2021 NCAA XC Women’s Top 10: Expect Another BYU-NC State Duel

By Jonathan Gault
September 24, 2021

The 2021 NCAA cross country season is upon us, and we’ve been previewing the action this week on LetsRun.com. On Wednesday, we published our interview with reigning NCAA men’s individual champion Conner Mantz of BYU, and on Thursday we highlighted the major trends and storylines to watch in the season to come. Now it’s time for the article you’ve been waiting for: the preseason* rankings.

*Yes, there have been some meets this season, but most schools have yet to race seriously.

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With the caveats that a lot can change over the next two months and regular-season performance is not always indicative of how a team runs at a national championship (where the larger field places a higher priority on low sticks), here’s one man’s best guess as to how it will all shake out in Tallahassee on November 20. Women’s rankings below. Men’s rankings can be found here.

1) BYU

2020 finish: 1st   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Diljeet Taylor

Will BYU be celebrating again in November? (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

What the BYU women pulled off last March — winning the DMR and 3k at NCAA indoors, then winning the NCAA XC title with an entirely different group of athletes two days later — is one of the most impressive feats in the history of collegiate distance running. Part of that was by necessity — indoor star Courtney Wayment had no XC eligibility remaining, and XC star Whittni Orton had no indoor eligibility remaining — but it’s still hard to believe that one program split itself in half and still dominated both meets.

The Cougars bring back all seven women from the team that scored 96 points to win NCAAs in Stillwater in March, and there is reason to think they’ll be even better this fall. Their #1 runner at NCAAs, Anna Camp, broke out on the track by winning the NCAA 1500 title. And Whittni Orton, who had barely trained heading into NCAAs last fall, has had a summer to get healthy. She looked good by winning the FSU XC Open in Tallahassee on September 17. They also got a strong run from true freshman Ana Weaver in that race (6th overall, 4th on BYU) as BYU rolled to a comfortable victory.

It’s often said that defending a title is harder than chasing a title, but BYU coach Diljeet Taylor doesn’t necessarily view it that way.

“We’ve acknowledged and owned who we are and what we did last year and we’re proud of that,” Taylor says. “But this is a fresh start. With a few new additions, the chemistry as a team [is different] and the team looks different. The way that our mindset was, even last year, we weren’t chasing a title. We were just trying to be the best version of ourselves in March and now we will try to be the best version of ourselves in November.”

2) NC State

2020 finish: 2nd   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Laurie Henes

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With one kilometer remaining in last year’s NCAA championships, NC State had 95 points. Had their runners stayed in those places, the Wolfpack would have won the first NCAA title in program history. Instead, #4 and #5 runners Julia Zachgo and Dominique Clairmonte faded and NC State had to settle for second. This year, the Wolfpack are hoping to move up one step on the podium.

“When you’re returning everyone from a team that was second, that’s gotta be the goal,” says coach Laurie Henes. “A few of our returners that could have been done and graduated are coming back because they think there’s a shot certainly to do very well and be on the podium.”

Clairmonte, a sixth-year senior, is one such athlete and will be hoping for a better outcome at NCAAs this year. She’s flanked by an enviable array of talent, including Katelyn Tuohy — who earned her first collegiate win at the adidas XC Challenge on September 17 — and two top-10 finishers from a year ago in Hannah Steelman (5th at NCAAs) and Kelsey Chmiel (9th, right). Plus Savannah Shaw (98th) broke out with a 15:40 5k pb on the track and the Wolfpack will add 2019 Foot Locker runner-up Marlee Starliper, who sat out last season due to injury. NC State has the talent and experience to win it all.

3) Stanford

2020 finish: 3rd   *Returners from NCAAs: 6/7   *Coach: J.J. Clark

Stanford loses only one runner from last year’s third-place team, and though that loss was a big one — Ella Donaghu, the team’s top finisher at NCAAs (10th) — there is more than enough talent remaining to compensate. Julia Heymach ran 15:33 to finish 6th at NCAAs in the 5k, then showed she is one of the best 1500 runners in America by running 4:04 to finish 6th at the Olympic Trials. Jessica Lawson (15:50) and Christina Aragon (4:08 1500) are both proven veterans. And 2019 Foot Locker champ Zofia Dudek was brilliant last season as a true freshman before suffering her first poor race at NCAAs (156th). Add in freshman Audrey DaDamio (10:02 2-mile) and this team could be better than a year ago. But with how strong BYU and NC State are up front, that may not be enough to win.

