Updated: Jan 13
Arkansas made waves last fall when they took down the powerhouse Oregon Ducks at Pre-Nationals in Madison, Wisconsin. The Razorbacks were led by freshman sensation Katrina Robinson and saw big breakouts by Lauren Gregory, Carina Viljoen, and Taylor Werner which led them to a high national ranking. Arkansas continued to roll through their schedule of meets until ultimately falling short at NCAA's where they finished 14th overall.
This season, the team brings back six of their seven scorers from 2018, and after huge performances by Werner this past track season, Arkansas looks poised to make a run at the national title.
Arkansas isn't like most teams. They don't have just a couple of strong front-runners, respectable middle scorers, and decent depth. On paper, they are simply flooded with suffocating firepower...well, at least through most of their top five. However, in order to really understand this team, it's best that we look at the overall talent of their star scorers
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Outside of NCAA's, Taylor Werner was having the best cross country season of her career last fall. Except the Nuttycombe Invitational where she finished 20th, Werner was a top 10 runner at every meet leading into NCAA's. She finished runner-up to her teammate Robinson at the South Central regional meet and looked to be on pace to finish as an All-American. However, an off day at the national meet forced her to settle for an 81st place finish.
Despite the rough finish to her season, Werner didn’t let it hold her back from blowing away expectations on the track. Over the course of indoors and outdoors, Werner set personal bests in every event from the 1500 to the 10,000 meters, finishing runner-up in the 3000 meters during indoors while also running in Arkansas’ 5th place DMR team. However, it was her performance at the Outdoor National Championships that was even more astonishing as she finished 4th in the 10k before coming back to notch a runner-up finish in the 5000 meters (which would play a key role in propelling Arkansas to the team title).
Coming into the 2019 track seasons, Werner had never finished in the top 10 at an NCAA championship meet and had only been an All-American once - her freshman season (2016) when she finished 16th at NCAA XC Championships. The Arkansas senior comes in ranked #5 in the country and will be a key contributor if the Razorbacks are to win a national title.
Now in her second season, sophomore Katrina Robinson will be looking to build upon her fantastic freshman campaign which saw her win two meets, finish runner-up twice, and narrowly miss All-American honors by only one place. The sophomore from Australia comes in ranked #16 and will be somewhat of a question mark to start the season after redshirting indoor and outdoor track.
When she did race, Robinson ran with the talent and composure of an NCAA veteran. Outside of NCAA's (which was likely the first time the Aussie ever competed in snow), Robinson never finished outside of the top 10 and notched a notable runner-up finish to Jessica Hull at Pre-Nationals. Given that Robinson’s worst performance was a 41st place finish at NCAA's, she is in a great spot heading into 2019 and should easily be an All-American this go around.
Another Razorback looking for redemption at NCAA's will be junior Lauren Gregory. As a sophomore, Gregory came into NCAA's after finishing 3rd at the South Central Regional Championships to teammates Robinson and Werner. The sophomore was having the season of her life, finishing 10th at Pre-Nationals and 3rd at SEC's less than a year after finishing 252nd at the NCAA Championships. It seemed as though Gregory was all but guaranteed to better her freshman performance until things took a turn for the worse and she ultimately DNF’d at Nationals.
Similar to Werner, Gregory bounced back for track, securing a 7th place finish in the 3000 meters and a 10th place finish in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Championships. With another year of experience under her belt, it's clear that Gregory can be the star ace that we all know she can be. The only concern with Gregory is her track record of performances at the cross country national meet. Assuming there’s nothing to make of it, she has a great shot to be an All-American this fall as she comes in ranked #25 overall.
Just on the heels of Gregory’s ranking is her teammate Carina Viljoen, ranked at #28 overall. The Arkansas senior is chasing her first All-American performance in cross country after coming as close as 48th during her sophomore season. Viljoen was right with her teammates all of last fall, finishing 8th at Pre-Nationals, 4th at SEC's and 4th at the South Central Regional Championships. She earned All-American honors indoors with a 5th place finish in the mile and later qualified for NCAA Outdoors in the 1500 meters where she placed 20th. When you view the NCAA as a whole, it's hard to say that Viljoen isn't the best #4 runner in the nation right now.
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The Razorbacks have a contingent of four women who could (and should) all finish in the top 30 at NCAA's this November. Robinson has the potential to be a top 10 finisher and Werner could even win the whole thing. On paper, this Arkansas team looks a lot like the Colorado team that won NCAA's last fall with Dani Jones taking the title and Makena Morley breaking into the top 10 for a breakout race of her own.
The big question for Arkansas is who will be their #5 runner this fall. Based on results from 2018, the first name on the list of scoring candidates is senior Maddy Reed. As a junior, Reed showed flashes of brilliance with a 10th place run at SEC's and a 14th place finish at the South Central regional meet. However, her results in the larger races wasn't exactly ideal for a team vying for a national title as she finished 131st at Pre-Nationals and 67th at Nuttycombe. For the Razorbacks to win a national title, Reed will definitely need to improve upon her 164th place finish from NCAA's in 2018.
Another woman who could fill the final scoring spot is Micah Huckabee. As a junior, Huckabee had similar showings to Reed, finishing 13th at the South Central regional and 16th at SEC's. Unfortunately, she was 203rd at NCAA's which would immediately sink Arkansas’ team title hopes if she repeated that performance this fall. Still, it's clear that she's talented enough to compete up front with the Razorback women this fall.
One dark horse who could be a huge factor for the fifth spot is Devin Clark. The redshirt senior is back for her fifth year as a Razorback and has a lot of potential on the cross country course. Back in 2016, Clark was one of the best in the country, notching a runner-up finish at the SEC meet and winning the South Central regional title. Since then, Clark has not been able to put together a full cross country season, but she did show a ton of promise with a 7th place finish in the steeplechase at the NCAA Outdoor Championships this past spring. If Clark can regain her form from 2016, which may already be the case after seeing her race this past spring, then Arkansas will be an absolute juggernaut this fall.
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The Razorbacks come in with at least four women who should be All-Americans in 2019. Werner and Robinson both could be top 10 and Gregory and Viljoen could both fall in the 20's if they run to their potential. The caveat here is that while all of them should be All-Americans, only one of them has actually done it in cross country (Werner in 2016).
They also have the looming question of who will fill the #5 role. Both Reed and Huckabee are solid runners, but would need to make some improvements for Arkansas to make themselves stronger title favorites than they already are. If Clark finds her form from 2016, it would be a huge boost to the Razorbacks and it would immediately vault them into being the NCAA front-runners (more so than they are now).
When comparing Colorado and Arkansas, it's tough to gauge where these two teams sit in relation to each other. Both programs have elite talents who could easily win them a national title, but they both have legitimate question marks surrounding the back end as well. Can Colorado turn Rachel McArthur and Emily Covert into All-Americans? Can Arkansas run well at the national meet and find a secure #5 option? We don't have the answers, but these are good questions to keep in mind.
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Arkansas was arguably just as talented as last year's Colorado squad, and this year's team is no different. A disappointing showing at last year's national meet was far from ideal, but it likely added even more fuel to the fire.
With the hunger to avenge their 2018 performance, the Razorbacks will be one of the toughest and most motivated teams in the country.
And when you're as talented as them, that becomes incredibly difficult to stop.