NC State Wolfpack
The Case For: The Wolfpack women ran a strong race at the Joe Piane Invitational, finishing 4th overall with Utah, Colorado, and Florida State placing ahead of them. Despite ending the day in a position that would suggest a non-podium result at NCAA's, there were still plenty of positives to take away from NC State's race.
First up, we have to acknowledge Elly Henes’ 9th place run. The All-American from last year had a great track season and looks to be a very strong low-stick for the team once again. Behind her is freshman Kelsey Chmiel who finished 15th in her first big collegiate challenge of the season. Together, these two make one of the better duos in the country.
With Erika Vanderlende and Melany Smart stealing the freshmen spotlight, Chmiel's overall impact (both individually and for her team) may be overshadowed at the moment. Her emergence is one of the biggest reasons why NC State looks like they have a chance at finishing in the top four this year. If she can continue to improve as the season goes on, she could give the Wolfpack another All-American candidate.
Rounding out the top three is Dominique Clairmonte who, despite a less than stellar race at Joe Piane, will likely improve significantly as the season goes on. Her 62nd place finish at last year's national meet indicates that she could be on the fringe of All-American status this fall. She will likely be the “x-factor” for her team’s podium chances.
A good race from Clairmonte will put her in the top 40 and give NC State three All-Americans. With teams like Arkansas, BYU, and New Mexico boasting at least three All-American candidates of their own, it is critical that NC State can at least match their top 40 firepower.
After those three, we saw Julia Zachgo and Samantha Bush packing up well to finish within a second of each other. They both finished within the top 50. To have two solid and reliable scorers in the second half of NC State's top five (without seeing anything from Nevada Moreno yet) is an encouraging sign.
The Case Against: Although they posted strong results at Joe Piane, a top four team finish at Nationals will require significant help from some inexperienced runners who, nonetheless, run in their top five. Chmiel has run like an All-American, but it will be interesting to see how she (and every other freshman) react to their first NCAA Championship in Terre Haute.
Bush is another freshman who will be making her debut at Nationals this year. While the lack of experience isn’t always a huge factor, it can, at times, be what pushes a team off the podium in a tight title race.
Clairmonte is also a major question mark in terms of her scoring impact. She started off last season a little slow, but ran well at ACC's and the Southeast Regional Championships before turning in a solid race at NCAA's. For NC State to have a chance at a top four finish, she needs to continue to improve throughout the rest of the year like she did in 2018. However, her performance at NCAA's will need to improve.
She looks to be on track to do just that, but if she is unable to make the jump, then NC State will struggle to have a top three that can compete with other podium challengers.
This – along with their spotty inexperience – could be what keeps NC State just off of the podium in 2019.
The Case For: Like NC State, the Huskies’ path to the podium has become much clearer thanks to a freshman stud. Melany Smart has been an unbelievable addition to Washington’s team. She again proved herself at the Joe Piane Invitational by earning a 4th place finish. Her presence as a low-stick takes a lot of pressure off of top runners Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon.
Picking up nicely from her All-American 2018 campaign, Rainsberger finished 13th last weekend and should only improve throughout the rest of the season. Burdon, on the other hand, had a tough race finishing 60th. Yet, despite their All-American stud having an off day, the Huskies still finished 5th right behind NC State.
Even though they finished behind the Wolfpack, I am higher on the Huskies after this past weekend because I believe that Burdon will dramatically improve on her performance. They would have contended with Utah and Colorado for the win had Burdon finished in the top 20. We also saw a similar scenario unfold with Burdon last year when she struggled during the regular season, but later put together a phenomenal string of postseason results.
The reason Washington was able to pull off a 5th place finish was because their number #3 and #4 runners, Allie Schadler and Shona McCulloch, stepped up in a big way to earn 28th and 39th place finishes, respectively. In fact, the Huskies’ top four was the third best of the meet – even with Burdon not running her best. If we see the same Burdon as we did in 2018, then Washington has a very strong top three with a great #4 and #5. On paper, that should be enough to get them onto the podium.
Plus, we haven't even talked about Oklahoma transfer Haley Herberg. She entered our preseason rankings at #46 before falling off. If she runs this season (which is still an uncertainty) then Washington could be a wildly dangerous team come Nationals...
The Case Against: Despite my optimism that Burdon will improve, it's not encouraging to see her underwhelm in a large nationally-contested meet. Hopefully she's not rebounding from injury (and we don't have reason to believe that she is).
However, if Burdon doesn't end up improving, then Washington will be relying heavily on Schadler and McCulloch to come through in a big way. Neither of them have finished within the top 100 at Nationals before.
With Burdon and Rainsberger being NCAA veterans, the biggest question mark will be how Smart reacts to her first national meet. She has now proven on two occasions that she can run with the NCAA's most elite distance runners, but even the ultra-stacked national meet can cause the best young talents to falter.
The Case For: The only other freshman who is running as well, if not better, than Melany Smart right now is Erick VanderLende, who has looked exceptional so far this year. Her 4th place finish at the John McNichols Invitational behind Taylor Werner, Fiona O’Keefe, and Katie Izzo immediately made her a true national contender. VanderLende later backed that up with a win at the BIG 10 Preview. To put it simply, she has been on fire.
Her emergence has been significant as All-American teammate Camille Davre has struggled so far. Additionally, we have yet to see prospective All-American, Anne Forsyth, debut. If these two runners can return to the form that they were in last year, then we have Michigan ranked far too low and they will have a great chance at returning to the podium.
