th in ’15; ’15 Heps XC champ; 5th year from Princeton|
If you’re wondering, What is San Francisco doing ranked this high?, you haven’t been paying attention. USF actually finished higher than this — a program-best 6th place — at NCAAs last year and return five of their top six from that squad.
“What we expected we were able to accomplish [in 2016], we did,” said coach Helen Lehman-Winters, entering her 15th season by the Bay. “I think other people were surprised, but we weren’t.”
This is a particularly deep year for women’s cross country, so Lehman-Winters knows that improving on that finish in 2017 won’t be easy. But when you finish sixth and return the bulk of your squad, the next logical goal is to finish on the podium and that’s what San Francisco wants this year.
“Everyone [on our team] is significantly better than they were last year,” Lehman-Winters said. “It’s absolutely the best group we’ve ever had. We still have to make it to November, though.”
Run through the team and the numbers back up Lehman-Winters’ claim. Charlotte Taylor, 10th a year ago, is a contender for the individual title after running 15:29 and 32:11 last year on the track and winning the NCAA 10,000 title. Weronika Pyzik dropped her PR from 16:18 to 15:59. Isabelle Brauer, who was 99th last year as a freshman in just her third XC race, ran PRs of 16:27 and 33:44 on the track. Marie Bouchard finished 135th last year despite being banged up late in the season, but has run 9:45 in the steeple. Tatjana Schulte was anemic last fall but ran 16:13 on the track. And the Dons add 5th year Lizzie Bird, who was the 2015 Heps champ for Princeton (she was 58th at NCAAs that fall) as well as German freshman Lea Meyer (4:25/9:33).
The team is far healthier than it was at this point in 2016 as well, when three of its top five runners were just starting to run again after injuries. But the margin for error can be thin at NCAAs — San Francisco was 6th last year, but they were only 21 points ahead of 10th. They also ran by far their best race of the year — they were only 6th at Roy Griak and Wisconsin and 3rd at their super tight conference meet – the WCCs where just 5 points separated first and third (Portland won and was 22nd at NCAAs, runner-up BYU was 10th at NCAAs). But having a guaranteed low stick in Taylor is a big boon, and her supporting cast is even better in 2017. If USF can keep its top group healthy over the next two months, this could be a podium team.
Talk about 2017 NCAA xc on our messageboard / fan forum: Official 2017 NCAA XC Preview Discussion Thread.