NCAA XC Women’s Preview: Can Stanford Win Its First Title Since 2007 In a Wide-Open Race? Who Is the Individual Favorite?

By Jonathan Gault
March 12, 2021

With COVID-19 wiping out the traditional measuring-stick races like the Nuttycombe and Pre-National Invitationals, this weekend’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Okla., is one of the hardest to predict in recent memory. That is especially true in the women’s race.

On paper, it seems as if nothing has changed from the last NCAA XC meet 16 months ago. Arkansas edged BYU in that race in Terre Haute, 96-102, and lo and behold, the Razorbacks and Cougars are once again ranked #1 and #2 in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll heading into Monday’s race.

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

For one, the athletes wearing those Arkansas and BYU singlets will look very different than the groups that battled in Indiana in 2019. Take a look at how much each squad’s lineup has changed since then.

2019 NCAA XC lineups (athletes racing Monday in bold)

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Arkansas Where are they now? BYU Where are they now?
Athlete #1 Katie Izzo (3rd) Running NCAA Indoors (no XC eligibility) Courtney Wayment (5th) Running NCAA Indoors (no XC eligibility)
Athlete #2 Taylor Werner (4th) Turned pro with Puma Erica Birk (6th) Out of eligibility
Athlete #3 Devin Clark (21st) Still at Arkansas; only has outdoor eligibility Whittni Orton (7th) Running XC but hasn’t raced since Oct.
Athlete #4 Carina Viljoen (28th) Still at Arkansas; only has outdoor eligibility Olivia Hoj (56th) Running NCAA Indoors (no XC eligibility)
Athlete #5 Lauren Gregory (72nd) Running 3k/DMR at NCAA Indoors & will run XC as well Anna Camp (60th) Running XC
Athlete #6 Maddy Reed (77th) Still at Arkansas; only has outdoor eligibility Anastaysia Davis (109th) Has not raced at all in 2020-21
Athlete #7 Abby Gray (179th) Running 3k at NCAA Indoors & will run XC at well Sara Musselman (160th) Running XC

So how are Arkansas and BYU still ranked 1-2 after losing a combined nine of 14 runners from a year ago? Well part of it is that those teams have reloaded with talented athletes like Krissy Gear (4:31 mile, who transferred from Furman) and BYU’s Aubrey Frentheway (2nd WCC XC). But some believe the coaches’ poll also doesn’t tell the entire story.

“It is a misnomer,” says Arkansas coach Lance Harter.

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Indeed, the way the USTFCCCA poll usually works is that a team stays #1 until it has been defeated. And considering Arkansas won all four of its meets last fall — and has not raced since — the Razorbacks remain #1.

“If they asked me to do the poll, I could name five teams ahead of us real quick,” Harter says. “Because the cross country purists are gonna be ready to roll. They have similar, if not superior talent, and they’ve been focused 100% on cross country. Some of them didn’t even run indoor — Stanford, for example, Colorado, New Mexico.”

Arkansas, meanwhile, is focused on the NCAA Indoor meet, which it hosts on Friday and Saturday in Fayetteville. Four of Arkansas’ top five finishers from the SEC XC champs in October are entered in the indoor meet: Lauren Gregory (3k/DMR), Logan Morris (3k), Abby Gray (3k), and Gear (mile/DMR).

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Harter isn’t happy with the way the NCAA Indoor/XC schedule worked out. Arkansas is the defending champion in both events, but the proximity of the two forced every coach to choose: go all-in on indoors, go all-in on XC, or try to succeed in both. It may appear that the Razorbacks are going for both — the plan is for Gregory, Morris, Gray, and Gear to double back and run XC — but in reality, Arkansas is all-in on track. Harter says doubling back for NCAA XC will be “very, very tough” for his athletes and views the meet as more of a bonus than a genuine opportunity to win a championship.

