Updated: Jan 13
For the past few years, the U-Mary women have found a way to consistently stay at the top of the NCAA standings. Their ability to develop each year's returners into top All-American talents, while also sustaining respectable depth, has arguably been enough to put them in a powerhouse status of this decade.
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The 2018 cross country season was a historic one for the U-Mary women, which eventually concluded with a program-defining performance.
After a rust-buster at the MSU-Moorhead Dragon Twilight meet (which the Marauders won easily), the U-Mary women went out in full force at Roy Griak...and my goodness did they make a statement.
The Marauders put five women in the top 30 (of the D2 scoring), including three in the top 10. Their collective firepower and the lack of a flawed final scorer made them far too much to handle as they walked with the top spot among their D2 competition, defeating their conference rival and 2nd place team (Augustana (S.D.)) by 15 points.
After easily dominating both the NSIC Preview and NSIC Championships, it was on to the regional and national meets for the U-Mary women. At the Central Regional Championships, the combination of Schuette, Roberts, Narbuvoll, Fox, and Erickson earned finishes of 1-2-4-8-14 to easily shut down their competition and advance to the National Championships.
Once they toed the line on a cold December morning in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, U-Mary would put together an incredible performance that validated their place among the collegiate elites. Roberts and Narbuvoll put together 3rd and 12th place finishes, respectively while Schuette locked down a 15th place finish of her own. With Hestekin placing 29th and Erickson placing 40th, the Marauders ended the day with five individual All-Americans. They would finish 2nd in the team standings to an extraordinarily strong Grand Valley State group.
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The loss of veteran scorers Emily Roberts and Jaiden Schuette will certainly hurt the U-Mary Marauders, but the fact that they still return three of their five individual All-Americans from last year will be huge. Narbuvoll, Hestekin, and Erickson will another year older in 2019 and will continue to bring incredibly crucial scoring potency to this squad.
Truthfully, the limited depth due to the graduation of top scorers is a legitimate concern to have as we enter the next few months. If U-Mary wants to get back on the podium, they'll need to develop their backend.
Still, the fact that the Marauders return three All-American talents is something that I don't think people or fans of the sport appreciate enough. Division Two is extremely top-heavy, more so than D1, and among the best teams you need to have exceptional firepower.
Don't believe me? The top three women's teams at last year's cross country national meet had all five of their varsity scorers finish as individual All-Americans. Fourth place Western Colorado had four of their five varsity scorers finish as individual All-Americans. That means that the four podium teams made up roughly 50% of the individual All-American spots.
So yes, firepower is just as important as depth in this case, and U-Mary still has a ton of it.
The Chico State women are so. darn. consistent. It is rare to not see them not at the top of the top of the D2 rankings and standings, even if they lose top key scorers. But 2019 could be a year where the Wildcats are even stronger than usual...and that could eventually put them on the podium.
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The Wildcat women started off 2018 by toeing the line for the Capital Cross Challenge. In a field with multiple D1 teams, it was going to be a good early-season opportunity to test their overall strength. However, the race may not have been exactly how Chico State wanted to kick-off their fall of competition.
Chico State finished 5th overall, four points behind conference rival Stanislaus State who had better front-runners to give them an overall edge. The Wildcats didn't run necessarily run poorly, but the lack of a true low-stick (their top runner finished 22nd) and being forced to rely mainly on their depth is what ultimately pushed the team back to 5th.
It wouldn't be until the UC San Diego Invite that we saw the top Chico State women back in action. However, this race wasn't anything like the Capital Cross Challenge. The Wildcats soundly defeated the entire field by posting only 39 points. Alexandria Tucker provided her team with a key low-stick in 3rd place while Kayden Carpenter was close behind in 5th. With Nora Pizzella and Desirae Jones also earning top 10 finishes, it was clear that Chico State was head and shoulders above the rest of the teams there.
But that wasn't just a fluke one-time performance. If anything, it was a signal of things to come in the postseason.
Chico State would enter the postseason and proceed to trounce their competition. They Wildcat women avenged their early-season loss to Stanislaus State by dropping a team score of only 24 points to defeat their rivals by 46 points. With four women in the top five and with two others inside the top 15, Chico State was simply too much to handle.
Their regional performance didn't pack the same level intrigue as their conference meet did as the Wildcats settled for 3rd place overall. However, their finishes of 14-15-17-20-22 leads us to believe that they were likely focusing on pack running, knowing that a national qualifier was more or less secured.
It was at the National Championships where Chico State validated their recent surge in impressive performances. Despite not having an individual All-American, the Wildcats still posted a strong 8th place team finish, proving that depth can still put you among the best in the nation. Pizzella led the team with a 52nd place finish while Jones (63rd), Garcia (74th), Swangler (84th), and Carpenter (96th) all finished inside the top 100.
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In 2019, the Chico State women will return all but one of their varsity runner's from last year's lineup. The team loses Katie Garcia, but when you're as deep as the Wildcats are, you can find ways to offset those kind of departures.
Retaining numerous scoring options is an extremely nice asset to have as you enter a cross country season. However, if the Chico State women are expecting to contend for a podium spot, they need to find an individual (preferably two) to step-up into a top 40 role nationally.
Yet, even if they don't, their ability to run as a pack may be enough of a differentiator to put them inside the top five anyways. Remember, this is Chico State we're talking about. They'll be good no matter who they have toeing the line in late November...