2017 NCAA XC Women’s Team Preview: Oregon Tries to Repeat, Colorado Seeks Redemption, & New Mexico Is Loaded Again
November 15, 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)
So far, 2017 has been a year of redemption in sports. In January, Clemson avenged a loss to Alabama in the previous year’s College Football Playoff title game thanks to the heroics of Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow. In April, one year after losing an epic NCAA title game to Villanova at the buzzer, the North Carolina men’s basketball squad won the national championship over Gonzaga. And in June, the Golden State Warriors earned revenge over the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA title 12 months after blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
The women of the University of Colorado will be hoping that trend continues on Saturday at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Last year, the Buffaloes entered NCAAs as the unanimous No. 1 team in the country, heavy favorites to win the third women’s title in CU history. But after a dominant regular season, Mark Wetmore‘s squad came up short at NCAAs. The Buffaloes got out poorly, and senior Erin Clark, who had finished second at Pre-Nats and Pac-12s, bombed and wound up 133rd, relegating the Buffaloes to third as No. 12 Oregon sprung an upset for the ages. The blowup by Clark, Colorado’s star, was reminiscent of Jenny Barringer‘s stunning blowup seven years earlier when Barringer finished 163rd after being expected to battle for the individual title. Had Clark finished in the top 30, Colorado would have been your champion.
Colorado won’t be the only women’s team looking for redemption on Saturday — Michigan came up one point short a year ago and will be trying to finish the job in 2017 — but the Buffs are the better prepared to achieve it. Once again, Colorado is No. 1 in the polls, and once again the Buffs have a deep, talented squad. But if they are to add their name to the redemption list in Louisville, they’ll have to overcome a stacked New Mexico squad, a strong defending champion in Oregon, a new power in San Francisco, and a sleeping giant in Stanford. We break down each of the contenders below in alphabetical order.
What: 2017 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville, Kentucky
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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).
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 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
#1 Colorado (2nd Pre-Nats, 1st Pac-12s, 1st Mountain Regional)
Why Colorado will win: Colorado has raced the No. 2 team in the polls, New Mexico, twice already this season and beaten the Lobos each time. The Buffaloes prevailed, 47-51, at Notre Dame on September 29, and won again last weekend at regionals, 62-70 (though New Mexico held out one of its top runners in Alice Wright). The recipe for Colorado’s success is usually the same at each meet: NCAA 3k champ Dani Jones is the top dog, a contender to finish in the top 5 in any race in the country. Kaitlyn Benner (26th ’16 NCAAs, 15:56 5k), Sage Hurta (40th ’16 NCAAs, 4:38 mile), and Makena Morley (43rd ’16 NCAAs, 15:58/33:29) comprise a strong #2 through #4 (though Morley was actually CU’s #1 at regionals). The #5 spot rotates — CU has had three different #5’s in its four races — but the likely candidates are all strong: Madison Boreman (4:41 mile/9:46 SC; NCAA steeple runner-up), Tabor Scholl (42nd ’16 NCAAs, 4:41 mile), and Brianna Schwartz (16th Mountain Regional).
That depth at #5 is CU’s greatest strength. New Mexico’s top four is ridiculous, but #5 is a question mark. Oregon and San Francisco are also stronger than Colorado through three runners but not as deep at the #5, #6, and #7 spots (the latter two of which could come into play if someone in the top five struggles).
Why Colorado won’t win: Colorado’s depth is good, but this Buffs squad isn’t markedly different from last year’s team. And the 2016 NCAA meet showed that if you’re reliant on a strong pack, and that pack gets out slowly, it can be difficult to overcome in a 6k race. In addition, while CU is deep, it may not be the deepest team in the country. Remember, at Pre-Nats, Oregon beat CU handily, 63-91, as Oregon had four runners in before Colorado’s second and had a better fifth runner (30th-place Emma Abrahamson vs. 36th-place Madison Boreman). And that was without Alli Cash (14th at 1016 NCAAs) who is now once again running for the Ducks.
