2021 NCAA XC Women’s Individual Preview: Mercy Chelangat Aims for Repeat, But a Healthy Whittni Orton Will Be a Problem

By Jonathan Gault
November 17, 2021

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The men’s individual race at the 2021 NCAA Cross Country Championships has a clear favorite: Conner Mantz has raced just about everyone the NCAA has to offer this season and beaten them all.

On the women’s side, it’s just the opposite. BYU’s Whittni Orton, whose 15:12 5k pb makes her the fastest in the NCAA, has raced just twice this year. Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat, the reigning national champion, has raced just three times. Both women are undefeated — as is West Virginia’s Ceili McCabe, who was just 42nd at the last NCAAs in March but has rocketed up the list of contenders with wins at Nuttycombe and Big 12s.

With the top contenders largely siloed from one another during the regular season, it’s tough to know what to make of this race, but let’s try anyway.

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Will the Queen Stay the Queen?

Usually when you win the NCAA cross country title, you enter the following season as the favorite. It has been 10 years since a woman repeated as NCAA XC champion, but there haven’t been many opportunities; in the last decade, only 2016 champ Karissa Schweizer and 2017 champ Ednah Kurgat have returned to run at NCAA XC the year after winning the title. Here’s a look at the outcomes of every woman who has tried to repeat since the turn of the century.

Athlete School Year of victory Next year finish
Shalane Flanagan North Carolina 2002 1st
Sally Kipyego Texas Tech 2006 1st
Sally Kipyego Texas Tech 2007 1st
Sheila Reid Villanova 2010 1st
Karissa Schweizer Missouri 2016 11th
Ednah Kurgat New Mexico 2017 5th
Mercy Chelangat Alabama 2020 ???
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Following her NCAA XC title in March, Chelangat had a strong track season, running 15:17 for 5k and finishing as NCAA runner-up in the 10k behind only the since-graduated Carmela Cardama Baez of Oregon. And in cross country this fall, she’s three-for-three, with wins at the Joe Piane Invitational, SECs, and the South Regional. She’s beaten some good runners in those races as well — at Joe Piane, she beat ACC champ Kelsey Chmiel of NC State, and at SECs, she took down NCAA indoor 5k champ Joyce Kimeli of Auburn.

Put simply, Chelangat has not done anything in the last eight months to lose her favorite status ahead of Saturday’s race. But running at the same level as last year may not be enough for Chelangat to successfully defend her title. Here are the women who will be gunning for her in Tallahassee.

Challengers to the Throne

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Were it not for the pandemic, Whittni Orton might be a multi-time NCAA champion right now. Orton was the favorite to complete the 3k/DMR double at NCAA indoors in 2020 before it was cancelled due to the pandemic. She entered that fall as the NCAA XC favorite and looked good in winning her only race on the OK State course, but the 2020 XC champs were pushed back to March, by which time she had developed an injury. Orton did rebound to run at NCAAs — and bravely led much of the race — but her lack of fitness caught up to her and she faded to 17th.

BYU coach Diljeet Taylor strategically rested Orton this fall — Orton didn’t run at Nuttycombe or regionals. But when Orton has raced this year, she’s looked great, winning the FSU XC Open in September and the WCC champs in October. Crucially, Taylor says that Orton has had “zero injuries” this fall.

“Last year, she went into NCAAs with four weeks of running,” Taylor says. “That’s not even four weeks of workouts. That’s four weeks of actually getting some impact on the ground and the AlterG. This year we haven’t had to take any days off of training, so she’s really fit.”

Considering Orton was 7th at this race two years ago and 17th in March at way less than 100%, she has to be regarded as a serious threat to win if she’s at her best on Saturday.

In addition to Chelangat and Orton, there is one more undefeated runner in the NCAA this season, and she is the unlikeliest of the bunch: Ceili McCabe of West Virginia. A Vancouver native, McCabe was 42nd at NCAA XC last year and has unremarkable track pbs (2:10.70, 4:19.00, 9:25.32), in part because she has run just one 1500 for WVU and zero 5ks. So how did this steeple specialist (she was 6th at NCAAs in 9:37) emerge as one of the best runners in the country this fall?

