Updated: Jan 13
The Gators may have been the best "Cinderella story" of the 2018 cross country season.
In the team’s second year under coach Chris Solinsky, Florida earned their first National Championship berth since 2012. They ultimately finished 16th overall after coming in ranked at #21, capping a phenomenal breakout season. This fall, the team loses two of their top seniors, but with the return of Jessica Pascoe, a key junior transfer from Bucknell, and a promising young core, the Gators have a good chance at making it back to NCAA's and staying competitive on the national stage.
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Jessica Pascoe was a huge factor in the success of Florida last fall. A relatively unknown runner coming into last season, Pascoe opened up her season with wins at the UNF Cross Country Invitational and the Mountain Dew Cross Country Invitational. She finished runner-up to future NCAA 1500 meter champion Sinclaire Johnson at the Arturo Barrios Invitational and later won the SEC title over a handful of elite Arkansas women. Pascoe finished her season by placing 32nd at NCAA's and earning her first All-American honors while leading Florida to a 16th place finish.
She seemingly came out of nowhere, but Pascoe was the star low-stick that Florida could rally around and lean on throughout the cross country season.
On the track, Pascoe continued to find success. She set indoor personal bests in the mile, 3000, and 5000, and although she DNF’d at Indoors Nationals, she quickly bounced back to qualify for Outdoor Nationals in the 5k where she placed 9th in Austin.
Coming into this fall, Pascoe’s performance will be a huge factor in where Florida ends up. The Gators have a handful of solid runners, but Pascoe is head-and-shoulders above her teammates, meaning if she has a bad race, the entire Florida team will struggle substantially. That said, if Pascoe races to her potential, she could be pushing for a top 15 finish come NCAA's.
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Despite the grand success of Pascoe, many of the women behind her will have to step up if Florida wants to repeat their 2018 magic. With last year's #3 and #4 scorers (Morgan Hull and Caitlin McQuilkin-Bell) now gone, the rest of the Gators will have some gaps to fill.
Elisabeth Bergh looks like the clear favorite to fill the #2 spot this fall. She was the second Gator at a handful of meets in 2018 and finished the season very well, placing 6th at SEC's and 8th at the South Regional Championships. She is clearly better suited for smaller meets given her 123rd place finish at Nationals, but it's clear that she is a reliable scoring option after Pascoe.
Bergh opted to redshirt the indoor season this past year, but returned for outdoors where she primarily focused on middle distance events. Based on her cross country season last year, Bergh looks poised to help Pascoe up front and give the Gators a strong 1-2 punch. The one concern is that during her outdoor season, Bergh struggled to match her personal bests. Is it possible that she was injured during the winter? It's tough to say, but it will be something to watch as we enter the 2019 cross country season. Regardless, a healthy Elisabeth Bergh means a strong Florida Gators team.
Imogen Barrett is another woman on our radar who looks poised for a big season this fall. As a true freshman, Barrett had a solid cross country season that saw her finish 32nd at SEC's and 21st at the South Regional Championships. Both of these performances were impressive, but where Barrett really found her stride was in the 1500 meters this past outdoor season.
After finishing 5th in the mile at the SEC Indoor Championships, Barrett came away with the upset victory at the outdoor SEC meet by running a personal best of 4:17 during the final. She carried that momentum through the East regional meet where she was the last woman to qualify in the 1500, ultimately placing 19th at Outdoor National Championships.
During her freshman campaign, Barrett showed that she was capable of competing with the best in the NCAA. This fall, Florida will look to her to continue that trend of progression as the team searches for a #3 scorer behind Pascoe and Bergh. Barrett will certainly need to improve on her 2018 cross country performances if the Gators hope to compete this fall, but that should be no problem given her notable improvements over the past 12 months.
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Gabrielle Wilkinson was Florida’s other strong freshman who showed flashes of talent at a relatively high level. This past outdoor season, Wilkinson qualified for the National Championships as a true freshman, placing 15th overall in the 800 meters. That performance surprising given that Wilkinson finished only 9th a month prior at the SEC Championships and was only 6th at the same meet during indoors.
Although she had a great track season, Wilkinson is a bit of a wild card when it comes to cross country. She only raced in four meets during her freshman season with her best finish being a 59th place run at SEC's. Any judgement on an athlete's first season in the NCAA should be taken lightly, especially for someone who was as talented as Wilkinson was in high school. Still, there should be a bit of skepticism for the Gators rolling into this fall. She has enough raw talent to be a legitimate and reliable scorer for Coach Solinksky's group this fall, but we'll need to see whether or not that will translate to the grass.
Despite the uncertainty that Wilkinson brings to the table, Florida can take solace in the fact that they'll have a veteran supporting scorer entering the program. Payton Capes-Davis is a transfer from Bucknell who finished 9th in a quietly competitive Patriot League Championship and then 52nd at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships this past fall. She also owns personal bests of 9:48 (3k) and 10:41 for the steeplechase.
Admittedly, her times and finishes don't jump off the page, but she has shown that she could at least be a contributor on this squad. On a team that is a bit thin on depth, her addition to the Florida roster becomes increasingly more valuable.
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But what could be the x-factor in all of this is the youth of the Florida Gators. Their 2019 roster holds eight freshmen and five sophomores. The potential growth we could see from this young core is extremely exciting, especially with these women having yet another year of Solinsky's training under their belt (which has clearly made a difference in the short time that he's been here).
Rising sophomore Grace Blair and incoming freshman Emily Culley have produced strong results and could see major jumps in fitness over the next few months. They'll likely make up the bottom half of this lineup, but don't be surprised if they become reliable scorers at the #3 or #4 spots come October and November.
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Florida is a team banking on big improvements from their backend this fall. Pascoe will provide a low-stick up front and Bergh is a very solid #2 runner. Even Barrett seems like a relatively reasonable scoring option at the #3 position.
However, the openings behind those women will likely dictate the Gators' overall success this fall. Between Wilkinson, Capes-Davis, Blair, Culley, and maybe a few others, they should have enough women to put together a complete scoring five.
If they are able to make the necessary tweaks and jumps in fitness, the Gators will be in the hunt to replicate their 16th place showing from 2018.