2021 NCAA XC Women’s Team Preview: Four-Horse Race In Tallahassee
By Jonathan Gault
November 18, 2021
In March, the BYU women won their first NCAA XC title since 2002. Coupled with NCAA indoor titles by Courtney Wayment and the BYU DMR, it completed the greatest weekend ever by a collegiate women’s distance program.
All seven women from the Cougars’ XC title team returned this fall (not a shocker as the NCAA said the season didn’t count for eligibility), and six of the seven will be on the start line again on Saturday at this year’s NCAA XC champs in Tallahassee (the one change: Anna Martin replaces Haley Johnston). BYU scored 96 points at NCAAs last year, 75 ahead of runner-up NC State.
Yet the Cougars only ranked #4 in the most recent USTFCCCA coaches’ poll. That’s because the battle for the team title this weekend figures to be one of the most competitive since the NCAA started holding a women’s championship in 1981.
BYU isn’t the only team returning its entire team. Last year’s runner-up NC State returned everyone plus got stronger with a key transfer. Meanwhile, New Mexico and Colorado have emerged as serious contenders to the throne through the addition of freshmen and transfers.
“I do feel like we’re top heavy this year and there are four really, really good teams that have good front-runners that also have a ton of depth,” says BYU coach Diljeet Taylor. “It’s going to be a battle, not just between one other team, but there will be four teams that could be in the mix, which is exciting. It’s great for women’s cross country.”
So: BYU, NC State, New Mexico, Colorado. Who wins on Saturday? Hell if I know. Let’s make the case for each of them, listed in order of the most recent coaches’ poll, and see if that straightens things out.
#1 North Carolina State
Why NC State will win: They have the greatest potential
Last year, NC State put two women in the top 10 (Hannah Steelman in 5th, Kelsey Chmiel in 9th), but the Wolfpack’s #4 and #5 runners held them back from winning the title. At 4k of last year’s race, NC State was leading BYU, and at 5k, NC State was just six points back. But over the final kilometer, their #4 and #5 runners at 5k lost a combined 212 places to torpedo the Wolfpack’s title hopes.
This year, Steelman and Chmiel are back (Steelman didn’t run Nuttycombe or regionals but was 4th at ACCs) and high school phenom Katelyn Tuohy, who was 24th a year ago, is looking like a top-10 finisher. That gives NC State the best front three in the field. They just need to hold it together at #4 and #5. And the chances of that look good. New addition Alexandra Hays, a grad transfer from Columbia, has been a dependable #4 this year and was right behind Steelman at ACCs in 5th. And Samantha Bush finished 18th at Nuttycombe, the most competitive meet of the year so far.
NC State actually raced both BYU and New Mexico at Nuttycombe, and though they were second in that race behind UNM, NC State didn’t run Steelman. Had she run for them, they would have won easily. If their top five — Steelman, Chmiel, Tuohy, Hays, and Bush — run to their potential on Saturday, NC State will win.
Why NC State won’t win: They don’t have a huge margin for error
NC State’s #6, Heather Holt, is a solid runner, but she was 23 seconds behind Bush at regionals. If Holt scoring for NC State on Saturday, that means something went wrong. If Steelman isn’t 100% or if one of the top five has a bad race, NC State may not be able to absorb the damage.
#2 New Mexico
Why New Mexico will win: They’re the deepest team in America.
As usual, Joe Franklin has assembled a globe-trotting all-star squad in Albuquerque. The Lobos’ top seven at the Nuttycombe Invitational — a meet they won with 93 points over NC State and BYU — hail from, in order: Canada, Canada, Germany, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Israel, and Norway. Incredibly, New Mexico (against slightly-below strength NC State and BYU squads) won that meet without putting anyone in the top 10. Stefanie Parsons, a transfer from DII Edinboro (Pa.) University, was UNM’s top finisher in 12th. But they also easily had the best #5 woman in the field (Samree Dishon in 26th) and their entire top seven finished in the top 50.
The additions of Parsons, Harvard grad student Abbe Goldstein, and German freshman Emma Heckel have transformed a good team from last year (6th at NCAAs) into a great one. And if one of New Mexico’s top women struggles, there will be two more women ready to pick up the slack (they went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 at their conference meet). One bad day won’t ruin their chances.