“The rationale that we’ve come up with,” Harter says, explaining why his athletes will run XC, “[is]: one, the season doesn’t count against them [eligibility-wise]. Two, some of those kids need to see a national championship course because they don’t have that much experience. And we feel like we’ll have a very, very good team next year. So [this] give them a no-pressure experience at the NCAA meet for cross country. Our emphasis is obviously indoors.”

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BYU coach Diljeet Taylor has taken a different approach: divide and conquer. Part of that is out of necessity, since two of her top athletes, Courtney Wayment and Olivia Hoj, have indoor eligibility but not XC. In January, Taylor split her distance squad into two groups, one focused on track and one focused on cross country. Since then, the two groups have practiced separately as they pursue different goals.

The XC group consisted mostly of 5k/10k types and did not include milers Simone PlourdeHeather Hanson, and Kate Hunter, all of whom have XC eligibility. Taylor admits that those three potentially could have boosted BYU’s chances in XC, but says the fact that all three of those women ran PBs in the mile this winter and will be running at NCAA Indoors justified her decision.

“I’m very, very fortunate here that I have a very deep team with a good amount of talent,” Taylor says. “I think we’re the only program that is taking a completely different seven to cross country and also going to be pretty relevant at indoor nationals as well. I’m really proud of that.”

***

So who is the favorite to win this year’s NCAA title? It’s hard to say, and the fact that four schools received first-place votes in the most recent USTFCCCA poll suggests the coaches don’t really know either. There’s a case to be made that as many as five teams — perhaps more — are capable of winning on Monday. So let’s run through the top teams and see why they will — and won’t — raise the trophy in Stillwater.

Arkansas

Why they’ll win: The times Arkansas athletes have put up on the track this season speak for themselves: Lauren Gregory (8:58), Logan Morris (9:09), Abby Gray (9:11), Krissy Gear (4:31), Gracie Hyde (4:37), Isabel Van Camp (4:38), and Kennedy Thomson (4:39) all qualified for NCAA Indoors individually. Add in Taylor Ewert (who missed some time due to injury this winter but has run 4:43 and was 10th at SEC XC) and the Razorbacks’ roster is overflowing with talent.

Why they won’t: Coach Lance Harter has made clear that indoor track is his priority, and some of the women above will be running multiple events at NCAA Indoors. If everyone on the team was fresh and had been training for xc, Arkansas could well be the favorites, but based on Harter’s comments, he doesn’t expect the team to be contending for the win at NCAA XC.

BYU

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Why they’ll win: BYU has yet to lose a cross country in 2020-21. They won the OSU Invitational in Stillwater in October, toppled top-10 teams NAU and Boise State in Las Vegas on February 1, and won the WCC title handily over #20 Portland, 28-49. And at NCAAs, they’ll get back one of the country’s top runners in Whittni Orton (4:29/8:49/15:22), who hasn’t raced since October.

Why they won’t: Orton is a massive question mark. She looked like the NCAA individual favorite in October, but suffered a foot injury in December and has been forced to build up slowly since then. Coach Diljeet Taylor praised Orton’s selflessness in fighting back to compete at the NCAA meet, and knows she will give everything she has for the team on Monday.

“We know that Whittni Orton is not going to be at her best on March 15,” Taylor says. “But she is going to give her best. And as a coach, you can’t ask for anything more than an athlete giving their best. And that best may surprise some people, because she’s extremely talented.”

If Orton can finish in the top 10, she gives BYU a legitimate shot to win it all. But who knows what to expect from a woman five months removed from her last race.

New Mexico

Why they’ll win: Like fellow 2019 podium squads Arkansas and BYU, New Mexico had to do some serious rebuilding after losing its top three runners, including two NCAA individual champs in Weini Kelati and Ednah Kurgat. Sixteen months later, coach Joe Franklin has cobbled together another team that can challenge for the title, and as usual, it has an international flavor: his top seven at the Mountain West conference meet hail from seven different countries.

New Mexico has raced only twice in all of 2020-21, but the Lobos have the single most impressive victory by any team this year, winning the Battle Born Collegiate Challenge on February 19. In that race, they took down #3 Stanford, 60-85, and also beat top-10 teams Colorado, NAU, and Boise State.

