Updated: Jan 13
Written by Sean Collins, additional commentary by Sam Ivanecky
Another summer, another edition of our Preseason XC Top 50 rankings. Our team has been constructing rankings for the past week and a half, and the debates have been plentiful. Unfortunately, we had to make our cuts at only 50 names for the D1 men and D1 women.
Still, that doesn't mean those who didn't make the Preseason Top 50 should be ignored. Let's take a look at a few of the names who just missed the cut.
Note: Keep in mind that what our writers value for the women's rankings varies from the criteria that we use to rank the men.
JUST MISS (in no particular order)
Rebekah Topham (Wichita State)
Prior to the 2019 outdoor season, Topham had never made an NCAA Championship. But this past outdoor season brought quite a surprise for the Shockers as Topham ensured herself a trip to Austin with an 11th place finish in the steeplechase at the West Regional Championship. In Austin, Topham grabbed another 11th place in the prelims, slipping into a final that should have been over her head. Topham had never run under 10:00 before the regional meet and was now lining up against a crew of athletes who were consistently challenging 9:40.
In that final, Topham ran her race and no one else’s. If you were watching the TV broadcast, you likely missed her as she was off the back within the first two or three laps, allowing the rest of the field to go with the likes of Ostrander and Cohen. And as the race continued, Topham remained off screen as the top five began to run away from the rest of the pack. It was during those laps that Topham’s race truly began. She understood the heat and her own limits, passing four women on her way to the line and earning First Team All-American status.
The lesson here is in Topham’s ability to run her own race. Moving into the 2019 XC season, Topham will need to run like she did at Outdoor Nationals and hopefully enter with a greater confidence in her abilities.
Reviewing the rest of her collegiate career keeps Topham off the Top 50 for now, though. Her best Midwest Regional Championship result came in 2016 where she placed 15th ovearll. After redshirting the 2017-2018 academic year, Topham placed 17th in the same meet in the 2018. Outside of NCAA regionals, her best results has to be a 3rd place at the American Conference Championships and a 5th place finish at the Chili Pepper Festival (both in 2018). However, a 38th at Pre-Nats tempers the expectations.
No one gets to be NCAA All-American as a fluke, but for Topham to jump into the top 50, she needs to continue showing the composure that got her to Austin. If she does, she can definitely make the jump into All-American status again.
Joyce Kimeli (Auburn)
Kimeli is the heart of the Auburn Tigers distance program, allowing Auburn to at least factor into the SEC scoring picture during indoors and outdoors. Without huge team implications on the grass, Kimeli will be given the opportunity to chase individual glory rather than be conservative and tactical in an effort to secure points.
In 2018, Kimeli was the second non-Razorback to cross the line at the SEC Championships, earning a 5th place finish on her home course. She then improved one spot at the South Regional Championships to place 4th, behind only Mircheva, Pascoe, and Drop. However, once she reached the NCAA meet though, Kimeli’s luck turned. The Auburn star faded into the triple-digits for a finish of 106th.
Kimeli's outdoor track season followed a number of similar trends that we saw from her cross country season. Kimeli earned a 2nd place finish in the steeplechase at SEC's before doubling back for 7th in the 5000 meters at the same meet. She then doubled again at the NCAA East Regional Championships to qualify in both events, with 1st and 6th place finishes, respectively.
Unfortunately, her luck in Austin vanished as she placed 13th in the steeplechase prelims, earning her the dreaded “1st Woman Out” title before struggling in the heat for a 21st place finish in the 5000 meters.
There is no doubt that Kimeli is talented, but the trend of not quite pulling together a championship-quality race at NCAA's is a concern that keeps her out of the Top 50 for now. If she pulls together a quality regular season as she has in the past, expect her to jump into the mix.
Amanda Vestri (Syracuse)
Vestri was Iowa State’s #3 through most of last season behind Callie Logue and Annie Frisbie, making her an important part for the Midwest Regional champions. Vestri will be moving to the ACC in 2019 as she has verbally committed to Syracuse this summer. Given the change in coaches and scenery, there’s more uncertainty in her performances moving forward.
While there might be some uncertainty, Vestri is no stranger to high level competition, both in cross country and track. Vestri is a two-time NCAA XC qualifier through the Iowa State team, although she placed 160th and 90th in 2017 and 2018, respectively. She was 11th and 12th at the Midwest Regional Championship during those years and earned a pair of top 10 finishes the BIG 12 Championships as well.