“I think it’s just been a lot of consistent training from the spring into the summer, kind of having some time to really get more mileage,” McCabe said on Tuesday.

McCabe obviously hasn’t raced Chelangat or Orton, but she won the biggest race of the regular season (Nuttycombe), using a monster kick to take down ACC champ Kelsey Chmiel and 2020 NCAA XC runner-up Taylor Roe of Oklahoma State. If she’s still hanging around late in the race on Saturday, she may be the woman to beat (though Orton does have a 4:09 1500m pb).

Other Potential Winners

Abby Nichols, senior, Colorado 

Nichols, a grad transfer from Ohio State, was 41st at NCAAs in 2019, 18th in 2020, and looks like a top-10 contender in 2021. She started slowly this season, as she was only 5th at the Cowboy Jamboree back in September, 22 seconds back of winner Taylor Roe. But she has improved as the season has gone on, winning Pre-Nats at FSU and dominating at Pac-12s with an 11-second victory.

Taylor Roe, junior, Oklahoma State

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Roe was a surprise runner-up finisher at NCAAs in March but won’t be catching anyone by surprise this season. Outside of OSU’s season-opening 3k meet on September 1, Roe has finished in the top three at every race this fall, including a 3rd at Nuttycombe where she was in the mix for the win until the final 100m. She was only third at Big 12s, however, and has lost twice this year to Ceili McCabe.

One of the reasons Roe was able to finish second last year is that she had an incredible day at NCAAs in Stillwater. To replicate her 2020 finish on Saturday would require another incredible day — which is tough to pull off in the biggest race of the year.

“Being better than last year means you are more likely to be in the top 10 than you were last year,” says Roe’s coach Dave Smith. “[I’ve told her], ‘I think you are [better than last season] — it doesn’t mean you’re going to be in the top 10.'”

Kelsey Chmiel, sophomore, NC State

Chmiel has always been better at cross country than she is on the track. A star in high school — she would have been a two-time NXN champ were it not for her current NC State teammate Katelyn Tuohy — Chmiel was only 11th in the NCAA indoor 5k in March but finished 9th at NCAA XC three days later.

She has finished in the top three of every race she’s run this year, though like Roe, she was outkicked by McCabe late at Nuttycombe. In her last two races, she’s posted dominant wins at ACCs and the Southeast Regional.

Taryn O’Neill, junior, Northern Arizona

A British Columbia native (just like McCabe), O’Neill is another woman who is far better in XC than on the track — she was 6th at NCAA XC in March but didn’t even make it to NCAA outdoors in June. O’Neill has won three of her four races this fall, her only defeat a fourth-place finish at Pre-Nats in October.

Katelyn Tuohy, freshman, NC State

Tuohy has consistently run as NC State’s #2 this year behind Chmiel and didn’t even make it to NCAAs on the track last year. But I’m including her for the same reason I included Nico Young among my top men’s contenders: she’s a humongous talent — the greatest girls’ high school cross country runner in US history. Tuohy wasn’t totally healthy when she enrolled at NC State last year, but coach Laurie Henes did a good job of working her into the fold and she ended up 24th at NCAAs, and Tuohy has been super consistent in 2021. She has not been dominating this fall — in fact, she’s only won one race — but she has also avoided the struggles that have plagued so many female prep phenoms. Tuohy is definitely a long shot for the win on Saturday, but her potential is through the roof.

JG Prediction

Chelangat was the best in the NCAA eight months ago and has been running well again this fall. She’s the safest pick for the win. Orton, when healthy, is one of the best in the NCAA, and she’s healthy right now. And while McCabe should be in the top three based on 2021 form — and could arguably be the favorite — there’s usually a surprise somewhere in the top three. So I’ll predict a mild upset: Kelsey Chmiel for third.

1. Chelangat 2. Orton 3. Chmiel

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More: 2021 NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: Will Conner Mantz Become a Legend? Or Will Wesley Kiptoo Earn Redemption? A second NCAA XC title would vault Mantz into the NCAA XC pantheon, but to win he’ll have to beat a loaded field featuring Kiptoo, Adriaan WildschuttCooper TeareNico Young, and more.
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