September 21, 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.
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.
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 him.
New additions in italics
2. Oregon: Despite a coaching change and the loss of five of its top seven, the Ducks should still challenge for the title
2017 results: 5th NCAAs, 3rd West Regional, 2nd Pac-12, 1st Pre-Nats
Key returners (lose #1, #2, #5, #6, #7 from NCAAs last year)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
|Weronika Pyzik||SR||3||San Francisco transfer; 15:59/32:37; 10th NCAA 10k|
|Isabelle Brauer||JR||8||San Francisco transfer; 16:27/33:44|
|Carmela Cardama Baez||SR||17||9:18/15:55/33:24|
|Jessica Hull||SR||47||4:08/8:58/16:29; NCAA 1500 champ|
Not many schools can lose a two-time NCAA title-winning coach and their top two runners and be expected to finish higher at NCAAs the following year. But not many schools are the University of Oregon.
With Maurica Powell now at the University of Washington, Oregon replaced her with Helen Lehman-Winters, who led San Francisco to a runner-up finish at NCAAs in 2017. The Ducks’ top two finishers from NCAAs, Katie Rainsberger (16th) and Lilli Burdon (21st) followed Powell to Seattle, but Lehman-Winters replaced them with two runners who finished even higher at NCAAs in Weronika Pyzik (5th) and Isabelle Brauer (15th), both of whom transferred in from USF.
(Side note: It’s amazing to us that all of these runners follow their coaches. Do they not realize they will be pretty darn good no matter who coaches them).
The Ducks also lost their #5, #6, and #7 runners from a year ago (Emma Abrahamson and Alli Cash are out of eligibility; Judy Pendergast transferred back to Harvard), but add Pyzik and Brauer to a nucleus that includes Carmela Cardama Baez (34th in 2017) and NCAA 1500 champion Jessica Hull (93rd last year) and you’ve got a national title contender. British transfer Philippa Bowden, who owns PRs of 15:52 and 32:33, should also feature in the top five, though watch out for Kenyan Susan Ejore. Ejore, who ran the 800 leg on Oregon’s DMR NCAA winning team last winter, won Oregon’s opener at the Oregon XC Preview by 30 seconds.
While this is a ready-made contender, it will be interesting to see how Lehman-Winters shapes the Oregon program in future years. All six of the women listed above are international students, five of them transfers. Lehman-Winters built a contender in San Francisco by relying upon international students, perhaps in part because, among U.S. recruits, San Francisco lacks the name-brand recognition of a school like Oregon. Now that she’s in Eugene, will her recruiting strategy change?
We’ll quickly find out as five of the six women listed above are seniors.
But that’s a problem for the future. Right now, this is a chance to win a second title in three years — albeit with a drastically different roster.
Lehman-Winters did not respond to LetsRun.com’s interview request.
1. New Mexico: A third title in four years beckons for the Lobos
2017 results: 1st NCAAs, 2nd Mountain Regional, 1st Mountain West, 1st Wisconsin Invitational
Key returners (lose #4, #6, #7 from NCAAs last year)
|Name||Class||# returner from NCAAs||Credentials|
8:57/15:19/32:31; 2nd NCAA 5k indoors, 6th NCAA 5k outdoors
|Weini Kelati||SO||4||9:03/15:22/32:41; 9th NCAA 5k|
|Charlotte Prouse||SR||6||16:01/9:44 steeple; 2nd NCAA steeple|
|Alondra Negron||SO||44||4:22/10:05 steeple|
|Emily Martin||SR||45||Creighton transfer; 16:12|
|Adva Cohen||SO||N/A||4:15/16:07/9:29 steeple; 5th at Euro champs steeple|
|Natasha Bernal||SR||N/A||16:27/10:15 steeple|
Joe Franklin is not a fan of stress. As an undergrad at Purdue, he put pressure on himself to win the Big 10 800-meter title.
“I finished 7th, and I don’t remember the last 200 meters because I just put so much internal stress on myself,” Franklin says.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and Franklin is the coach at New Mexico. In 2011, his women’s team enters the season ranked #2 in the country, the highest in program history.
“We talked about it a lot,” Franklin says. “We talked and talked and talked, and it just was not a fun year (UNM finished 9th at NCAAs) because of the stress. So that changed the way we approached things.”
The change has worked. In 2015, New Mexico won its first NCAA title. Last year, the Lobos added a second. Now they’re the favorites to win a third in four years, but Franklin isn’t going to lay that expectation on his athletes.
“In the two years that we won, we talked about winning one time, and that was right after the Wisconsin Nuttycombe meet in 2015,” Franklin says. “Last year, we never talked about it. We as coaches obviously do, but we never talk about it with the kids. At all.
“Students these days have enough stress in their life. They have stress, from academic stress to social stress to social media stress. A lot of them are very driven, not only athletically, but also academically. We try to eliminate stress.”
Of the top 12 finishers at NCAAs in 2017, six return. And of those six, three run for New Mexico: reigning champ Ednah Kurgat, Weini Kelati (7th), and Charlotte Prouse (12th). That nucleus alone would make the Lobos a title contender, especially when you consider they also return Alondra Negron (85th as a freshman last year).
Alex Buck, who was 105th in 2017, will likely redshirt, according to Franklin. But thanks to some key additions, New Mexico could be even better in 2018 than it was in 2017 — a scary thought considering they scored just 90 points at NCAAs last year. Emily Martin (16:12 pb), who finished one spot behind Negron at NCAAs for Creighton, transferred in. So did Hannah Nuttall (9:11 3k) who comes in as a grad student from the UK.
Nuttall comes from a family with a lot of running success. Both her mom and dad were Olympians. Her dad John Nuttall won the individual 1989 NCAA XC title for Iowa State and amassed lifetime pbs of 3:58 mile, 7:36 3k, 13:16 5k, and 28:07 10k and was a 1996 Olympian (semis of 5k). Her mother, Alison Wyeth, may have been even more accomplished. Wyeth was a two-time Olympian and had PBs of 4:03 for 1500, 8:38 for 3000, and 15:00 for 5000. She was 5th at the 1993 Worlds in the 3000 (9th in 1992 Olympic 3000). If that’s not enough, the most accomplished person in the family is Nuttall’s stepmom, Liz McColgan, the 1988 Olympic silver medallist and 1991 world champ at 10,000.
But the biggest addition is Adva Cohen, a juco transfer from Iowa Central. In July, Cohen placed 5th in the steeple at the European Championships for Israel. Her time of 9:29.74 would put her #5 in NCAA history — only Courtney Frerichs, Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn, and Colleen Quigley have run faster.
Similar to Oregon, this is a very transfer-heavy and international-heavy roster. Of UNM’s prospective top seven — Kurgat, Kelati, Prouse, Negron, Martin, Nuttall, and Cohen — five are transfers and five are international students (there is some overlap as four are international students and transfers).
Franklin knows it will be difficult for this year’s squad to match the accomplishments of the 2015 group that scored 49 points at NCAAs — “that team was special in so many ways” — but he knows the Lobos can be very, very good.
“On paper, it’s potentially better than last year’s team,” Franklin says. “We have a lot more options for 5-6-7 than what we did last year.”
That’s why the Lobos are our preseason pick as the 2018 NCAA champions. Don’t stress out over it.