Vestri’s success has been more common on the track. She represented the United States internationally at the IAAF U20 Championships in 2018, running 9:21 for 3000 meters and finishing 13th overall. She continued that track success as a Second-Team All-American in 2019, racing to 14th place in the 10,000 meters. In 2019, Vestri set personal records at 3000 meters, 5000 meters, and 10,000 meters including sub-16:00 and sub-33:00 minute results.
It’s unclear exactly how Vestri’s transfer into the ACC will affect her ability to perform in cross country, but the Syracuse women have been successful in similar situations. Shannon Malone took home the 2018 Northeast Regional Championship title, while Paige Stoner was runner-up for that title in 2017. Similarly, Stoner and Laura Dickinson both qualified for the 10,000 meters this past spring, so Vestri’s talent seems to fit the Syracuse system nicely.
If she does transition well, Vestri could help move Syracuse back into the NCAA qualifying hunt, and even push herself into our XC Top 50.
Danae Rivers (Penn State)
Rivers is typically not a name we think about when it comes to the grass, but the Penn State Nittany Lion had a remarkable level of success for someone known as an 800 meter runner. Rivers claimed a 7th place finish at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship on her home course last fall. That probably has to be the most impressive race of her cross country career, as she slotted in behind a very impressive group, and was the second Nittany Lion across the line. Still, the Mid-Atlantic is not known for being the deepest region, especially on the women’s side.
Rivers followed up that performance with an 87th place finish at the NCAA meet, one of the highest NCAA finishes of anyone in our Just Missed category. Plus, 2017 showings of 8th and 132nd at Regionals and NCAA's indicate that Rivers is continuing to embrace cross country for the sake of her team’s success.
On the oval, Rivers has claimed much more demonstrative success, including an NCAA indoor record at 1000 meters. She holds an NCAA title at 800 meters (indoors) and is a six-time individual track and field All-American. That alone places her in the top 20 most decorated athletes to enter the cross country season. The challenge is that Rivers’ track ability does not directly translate to the trails. The Penn State harrier has not raced a distance longer than a mile throughout her collegiate track career and even though her PR's are some of the fastest at 800 and 1500, that does not necessarily indicate an ability to become All-American in cross country.
There is absolutely nothing that would surprise me about this cross country season for Danae Rivers. While she may not necessarily be among the long distance elites, the need for Penn State to secure another low-stick next to Julia Paternain could give Rivers enough of a reason to up her fitness to a new level this fall.
Aoibhe Richardson (Portland)
It’s tough to know exactly what will happen with anyone during cross country season, but Richardson is certainly one of the toughest. Richardson competed minimally in track throughout 2019 with only five total races across indoors and outdoors. During those races, Richardson claimed a new 5000 meter PR and a new 3000 meter PR, but could not place higher than 14th in any race. That 14th place finish was at the outdoor West Regional Championships where she nearly qualified for NCAA's at 10,000 meters.
The standout season for Richardson, however, came during the 2018 cross country season. Richardson was a top 50 finisher at Nuttycombe and a 30th place finish at Pre-Nats, both indicating her potential as a top 75 athlete at NCAA's. She backed it up with a 5th place finish at the West Coast Conference meet behind only Birk, LaRocco, Wayment, and Rawlings, all individuals who have been All-Americans. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Richardson backed it up with a 19th place finish at the XC West Regional Championships, easily the deepest region in 2019.
Aoibhe later came back the next weekend with a 57th place finish at NCAA's, helping the Pilots all the way into 12th place at Nationals. To finish at almost identical placing from Regionals to NCAA's in the span of a year is an incredible feat. If she can do it again, she will be a First-Team All-American.
Richardson’s lack of a 2019 track season leaves some doubt about where exactly she’ll be in cross country. Then again, Portland is known for cross country success and I expect Richardson to lead the way for the Pilots after losing LaRocco and Rawlings to graduation.
Clio Ozanne-Jaques (Ole Miss)
The Ole Miss men typically get most of the focus down in Oxford, Mississippi, but Clio Ozanne-Jaques has done her best to keep the women in the spotlight as well. She can claim one of the best growth periods over the 2018-2019 season as she set PR's at every distance she raced (mile, 3k, 5k, 10k, and 6k XC). Probably her most impressive personal record was a 16:05 in the 5000 meters at Mt. SAC with her 33:42 10k being a close second. She also improved her 6k PR to 19:48, albeit on a suspect SEC course at Auburn.
