2019 NCAA Women’s XC Preview: #5 NC State Through #1 New Mexico

By Jonathan Gault
September 20, 2019

It’s that time of year again: fall is almost upon us (September 23rd). The days are growing shorter, mornings are getting cooler, and the track season is over.

Okay, scratch that last one. But it’s the middle of September, which means its time for cross country and LetsRun.com’s annual countdown of the top 10 men’s and women’s teams in America. These early season rankings are meant to be taken with a grain of salt — injuries, redshirts, and other unforeseen variables always have an impact. More than anything, these rankings are a starting point for a discussion of who is the best cross country team in the land, one that will rage until the NCAA championships in Terre Haute on November 23.

On the men’s side, Northern Arizona will try to join UTEP (1978-81) and Arkansas (1990-93) as the only schools to win four straight titles. Individually, last year’s two megastars, Morgan McDonald os Wisconsin and Grant Fisher of Stanford, both graduated, leaving a power vacuum at the top of the sport. Could this finally be the year that an American claims the men’s title for the first time since Oregon’s Galen Rupp in 2008?

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For the women, perennial powers Colorado and New Mexico are stacked again, while Arkansas is loaded as well and will be going for a calendar-year sweep of NCAA titles after winning in indoor and outdoor track. New Mexico’s Weini Kelati, the runner-up a year ago in Madison and the NCAA 10k champ on the track, will begin the year as the individual favorite, while her teammate, 2017 NCAA XC champ Ednah Kurgat, also returns.

We’re splitting our women’s rankings into two parts. Below, you’ll find teams #5 through #1

Nostalgic for last season? Check out our photo gallery of the 2018 NCAA XC meet in the snow in Madison or our coverage of the meet here.

Men’s preview: #10 Oklahoma State through #6 Notre Dame * #5 Iowa State through #1 Northern Arizona

Women’s preview: #10 Michigan State through #6 Washington

Note: We determined where a runner ranked among returners by taking his place in the team scoring at NCAAs in 2018 and subtracting the number of seniors/non-returners in front of him.

New additions in italics

5. NC State: Wolfpack chases return to podium after two-year absence

2018 NCAA finish: 13th

Key returners (lose #2 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Elly Henes SR 7 4:14/9:06/15:31
Dominique Clairmonte JR 29 9:19/15:55
Heather Holt SO 77 16:36
Nevada Mareno SO 99 9:30/16:14
Isabel Zimmermann JR 102 9:43/16:36
Savannah Shaw SO 138 4:47 mile
Beth Taye SR N/A 16:38
Ryen Frazier SR N/A 9:17/16:02
Kelsey Chmiel FR N/A 4:44 mile; 9:59 3200; 16:18; 2nd NXN in ’17 + ’18
Isabel Zimmermann (Ben Jones photo)

After finishing 5th, 4th, and 8th at NCAAs from 2015-2017, NC State took a step back in 2018 as an off day at nationals saw the Wolfpack drop to 13th. But NC State loses just one woman from that team — #2 finisher Nell Crosby — and picks up the nation’s top recruit in Kelsey Chmiel, who would be a two-time NXN champ were it not for phenom Katelyn Tuohy.

Chmiel, who has already run 16:18 for 5,000, could become a top-20 runner right away — she’s that good. And NC State brings back another top-20 finisher in Elly Henes, who continued to make strides in track — she ran 15:31 at the Adrian Martinez Classic in June, which would have ranked 4th in the NCAA in 2019 (Henes redshirted the spring season). Add back in Beth Taye, who was 54th at NCAA XC in 2017, and NC State could have three All-Americans — a great foundation for a podium team.

Dominique Clairmonte has also broken 16:00 in the past and should be a reliable scorer, but the rest of the roster is less certain. Ryen Frazier has almost broken 16:00 as well (16:02), but her health is always a question mark. Nevada Mareno finished in the top three at Foot Locker twice as a high schooler but has yet to totally put it together as a collegian. Even Chmiel, despite her talent, is no sure thing — there are always questions about how true freshmen will adapt to college.

Should a few of those women hit, the Wolfpack could be standing on the podium in Terre Haute. If not, sophomore Heather Holt and junior Isabel Zimmermann will be have to make progress from 2018 if NC State is to return to the top 10.

NC State coach Laurie Henes did not respond to LetsRun.com’s interview request.

4. BYU: A program on the rise looks to take the next step

2018 NCAA finish: 7th

Key returners (return all seven runners from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Erica Birk SR 4 15:38/9:42 steeple; 5th NCAA steeple
Courtney Wayment SR 13 9:12/16:09
Olivia Hoj SR 40 9:11/16:17
Sadie Sargent SO 63 4:47 mile
Aubrey Frentheway SO 79 16:44
Sara Musselman JR 90 9:52/10:23 steeple
Anna Camp JR 95 2:03/4:15
Whittni Orton SO N/A 4:13; 8th NCAA 1500
Birk-Jarvis returned from childbirth to finish 7th at NCAAs last year (Ben Jones photo)

Under coach Diljeet Taylor, BYU has quietly established itself as one of the top women’s programs in the nation. More accurately, the Cougars have re-established themselves; they were a serious power around the turn of the century, racking up four NCAA titles between 1997 and 2002 under Patrick Shane.