4) New Mexico

2020 finish: 6th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Joe Franklin

New Mexico’s depth is impressive. The Lobos have two women sub-15:40 (Adva Cohen and Amelia Mazza-Downie) and two more sub-16:00 (Hannah Miller and Gracelyn Larkin). They also have their usual assortment of transfers and new international talent, including Abbe Goldstein (a fifth year from Harvard who has never run at NCAAs in XC or track but managed to drop her 1500 pb from 4:22 to 4:10 last year), Stefanie Parsons (transfer from DII Edinboro who has run 4:14), and Emma Heckel (who was third in the 5k at the Euro U20 champs this summer for Germany). Lydia Russell, who ran 16:18 as a high school junior in 2019, is also on the roster. Because of that depth, we may not see New Mexico’s best lineup until late in the season, but this has the makings of another podium team.

“The women are training exceptionally well,” says coach Joe Franklin. “Adva Cohen will be ahead of where she was in years past. Gracelynn Larkin will be ahead, Elise Thorner is definitely ahead, Andrea [Modin Engesæth] is ahead. Abbe Goldstein is there in the mix and incredibly talented and we’ve had really good success with Ivy kids transitioning. We’re pretty deep and interchangeable, which gives us some leeway to train and back people off at the regional meet or event the conference meet and not even run them. And when we’ve had some of our really, really good teams, we’ve been able to do that.”

5) Colorado

2020 finish: 7th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Mark Wetmore

The Buffaloes return all seven athletes from a team that finished seventh a year ago, led by Abby Nichols, who ran 15:44/32:49 last spring and finished second at Pac-12s in the 5k and 10k. Give Mark Wetmore a veteran team and that usually means good things, but what makes Colorado a threat to improve on last year’s finish is the addition of the country’s top transfer, India Johnson from Michigan State, who finished 35th at NCAAs a year ago. With five other top-100 finishers from 2020, this could be among the deepest teams in the country.

6) Minnesota

2020 finish: 5th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Sarah Hopkins

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No team enters this season with more experience than Minnesota. Last year, the Gophers finished fifth at NCAAs with a team solely consisting of juniors and seniors. All seven are back this year: sixth-year seniors Bethany (right) and Megan Hasz and Abby Kohut-Jackson, and fifth-year juniors Anastasia Korzeniowski, Jaycie Thomsen, Tate Sweeney, and Bit Klecker (sister of Olympian Joe).

Bethany Hasz is the star, taking 2nd at NCAA indoors in the 5k and 8th at NCAA XC in a four-day span last year. But the Gophers had three others in the top 70 a year ago, and coach Sarah Hopkins hopes that her squad can use its experience to be even better than a year ago.

“Not only do you get another year of training and obviously development physically, but I think a lot of that stuff, when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, all that stress and the emotion of a long season and the emotion of conference meets and regional meets and national meets…by the time you get to the end of a long season, sometimes it’s just hard to have managed the emotions of the whole year,” Hopkins says. “And when you get a group of 23, 24-year-olds that have gone through it a whole bunch, that’s a huge advantage.”

7) Alabama

2020 finish: 8th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Will Palmer

Chelangat won’t catch anyone by surprise this fall (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The Crimson Tide were the surprise package of NCAAs last year, going 1-3 in the individual race with Mercy Chelangat and Amaris Tyynismaa. Scoring three points with your first two runners really helps the team score, and a 36th-place finish by Esther Gitahi helped Alabama crack the top 10 despite their #4 and #5 runners finishing 134th and 174th.

Coach Will Palmer admits that it’s hard to ask for much more from Chelangat and Tyynismaa.

“We want to improve off of last year, I think that’s the best way to put it,” Palmer says. “There’s not a lot of room left.”

If Bama is to improve, the key could be Flomena Asekol, a six-time juco national champion at New Mexico Junior College. Asekol didn’t run cross country last season, but she impressed with a runner-up finish in her 2021 debut at the North Alabama Showcase on September 17. Chelangat and Tyynismaa are the engines that power this team, but Asekol is the x-factor for the Crimson Tide this fall.