Ozanne-Jaques made great strides in her cross country finishes during the 2018 season. In 2017, the then first-year could only manage 19th, 17th, and 109th at SEC's, the South Regional Championshipss, and NCAA's respectively. In 2018, she managed a 12th place finish at SEC's, but greatly improved at the South Regional Championship to place 5th overall. She then put together a great NCAA race where she finished 65. While 65th may not be an All-American finish, to improve so consistently across the championship races shows that the Australian is continuing to progress throughout her years at Ole Miss. Hopefully that will continue in 2019.
One of the areas where Ozanne-Jaques has to improve is on the oval. Ozanne-Jaques has never qualified for an NCAA Championship meet during indoors or outdoors. Her personal records are impressive, but not enough to overcome a lack of championship success on the track track. She does have a World U20 13th place finish from 2018 in the 5000 meters, but that has not translated into great success on the NCAA level when it comes to the mondo oval.
Ozanne-Jaques has always had more success on the cross country course than she has on the track, but neither have been quite enough to get her into the Top 50 (yet). Her history shows that she has potential to push into All-American status this fall, but she has to make another jump to get there.
Megan Hasz (Minnesota)
One part of the Hasz twin combo for the Golden Gophers, Megan has been very successful over her first three seasons at Minnesota. In 2016, Megan placed 11th and 9th at the BIG 10 Championships and Midwest Regional Championships, respectively. In 2017, she earned two 5th place finishes at those meets and then earned a 75th place at the national meet. 2018 was not quite as successful, but a 12th, 10th, and 105th combination is still a very respectable result.
Not only does Megan Hasz compete well in the postseason, but she has consistently performed well throughout the entire regular season. Hasz had top five finishes at Roy Griak, Battle in Beantown, and the Oz Memorial race in 2018 alone.
Hasz will need to hold onto her consistent regular season performances all the way into the postseason for the highest levels of success, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see Hasz jump into our Top 50 based on a great early season race or two.
Hasz focused primarily on the 10,000 meters in 2019 with two 33:09 races at Stanford and the BIG 10 Championships, before qualifying for the NCAA Championships. She did not handle the heat well in Austin, finishing 20th overall. Even though she did not have an ideal championship meet, Hasz still had an underrated spring season. If she can team up with her sister at the front of the pack, the twins might be able to bring Minnesota into BIG 10 contention.
Alissa Niggemann (Wisconsin)
Niggemann is part of a very strong Wisconsin squad that is lead by Alicia Monson and Amy Davis which makes it easy to overlook the importance of Niggemann on that team (and as an individual threat). Niggemann was a crucial leg on the Wisconsin DMR and helped that team to a 9th at Indoor Nationals even without Alicia Monson in the lineup. Yet, her individual ability almost outshined her teammates during outdoors. Niggemann qualified for the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships in the steeplechase and then set her PR of 9:51 in the preliminary rounds. Her championship race did not go to plan, but an 11th place finish at NCAA's is still an impressive result.
Admittedly, Niggemann's cross country background is a little flat. She has never broken into the top 100 spots at NCAA's and her results before that didn't exactly standout compared to a handful of others.
Regardless, with what was clearly a breakout track season, Niggemann has the potential to break into our XC Top 50 this year. The loss of Jill Miller as the women’s coach at Wisconsin will likely play a factor in how the Badgers handle the fall of 2019, but there is still a strong core in Madison, Wisconsin. While one might expect there to be a slight drop after losing such a prominent and successful coach, a coaching change always has the potential to have positive results as well.
Esther Gitahi (Alabama)
Gitahi had one of the biggest breakthrough performances of the 2019 outdoor season when she ran 15:51 to finish 3rd at the NCAA championships in the 5000 meters - her first National Championship at the D1 level.
Gitahi was formerly a NJCAA runner at New Mexico JC where she won six national titles on the track. She showed great range this outdoor season, finishing 3rd at SEC's in the 1500 to go along with her 5k performance at NCAA's. Everything about her track season naturally points to high expectations as the cross country season approaches.
Despite great performances on the track in 2019, Gitahi has only raced one season of cross country and it was nothing spectacular. While at New Mexico JC, she did not run cross country and thus, this past fall was her first time competing on grass. Her best performance was arguably her first race when she placed 31st against a strong Nuttycombe field, but after that she had little to tout. She was 22nd at the SEC Championships and then 29th at the South Regional Championships.
Gitahi will be one of the biggest question marks coming into this season. Her track performances suggest that she could be an All-American, but her cross country marks indicate otherwise. Given this fall was her first season of cross country and first time competing at the Division One level, it seems more likely that Gitahi will jump into our Top 50 rather than the alternative. The first couple of meets should give us a better idea on what her season will look like, but don’t be surprised if she makes a name for herself on the national stage before 2019 is over.