2018 NCAA Women’s XC Preview: #10 Arkansas & #9 Villanova

By LetsRun.com
September 17, 2018

Cross country is back, and the 2018 season promises to be a historic one.

In the team competition, a pair of teams are chasing dynasty status: the Northern Arizona men will be trying to become the first team to win three straight titles since Arkansas from 1998-2000, while the New Mexico women will be gunning for their third title in four years.

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Individually, the big story on the men’s side is whether the American drought can end: no U.S. man has won the NCAA individual title since Oregon’s Galen Rupp did it 10 years ago. Northern Arizona’s Tyler Day and Stanford’s Grant Fisher — both top-five finishers a year ago — will look to end that streak. Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald will be looking to end a drought of his own: no man has won the NCAA title on his home course since Indiana’s Bob Kennedy in 1992, but the Aussie will have a chance this fall as the NCAA championships will be staged at the Zimmer Course for the first time.

That course is another reason to be excited for the season. From 2004-2017, only two cities (Terre Haute and Louisville) hosted NCAAs. But over the next four years, four cities will host, beginning with Madison on November 17 (Terre Haute, Stillwater, Okla., and Tallahassee will follow in 2019, 2020, and 2021). Start planning those itineraries.

For the fifth year in a row, we’re counting down the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in America. These aren’t meant as definitive predictions — there are too many variables to accurately forecast the results of a race two months from now — but consider this a starting point for the national title conversation.

Key dates
September 7: 
Meets begin to count for NCAA at-large qualifying purposes
September 28: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 13: Pre-National Invitational, Madison, Wisconsin
October 26-28: Conference weekend (various sites)
November 9: NCAA regional meets (various sites)
November 17: NCAA championships, Madison, Wisconsin

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2017 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of her.

New additions in italics

10. Arkansas: The Razorbacks have talent, but will we get to see it this season?

2017 results: 13th NCAAs, 1st South Central Regional, 1st SEC, 3rd Pre-Nats

Key returners (lose #2, #3 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Carina Viljoen JR 23 4:16/9:30
Taylor Werner JR 53 9:06/15:51/34:15; 16th at ’16 NCAA XC
Sydney Brown SR 91 4:22/9:31/16:18
Ashton Endsley SO 92 9:44
Lauren Gregory SO 154 4:41 mile/10:08 3200; 3rd ’16 NXN
Devin Clark SR N/A 16:15/9:49 steeple; 48th at ’15 NCAA XC
Katrina Robinson FR N/A 4:14/9:03/16:06
Werner was 104th at NCAAs a year ago but 16th in 2016

Werner was 104th at NCAAs a year ago but 16th in 2016 (Michael Scott photo)

It’s a testament to the expectations in Fayetteville that Arkansas could walk away from a 13th-place finish at NCAAs and feel disappointed.

“A real catastrophe,” Arkansas coach Lance Harter says, reflecting back on a meet in which he was forced to pull Devin Clark before the race due to plantar fasciitis and freshman Lauren Gregory struggled to a 252nd-place finish after running on what turned out to be a navicular fracture.

Both Clark and Gregory — who, once she’s fully healthy, should be closer to the high school form that saw her take 3rd at NXN two years ago — are on the mend, but it is possible that neither races this season.

“One of the dilemmas I have is the possibility of I could redshirt Devin Clark and Lauren Gregory and really stack it for next year,” Harter says, adding that he’ll likely come to a decision before Pre-Nats on October 13.

If Clark and Gregory are out — or if they can’t get back to 100% this year — this is probably not a top-10 team, even with the addition of Australian Katrina Robinson, who has already run 16:06 for 5,000 meters. But with the talent on this roster — all of whom could return in 2019, save Sydney Brown — it’s a good bet that the Razorbacks land in the top 10 either this year or next.

Our goal is always to be in the top 10,” Harter says. “We have talent on campus, it’s just a matter of making some decisions about how do we want to ration [it] out for this year, because to be honest with you, we’re really looking forward to next year. But I think that you don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”

9. Villanova: The Wildcats plot a return to the top 10 after a six-year absence

2017 results: 12th NCAAs, 2nd Mid-Atlantic Regional, 1st Big East

Key returners (lose #2, #6 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Bella Burda SR 34 16:19/33:50
Nicole Hutchinson SR 46 4:13/9:09/15:46
Kaley Ciluffo SR 49 4:41 mile/9:43 3k
Lauren Ryan SO 68 4:20/9:21/16:26
Rachel McArthur SO 118 4:19/9:43
Taryn O’Neil FR N/A 4:17/9:15; 9th at World U20 3k
Caroline Alcorta SR N/A North Carolina transfer; 4:18/9:12/16:01/33:49; 14th in NCAA 10k
Hutchinson will look to lead the Wildcats after a breakout track season

Hutchinson will look to lead the Wildcats after a breakout track season (Michael Scott photo)

No school has earned more women’s NCAA cross country titles than Villanova’s nine. But recently, the Wildcats have not been in the championship hunt. The last of those titles came courtesy of back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, but Villanova has not cracked the top 10 since finishing 3rd in 2011.

The title drought will likely continue in 2018, but on paper, this looks like one of the top 10 teams in the country. Villanova was 12th last year in Louisville, 28 points out of the top 10, and returns four of its top five from that squad, led by Bella Burda (65th overall). Kaley Ciluffo and Nicole Hutchinson were also top-100 finishers a year ago, giving the Wildcats a strong senior trio up front. Hutchinson figures to be especially dangerous. After spending her first two years at Villanova racing the 800/1500, she made her 5k debut at the Raleigh Relays last spring and clocked 15:46, going on to place 14th at NCAAs in that event.

Villanova should also from Caroline Alcorta, a 5th-year transfer from North Carolina who was 14th in the NCAA 10k in June, and Canadian freshman Taryn O’Neil, who ran 9:15 to place 9th in the World U20 3k final in July.

Those are five solid scorers, and if anything goes wrong, junior Lauren Ryan (16:26, 127th at NCAAs last year) isn’t a bad #6. The returning talent and an infusion of new blood should be enough to get Nova back into the top 10, assuming everyone is/can stay healthy.

Villanova coach Gina Procaccio did not respond to LetsRun.com’s interview request.