We already spoke about which men's teams we are the most excited to see during the winter cross country season, but what about the women? Here are five women's programs that we are eager to see compete a few months from now...
In theory, the Michigan women have enough raw talent to at least contend for a national title and that truthfully isn't much of a stretch. The problem, however, is that we aren't entirely sure whether or not all of their top runners will be able to replicate their peak fitness from years prior.
For instance, both Anne Forsyth and Camille Davre were huge impact scorers for the Wolverines back in 2018. During that time, Forsyth finished 46th at the NCAA Championships while Davre went on to earn All-American honors with a 29th place finish.
Unfortunately, we didn't get to see Forsyth during the 2019 season and Davre admittedly struggled to replicate her performances from when she was a freshman. But what does that mean for this year? How will these two promising talents perform after a taking over a year off from competition?
Not only that, but we're also curious to see how true freshman Katelynne Hart performs during her rookie year. The Michigan women have had massive success with underclassmen and the recent years prove that. In fact, Ericka VanderLende is a great example after she finished her freshman cross country season last year as an All-American.
Based on what we have seen from them in the past, it is entirely possible that all four of those women finish as All-Americans in March. However, we don't have a ton of certainty in regards to how well Hart will transition to competing at the collegiate level, how well Davre and Forsyth will perform after prolonged absences or even what the rest of this lineup is going to look like.
Few teams hold more uncertainty than the Michigan Wolverines, but what we do know is that they will still be a top-ranked team. They have an endless number of high-potential youngsters as well as multiple veterans with championship experience (such as Kathryn House and Maddy Trevisan).
We're not entirely sure what this team will look like in 2021, but what we do know is that they'll continue to be a problem for their BIG 10 rivals.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
It's one thing to return every member of your varsity lineup from the year prior. It's another thing to return every member of your varsity lineup and add a top-ranked low-stick. But to return your entire varsity lineup and add two top-ranked low-sticks is something that can dramatically change a team for the better.
And that is exactly what is happening to the Minnesota women.
The Gophers were a team that surprised us last year, qualifying for the NCAA Championships despite not having Bethany or Megan Hasz. Last year's low-stick Anastasia Korezenowski finished 7th at the ultra-deep BIG 10 Championships and led a respectable team that had a handful of solid supporting scorers throughout the 2019 season.
By adding Bethany Hasz (15:25 5k PR) and Megan Hasz (15:39 5k PR) back into this lineup, this Minnesota team is set to be so much better than they were last year...but by how much? Will the rest of their lineup make improvements? Will the Hasz twins be able to translate their track success to the grass on a consistent basis? Trying to figure out where in the XC hierarchy Minnesota now sits is difficult to gauge.
On paper, this team has top-tier firepower, excellent middle-lineup contributors and plenty of depth that is returning from last year's team. That is a formula for major success when it comes to NCAA cross country.
Kudos to coach Sarah Hopkins for perfectly setting this team up for a very exciting future.
The Oregon women are in a bit of a pickle, at least based on last year's results.
Compared to their usual expectations, the Ducks struggled during the 2019 cross country season and finished 26th at the NCAA Championships. However, their future challenges will only compound now that key veterans such as Susan Ejore, Amanda Gehrich, Isabelle Brauer and Phillipa Bowden are out of eligibility. Not only that, but Oregon also lost Taylor Chiotti, their top scorer at last year's national meet, who has since transferred to the University of Washington.
In theory, those sound like crushing losses that could put a program in a tricky position for the next few years. However, I can't help but think back to the endless amount of success and the constant development of top-tier talent that this program has produced.
Even if there was a coaching change a few years ago, I hesitate to give a negative outlook for a team that is as historically accomplished as Oregon. When we think of distance excellence, the Ducks are one of the first teams that come to mind.
In fairness to Oregon, this team does have a few respectable pieces and there is a lot of young talent that surely wanted to prove themselves at the collegiate level. This past summer, Alessia Zarbo ran a personal best of 15:50 for 5000 meters, a time which suggests that she can be a legitimate front-runner. The Ducks also bringing back women such as Aneta Konieczek, Caramia Mestler and Moira O'Shea from their 2019 national lineup, so there is still some valuable championship experience on this team.
There are surely other names who could emerge and suddenly change our perspective as to where this team sits in the NCAA's hierarchy of cross country programs. But until then, we'll be anxiously awaiting to see how the Ducks respond to their numerous roster losses.
We talked about the Gonzaga men pursuing a potential revenge season in our first article. On the women's side, the Butler women feel like a team that is in a similar situation after just missing out on qualifying for the NCAA Championships last year.
Despite beating numerous national qualifying teams like Ole Miss, Villanova and Boston College during the 2019 season, Butler was still snubbed from a spot to Terre Haute thanks to how the Kolas calculations played out.
Now, the team returns all but one member from last year's varsity lineup, making the Bulldogs a highly experienced team that is hungry to prove that they are a national-caliber program.
The good news for Butler is that this year's NCAA national qualifying selection committee will favor performances at the conference championships more than other meets. When you consider that the Butler women took down a respectable Villanova team by nine points at the 2019 BIG East Championships, the Bulldogs should be eager for a potential rematch.
The recent progression that we have seen from their entire varsity lineup, the projected improvement that some of their younger runners are expected to have and the introduction of Oklahoma State transfer Kami Hankins should put this team over the top and into the national meet...we think.
Illinois Fighting Illini'
The Illinois women are more of a personal pick. There's not a ton of uncertainty surrounding this team and we don't have any lingering questions that have remained unanswered since last year. Simply put, I'm just a fan of their development and their current lineup. Truthfully, I think we undervalued them a bit in our preseason rankings when we listed them at TSR #17.
It's hard to dislike this group. After years of being a very average program, coach Sarah Haveman has done a spectacular job of turning this team around and sending them in the right direction as far as XC performances are concerned.
After making it to the national meet last year and battling to establish national relevance, the 2021 winter cross country season should be when this team thrives and truly breaks out in an even bigger way.
The Fighting Illini' have two respectable front-runners in Rebecca Craddock and Allison McGrath, a very solid pair of supporting scorers in Madison Marasco and Emma Milburn, a plethora of young options. They even introduced Ayah Aldadh to the team this past offseason, a recent transfer from Bradley who finished 30th at the Midwest Regional Championships last year.
The Illinois women lost only one woman from last year's varsity lineup (Emma Wilson) who was the team's fifth scorer on most occasions. Still, with so many key veterans set to return and this team continuing to make improvements, I would not sleep on Illinois. they could make some noise in a BIG 10 conference that has a lot of uncertainty this year.