New Coach Check-In (Part One)

The summers of 2018 and 2019 were wild for a variety of different reasons. We saw plenty of transfers make headlines, but the numerous coaching switches at established, powerhouse programs made things that much more interesting.

Below, we take a look at just a few of those big-name coaches and evaluate how they have done so far in their limited time with their new teams...

JJ Clark (Stanford women)

When news broke that JJ Clark was going to leave UConn and take the head role at Stanford, many running fans (including myself) were a bit surprised. The University of Connecticut was a respectable program and had fared rather well in the American Athletic Conference. Still, Clark was seen as a middle distance coach, which seemingly clashed with the long distance focus that the Stanford men and women held under Coach Miltenberg.

Clark had notable success at Tennessee before going to UConn, but moving to a distance running powerhouse conference like the PAC-12, which holds some of the most elite distance athletes and recruits in the nation, was likely foreign territory for someone like himself.

That, however, didn't stop Clark from constructing one of the best cross country teams in the NCAA this past fall. The Stanford women finished 3rd at the 2019 NCAA XC Championships, 21 points behind 2nd place BYU. Fiona O'Keeffe dropped to 27th place overall in that race, but was dealing with back issues. Had she been at 100%, Stanford would have been awfully close to taking down a BYU women's team which had one of best scores a 2nd place team has ever had in NCAA Championship history.

But the indoor season was somehow even better.

Without question, the Stanford women were the best distance group in the country this past winter. They dominated the mile distance with a total of five women running 4:37 or faster. They also had Jessica Lawson and Ella Donaghu thrive in the 3000 meters, posting times well under the 9:00 barrier. With Julia Heymach dominating every distance from the 800 meters to the 1000 meters to the mile, Stanford looked like an unstoppable force which also had the NCAA's #2 DMR.

In only his first year, Clark has been able to maximize the talent of his women's group to levels that we haven't seen in quite some time. He's been able to perfectly mesh his middle distance methods and translate them into the longer distances.

Of course, with all of the talent on that Cardinal roster, it's not entirely crazy to see the Stanford women run so well. Clark walked into a program and inherited elite talent right away. How he develops his own recruits will be an important aspect to watch for the future.

Maurica Powell (Washington women)

The Washington men and women had considerable success under former coach Greg Metcalf prior to the Powell's stepping in as his replacement. The Huskies were consistently competitive, often qualified for the National Championships and typically had a standout star every year or two.

However, since coming to Seattle in the summer of 2018, the standard for what is expected out of this Washington team has jumped two-fold. Part of that leap in expectations can be attributed to the arrival of two exceptional Oregon Ducks, Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon, who followed coach Maurica Powell when she left Eugene for Seattle.

As a result, Powell led the Huskies to a 9th place team finish at the 2018 NCAA XC Championships in her first season as their head coach.

Entering the fall of 2019, the Washington women looked like one of the best cross country teams in the nation. Melany Smart looked like a lethal low-stick next to Katie Rainsberger while the rest of Washington's lineup had reliable scorers and strong depth.

Going into the national meet, many fans viewed the Huskies as a podium favorite. Unfortunately, the group dropped to 11th overall at the national meet in what was considered to be an off day for the women in purple and gold.

In the grand scheme of things, finishing 11th at the NCAA XC Championships and calling it an "off day" says quite a bit about what we now expect out of the Seattle-based program. A near 10th place finish would have once been considered a great year during the Metcalf era. Now, Maurica Powell has elevated her team to a point where we expect podium results.

Moving forward, it will be fascinating to see how the Washington women grow. The performances that we saw from true freshmen Carley Thomas and Melany Smart this past indoor season was wildly promising. The future of the Huskies' distance program looks to be in good hands, especially with more young Oceania elites set join the Washington program in the fall of 2020.

With veterans like Rainsberger and Schadler nearing the end of their eligibility, it will be interesting to see how Coach Powell moves forward with the Huskies, specifically in cross country. This will likely be a very young team for the next year or two as far as top scorers are concerned.

Chris Miltenberg (North Carolina men and women)

The North Carolina men and women, relative to the rest of the ACC, have generally had very mild success. Since 2015, the men's program has finished no better than 6th place at the ACC XC Championships while the women have finished no better than 5th place.

So when Chris Miltenberg accepted the job to become the Tar Heels' new head coach this past summer, it became clear that the program was in store for a complete revamp. However, that revamp wasn't going to happen overnight.

