2017 NCAA XC Women’s Individual Preview: Can Reigning Champ Karissa Schweizer Fend Off The Undefeated Ednah Kurgat and Elle Purrier?
November 16, 2017
(Editor’s note: Before you read the preview below, be sure to enter our free prediction contest. You can even play in a group with your friends: $200,017 Running Warehouse Prediction Contest)
The women’s field at this year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships is stacked.
“You could go out there and be sixth or seventh and have an unbelievable day and come back and be just a little upset,” said New Mexico coach Joe Franklin, who coaches the presumptive favorite (in our mind) in Ednah Kurgat. “A lot of these women have the potential to make Olympic teams.”
When Franklin looks at the talent assembled for this year’s race, he’s reminded of the 2012 edition of this meet, also in Louisville, that saw future stars Betsy Saina, Abbey D’Agostino, and Jordan Hasay finish 1-2-3 in that order. Add in Alexi Pappas (8th), Violah Lagat (11th), and Colleen Quigley (12th) and half of the top 12 went on to make Olympic teams not to mention Marielle Hall (23rd), and Shelby Houlihan (31st) finishing further down the field (plus we think Emily Sisson (15th) will eventually be an Olympian).
“I see this race as very similar to the potential of that group,” Franklin said.
In addition to Kurgat, who has gone undefeated this fall, the 2017 crop includes New Hampshire’s Elle Purrier, a 4:29 miler who has also yet to lose this year, defending NCAA champion Karissa Schweizer of Missouri, NCAA 3k champ Dani Jones of Colorado, NCAA steeple champ Allie Ostrander of Boise State, NCAA 10k champ Charlotte Taylor of San Francisco, Oregon’s Katie Rainsberger (4:09 1500; 4th last year), and Utah’s Grayson Murphy, who finished second behind Kurgat at Wisconsin and the Mountain Regional. There are plenty of other strong women in this year’s field, but the eight we listed are the ones that have the best chance to cross the line first.
Who will win it all in Louisville on Saturday? Read on for our analysis of each of the top contenders.
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What: 2017 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville, Kentucky
When: Saturday, November 18. Due to weather concerns, the race times have been moved up. The women will start at 9:00 am ET with the men following at 10:00 am ET.
How To Watch: In-person, admission is $10 admission. Flotrack will also stream both races live online, but the bad news is that if you are watching online, you’ll have to pay three times as much as the fans who get to see it in person as you can only watch the races with a Flotrack Pro subscription ($29.99/month and you have to have to cancel).
Whether you watch it live or not, we always recommend that you follow/talk about all of running’s biggest live events on our messageboard (and the live timing website).
*NCAA XC men’s team preview: LRC Clash Of The Titans: No. 1 NAU & No. 2 BYU Square Off In Classic Battle In Louisville For The 2017 NCAA XC Title
*NCAA XC women’s team preview LRC 2017 NCAA XC Women’s Team Preview: Oregon Tries to Repeat, Colorado Seeks Redemption, & New Mexico Is Loaded Again
*NCAA XC men’s individual preview LRC 2017 NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: Can Grant Fisher End the American Drought or Will Justyn Knight Finally Get His NCAA Title?
The Undefeateds and the Defending Champ
This is your top tier of contenders. One of these three women will likely be your NCAA champion.
Ednah Kurgat, sophomore, New Mexico
2017 results: 1st Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, 1st Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, 1st Mountain West, 1st Mountain Regional
Track PRs: 15:26
Kurgat is viewed by many as the woman to beat after laying waste to the field at October’s Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, clocking a scorching 19:23 for the 6k course to win by 16 seconds. But that wasn’t her only impressive effort of the season. She set the meet record by running 16:01 on Notre Dame’s 5k course in September, and only Olympic silver medalist and three-time NCAA XC champ Sally Kipyego has ever run faster than the 19:58 Kurgat clocked on New Mexico’s home course at the Mountain West meet three weeks ago (remember, Albuquerque is at an elevation of 5,300 feet). Times aren’t everything in XC, but when you’re beating everyone in sight and doing so in fast times, it’s a sign that you’re really, really good.
So where was Kurgat last year? Well, she didn’t compete at NCAAs because Liberty did not release her when she transferred from Liberty to New Mexico in 2016. Thus, under NCAA rules, Kurgat had to sit out a year. But the last time she was in Louisville, she ran very well: she was 12th as a freshman for Liberty in 2015.
