2023 NCAA XC Women’s Preview: Surging NAU Tries to Derail NC State 3-Peat

Can NAU win its first title or will NC State get #3 in a row?

11/17 update: Kelsey Chmiel of NC State is out of the meet and the NAU women are even more favorites now.

It has been almost two decades since a school swept the team titles at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Plenty of things have to go right on the day in order to win one NCAA title; grabbing two at the same meet is even harder. There’s a reason no school has done it since the University of Colorado in 2004.

But on Saturday, at the 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships at Panorama Farms, just outside of Charlottesville, Va., Northern Arizona University will have a chance to do just that. The #1 NAU men will be aiming for their fourth straight national title and seventh in the last eight years, while the NAU women, also ranked #1, will try to win the first women’s title in program history.

Standing in their way: #2 North Carolina State, the two-time defending NCAA champions, led by reigning individual champion Katelyn Tuohy. Below, a full breakdown of the battle for the women’s team title (we’ll have an individual preview coming Thursday).

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Reminder: You can watch the meet live on ESPNU on Saturday starting at 9:30 a.m. ET

NAU poised for its moment

When Mike Smith, who coaches both NAU teams, took over in Flagstaff in 2017, he inherited a powerhouse men’s squad coming off four podium appearances in five years, including a national title in 2016. The cupboard was stocked. Not so on the women’s side, where the Lumberjacks had not made it to NCAAs since 2008 and had not made it onto the podium since 1991.

It has taken a few years, but NAU is now a distance power on the women’s side, too. The Lumberjacks made it to NCAAs in Smith’s third year, 2019, finishing 14th, and improved to 11th in 2020 and 6th last year (they were 23rd in 2021). Now, they’re poised to win their first NCAA title.

Photo courtesy @NAUTrackFieldXC

Parts of the program have been built the old-fashioned way. The team’s top two runners last year, Elise Stearns and Annika Reiss, both committed to the Lumberjacks in 2019, while the team was in the midst of its NCAA drought. Reiss (47th at NCAAs last year) was a Foot Locker finalist taking a chance on what could be. Stearns was a diamond in the rough — though she was only 5th at the Montana state meet as a senior and never qualified for Foot Lockers or NXN, she has thrived in Flagstaff and last year finished 4th at NCAAs.

But NAU would not be a national title contender this year without a few major transfers who came in over the summer. One of the most important moments in building the 2023 Lumberjacks came in June when New Mexico coach Joe Franklin left to take the job at the University of Louisville. Suddenly there was an exodus of talent out of Albuquerque, a chunk of which headed 300 miles west to Flagstaff. Of NAU’s five scorers at last week’s Mountain Regional, four were transfers new to the team this season. Three came from New Mexico.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual about bringing in transfers. In fact, eight of the last 10 NCAA champions on the women’s side featured at least one transfer in their scoring five at NCAAs. And of those eight, half had more than one transfer.

Year Champion Transfer(s) Previous school NCAA place
2022 NC State Nevada Mareno Stanford 29th
2021 NC State Allie Hayes Columbia 22nd
Hannah Steelman Wofford 24th
2020 BYU None
2019 Arkansas Katie Izzo Cal Poly 3rd
2018 Colorado Makena Morley Montana 8th
Tayler Tuttle Georgia 24th
2017 New Mexico Ednah Kurgat Liberty 1st
Charlotte Prouse Washington 12th
2016 Oregon Samantha Nadel Georgetown 21st
2015 New Mexico Courtney Frerichs UMKC 4th
Rhona Auckland University of Edinburgh (UK) 13th
Calli Thackery Leeds Metropolitan (UK) 15th
Molly Renfer Harvard 24th
2014 Michigan State none
2013 Providence Emily Sisson Wisconsin 7th

However it was assembled, the 2023 NAU squad has become a juggernaut. In September, they scored 48 points to win the Virginia Invitational on the same course that will host nationals. In October, NAU scored 52 points to convincingly beat NC State and win the Nuttycombe Invitational. That NC State team was a little short-handed — we’ll get to that in a minute — but scoring 52 points at Nuttycombe is a very good sign. It was the second-lowest score in meet history, behind only New Mexico’s 32 from 2015. And of the six previous teams to score under 90 points at Nuttycombe and win, all six went on to win NCAAs.

