By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2019
On the women’s side, the 2019 NCAA cross country season feels a lot like the 2018 NCAA cross country season.
Just like last year, Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson beat New Mexico’s Weini Kelati at the Nuttycombe Invitational.
Just like last year, Kelati spent the next month taking a flamethrower to the rest of the NCAA.
And just like last year, the NCAA title will be decided by one question: can Kelati run away from everyone else before the kicking starts?
In 2018, she could not. On a snow-covered course in Madison, Kelati made her break with one kilometer to go and opened a gap. But it wasn’t big enough, and Colorado’s Dani Jones kicked by her in the home straight to win the national title.
But a lot has changed in 12 months as well. For one, Jones is gone — she only has track eligibility remaining at Colorado. So is 2018 third-placer Jessica Hull of Oregon, which makes Kelati (2nd) and Monson (4th) the top two returners.
For another, both Monson and Kelati are better runners than they were in November 2018. Both now own national titles on the track (Monson in the indoor 5k, Kelati in the outdoor 10k) and both are winning races by bigger margins this fall than they were in 2018. While there are a few women capable of springing an upset, such as Arkansas’ Taylor Werner or BYU’s unbeaten Whittni Orton, it would register as a significant shock should anyone other than Kelati or Monson win on Saturday. So let’s break it down, head to head.
The Early Meetings
Kelati and Monson have raced eight times since the start of last cross country season, and each has four wins.
|3/8/19||NCAA indoor 5k||Monson|
|3/9/19||NCAA indoor 3k||Kelati|
|10/4/19||Joe Piane ND Invite||Kelati|
If you want to split hairs, Monson ran in a pack with her teammates at Pre-Nats last year, so Kelati’s win there might deserve an asterisk, but otherwise these were fair fights. The two women are very close in ability.
Looking more closely at this season’s matchups, Kelati drew first blood by winning at Notre Dame on October 4 in 16:01.7 to Monson’s 16:13.8. But Monson hasn’t lost since then, and that includes a commanding victory over Kelati at Nuttycombe on October 18, 19:39.3 to 19:48.6.
The Case for Kelati
The case for Kelati is simple: her last two races. At the Mountain West champs at Utah State (elevation: 4,500 feet) on November 1, Kelati ran 19:11.2 for 6k to win by 49 seconds over teammate Ednah Kurgat. Kurgat, in case you forgot, is the 2017 NCAA XC champion.
Kelati’s next race was, if it’s possible, more impressive: she ran 18:58.7 at the Mountain Regional in Salt Lake City (4,200 feet) to win by 57.2 seconds over Kurgat and 2019 Pre-Nats champ Erica Birk. That’s ridiculous. New Mexico coach Joe Franklin told LetsRun.com he believes the regional course was roughly 50 meters short of 6k. Even if that’s true, it’s still a remarkable time (at altitude) and winning margin, and it shows she is significantly fitter than this time a year ago.
Weini Kelati’s winning margins in the postseason
|Mountain West||18.1 seconds||49.0 seconds|
|Mountain Regional||16.7 seconds||57.2 seconds|
Did Kelati go too hard? It’s a fair question, given she has to race again just eight days later, but Franklin doesn’t believe she’ll be worse for wear.
“You have to go on the feedback you get from the student, and she says she was controlled and she was feeling good and she was feeling comfortable,” Franklin says. “When you see what we see in training and things like that, she’s training very well and she’s training at a level that we haven’t had anyone train at before.”
The argument against Kelati from last year was that she can’t kick. Jones blew by her at NCAA XC, and Monson did the same in the NCAA 5k indoors. But Kelati shook up the narrative outdoors, turning back Oregon’s Carmela Cardama Baez over the final 100 meters to win the NCAA 10,000 title. Considering Kelati almost coughed up a 4.96-second lead at the bell and ran her final lap in 72.96, her kick is still in question, especially because Monson is a better runner than Baez. But with the way Kelati has been blowing fields apart recently, it may not matter.