Elle Purrier, senior, New Hampshire
2017 results: 1st Coast to Coast Battle in Beantown, 1st Pre-Nats, 1st America East, 1st Northeast Regional
Track PRs: 4:29 mile/9:43 steeple
Purrier is the only other woman in the country yet to lose a race this fall, and like Kurgat, she hasn’t been racing scrubs: in a Pre-Nats field that included Rainsberger and NCAA champs Schweizer and Jones, it was Purrier that emerged victorious, taking the win in 19:28.5 to Schweizer’s 19:29.7. Purrier cruised at her conference meet, winning by 48 seconds, and defeated ACC champ Paige Stoner of Syracuse to win the Northeast Regional last week by four seconds.
Purrier has never won an NCAA title, but she has come close on several occasions, collecting four top-four finishes on the track in addition to a seventh-place finish in XC last year. A 4:29 miler who outkicked Schweizer at Pre-Nats, she’s someone you don’t want on your shoulder with 200 to go; though the same could be said for several of these women.
Karissa Schweizer, senior, Missouri
2017 results: 1st Commodore Classic, 1st Cowboy Jamboree, 2nd Pre-Nats, 1st SECs, 1st Midwest Regional
Track PRs: 4:15/9:06/15:19
Last year, Schweizer’s victory was a surprise in more than one way. She went into the race under the radar as she had never cntended for an NCAA crown before and was just 4th at Pre-Nats, and then during the race, the two top pre-race contenders in Anna Rohrer and Erin Finn were battling it out the top spot as they hit the homestretch. Schweizer unleashed a furious kick to get a surprising win, but if she wins this year it will be far from a big surprise.
Schweizer did lose narrowly to Purrier up at Pre-Nats, but so far she’s put together a more impressive season than the one that culminated with an NCAA title in 2016 (last year, she was only 4th at Pre-Nats). Her winning time of 16:25 at this year’s Commodore Classic was 21 seconds faster than what she ran a year ago and took 18 seconds off Erin Finn‘s course record.
In her next race, at the Cowboy Jamboree on September 30, she won in 19:56.
“I have not seen an official course record, but [Oklahoma State] coach [Dave] Smith does not remember anyone breaking 20 minutes before,” Missouri coach Marc Burns said after the race.
At SECs, she beat the runner-up, Arkansas’ Taylor Werner (16th at ’16 NCAAs) by 31 seconds. At regionals, she beat the runner-up, Kansas’ Sharon Lokedi (10th and 5th at the last two NCAA XC meets) by 21 seconds. Last year, her margins of victory at those meets were 8 and 6 seconds, respectively.
So yeah, Schweizer is better than she was a year ago, which stands to reason after a terrific track season that saw her run 15:19, claim NCAA indoor and outdoor titles at 5,000 meters, and finish 4th at USAs at that distance. The only problem? Schweizer didn’t have to face Kurgat last year.
If she does win, she’ll be the sixth woman to repeat joining Sonia O’Sullivan (1990-91), Carole Zajac (1992-93), Shalane Flanagan (2002-3), Sally Kipyego (2006-7-8), and Sheila Reid (2010-11).
All of these women have shown greatness in the past (three have won individual NCAA titles) but none have been at quite the same level as Kurgat, Purrier, and Schweizer this fall. It would qualify as an upset — but only a minor one — if one of them wins on Saturday.
Dani Jones, junior, Colorado
2017 results: 3rd Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, 3rd Pre-Nats, 1st Pac-12s, 12th Mountain Regional
Track PRs: 4:08/9:02/16:12
Remember how Jones kicked Colorado to an NCAA DMR title in March, then came back the next night and did the same thing in the 3k? Well in case you need a reminder, here’s how that kick looks on a cross country course:
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) October 27, 2017
That’s Jones winning the perennially loaded Pac-12 meet three weeks ago. She is always a threat in a close race. However, Jones has already been beaten by several of the women on this list, including Purrier and Schweizer at Pre-Nats and Kurgat at Notre Dame. Though she has solid strength (she was 22nd last year and won the Pac-12 5,000 in May), she is more of a miler/3k runner, and if someone like Kurgat pushes the pace throughout, Jones may not be in a position to use her devastating kick at the end of the race.