Since then, NAU has shown no signs of slowing. They went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 at the Big Sky meet and dominated the Mountain Regional with 39 points despite resting top runners Stearns, Reiss, and Keira Moore — all of whom are ready to go for NCAAs, coach Mike Smith told LetsRun.

There’s very little to dislike about NAU. They have one of the best runners in the country in Stearns, a strong supporting cast in Gracelyn Larkin (26th last year), Reiss (47th), and Aliandrea Upshaw (12th at Nuttycombe), who has gone up a level since transferring from New Mexico. Their #5 at Nuttycombe was Aussie freshman Keira Moore (18th) but if someone falters, their #6 at Nuttycombe, Ruby Smee, was 58th at NCAAs last year for San Francisco and 24th at Nuttycombe this year — just ahead of NC State’s #4. The Lumberjacks have been the best team in the country this fall and will enter NCAAs as deserved favorites.

Can NC State finish “The Last Dance” with a title?

Toward the start of the season, we noted the similarities between the 2023 NC State women’s cross country team and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls basketball team — two teams chasing a third straight championship before the key athletes went their separate ways. Wolfpack coach Laurie Henes has not had to deal with anything as wild as one of her players up and leaving for Las Vegas in the middle of the postseason. Instead, injury issues have threatened to derail NC State’s three-peat bid.

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Katelyn Tuohy and Kelsey Chmiel, who finished 1st and 3rd at NCAAs last year, have been their usual brilliant selves. Though Chmiel did not race regionals (presumably, she was rested; we didn’t hear back from Henes before publication), they are both good bets to finish in the top 10 on Saturday.

NC State has also received big runs this fall from true freshman Leah Stephens (14th Nuttycombe, 8th ACCs) and redshirt freshman Grace Hartman (26th Nuttycombe, 8th Southeast Regional). Stephens was a top high school recruit — she finished 7th at Foot Lockers last year and ran 9:54 for 2 miles on the track — but it’s been impressive to see her step in and contribute right away at one of the top programs in the country.

The last time NC State raced NAU, at Nuttycombe on October 13, NAU won convincingly, 52-95. But there were reasons for NC State fans to be optimistic. Stephens and Hartman had run well, and 95 points was a good score considering Sam Bush (15th ’22 NCAAs) DNF’d and Amaris Tyynismaa (9th ’22 NCAAs) did not run. The hope for NC State was that with another month to build, Bush and Tyynismaa, both of whom battled injuries over the summer, would be ready to roll at NCAAs. Add them into the scoring lineup and they would be as good or better than NAU.

Now it’s the week of NCAAs and that plan is very much in doubt. While Bush has made progress — she was 11th at ACCs and 6th at the Southeast Regional — Tyynismaa has failed to finish both of her races this fall: she dropped out of ACCs with 800m to go due to a calf cramp, then dropped out at regionals two weeks later (it’s unclear why).

Last year, NC State scored 114 points to win NCAAs, and they might be able to get to that total again even without Tyynismaa. Putting Tuohy and Chmiel in the top 5, Bush and Stephens in the top 30, and Hartman or Gionna Quarzo (15:51) in the top 75 would likely do it.

The problem is, NAU has kept rolling and if the Lumberjacks run well on Saturday, it could take well under 100 points to win. And if that is the case, NC State would need the top-15 upside of Tyynismaa, who has finished 3rd and 9th in two NCAA XC appearances. She has the talent to do it, but that’s a lot to ask of a woman who has not finished a race since taking 4th in the NCAA 5,000 final in June. It all makes for a very dramatic race.

At stake? A third straight NCAA title, something only two women’s teams (Villanova 1989-94, Stanford 2005-07) have ever managed.

Other contenders

NAU and NC State are the two teams with the best chance to win the national title, but we’ve seen teams crash the party at NCAAs before. Here are the other squads who could be in the mix on Saturday.

#3 BYU (1st Pre-Nats, 1st Big 12s)

BYU was undefeated this year until last week’s Mountain Regional, where the Cougars lost 39-59 to NAU. But considering both teams easily qualified for NCAAs and both were short-handed (BYU sat out regular scorers Jenna Hutchins and Riley Chamberlain), it’s probably not worth reading too much into that result.