Thankfully, Kathryn House and Maddy Trevisan have stepped up in a big way behind VanderLende to fill in the #2 and #3 spots of this lineup. Behind these three, the Wolverines have a host of ladies who are capable of filling their final two scoring positions.
For Michigan to finish in the top four like they did last year, they need someone from their backend to take a big leap forward at NCAA's. The return of Forsyth, the introduction of Baylor transfer Anna West, or a return to top form from Davre would also give Michigan much better odds.
With the Wolverines’ depth and possible reinforcements on the way, a podium finish is not out of the question.
The Case Against: The reason why Michigan won’t make back-to-back appearances on the podium is pretty simple: health and big-name absences.
If Forsyth and Davre - the expected top two for the Wolverines coming into the season - aren’t 100%, then it will be very difficult for this team to conjure up enough top-level firepower to support VanderLende. House and Tevisan have improved admirably, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to compete for top 50 spots at NCAA's.
More so, we have yet to see 2017 All-American and Baylor transfer Anna West make her debut. She was expected to add veteran scoring and additional firepower to Big Blue's lineup this fall. Unfortunately, she has yet to be seen in a Michigan singlet.
To rely on VanderLende as their sole low-stick means putting a lot of pressure on someone running their first season of collegiate cross country. She will likely rise to the occasion, but having two or three much more experienced runners right behind her would obviously give Michigan much more leeway.
If the Wolverines have their full arsenal of talent, then they will be tough to bet against. However, if they don't (and it doesn't seem like they will), then it might be hard for them to repeat their 4th place performance from last season.
The Case For: Even against a loaded field, a 6th place finish at the Joe Piane Invitational doesn’t scream podium contender. However, before we make any rash judgements, let’s look a little closer at the Badgers top four.
Guess who had the best top four at Joe Piane?
Nope, it was Colorado, but Wisconsin was only one point behind them through four runners. The reason why they weren't able to challenge Colorado or Utah for the win was their #5 runner.
Alicia Monson ran a great race to finish 2nd overall while Amy Davis carried over her momentum from last spring to finish 14th. Alissa Niggemann and Lucinda Crouch also ran very well to earn 18th and 30th place finishes, respectively. Four runners in the 30, with three finishing inside the top 20 is firepower that very few teams in the NCAA can match.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s #5 scorer, freshman Alexa Westley, crossed the line in 95th place. Rachel Werking and Peyton Sippy finished within 15 seconds of Westley to round out their varsity lineup. If you believe that the Badgers will finish on the podium in November, then you have to believe that one of these three women will improve enough by the time NCAA's rolls around (which, in the grand scheme of things, is not a ridiculous expectation).
Truthfully, Wisconsin doesn't even have to improve all that much because their top four is that strong. Improvements are needed, but they don't need to be drastic or unrealistic.
The Case Against: With the final scoring position still a little shaky, Wisconsin likely won’t make the podium, even if their top four runs extremely well. Alicia Monson is going to be a top 10 performer while Amy Davis is very much in the All-American conversation. I’m not worried about these two.
Poor performances from Niggemann and Crouch would likely damage the Badgers’ chances as well, but they have run well so far. They seem like reliable options at the #3 and #4 positions.
However, it really all comes down to Wisconsin finding a good #5 scorer. If their backend doesn't improve (or improve enough), then this team could very easily struggle to finish on the podium.
The Case For: Click this link. I know, we still can't believe it either.
Utah’s stunning win at Joe Piane is the best-case scenario for how this team could continue to surprise the nation and finish on the podium. Utah’s powerful top three of Bella Williams, Poppy Tank, and Sarah Feeny all finished within the top 20 last weekend and set the team up for major success.
While the top three were critical, it was the strength of Utah’s final two scorers that sealed their win over Colorado. Cara Woolnough and Scarlet Dale finished 27th and 37th respectively, and it is their performances that makes Utah a dangerous team. With a tight top five which had a time spread of 26 seconds at Joe Piane, they will be able to pack up and work together better than almost any other team in our Top 10.
If they can continue to keep a tight pack and continue to run like they did last weekend, then Utah could take the NCAA by storm and land a top four finish at Nationals.
The Case Against: There is a reason why Utah was ranked at #25 in our preseason rankings. They didn’t have the track times or experienced cross country runners to merit a top 10 finish. While this was clearly proven wrong this past weekend, it will be interesting to see if they can continue to run this well throughout the rest of the season.
This is a team that didn’t even make NCAA's last year. Their top five ran well last spring, but they didn't post anything that would indicate them running this well in cross country. Simply put, it makes sense to be a little skeptical of their ability to run this well when the postseason rolls around. Was their win at Joe Piane just a fluke?
We have talked about inexperience plaguing some teams and Utah could be one of them. The Utes have only two women, Poppy Tank and Sarah Feeny, who have run at the national meet before, but that was all the way back during their freshman years.
Utah's inexperience, paired with a scoring drop-off after their top five, could be an issue. Behind Scarlet Dale (who placed 37th) was Trina Moreno and Emma Christensen who finished 91st and 107th, respectively.
Utah’s podium hopes well rest solely on their top five from Joe Piane. Although the team is riding high from their victory, they will have to continue to surprise the country to land on the podium.
With so much competition still to go, it remains to be seen if Utah has enough established firepower to be a top four contender come Nationals.