Every year, Balboa Park in San Diego plays host to the most important high school cross country race in the nation (Foot Locker Nationals). While the high schoolers will still race here come December, expect an ever bigger battle this weekend as the Mountain West Conference hits the slopes. TSR#2 Boise State and TSR#3 New Mexico will both look to establish dominance and potentially dethrone TSR#1 Colorado at the top of the rankings heading into regionals.
Allie Ostrander is a 2x NCAA Champion in the steeplechase and was a national runner-up on the grass in 2015. Not to mention she placed 4th on the at the cross country national meet last year. In 2018, Ostrander has led the Broncos to 2nd place in the team race at Nuttycombe with her 5th place individual finish. She also won the Sundodger Invitational in early September. With a record of success like Ostrander, you have to place her as the favorite come Friday.
Well, maybe not so fast.
Ednah Kurgat of New Mexico may have something to say about that. The 2017 MWC and NCAA champion has beaten Ostrander the last three times they’ve met on the grass after placing 3rd at Nuttycombe. Kurgat backed that up with a 2nd place in the Pre-Nats White Race. After two fantastic races this fall, Kurgat should take down Ostrander in a final sprint to the finsh.
Based on NCAA credentials alone, one should favor Kurgat and Ostrander over the rest of the field; however, New Mexico Lobo Weini Kelati beat both of them at Nuttycombe and then won the Pre-Nats White by 12 seconds over teammate Kurgat. While Kelati shouldn’t be taken as the favorite at NCAA’s quite yet, a win at MWC should give her that title.
The Rest of the Field
With Kelati, Kurgat, and Ostrander headlining the meet, it’s easy to forget that this race could host nine potential NCAA All-Americans by the end of the year. Charlotte Prouse doesn’t lead the Lobos of New Mexico in the team score, but her senior leadership most certainly grounds this team. Prouse finished 7th at Pre-Nats in 2018 and 12th at NCAA's in 2017. If any of the top three women falter, Prouse will be eager to pounce and repeat her 3rd place 2017 MWC finish.
Adva Cohen is the final Lobo in the individual conversation this weekend after her 14th place finish in the Pre-Nats White Race. It took Cohen an early-season race to adjust to NCAA competition, but her Pre-Nats performance shows us that the 9:29 steeplechaser is ready to finish alongside Prouse this weekend.
Boise State offers their own individuals to watch outside of Allie Ostrander. Clare O’Brien and Emily Venters captured 9th and 10th at Nuttycombe and were within three seconds of Prouse in that race. Venters placed 53rd at NCAA's last year while O’Brien was 77th.
**** This is a Public Service Announcement: Boise State and New Mexico are not the only teams in the Mountain West ****
Oh yeah, Alyssa Snyder returns to lead Utah State after an All-American finish in 2017. She is also the top returner from the 2017 conference meet who is not wearing a New Mexico or Boise State jersey. With that in mind, Snyder’s 2018 has seen mixed results. She finished an impressive 3rd place in the Paul Short Gold race (2nd NCAA runner) behind Georgia’s Jessica Drop, but fell to 39th at Pre-Nats in the same race as New Mexico. Teammate Cierra Simmons finished seconds behind her, sandwiching New Mexico’s #5 Hannah Nuttall in the Pre-Nats White race standings.
Jaci Smith also returns for Air Force after a 9th place finish in the 2017 MWC Championships, but with even greater credentials. Smith finished 8th in the 10k this summer in Eugene and has two top 20 finishes from Nuttycombe and the Pre-Nats White Race. At Pre-Nats, her finish placed her only five seconds behind Cohen.
1. Weini Kelati (New Mexico)
2. Ednah Kurgat (New Mexico)
3. Allie Ostrander (Boise State)
4. Charlotte Prouse (New Mexico)
5. Adva Cohen (New Mexico)
6. Jaci Smith (Air Force)
7. Emily Venters (Boise State)
8. Clare O’Brien (Boise State)
9. Alyssa Snyder (Utah State)
10. Alexis Fuller (Boise State)
Had Kurgat stayed closer to Kelati at Pre-Nats, this would be a tougher pick. Even if Kurgat and Ostrander stay keep things competitive with Kelati like they did at Nuttycombe, I think Kelati’s 2015 Foot Locker National Championship at Balboa Park will be the X-Factor. The top three will likely break away between 4k and 5k. If anyone stays with those three, look for Jaci Smith to hold on as long as possible while Prouse and Cohen worry about Venters and O’Brien in the team battle.
The Team Race
With New Mexico predicted to take four of the top five individual spots, New Mexico is the clear favorite even though Boise State is ranked above them in TSR’s national rankings. Boise State’s best hope for a win is for Ostrander to pull the upset, Cohen to return to her form from Nuttycombe, and for Alexis Fuller and Maxine Paholek to open up a large gap on New Mexico's #5 Hannah Nuttall. Expect this to be a battle to the end, but New Mexico should come out on top.
The battle for the next five spots should be interesting. Air Force should take 3rd after their 10th place run at Pre-Nats where they bested MWC rival Utah State by almost 90 points. Expect the point differentials to be closer to 10 or 20 points, especially after Air Force, San Jose State, and Nevada finished with 144, 144, and 145 points respectively last year for 4th through 6th.
San Jose St. finished 16th in the Cardinal Race at Pre-Nats and could challenge Utah State. Nevada finished 20th in the Cardinal race after Oregon went 1-7 on them at Bill Dellinger. Colorado State looks to improve on last year’s 7th place finish after a 16th place team finish in the White race at Pre-Nats. Without an individual leader, the Rams will need their 3-5 runners to put together a strong finish in order to overtake Nevada and San Jose St.
1. New Mexico Lobos (29)
2. Boise State Broncos (40)
3. Air Force Falcons (96)
4. Utah State Aggies (115)
5. San Jose State Spartans (155)
6. Colorado State Rams (163)
7. Nevada Wolf Pack (172)
What Does This Race Mean?
The NCAA implications of this race are pretty slim. New Mexico and Boise State have already amassed enough KOLAS points to qualify for Nationals if they finish within the top four at regionals. Even top six finishes would likely book their ticket to Madison considering the depth of the Mountain and West regions, respectively.
That being said, anything short of an automatic berth at regionals would be a massive disappointment for both teams. Thus, this race is about securing a conference title, gaining confidence, and sowing a little bit of doubt into their opponents. A #1 ranking could also be in order for the team winner. Boise State is also looking to potentially sweep the team races as their men will battle a tough Colorado State team, a formidable Air Force squad, and a rising group from Wyoming.
The Air Force and Utah State women are both on the outside-looking-in for Nationals at the moment, but neither will earn any points here. A head-to-head win will build confidence as they head into the Mountain region, but both will be more focused on beating the Northern Arizona women in two weeks to potentially make Nationals.
Individually, the winner here should be considered at least the co-favorite for NCAA gold while a Kelati win might place her as the clear #1 individual pending results at BIG 10's and PAC 12s. On the flipside, with Kelati, Kurgat, and Ostrander all being top five caliber runners in Madison, a loss this weekend shouldn’t worry any of those three women.
Look for Jaci Smith and Alyssa Snyder to have good races this weekend and prepare themselves for individual qualifying status should Air Force and Utah State miss team qualification. Hannah Nuttall’s placing for New Mexico might have the largest implications though. Her ability to stick with Boise State’s #5 (or not) will determine whether the Lobos have a shot at repeating as National Champions.
No matter who wins, there will be lots to talk about after this one.