Pre-Nats was also illustrative of another of CU’s problems: the bigger the meet, the more important it is to have studs up front. Pre-Nats was Colorado’s largest meet of the year and it also happened to be the only meet it lost. Obviously this can go the other way (New Mexico’s problem at #5 is exacerbated in a bigger field), but seven of the last nine NCAA champs have had at least two top-15 finishers. Jones is one, but who is the other for Colorado?
This Colorado team has earned its No. 1 ranking — in addition to those wins over UNM, it beat Oregon 53-71 at Pac-12s — but would not be a huge shock if the Buffs lost, as they did last year.
#2 New Mexico (1st Wisconsin, 1st Mountain West, 2nd Mountain Regional)
Why New Mexico will win: No team is as loaded, #1 through #4, as the Lobos. It would not be a surprise to see New Mexico put four women in the top 20, as they did two years ago the last time the NCAAs were in Louisville. They’ve got the NCAA individual favorite (at least in our minds, individual preview coming soon) in Ednah Kurgat as well as Weini Kelati (15th Wisconsin, 3rd Mountain Regional, ’15 Foot Locker champ), Charlotte Prouse (7th Wisconsin, 5th Mountain Regional), and Alice Wright (4th Wisconsin, two-time NCAA 10k runner-up, two-time top-20 finisher at NCAA XC).
How good are those four? Kurgat, Kelati, and Prouse all beat Boise State’s Allie Ostrander — the 2017 NCAA steeple champ who was 2nd at NCAA XC in ’15 — at the Mountain West conference meet. And it wasn’t close — all of them finished at least 13 seconds ahead of Ostrander. Wright, who finished one place behind Ostrander, was 5th at NCAAs in 2015. If New Mexico can put four women in the top 20 at NCAAs, their fifth runner would only need to finish in the top 110 or so for UNM to have a shot at the title. If their #5 can finish in the top 80, that would give UNM a team score of around 90 points and that would likely be game over.
Why New Mexico won’t win: For most of the season, New Mexico’s biggest problem was obvious: the massive gap from #4 to #5. A big gap is okay, especially when New Mexico’s top four is that strong, but at some point, it becomes insurmountable. New Mexico put four in the top eight at Notre Dame but still lost to Colorado because their #5 was 31 seconds back. At Wisconsin, even though New Mexico won handily (87-126 over San Francisco), the gap from #4 to #5 was 46 seconds. At Wisconsin, that was equivalent to 45 places, but it could be significantly more at NCAAs — at last year’s NCAA meet, if you take 15th place (20:09) and add 46 seconds, you get 20:55, which was equivalent to 121st place, or a difference of 106 places.
The good news for UNM is that, even if their #5 — whether it’s Alonda Negron, Kieran Casey, or Alex Buck — finishes in 121st, the Lobos can still win. Last year, 121st overall was worth 93rd in the team scoring. Oregon won with 125 points last year, so if UNM’s top four can score 32 between them — very doable — that puts them in the ballpark for the win (assuming no other team goes out and crushes it). And New Mexico’s #5 could do a lot better than 121st. Remember, Buck finished 105th last year as a freshman. This year as a sophomore, she’s improved her position in three of her four races (the only one where she was worse was Wisconsin, where she was 93rd last year and 127th this year). If Buck finishes 105th or better at NCAAs this year and the top four do their thing, New Mexico has a great chance to win.
One other potential cause for concern: Alice Wright finished 40 seconds behind UNM’s #3 at its conference meet and did not run regionals. We’re not too worried about that, however. We spoke with Lobos coach Joe Franklin, and he explained that Wright was held out of regionals to rest up for nationals — something he had been planning all season — and that she is “99.9% healthy” and that he was “not one bit” concerned about the gap at Mountain West. Why?
“There’s only been one person ever run faster on that course [than winner Ednah Kurgat’s 19:58] — and the course was 30 meters longer this time — and that was [three-time NCAA champ and eventual Olympic silver medalist] Sally Kipyego,” Franklin said.
Kelati (20:11) and Prouse (20:14) weren’t that far behind, and other than Kurgat, the only other woman to beat Wright was Ostrander. And Wright still beat Utah State’s Alyssa Snyder (4th NCAA 10k last year).