Allie Ostrander, sophomore, Boise State
2017 results: 1st Louisville Sports Commission Classic, 9th Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, 4th Mountain West, 2nd West Regional
Track PRs: 8:54/15:21
Ostrander’s 2017 season has not been as strong as her rookie campaign in 2015 (she redshirted last fall due to injury), when she set the course record at Wisconsin and went on to finish second at NCAAs. But we should note that Ostrander was 9th at Wisconsin despite falling midway through the race and, to hear her tell it, she expects more from herself at NCAAs.
“I did not race to what my workouts show I can,” Ostrander told Flotrack after Wisconsin. “But it’s just the middle of the season and last time I had my best race of the year here and this time I want my best race to be later in the season.”
Ostrander is a big talent — only Schweizer has run faster than her 15:21 5k pb — and she’s had a lot of success in Louisville, taking second at NCAAs as a true freshman in 2015 and winning the Louisville Sports Commission Classic earlier this year. But to win NCAAs, especially in a loaded year such as this one, you have to be firing on all cylinders and Ostrander hasn’t been doing that in 2017. She’ll need to run far better than she’s shown to contend for the win.
Katie Rainsberger, sophomore, Oregon
2017 results: 1st Dellinger Invitational, 4th Pre-Nats, 2nd Pac-12s, 5th West Regional
Track PRs: 9:01/4:09/16:13
Rainsberger hasn’t won a race since September, but she’s proven to be very clutch during her brief NCAA career. Last year, she was 6th at Pre-Nats, 5th at Pac-12s, 11th at regionals, and 4th at NCAAs. This year, she improved her places in each of the first three meets, so it would not be a surprise to see her deliver with a big NCAA performance once again. Her track season last year was just as good, as she anchored Oregon to an NCAA record in the DMR (though she could “only” manage third at NCAAs) and took third in the indoor 3k and fourth in the outdoor 1500 at NCAAs. That’s a truly outstanding freshman campaign, and Rainsberger was a big reason why Oregon was able to pull off an unprecedented XC-indoor-outdoor triple crown.
But, as we said with Ostrander above, whoever wins on Saturday will need to be at her absolute best, and Rainsberger has been beaten several times this year.
Charlotte Taylor, senior, San Francisco
2017 results: 2nd Roy Griak, 3rd Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, 1st WCCs, 1st West Regional
Track PRs: 15:29/32:11
Taylor, the NCAA 10k champ, took a surprising loss to teammate Weronika Pyzik in her season opener at Roy Griak, but she’s coming into NCAAs red-hot as she blazed a 19:10 to win WCCs by 20 seconds and a 19:14 to win the West Regional over Ostrander and Rainsberger. We are a bit curious, however, whether Taylor or Ostrander or Rainsberger went to the well during that race (both Taylor and Ostrander were kicking hard at the finish) but it was only a 6k; with seven days to recover, they should be okay. The knock on Taylor is that Kurgat smoked her by 17 seconds at Wisconsin, but Taylor will be difficult to drop.
Grayson Murphy, senior, Utah
2017 results: 4th Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, 2nd Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, 5th Pac-12s, 2nd Mountain Regional
Track PRs: 15:53/34:06/9:53 steeple
Murphy, who was only 53rd last year, has made the biggest jump of any of these women in 2017, taking second behind Kurgat at Wisconsin and again at the Mountain Regional. The fact that she’s even being mentioned for the win is a testament to the progress she has made this year, but like the other women in this section, she’ll need to run the race of her life if she is to be crowned champion.
LRC prediction: To borrow a term familiar in Louisville, we see this as a two-horse race between Kurgat and Schweizer. Both have been exceptional this year, and we’re not too concerned about Schweizer’s loss at Pre-Nats considering she lost at Pre-Nats last year as well. Schweizer showed at NCAA XC and NCAA indoors last year that she’s fine kicking off a hot pace, and at NCAA outdoors she showed she’s fine with taking it from the front if she believes she’s the best person in the field. After the way Kurgat gapped everyone at Wisconsin, we imagine she will have to rely on the former strategy to win.
To bring things back full circle, we see this race playing out in a similar fashion to the 2012 NCAA meet in Louisville, with Kurgat playing the role of Betsy Saina and Schweizer playing the role of Abbey D’Agostino. Both women have bright futures, and it would not be surprising to see them square off at an Olympics one day. But this fall, Kurgat has been just a hair better than Schweizer, and for that reason we’re picking Kurgat as your 2017 NCAA champ.
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