Taylor took over when Shane retired in 2016 and has had an immediate impact: after failing to finish better than 19th from 2006-2015, BYU has gone 11-10-7 at NCAAs the last three years, the latter their highest finish since the Cougars’ runner-up squad in 2003.

“The culture of the team has completely changed,” Taylor says. “Obviously that first year, after being here for a couple months, these are the women that put BYU women’s distance back on the map. Getting that top-10 finish that first year was the rebirth of BYU’s women’s distance.”

All seven scorers from last year’s 7th-place squad return, led by individual 7th-placer Erica Birk-Jarvis, and BYU gets back Whittni Orton, who finished 8th in the NCAA 1500 last spring but missed the end of last XC season with a stress reaction in her tibia. Taylor says that everyone is healthy now.

With everyone back and another year of seasoning, Taylor believes the Cougars can be even better in 2019, and she knows that expectations are high not just in Provo, but around the country.

“We’ve never been ranked this high in preseason [since I’ve been here],” Taylor says. “So sometimes when the hype of the season gets the best of you, you can lose focus on the important stuff, which is what we’re tyring to stay focused on.”

3. Arkansas: The Hogs are loaded, but they need to solve their NCAA XC woes

2018 NCAA finish: 14th

Key returners (lose #4, #6 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Katrina Robinson SO 18 4:14/9:03/16:06
Carina Viljoen SR 28 4:13/15:54
Taylor Werner SR 37 8:56/15:38/32:26; 2nd NCAA 5k, 4th NCAA 10k
Katie Izzo SR 38 4:22/9:29/16:08; 5th year from Cal Poly
Maddy Reed SR 92 4:19/9:27/16:04
Lauren Gregory JR N/A 4:15/8:55/15:42
Devin Clark SR N/A
4:17/9:20/15:38/9:48 steeple; 7th NCAA steeple; 48th at ’15 NCAA XC
Abby Gray SR N/A 4:25/9:36/16:06
Werner and the hogs struggled in the snow last year but were brilliant on the track (Ben Jones photo)

On paper, this is the best team in the country. Arkansas has three women who have run 15:42 or better and four more at 16:06 or faster. It’s a senior-laden team with distance runners who helped Arkansas win NCAA titles indoors and outdoors in 2019. Theoretically, it’s a buzzsaw.

There’s just one thing: Arkansas has bombed the last two NCAA meets.

In 2017, the Razorbacks entered NCAAs ranked 6th in the coaches’ poll and wound up 13th. Last year was even worse: Arkansas entered ranked 5th and were viewed as a genuine title contender but faded to 14th. In fact, Arkansas hasn’t finished in the top 10 at NCAAs since 2015; it’s been 20 years since they’ve made the podium. With the talent they’ve had, that’s not good as there have been a number of times when they’ve been a featured program at the pre-meet press conference.

The last two years, just about everything that could go wrong for Arkansas at NCAAs did. In 2017, injuries to Lauren Gregory and Devin Clark torpedoed the team; in 2018, the cold affected Arkansas more than expected — coach Lance Harter says Gregory “froze up” and had to drop — and star Taylor Werner wasn’t fully recovered from a back injury sustained the previous year.

Things couldn’t have been more different on the track, where four different women scored in the distances for Arkansas between indoors and outdoors. Werner was the top performer of that group by far, racking up 21 individual points between NCAA indoors and outdoors and running the fastest anchor leg of the night on the Hogs’ 5th-place DMR. She should be a contender for the individual title in Terre Haute.

Even though Harter says track remains the focus in Fayetteville — “we’ve always had the philosophy that cross country is important, but indoor is more important and outdoor is the pinnacle of what we’re shooting for, so a lot of times, our training and everything is geared much more for indoor and outdoor” — the pieces are in place for a run at the title, should everything go according to plan. 

Everything has not gone according to plan. Gregory is not currently running on solid ground due to a stress reaction in her foot; Harter says she’s “a big question mark.” And Katrina Robinson, the team’s top finisher at NCAAs last year (41st), was hurt during the track season and may redshirt this fall. If those two women don’t race in 2019, Arkansas’ title shot likely evaporates.

Between injuries and the Razorbacks’ checkered NCAA XC history, adding an XC crown to the track titles already won in 2019 might be a bridge too far. But with a senior-heavy lineup, this is the year for the Razorbacks to strike. And Harter knows it.

“I think that we’re all on the same page that this is a pretty extraordinary year,” Harter says. “We have depth, we have experience and we have some talent. That’s a pretty lethal combination when everybody puts it together.”