For more on UNM and NCAA point projections, check out this messageboard thread where a few LRC visitors have analyzed data from previous years’ NCAA results.
#6 Oregon (1st Pre-Nats, 2nd Pac-12s, 3rd West Regional)
Why Oregon will win: Oregon is the only team in the country to have beaten Colorado this year, which it did, fairly comfortably, at Pre-Nats (63-91). On that trip to Louisville, Oregon got its characteristic strong runs from Katie Rainsberger (4th; 4th ’16 NCAAs), Lilli Burdon (7th; 4:36 mile, 15:50 5k), and Jessica Hull (16th; 79th ’16 NCAAs, 4:40 mile). But, more importantly, its #4 and #5 runners stepped up in a big way as Florida State transfer Carmela Cardama Baez was 15th and Emma Abrahamson was 30th. If they run that way again on Saturday, the Ducks could well walk away with a second straight NCAA title.
One other thing working in Oregon’s favor: last year, the Ducks showed that they could peak at the right time. Both Maurica Powell and her husband Andy, who coach the Oregon men’s and women’s teams, respectively, like to insert a hard six-week block of training in the middle of the season, and the upshot is that, when it works, the Ducks peak hard at the end of the year. Last year, it definitely worked as Oregon went from fourth at Pac-12s and fourth at regionals to first at NCAAs. Oregon will be hoping for a similar turnaround this year.
Why Oregon won’t win: This Oregon squad is perilously thin — regionals was the first time since September that Oregon entered seven runners in a race. Repeat that again – it was the first time they even ran seven runners all year long. And this is Oregon where they almost always have a transfer or two on their roster. And though Alli Cash (14th ’16 NCAAs) made her season debut at regionals, she could only manage 44th place. Cash is a redshirt senior, and the Ducks didn’t have a viable #7 to replace her, so it makes sense that she would try to race, but she’s likely not at 100% and we’re not counting on her to replicate her 2016 finish. And if Cash can’t bail Oregon out, the entire top five will have to run great as the gap from #5 to #6 at Pre-Nats was 1:07 (the gap came down at Pac-12s and regionals, but that may have had more to do with their #5 runner running worse rather than their #6 runner running better).
Of course, Oregon’s entire top five did run great in 2016 en route to the national title. But it’s still a very hard thing to do; chances are, one of the Ducks slips up on Saturday, and that may be the difference between first and third.
#3 San Francisco (2nd Wisconsin, 1st WCCs, 1st West Regional)
Why San Francisco will win: The Dons are the only team in the country who can hope to match up with New Mexico #1 through #3 — UNM went 1-4-7 at Wisconsin, while USF went 3-5-11. The trio of Charlotte Taylor (NCAA 10k champ), Pole Weronika Pyzik (Roy Griak champ), and Swede Isabelle Brauer (11th Wisconsin, 7th West Regional) is extremely formidable and powered USF to the win at the West Regional (59-76 over Stanford) and a 1-2-3-4 finish at Roy Griak.
San Francisco has solid depth at #4 through #6 (Tatjana Schulte, Lea Meyer, and Elizabeth Bird all finished in the top 60 at Wisconsin) as well, though that wasn’t enough to overcome New Mexico at Wisconsin (UNM beat USF handily in the end, 87 to 126). But San Francisco ran that race without Marie Bouchard (their #4 at Roy Griak, WCCs, and regionals), and if you throw her into the mix, suddenly things get a lot more interesting.
Fun fact: the Dons’ top five at regionals hails from five different countries, none of them the US (in fact, none of their top seven is from the US). Taylor is from the UK, Pyzik from Poland, Brauer from Sweden, Bouchard from France, Schulte from Germany. Anyone know if a team has ever won a national title with five scorers from five different countries? Heck, Elizabeth Bird, who is British, was born in the Philippines so they could go have an entire top six born in six different countries. They do have repeat when you look at #7 as Lea Meyer, like Schulte, was born in Germany.