Why New Mexico won’t win: They don’t have enough firepower up front
It’s possible to win NCAAs without a top-10 finisher — BYU did it just eight months ago. It’s just not very common. Before last year, no team had won NCAAs without a top-10 finisher since 1999.
Last 10 NCAA women’s XC champs and their top finishers
|2020||BYU||None (Anna Camp 11th)|
|2019||Arkansas||Katie Izzo 3rd, Taylor Werner 4th|
|2018||Colorado||Dani Jones 1st, Makena Morley 8th|
|2017||New Mexico||Ednah Kurgat 1st, Weini Kelati 7th|
|2016||Oregon||Katie Rainsberger 4th|
|2015||New Mexico||Courtney Frerichs 4th, Alice Wright 5th|
|2014||Michigan State||Rachele Schulist 4th|
|2013||Providence||Emily Sisson 7th|
|2012||Oregon||Jordan Hasay 3rd, Alexi Pappas 8th|
|2011||Georgetown||Emily Infeld 4th|
And the worry with the 2021 New Mexico squad is that they lack a top-10 talent. If NC State or BYU puts two in the top 10 and New Mexico doesn’t have anyone until 15th, that’s a tough hole to dig out of and puts a lot of pressure on the Lobos’ back end to be perfect. The silver lining is that BYU showed in March that you can score 96 points at NCAAs without a top-10 finisher. If New Mexico can score 96 on Saturday, they’ll have a good shot to win (and would be the third straight team to win with 96 points).
Why Colorado will win: They’ve beaten the pants off everyone this year
While NC State, New Mexico, and BYU were battling it out at Nuttycombe, Colorado was out at Pre-Nats crushing the competition — CU won with 54 points; runner-up Utah scored 149. Granted, the competition was tougher at Nuttycombe (Utah enters NCAAs ranked 14th) but Colorado also rolled at Pac-12s, scoring just 24 points, the lowest at Pac-12s since Washington perfect-scored the meet (then known as Pac-10s) in 2008.
This Colorado squad doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. They have a stud up front in Abby Nichols (Pre-Nats/Pac-12 champ) and a strong supporting cast in Emily Covert, India Johnson, and Rachel McArthur, who went 2-4-5 behind Nichols at Pac-12s (Nichols and Johnson both came to CU from the Big 10 — Nichols as a grad transfer from Ohio State, Johnson as a transfer from Michigan State). There’s no steep dropoff after the top four, with true freshman Hannah Miniutti and sixth-year senior Madison Boreman both capable at #5.
Why Colorado won’t win: We don’t know how they stack up against the top teams
Colorado did race New Mexico and BYU at the Mountain Regional, but with all of them resting athletes/not going all out, it’s hard to read much into those results (for the record: New Mexico 62, Colorado 83, BYU 107). Could Colorado show up to nationals and totally rock it, like the 2018 squad did in Madison? Absolutely. Nichols is an individual title contender and could play the Dani Jones role, and it’s possible CU ends up with five All-Americans on Saturday.
But Colorado doesn’t have the low sticks of NC State or the depth of New Mexico (though CU’s depth is strong). They’re very good, but are they good enough to win it all in a stacked year?
Why BYU will win: They bring everyone back from last year, and Whittni Orton is even better
BYU was a distant third at Nuttycombe in part because they were missing top gun Whittni Orton and in part because their top finisher at NCAAs last year, Anna Camp, was just 32nd at Nuttycombe. But Orton will be back at NCAAs, and Diljeet Tayor says she has had no injuries this year. Considering Orton was 17th last year with just four weeks of running under her belt, she should be in the top 10 — and likely top 5 — in Tallahassee.
Plus, Camp has turned things around and went from the team’s #4 without Orton at Nuttycombe to their #2 behind Orton at the West Coast Conference meet. Camp took a month off after a long track season — she was the NCAA 1500 champ and kept racing all the way through the semis of the Olympic Trials on June 19 — but Taylor says all systems are go now.