Miltenberg's success a recruiter isn't something that he left behind in Palo Alto. Since coming to Chapel Hill, the new UNC head coach has secured commitments from elite level talents on both the men's and women's side such as Taryn Parks (4:37 1600 meter PR), Sarah Trainor (9:57 3k PR), Patrick Anderson (3rd at 2019 Foot Locker) and many more.

The North Carolina men and women may not have had a dramatic turnaround this past year, but the women's team showed plenty of promise. The Tar Heels finished 8th in the women's race this past fall at the ACC Championships. However, that was with top low-stick Morgan Ilse ending that race with a DNF. Had she finished the race in the top five or top 10 like we projected her to, then the ladies in blue and white would have been flirting with a top four or five finish.

It isn't going to happen immediately, but Miltenberg has already planted the seeds to make the men and women of North Carolina a national powerhouse.

Helen Lehman-Winters (Oregon women)

It is difficult to enter a program that was once led by Maurica Powell, one of the better distance coaches in the NCAA. However, Lehman-Winter had plenty of success of her own during her time at San Francisco. She was responsible for constructing a juggernaught lineup which had the chance to women the national title in cross country a few years ago.

The fall of 2018 was an impressive start for Lehman-Winter's career at Oregon. The Ducks looked like national title contenders at times, were led by a slew of top-tier scorers and ultimately finished 3rd at the NCAA XC Championships. The Ducks would later go into the winter and spring seasons and find grand success behind Jessica Hull, Susan Ejore, Carmela Cardama Baez and San Francisco transfer Weronika Pyzik.

However, this past year was a bit sobering. The Oregon women had lost so much veteran firepower and were leaning on a middle distance ace (Susan Ejore) as their sole low-stick. The Oregon women finished a quiet 26th place at the 2019 NCAA XC Championships. It was Oregon's worst finish since 2006 when the women's team didn't even qualify for the national meet.

Luckily, the indoor season was a bit better. Ejore dominated the 800 and mile distances, Cardama Baez was among of the nation's best in the 3k and 5k, and the Oregon DMR qualified for Nationals with a time of 10:59 (NCAA #5).

It hasn't been perfect, but Lehman-Winters has done the best she can with limited pieces. Losing Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon in 2018 likely hurt Oregon's model for long term success. Bringing in transfers such as Moira O'Shea and Aneta Konieczek, as well as France native Alessia Zarbo, have all helped from a depth perspective.

However, it was going to be difficult to replace the firepower that Rainsberger and Burdon left behind. It also didn't help that Jessica Hull graduated shortly after.

Moving forward, Lehman-Winters will now be able to craft this Oregon roster into her own image. As numerous seniors end their eligibility and scholarships open up, the Ducks will go through a rebuild of sorts. How long that rebuild takes? Well, that's the real question...

Pete Watson (Texas men)

We're approaching the two year mark since Pete Watson left Virginia for Texas. The move was truthfully an overlooked one as that summer was dominated by headlines concerning the Powells, Ben Thomas and Edrick Florreal.

However, Watson's move to Austin, Texas was a big one. An established distance coach who had considerable success during his time with the Cavaliers was tasked with elevating an already promising roster that former coach Brad Herbster (now at Pitt) had assembled.

The Texas men finished 25th at the NCAA XC Championships this past fall. It's a result that doesn't necessarily inspire a ton of confidence, but when you realize that it was their best finish since 2013, it's hard to be disappointed.

But what we also have to keep in mind is that last year's group was very young. Their top seven at the BIG 12 Championships had only two seniors and three freshmen. With another top-tier recruiting class on the way (headlined by Graydon Morris) and the hopeful return of a healthy Sam Worley, it looks like Coach Watson has the Texas men setup for a VERY promising future.

However, Watson's success as a coach shouldn't be gauged solely by cross country finishes or how well he recruits. His accomplishments as a coach on the track is something that many track and field fans may not appreciate enough.

Watson spearheaded the development of Sam Worley and Alex Rogers as they evolved into elite milers, resulting in Rogers signing a professional contract with Reebok Track Club after recording personal bests of 3:58 and 7:51 in his breakout senior season. Not only that, but we also saw true freshman Crayton Carrozza dip under the four minute barrier this past indoor season.

There are a ton of talented men on this roster that simply need more time to refine their talent. With the Texas roster slowly forming into Watson's vision, the Longhorns are looking like they could be a far deeper and more consistent team than they have been over the past decade.