Why San Francisco won’t win: San Francisco doesn’t have the top-four strength of New Mexico, but it doesn’t have the elite depth of Colorado either. Remember, we said that New Mexico’s #5 could be a problem, but at Wisconsin, UNM’s #5 was only six seconds behind USF’s #4 (who would be their #5 normally with Bouchard in the lineup). The Dons have a great shot to earn the school’s first-ever podium appearance, but that may be this group’s ceiling.
#4 Stanford (8th Wisconsin, 3rd Pac-12s, 2nd West Regional)
Why Stanford will win: Just look at the talent on this roster. Here’s what Stanford’s top five at regionals have done on the track:
- Fiona O’Keeffe, sophomore: Has run 15:46 and finished 5th in the NCAA 5k in June.
- Vanessa Fraser, senior: Has run 15:25 and finished 7th at USAs in the 5k in June.
- Elise Cranny, junior: Two-time NCAA runner-up (four if you count the DMRs that she anchored in 2015 and 2017), ran 4:10 1500 in HS (4:09 in college); 4th at World Juniors in 1500 in 2014.
- Ella Donaghu, sophomore: Ran 4:14 1500 in HS (#7 all-time U.S.).
- Christina Aragon, sophomore: Ran 4:08 1500 in HS (#4 all-time U.S.), 3rd at World U20s in 1500 in 2016; 7th at NCAAs in 1500.
Look at those accomplishments and it’s easy to think, How in the world does anyone beat this team? Yet Stanford has been beaten regularly in 2017; in fact, it’s been over a year (2016 regionals) since Stanford’s A squad has won a meet. At Wisconsin, Stanford was only 8th, though that was without Aragon and the injury-prone Cranny (not to mention Harvard transfer Courtney Smith, who has run 32:08 for 10k but has not raced at all this fall).
But lately, there have been signs of life, as Stanford finished with the same number of points as Oregon at Pac-12s (losing out on second on a tiebreaker) and beat the Ducks at regionals. And if you’re beating Oregon, you’ve got a shot to win the NCAA title. #1 through #5, Stanford has as much talent as anyone in the country, but getting all of those women — many of whom are mid-d specialists — to run well in a 6k cross country race on the same day is a challenge.
Why Stanford won’t win: As we pointed out above, Stanford has a crapload of talent but collectively, that talent hasn’t done anything of note in cross country. Stanford is good enough to win it all this year, but its real window might begin next year, when four of its top five return and it can add in studs in Smith and Nevada Mareno (two-time top-3 finisher at Foot Lockers).
The other issue is that, of the teams we’ve mentioned so far, Stanford has the weakest #1 runner. New Mexico and San Francisco put three each in front of Stanford’s #1 at Wisconsin (O’Keeffe). O’Keeffe or Fraser may be able to squeak out a top-10 finish, but it’s more likely they finish somewhere in the teens, and losing ground up front could be costly in what could be a tight battle for the title.
This is one of the more exciting team battles in recent memory, as all five teams listed above will head to NCAAs thinking they’ve got a shot to win it — and we haven’t even mentioned No. 5 NC State (a podium team last year) or Arkansas who is tied at No. 6 in the coaches’ poll with Oregon. But 3,000 words is more than enough and while NC State or Arkansas might end up on the podium (top four), they aren’t going to win. Last year, only nine points separated Oregon in first and Colorado in third, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a similarly close meet this time around.
With that said, we’re picking New Mexico FTW. Yes, they lost at Notre Dame to Colorado, but only by four and having so many near-guaranteed low sticks will help them in such a large field. Let’s say New Mexico goes 1-10-15-20-100 in the raw score. Well if you add up the corresponding team places at last year’s NCAA meet, that gets you to 110 points, a total good enough to win in five of the last seven years. Of course, with so many quality teams, 110 may not be enough to win this year, but 100th is also a conservative estimate for UNM’s #5 considering Alex Buck was 105th last year as a freshman. The fact of the matter is, if you have four of the top 20 runners in the country, you’re going to win NCAAs unless your #5 is a complete stiff, and New Mexico’s #5 is not a complete stiff. It’s just too much of an advantage to get four women in the chute that early.
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