BYU didn’t run Nuttycombe, which means they haven’t raced NAU or NC State this year. But they comfortably won Pre-Nats with a score of 32 points, defeating a field that included #9 Oregon, #12 Arkansas, and #15 Virginia. And they beat #4 Oklahoma State — albeit more narrowly — at Big 12s, 35-39.

Aubrey Frentheway and Lexy Halladay-Lowry were 32nd and 34th a year ago. They’re both back, and Hutchins (the former high school 5,000m record holder) and Carmen Alder (who won Pre-Nats) could both be All-Americans in 2023 as well. And with Chamberlain (10th Pre-Nats) and Sadie Sargent (17th Pre-Nats, 71st ’22 NCAA XC), the Cougars have a solid #5 and a good backstop at #6 in case something goes wrong.

BYU doesn’t have the ceiling of NAU, but this is a strong squad, #1 through #6, and coach Diljeet Taylor‘s athletes almost always bring it at NCAAs. BYU’s last four NCAA finishes? 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 8th. If the Cougars run their best race on Saturday, they could contend for the win.

#4 Oklahoma State (2nd Big 12s)

OK State was 4th at NCAAs last year, the program’s first women’s podium finish, and the Cowgirls have a very strong front three with Taylor Roe (’22 NCAA 3k champ), Billah Jepkirui (2nd Big 12 XC), and Molly Born (5th Big 12 XC). They ran BYU close at Big 12s but in a bigger meet, their issues at #4 and #5 are likely to be exposed. This could still be a podium team, but the absences of Natalie Cook, who was 7th as a true freshman last year but transferred out to Colorado (where she hasn’t raced),  and Gabby Hentemann (57th last year, but not running this fall due to injury) prevent them from taking the next step and winning the NCAA title.

#8 Florida (5th Nuttycombe, 1st SECs)

Florida was only 5th at Nuttycombe, more than 200 points back of NAU, but we’ve yet to see all of the pieces of this Gators team truly jell — perhaps because, apart from Parker Valby, their entire top five consists of transfers in their first year in Gainesville. Valby is a lock for low single digits, and Flomena Asekol (16th Nuttycombe) has been a consistent #2 this year. Last year, Amelia Mazza-Downie (22nd NCAA XC) and Elise Thorner (40th) were key components of a New Mexico team that finished 2nd at NCAAs. But Mazza-Downie has only raced once all fall (8th at SECs) and Thorner was only 17th at SECs. If they can deliver at NCAAs like they did for the Lobos last year, Florida will be dangerous.

JG prediction

After NAU’s win at Nuttycombe on October 13, I installed them as NCAA co-favorites with NC State. Yes, NAU was incredible at Nuttycombe, but NC State was still the two-time defending champs! They were bringing back four top-15 finishers from a year ago! Surely when they were all healthy, they’d be the team to beat?

Two weeks later, during conference weekend, NAU impressed again, perfect-scoring the Big Sky meet. NC State won ACCs, but with Sam Bush as their #4 (11th overall) and with Tyynismaa dropping out with 800 to go. Okay. But at regionals in two weeks, Tyynismaa will be ready to go and NC State will be at full strength, right?

Not quite. NAU won the Mountain without three of their best runners while Tyynismaa DNF’d again.

I can no longer call the two teams co-favorites. NC State has the more talented roster but they also carry more questions — particularly when it comes to Tyynismaa’s ability to finish a 6k XC race — than NAU. NC State can absolutely win, let’s make that clear. Tyynismaa has twice finished in the top 10 at NCAA XC and could do so again. But NAU has been the better, more reliable team this fall, and they aren’t pinning their hopes on a runner who hasn’t finished a race since June. I’ll take the Lumberjacks FTW.

1. NAU 2. NC State 3. BYU 4. Florida

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Men’s Preview: 2023 NCAA XC Men’s Preview: The NAU-OSU Rematch Should Be Incredible NAU beat OSU on a tiebreaker a year ago and both teams could be even better in 2023. Who will win it all in Charlottesville?

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