The Case for Monson
Kelati may be better than she was a year ago, but so is Monson. After her breakout 2018 XC season, Monson was even better on the track, running 8:45 for 3k (#3 all-time by a collegian) and cruising to the NCAA indoor 5k title. That race in Birmingham is Exhibit A in the case for Monson over Kelati: Kelati did all she could to drop Monson over the final mile (and the result was a quick winning time of 15:31), but was powerless to respond once Monson made her winning move on the bell lap.
Exhibit B is Monson’s race at Nuttycombe this year. Given Kelati’s front-running reputation, you’d expect Monson to sit on her and kick by at the last minute. That is not what happened. Monson let Kelati make her move, then came over the top with one of her own with 2k to go and won going away. That confirmed what Monson said after the race: she is stronger than ever (Monson missed the early part of the spring with plantar fasciitis; the upshot was a longer, stronger base phase leading into the XC season). Right now, she looks like the only woman able to hang with Kelati late in a cross country race.
That’s not good news for Kelati, whose path to victory relies on her ability to drop everyone else. It will be fascinating to see what strategy Monson elects to employ. Does she simply sit on Kelati for as long as she can and make her move in the home straight? Or does she try to make a move of her own before that? The entire NCAA waits for the answer.
If this race was on the gambling boards in Vegas, Kelati and Monson would attract almost all of the bets. But upsets are far from uncommon at NCAA XC. Here are the women most capable of springing one on Saturday.
- Taylor Werner, senior, Arkansas: If you’re looking for the Dani Jones of 2019, Werner is the closest facsimile. She had the fastest anchor split in the NCAA DMR final last year and was 2nd in the 3k indoors and 5k outdoors, mostly on the strength of her kick. The knock on Werner is that she has run poorly at NCAA XC the last two years — 104th in 2017, 81st in 2018 after finishing 16th as a freshman in 2016 — but she has run great every time out this fall (though she did lose to both Kelati and Monson at Nuttycombe). Werner’s teammate Katie Izzo, a 5th year from Cal Poly and the SEC champ, actually beat Werner to win SECs (but lost to her in their 4 other races this year) and could also be a factor.
- Whittni Orton, junior, BYU: The only undefeated female runner in the NCAA, Orton is fragile, which is why BYU coach Diljeet Taylor rested her at Pre-Nats and the Mountain Regional. But Orton looked great winning the Dellinger Invite in September (she beat teammate Erica Birk, who won Pre-Nats, by five seconds) and has impressive 1500 speed (she owns a 4:13 pb and took 8th at NCAAs in June).
- Erica Birk, senior, BYU: Birk, the Pre-Nats champ and mother to 22-month-old Jack, was 7th last year (#4 returner) and has only lost to two women this year: Kelati and her teammate Orton.
- Fiona O’Keeffe, senior, Stanford: The top woman on a loaded Cardinal squad, O’Keeffe was 4th at Nuttycombe and 1st at Pac-12s.
- Ednah Kurgat, senior, New Mexico: Kurgat was the NCAA champ in 2017 and 5th last year but hasn’t looked like the same runner this fall as she was just 5th at Notre Dame and 18th at Nuttycombe. After getting waxed by Kelati at conference and regionals, it’s hard to see her turning the tables at NCAAs.
JG prediction: 1. Monson 2. Kelati 3. Werner
This is basically a coin flip between Kelati and Monson. Monson won their last meeting, but the two have been so evenly-matched over the past year that it would be foolish to read too much into that result — especially with how well Kelati has been running over the last month. Kelati is incredible, but Monson has shown that, at her best, she can absorb everything Kelati throws at her and still come out on top. That’s the scenario I’m predicting on Saturday.
Men’s Preview: LRC NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: Can the American Drought Finally End, or Will Favored Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State Complete Perfect Season? Galen Rupp was the last American man to win an NCAA xc title in 2008. Conner Mantz, Joe Klecker, and Thomas Ratcliffe hope that changes on Saturday.
Think you know best? Be sure to enter the LRC $200,019 Running Warehouse D1 Cross Country Prediction Contest, where we’re giving away three pairs of Skechers GOrun Ride 8 Hyper shoes and three gift certificates thanks to our friends at Running Warehouse.