Why they won’t: No women’s team has won the NCAA title without a top-10 finisher since BYU in 1999. In fact, four of the last five champs have put two women in the top 10. This is an area in which New Mexico could struggle. Their top runner, Adva Cohen, has some impressive track PBs (15:31, 9:29 steeple), but was only 55th at NCAA XC last year and was just 6th at the Battle Born meet.

It’s possible UNM may not need a top-10 finisher this weekend, however. With no overwhelming favorite, the winning score could be 100+, which relaxes the need for a low stick. But Franklin realistic about what needs to happen for UNM to win.

“Our spread has got to be tiny to have a chance to compete,” Franklin says.

Stanford

Aragon will be crucial to Stanford’s hopes

Why they’ll win: Stanford’s win at the Pac-12 meet showed why this group could be the Cardinal’s best team since their last national title in 2007. Up front, Stanford went 2-3-4 with Ella Donaghu (8th at ’19 NCAA XC, big wins at the FSU Winter XC Classic and Battle Born this season), Zofia Dudek (2019 Foot Locker champion), and Julia Heymach (4:33 mile). More encouragingly, the Cardinal got solid runs from two big talents at #4 and #5. Their #4 was Jessica Lawson, who has run 8:59/15:50 and was 11th at NCAA XC the last time it was held. Lawson struggled early this season, but has gotten better with every race; her 9th-place finish at Pac-12s was her most encouraging run yet. Behind her in 12th was Christina Aragon (4:09/9:01), running her first race in over year.

When your fifth woman has run 4:09/9:01, you know your team is stacked. If Stanford can put it all together at NCAAs, they could do more than win. They could run away with this thing.

Why they won’t: There’s a dropoff after Stanford’s top five, and it’s worth pointing out that they lost to New Mexico head-to-head on February 19 (Stanford didn’t have Aragon in that race, but even if you add her into the results, it’s no guarantee they would have won). The margin for error is small.

NC State

Why they’ll win: NC State dominated its three races last fall (granted it didn’t face anyone outside the ACC) and between Dominique Clairmonte (15:55, ACC XC champ), Hannah Steelman (15:47), and Kelsey Chmiel (15:58, 22nd ’19 NCAA XC), the Wolfpack have a strong top three. Throw in Katelyn Tuohy — only the greatest high school cross country runner of all time — and that’s quite a squad on paper.

Why they won’t: “On paper” is the key phrase above. Clairmonte was terrific in the fall, but hasn’t raced since October due to what NC State coach Laurie Henes is calling a “viral, non-COVID issue” she developed in January. The plan is for her to travel to Stillwater, but whether she races and at what capacity remains unknown.

Steelman and Chmiel, meanwhile, will be doubling back from the 5k at NCAA Indoors. Henes admits it’s not an ideal situation, but says she owes them the opportunity to pursue the indoor champs — both Steelman and Chmiel were in Albuquerque last year and ready to compete before the championships were cancelled due to COVID. When discussing whether to double, Steelman pointed out she was able to earn All-American honors in the steeple and 5k at outdoor nationals in 2019 for Wofford — and those two races were on the same day. Henes assented, with the caveat that anyone who doubled at NCAA Indoors could only compete on Friday, in order to give them two days of rest before the XC champs.

Henes says she hasn’t made a final decision about who will be running NCAA XC on Monday, but she believes Steelman and Chmiel are equipped to pursue the double.

And what about Tuohy? NC State’s preseason title hopes hinged, in part, on Tuohy and Foot Locker runner-up Marlee Starliper making an immediate impact as freshman, which has not happened as both have battled injuries (Tuohy was 9th at the ACC 3k and will run on NC State’s DMR at NCAAs). The Wolfpack could be a podium team on Monday if all goes well, but may have to wait until the fall to mount a serious title challenge.