“Cross country, she’s definitely one that it takes her a while to get going, with the longer race,” Taylor says. “…She’s up to speed [now]. She looks really good, she’s had some great workouts, her confidence is there.”
With Orton and Camp at their best, and returning 2020 All-Americans Aubrey Frentheway and Sara Musselman plus a vastly-improved Lexy Halladay (20th Nuttycombe), BYU has a proven championship squad.
Why BYU won’t win: They might not be as good as last year
Here are the places of the six BYU women who ran at NCAAs last year and who will run again on Saturday:
Anna Camp 11th
Aubrey Frentheway 15th
Whittni Orton 17th
Sara Musselman 33rd
McKenna Lee 41st
Lexy Halladay 184th
Based on their form this fall, Orton and Halladay look sure to improve their place from last year. But Camp and Musselman both finished much lower at Nuttycombe (32nd and 66th) than they did at NCAAs in March. Camp may be trending in the right direction, but another 11th-place finish would still require a big day and Musselman appears unlikely to finish 33rd again.
The larger point: four of BYU’s top five didn’t just run good races at NCAAs last year; they ran incredible races. Replicating that will be tough, but not impossible — since Diljeet Taylor took over at BYU, no coach has done a better job peaking their athletes for the biggest races than her.
One final note: Camp, Orton, and Musselman are all out of track eligibility — Saturday will be their final races in a BYU uniform.
Other Podium Contenders
The four teams listed above are the only ones with a realistic shot at the title and, based on the regular season, are a cut above the rest of the country. But bad days at NCAAs happen, so if one slips up there will be a podium spot available. Minnesota, the Big 10 champs, would be best-positioned to fill it — they were 5th last year and have a ton of experience at this meet, led by two sixth-year seniors in twins Bethany and Megan Hasz – both of whom won the BIG 10 xc title in 2021 (Bethany in January and Megan in October)
If it’s not Minnesota, then it’s anyone’s guess. There are bunch of teams in the next tier down, including Alabama, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Iowa State, and UNC.
Every national title team has their own story, but there’s one that stands out this weekend. BYU, Colorado, and New Mexico have all won multiple NCAA titles, and Diljeet Taylor, Mark Wetmore, and Joe Franklin have all coached NCAA title teams. NC State has a proud history as well, winning AIAW titles (the precursor to the NCAA) in 1979 and 1980. But the Wolfpack has never won an NCAA team title.
If NC State wins on Saturday, it would be a really cool story. In addition to the program’s first NCAA team title, it also would be coach Laurie Henes’ first NCAA team title as well. And she’s been on campus since 1988 — first as an athlete (she was an NCAA champ on the track), then, since 1992, as a coach (the last 16 as head women’s XC coach).
That makes this Henes’ 30th season as a coach at NC State. It’s rare for someone to stick around their alma mater for super long and finally get rewarded with a title #1 after decades of work, but we saw it happen two years ago with Ed Eyestone at BYU (although he did it in year #20, not year #30) and it could happen this weekend with Henes.
“Obviously it would mean a lot to us as a coaching staff and to that group of women that have worked so hard and had so much fun together to be able to do that, but we try not to have the focus necessarily be on the result,” Henes says. “Just going in, taking care of business, staying consistent, doing what they need to do.”
Should NC State get it done, Henes will have at least one prominent admirer. BYU finished second at NCAAs in 2019, and Taylor believes the 2020 BYU team would not have done what it did last year without coming so close the year before. So when NC State was second behind BYU last year, Taylor knew how Henes was feeling.
“This might make me sound too nice — if you ask me who the most competitive person I know is, I’ll say myself — but if it’s not us, I’d love for it to be NC State,” Taylor says. “I’d love for it to be Laurie Henes, a fellow female coach that’s a mom that’s navigated through coaching women for the last couple of decades…I do know that she’s put in 30 years, and I know a lot of coaches that dedicate their entire career and never get that championship win. It’s really, really hard.”
You could put the top four in any order and I’d believe it. But I’m picking NC State. Yes, there’s a cool story to be told, but I’m picking them because NC State has the best top three of any team. If every team runs their best, I think the Wolfpack wins.
1. NC State 2. BYU 3. Colorado 4. New Mexico