November 18, 2017
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the end, New Mexico was just too good.
Led by individual champion Ednah Kurgat, a sophomore from Kenya, the New Mexico Lobos placed four runners in the top 14 to claim the 2017 NCAA Women’s Cross Country Championship today with 90 points, their second title in three years. Runner-up San Francisco had a lot to be proud of, as the Dons put three runners in the top 15 and got on the podium for the first time in their program’s history with 105 points, the best non-winning score since 1997.
Reigning NCAA champ Karissa Schweizer of Missouri was 11th.
Charlotte’s Caroline Sang (who ended up 6th), whom Cheryl Treworgy (race photographer and Shalane Flanagan’s mom) told us is Ednah Kurgat’s sister, took things out early and led for the first four minutes. But she soon was caught by Kurgat and the chase pack and Kurgat never let off the gas the rest of the race. Nine minutes into the race, there were just six athletes in the lead pack and then between 11 and 12 minutes into the race (roughly 3.5k), Kurgat broke free.
The rest of the race was a coronation for Kurgat, who had to sit out last year after not being released after running her freshman year at Liberty. She’d end up winning in a course and meet record 19:19.5.
— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) November 18, 2017
“The race went like crazy from the beginning, but it wasn’t my plan to do that,” Kurgat told reporters after the race, according to Race Results Weekly. “Due to a lot of pressure behind me, I just decided to escape early enough.”
The hot early pace took its toll on the rest of the field as the runner-up in 19:27.0 ended up being senior Amy-Eloise Neale of Washington via Great Britain (she went to high school in Washington state), who had the best close of anyone in the race, including Kurgat. Neale was just 19th at the 4k mark — some 20.6 seconds behind Kurgat – and at the finish she was second, 8.5 seconds back.
“I was just gauging off of whoever was there,” Neale said after the race. “I definitely looked up and saw her (San Franciso’s Charlotte Taylor) there. I just tried to catch as many people as I could. I wasn’t necessarily gauging off anybody in particular, but when you look around and see [Oregon’s] Katie Rainsberger and [Colorado’s] Dani Jones and all these amazing girls, you know that even if you don’t feel so good that you’re in a great place in the race with those girls around you.”
Charlotte Taylor, the reigning NCAA 10,000m champion who is also from Great Britain, held on for third in 19:28.55. Boise State’s Allie Ostrander, the 2015 runner-up as a freshman, was 4th, and San Francisco junior Weronica Pyzik rounded out the top 5.
Full results are here. Our quick take analysis appears below.
This was a heck of a team battle
New Mexico put an incredible four women in the top 15, a feat that had not been accomplished since…New Mexico did it on this course two years ago. But just because the Lobos have done it twice in three years does not mean that it was not an incredibly impressive accomplishment. New Mexico is just that good.
But the fact is, New Mexico didn’t run away with this one. The Lobos’ 15-point margin of victory wasn’t as tight as last year’s epic finish that came down to Oregon’s Maggie Schmaedick outkicking Jaimie Phelan for the team title, but 15 points is not a lot; it was the difference between UNM’s #5, Alonda Negron, who was 85th in 20:36.7, and Arkansas’ Taylor Werner, who was 104th in 20:44.7. That’s exactly eight seconds over six kilometers.
The hard-luck loser was San Francisco, as the Dons ran an incredible race only to lose to a terrific team. San Francisco’s 105 points was the lowest non-winning score in 20 years and the lowest since the meet expanded to 31 teams in 1998 (hat tip Dan Lilot); if USF had scored that many last year, they would have won by 20 points.
Two years ago, New Mexico breezed to the NCAA title, winning with a super low 49 points, an accomplishment that led us to proclaim them the greatest women’s team in NCAA XC history. Winning this year was a lot more stressful for coach Joe Franklin. First, his team did not get out in a great spot. At 2k, New Mexico was in 4th, 32 points behind Oregon. At 4k, they were in 3rd, 10 points behind San Fran and 5 behind Colorado.
New Mexico had a strong final 2k, and they would need it all to get the crown. Franklin said the Lobos exceeded his expectations of 110-120 points for the meet. It’s a good thing they did as otherwise San Francisco would be your NCAA champions.
A big question for Franklin was who his 5th runner would be and would they finish high enough for the Lobos to win.
“I got the question the other day who would be our 5th and I had no idea,” said Franklin.
The 5th ended up being freshman Alondra Negron, who finished in 85th place (63rd in team scoring). FYI, if you took Negron out of the team results, Alex Buck would have been New Mexico’s fifth and New Mexico and San Fran would have tied 105-105 with New Mexico winning on the tiebreaker.
Now the plan for the Lobos is to celebrate the NCAA title in Louisville with a nice steak dinner. Franklin comes from a family of educators — his parents were teachers for 44 years — and Franklin sees his win as part of the family tradition of giving kids a chance.
“My parents were educators for 44 years. They taught English, government, and econ. They were always adapting and always helping kids along the way. So it was a part of the culture of our family to give kids opportunities,” he said.
New Mexico and San Francisco share more than success on the field
New Mexico and San Francisco have more in common than simply finishing on the podium this year. Both are heavily reliant on foreign talent and proud of the cultures they’ve developed as a result. New Mexico’s top four are all foreigners (#5 woman Alondra Negron is from Puerto Rico) while San Francisco’s entire top seven comes from overseas.