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JG’s pick: Between athletes doubling back from indoors and the uncertain status of stars like Whittni Orton and Dominique Clairmonte, this is an incredibly tough race to predict. Heck, it wouldn’t be a total shock if some team not mentioned above comes in and steals the meet. Colorado was beaten convincingly at Pac-12s in 2018 only to come back and dominate NCAAs, and it’s never a good idea to discount a Mark Wetmore team (this year’s Buffs were second at Pac-12s behind Stanford). And coach Mike Smith is very high on his NAU women’s squad, which finished just back of Stanford at the Battle Born meet in Las Vegas on February 19.

One of those squads, or a team like Michigan or Michigan State, could easily end up on the podium, but I think the winner comes from one of the five teams in this preview. If Stanford can replicate its performance from Pac-12s last week, they’re too good for everyone else and I think they’ll win this meet. I predict Orton runs well enough to get BYU on the podium, followed by UNM and NC State in third and fourth. Arkansas will be too focused on NCAA Indoors to be a factor here.

1. Stanford 2. BYU 3. New Mexico 4. NC State

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Women’s individuals: Throw a dart

The longer the 2020-21 cross country season has gone on, the harder it has become to pick an individual favorite. Already, we were assured of some new blood near the front as seven of the top 10 from the 2019 NCAA meet were seniors. Then, in December, reigning champ and heavy NCAa favorite Weini Kelati of New Mexico turned pro. The next returner after her? 7th-placer Whittni Orton of BYU, who, as mentioned earlier, hasn’t raced since October due to injury.

Donaghu has won two of her three races in 2021 (Michael Scott photo)

The next returner after Orton is Stanford’s Ella Donaghu (8th), and she is probably the woman to beat on Monday. The daughter of Michael Donaghu, an All-American who helped Dartmouth (my alma mater) to back-to-back NCAA runner-up finishes in 1986 and 1987, she boasts PBs of 4:11 and 8:54 and has won two major invitationals this year at the FSU Winter XC Classic (where she beat Big 12 champ Cailie Logue) and the Battle Born Collegiate Challenge. She was dealt a surprising defeat at the Pac-12 championships, however, as Donaghu allowed Washington’s Haley Herberg to open a 22-second gap at 2k. Donaghu eventually reeled Herberg in over the final straight, only for Herberg to heroically respond and pull away for the win.

If Donaghu doesn’t win, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will claim the title. Herberg has to be taken seriously after her run at Pac-12s, though she won’t be able to break away as easily this time now that everyone knows she is the real deal. Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat was only 3rd in the 5k at SEC Indoors, but the two women ahead of her won’t be racing on Monday and Chelangat looked dominant in winning the SEC XC meet in October. Star Polish freshman Zofia Dudek  hasn’t finished more than six seconds behind Donaghu in any race this year. Could take down her teammate and become the first freshman champion since NC State’s Suzie Tuffey in 1985?

NAU’s Taryn O’Neill (win at Silver State Collegiate Challenge, 3rd Battle Born), Big 12 champ Cailie Logue, and Big 10 champ Bethany Hasz will also be in the mix. And what about Orton? At her best, she’d be the clear favorite in this race. We know she won’t be at her best, but could she still be good enough to win?

JG picks: Believe it or not, Stanford has never produced an individual NCAA XC champion, male or female. But I’m predicting a big day for the Cardinal and coach J.J. Clark, and I’ll go with Donaghu to end that drought on Monday — she has the major invitational wins and PBs of a national champion and will prove it in Stillwater.

In fact, why not go with a Pac-12 sweep? It’s tougher than usual to compare the individual contenders in 2021, but the fact that Herberg and Dudek have both run Donaghu close (or, in Herberg’s case, beaten her) is a good sign. I’ll take them for second and third.

1. Donaghu 2. Herberg 3. Dudek


Have you listened to the best track podcast on the planet? On this week’s LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast, we spent a lot of time talking NCAA xc with race commentator Bill Spaulding. – LRC Podcast NCAA Indoor and Cross Country Preview Podcast Featuring Bill Spaulding (NCAA XC Broadcaster).

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