2. Colorado: A repeat is possible, but Wetmore says right now this team is “imperfect”

2018 NCAA finish: 1st

Key returners (lose #1, #2, #5 #6 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Tabor Scholl SR 6 9:07/15:58/34:03
Sage Hurta SR 12 4:09/15:54
Emily Venters JR 17 9:08/15:45/34:16; transfer from Boise State
Holly Bent SO 36 16:40/35:16
Rachel McArthur JR 60 4:14/9:19; transfer from Villanova
Madie Boreman JR N/A
4:19/9:46 steeple; 2nd ’17 NCAA steeple; 62nd at ’17 NCAA XC
Annie Hill RS FR N/A 4:19/16:47
Emily Covert FR N/A 4:47 1600; 10:05 2 mile; 5th FL; 4th NXN
Can the 2019 Buffs bring another one of these back to Boulder?

Colorado put on a clinic at the 2018 NCAA meet, blitzing the field with six finishers in the top 30 to score a scant 65 points. The Buffs were so good, and so deep, that they would have won had they scored six runners, even with the rest of the field still only scoring five (had the Buffs scored all seven runners, they would have beaten every team save New Mexico).

Colorado loses the top two women from that team in Dani Jones and Makena Morley, but picks up a pair of useful transfers in Emily Venters (39th for Boise State last year) and Rachel McArthur (119th for Villanova). Sage Hurta took a leap on the track last year, dropping her 1500 pb from 4:13 to 4:09, and coach Mark Wetmore likes what he’s seen from redshirt freshman Annie Hill, a 4:41 high school miler. There’s enough here for a repeat bid at NCAAs.

Wetmore isn’t one to toot his own horn, however, and this year in particular, he says that he’s glad his team still has two months to improve.

“Some people arrived at the end of the summer imperfect,” Wetmore says.

Could you tell us who and why, Mark?

“No. And no.”

We should find out what’s up in October, when Colorado races at Notre Dame and Pre-Nats, but for now, proceed with caution. Last year showed that Wetmore and his athletes can nail a peak like no one else, but it’s hard to win NCAAs when several key pieces aren’t at full strength. No matter who the coach is.

1. New Mexico: Lobos hope to keep the odd-year magic going

2018 NCAA finish: 2nd

Key returners (lose #3, #5 from NCAAs)

Name Class # returner from NCAAs Credentials
Weini Kelati JR 1 8:53/15:15/32:09; NCAA 10k champ
Ednah Kurgat SR 3 8:57/15:14/32:14; 2017 NCAA XC champ
Adva Cohen JR 19 4:15/15:31/9:29 steeple; 4th NCAA steeple
Hannah Nuttall SR 33 4:16/9:08
Sophie Eckel JR 66 16:08/34:19
Alondra Negron JR N/A 4:22/10:05 steeple; 85th at ’17 NCAA XC
New Mexico has landed on the podium four of the past five years (Ben Jones photo)

New Mexico claimed NCAA titles in 2015 and 2017, and the odd-year title streak could continue in 2019 as the Lobos are stacked again. Though UNM did lose NCAA 9th-placer Charlotte Prouse, who is out of eligibility, they bring back two NCAA champions in Weini Kelati — the 10k champ on the track who will begin this season as the individual title favorite — and 2017 XC champ Ednah Kurgat.

Lobos coach Joe Franklin says that those two women are ahead of where they were this time last year, as is presumptive #4 Hannah Nuttall (71st at NCAAs last year), while Alondra Negron, UNM’s #5 on the 2017 title team, had an “unbelievable summer” and is much farther along than at the same point two years ago.

New Mexico faces a unique challenge at the #3 spot in that Adva Cohen will be going to Doha to race the steeplechase at the World Championships for Israel. As a result, she won’t open up in XC until the conference meet. She won’t take a break after Worlds, which Franklin doesn’t think will be an issue; his biggest concern is that she doesn’t get sick while traveling.

Franklin kept the international talent pipeline flowing by adding Australia’s Amelia Mazza-Downie (15:59) this fall, but we will likely have to wait until 2020 to see her as Franklin says the plan is for her to redshirt. Likewise, Washington transfer Olivia O’Keeffe (4:48 mile/9:30 3k) will probably sit this season out too. Franklin believes that the Lobos’ depth is such that neither would make a huge difference in 2019, though both are talented runners.

“If you are interchangeable 5-6-7-8, why not just keep [them] redshirted and not use the season?” Franklin says.

With Kelati and Kurgat up front, New Mexico will essentially be scoring just three runners, and if Cohen can translate her gaudy track times (9:29 steeple, 15:31) to greater success in cross country (she was 43rd at NCAAs last year), the Lobos could have one of the best #3’s in the country as well.

That doesn’t mean UNM is invincible — they put three in the top 10 last year and still got smoked by Colorado — but between their experience, their health, and some uncertainties in Fayetteville and Boulder, the Lobos are the team to beat right now.

Previous: #10 Michigan State through #6 Washington

Men’s preview: #10 Oklahoma State through #6 Notre Dame * #5 Iowa State through #1 Northern Arizona

Nostalgic for last season? Check out our photo gallery of the 2018 NCAA XC meet in the snow in Madison or our coverage of the meet here.

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