“At New Mexico, we embrace diversity and inclusion, regardless of race, religion, country of origin, political beliefs, sexuality,” New Mexico coach Joe Franklin said at yesterday’s press conference. “That’s what we embrace. We have a very unique culture and it’s wonderful. It represents our state, which is very diverse. It represents everything that we are. And it’s just, it’s fun every day. You learn something every day. You learn about foods, languages. It’s a very positive experience…The group is just full of life. They’re happy every day. They realize what they have, which is a great opportunity.”
“San Francisco is an international city and it’s extremely diverse and our university is very diverse,” said San Francisco coach Helen Lehman-Winters. “I think we draw from 90 different countries all over the world. So it kind of makes sense in terms of our location…We want to find the athletes that are the best fit for our program. If they happen to be from Poland, that’s wonderful. If they happen to be from California, that’s wonderful. We don’t really care.”
Though New Mexico had been atop the podium before, this was San Francisco’s first time and Lehman-Winters made sure to soak it in on the podium, hoisting the trophy high above her head.
“It was heavy! It was a lot heavier than I expected,” said Lehman-Winters, who is in her 15th year at USF. “[I’m] just really, really proud of the women on our team. We really hadn’t actually won anything in cross country with this group until the Griak this year. To have the season we had, being a top-two team at every single meet we ran at, I’m just really, really proud of this group.”
San Francisco won the West Coast Conference every year from 2009 to 2013, but they fell off to 4th in 2014 and 3rd in 2015 and 2016. But after taking 3rd at conference last year, the Dons were 6th at NCAAs, and Lehman-Winters left that meet knowing that her team would be capable of more in 2017 as many of her athletes entered 2016 less than 100% healthy. This year, her top group has stayed healthy, and all of them improved — especially Weronika Pyzik, who went from 87th at NCAAs in 2016 to 5th today.
New Mexico’s race strategy: “Have fun, find turquoise and run with your friends”
There are tons of different strategies coaches give their runners at NCAAs. Coach Mike Smith of the winning NAU men’s team told his team if they had any questions about what to do during the race to hit the “gas”. Coach Franklin’s pre-race instructions were short and simple: “Have fun, find turquois (New Mexico’s color) and run with your friends”.
Ednah Kurgat knew she had to drop the kickers today
One year ago, Kurgat was not allowed to run in this meet. She was healthy and fit, but Liberty refused to release her when she transferred to New Mexico in 2016, requiring her to sit out a year of competition. When she finally donned the Lobo uniform this fall, she dominated from start to finish and closed out a perfect season with her first NCAA title.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Kurgat said. “My challenges are behind me but they all act as a stepping stone toward my success today.”
Kurgat’s winning move today may have looked confident, but she was worried the entire way about running out of gas and being run down by one of her rivals. It was only as she approached the end of the final straight that she was able to relax and celebrate a little before the line.
“I tried [to drop everyone before the end] because I know if you go all the way [in a pack], anything can happen [at the end of the race],” Kurgat said.
Washington’s Amy-Eloise Neale surprises by taking 2nd
Neale was 8th as a junior last year, so finishing 2nd today — thanks to a big kick — doesn’t look like a huge surprise on paper. But considering this was the highest she has finished at a meet this year since September 16, it definitely qualifies as a shock (she was 6th at Dellinger, 14th at Wisconsin, and 3rd at Pac-12s and the West Regional).
Neale didn’t surprise herself, however.
“I think I knew there was more in there after Pac[-12]’s,” Neale said. “I was like, okay I’ve got a little speed to work on, but my race tactics were better. And then at regionals, definitely knew more there was more in there that week.”
Charlotte Taylor – 3rd Place Individual, 2nd Place Team
Taylor led San Francisco to its strong second-place finish and was pleased that the team ran well.
“As long as we went out and raced our best, that’s all we could ask for,” she said. She’s helped build a powerhouse program at San Fran and credited the team dynamic. “We get on really well as a team. We push each other to be better. There is no bitchiness between us. We’re just trying to get better all the time,” she said.
What happened to Karissa Schweizer? “Sometimes you just feel off from the start”
Schweizer entered this meet last year as an unknown and walked away as a national champion. Ever since then, it has been almost nonstop success for the Iowa native, with NCAA indoor and outdoor titles over 5,000 meters. Unfortunately, Schweizer said she started hurting at 3k and never felt better.
“I don’t know why,” Schweizer said. “I don’t know what happened. Mentally, it was very hard. I mean once you see your goal kind of going away, and you kind of give up a little bit. To not give up completely, I think, was really big for me.”
What people tend to forget is that winning an NCAA individual title requires two things: supreme fitness and a terrific race on the big day. Schweizer had the former, but she is not the first athlete to have an off day at NCAAs and she will not be the last.
“I’ll really take this and motivate me to work towards having a strong indoor and having to finish strong outdoor.”
Talk about the action in our fan forum / messageboard.
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More: Video Interviews From The 2017 NCAA Division 1 Cross Country Championships All our post-race interviews on one page.