8) NAU

2020 finish: 11th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Mike Smith

NAU’s men get all the attention, but their women have steadily progressed since coach Mike Smith took over the program in 2017. The Lumberjacks didn’t make NCAAs in Smith’s first two years, but finished 14th in 2019 and 11th last year on the strength of Taryn O’Neill‘s 6th-place finish. O’Neill and the rest of her teammates are back this fall and add a potentially high-impact transfer in Stephanie Cotter of Adams State. Cotter was the NCAA DII XC champ in 2019 and should have no trouble adjusting to Flagstaff’s altitude given that Adams State’s campus in Alamosa, Colo., (7,500 feet) is even higher than NAU’s. If Cotter can deliver, the NAU women should crack the top 10 for the first time since 2007.

9) Washington

2020 finish: 13th   *Returners from NCAAs: 7/7   *Coach: Maurica Powell

Washington brings back everyone from NCAAs last year (stop me if you’ve heard that before). Haley Herberg was only 55th at NCAAs last year, but has top-10 potential as she was the Pac-12 champion in XC and 5th in the NCAA 10k on the track in June. Behind her, Allie Schadler (26th at NCAA XC) and Naomi Smith (15:58) offer solid depth, while the Huskies add Anna Gibson (4:15 1500 pb) and Taylor Chiotti (79th at ’19 NCAA XC), neither of whom ran XC last year. Then there’s Australian Melany Smart, who hasn’t finished a race since February 2020, but has impressive potential (9:08 3000 pb). Washington coach Maurica Powell says Smart is now healthy and should factor at some point this season.

Overall, Powell likes what she has seen so far this year.

“Last year was a strange season because we were splitting people [between track and XC], but I think this is the best team I’ve had since I’ve been at Washington,” says Powell, who won two NCAA titles at Oregon from 2005-17. “And in terms of personnel and chemistry, it’s among the best teams I’ve had, ever.”

10) Arkansas

2020 finish: 10th   *Returners from NCAAs: 6/7   *Coach: Lance Harter

I feel a bit uncomfortable about ranking Arkansas here, considering the Razorbacks just got stomped by Utah at the Dellinger Invitational on Thursday. Frankly, there are half a dozen teams that could be in this spot. The logic for Arkansas is as follows:

-The Razorbacks held out Logan Morris and Gracie Hyde at Dellinger, two of their top four from NCAAs last year.
-Their #1 from NCAAs last year, Krissie Gear (21st) was a DNF.
-Arkansas was 10th last year and adds one of the top runners in the country in Lauren Gregory, who looked great at Dellinger and was 2nd in the NCAA indoor 3k in March.

Taylor Ewert was only 34th at Dellinger but is a big-time talent (2020 Gatorade National Track & Field Athlete of the Year as a high schooler) and should improve. Ideally, Arkansas would be able to count on a loaded freshman class, led by the nation’s top XC recruit, Sydney Thorvaldson. But Thorvaldson developed a navicular stress fracture last spring that required surgery and will not race this fall. Her classmates Allie Janke (4:42/10:10) and Heidi Nielson (4:46/10:18) are also injured, which means coach Lance Harter will have to make do with the athletes already on the roster, plus South African freshman Carmie Prinsloo (9:13 3k/16:12 5k).

Honorable mentions

  • Michigan State was a podium team a year ago but lost a key piece in India Johnson (35th at NCAAs). Though the Spartans still have a star in Jenna Magness (15:32, 4th NCAA 5k) and a strong #2 in Lynsie Gram (34th NCAAs), they struggled at Roy Griak on Friday and finished fifth, behind the likes of Tennessee and Liberty. That doesn’t mean I’m writing them off entirely, but it’s a notable result.
  • Boise State is another team that finished in the top 10 last year (9th), but, like Michigan State, struggled last week. The Broncos return everyone from last year but were only seventh at Dellinger (though their #4 from NCAAs last year, Ines Borba, didn’t run). You never know where teams are at injury-wise or whether they’re in a big training block, which is why it is difficult to write off a school like Boise State, Michigan State, or Arkansas after their first big meet. But of those three schools, I have the most faith in Arkansas because they have the most room for improvement with the additions of Morris, Hyde, and Gear.
  • Ole Miss and North Carolina just missed out on the top 10 last year and should be in the hunt again. Michigan‘s season was totally derailed after the school’s COVID policy caused them to miss Big 10s, but Mike McGuire‘s teams are always competitive and another top-10 appearance would not come as a surprise.
  • Utah looked really good by scoring 38 points to win the Dellinger Invite.

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