By: Sam Ivanecky
On Friday, teams from across the country will assemble at the Thomas Zimmer Championship course for the 2018 Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, WI. This a big race every year, but holds greater importance this season with the NCAA National Championship meet being hosted there in November 17th. As a result, the women’s field is absolutely loaded, featuring 14 teams ranked in the Top 25 (TSR rankings), six of whom are in the top 10.
The women’s team race will be extremely competitive with New Mexico (TSR #1), Colorado (TSR #2), Boise State (TSR #5), NC State (TSR #6), Wisconsin (TSR #8), and Arkansas (TSR #10) all competing on Friday.
It’s hard to bet against a New Mexico team that brings back four of their top five and adds a 9:29 steeplechaser Adva Cohen. The Lobos top three are all proven on the XC course (1–7–12 at NCAA XC ’17), but Cohen will be the big question mark going into Friday. She was the NJCAA XC champion last fall, but finished only 11th when she raced D1 competition at the MSU Spartan Invitational (where Michigan State put five runners ahead of her). Friday will be a chance for Cohen to prove that her track ability translates to the cross country course.
The question also remains, who will be the Lobos fifth? Last year they had four All-Americans, but their fifth scorer finished 86th at NCAA's. If they’re unable to close that gap at Wisconsin, they’ll be vulnerable to Colorado and Boise State.
The Buffaloes will be gunning for New Mexico once again this fall after beating them twice in 2017 (before ultimately finishing behind them at NCAA's). The key for Colorado will be where their fifth runner finishes compared to New Mexico's 5th. Last year, the Buffaloes were able to edge New Mexico at Notre Dame due to the difference in their final scorers (CO 18th, NM 34th).
Colorado is led by All-Americans Dani Jones and Sage Hurta, with Makena Morley, Mackenzie Caldwell, and Tabor Scholl the likely candidates for the rest of the scoring five. Colorado will need five runners in before New Mexico’s fifth and they’ll need to have a notable gap between them. Colorado don’t have the talent to match New Mexico’s top four, but they have the depth to win as a team if their 3-4-5 runners produce strong results. Expect a close team battle upfront between the Lobos and the Buffs.
Boise State’s performance will rely heavily on the potential return of Brenna Peloquin. She hasn’t raced since 2017 indoors, but finished 6th at the cross country national meet in 2016. Allie Ostrander will contend for the individual win, while Clare O’Brien and Emily Venters look to continue their momentum from a pair of strong track seasons.
The Broncos could contend with Colorado and New Mexico if Peloquin is back in similar form to 2016, but they could also slip back in the team results if she doesn’t race or has a bad showing. Until she races again, it’s hard to determine Boise State’s team ability. There’s a chance she sits out of Friday’s meet and will debut later in the season, but if she’s healthy now then there’s no reason she wouldn’t race.
NC State will be bringing back most of their 8th place squad from last year’s NCAA meet. One runner to watch will be redshirt freshman Nevada Mareno. She was a high school star with two top-three finishes at Foot Locker Nationals, but redshirted at Stanford before transferring to NC State. This will be her first collegiate season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her near the front on Friday. Joining Mareno at the front will likely be All-American Elly Henes. Finishing 32nd as a sophomore, Henes should be shooting for a top ten finish in a loaded field at Nuttycombe.
One team to watch who wasn’t at NCAA's last fall is the Portland Pilots. They’ll be led by redshirt senior Lauren LaRocco and will be vying for head-to-head wins as they currently sit 6th (per USTFCCCA) in the West region. LaRocco was an All-American in 2016 and finished 15th in the 10k this spring. The Pilots have been ranked highly by many and this meet will be a proving ground for a squad who finished 10th at the West regional meet last fall.
The team battle will be largely split into two, with Colorado and New Mexico battling for the top spot while other programs brawl for the spots behind them. Wisconsin and Arkansas are two top 10 teams that could finish in the top three if the pieces fall into place. These teams will likely debut full squads at Nuttycombe.
There’s always the chance another ranked team jumps into the top five, but with how strong the top teams are, it would be a big surprise to see anyone break up this group.
While many of the teams come in ranked, most of these rankings are based solely on rosters as there have been only a handful of meaningful competitions so far this fall. This will be the first chance to see many full rosters compete which should provide better support for the first real rankings next week.
On the individual side, this meet features six of the top 11 returners from last year’s NCAA meet. Reigning champion Ednah Kurgat did not lose a single race last fall and will look to carry that trend into this season. She may be racing with a chip on her shoulder after finishing only 6th in the 5k at NCAA outdoors this spring.
Kurgat's toughest competition will come from fellow Mountain West star Allie Ostrander of Boise State. Ostrander has been top four at Nationals twice now (2nd ’16, 4th ’17) and is coming off an outdoor season where she won the NCAA steeplechase. She cruised to a win at the Sundodger Invitational earlier this month and should be ready to roll at Wisconsin.
The Lobos could go 1–2 with true-sophomore Weini Kelati in the field. Kelati was 7th at Nationals last fall and was an All-American on the track as well. Now, with a full year of collegiate racing under her belt, she is more experienced and familiar with the 6k distance. Who knows? Maybe she could challenge her teammate for the win...
If the field has a dark-horse, it’s Dani Jones of Colorado. Jones is often thought of as a 1500 meter runner after she was 2nd at NCAA indoors in the mile and later ran 4:07 in the 1500 during outdoors. She was a 10th place finisher at Nationals last fall after finishing 22nd in 2016. Jones looks poised to continue that trend in 2018. She doesn’t own the longer distance PR's of Kurgat or Ostrander, but if she can hang on, she has the speed that neither can match in a close finish.
Last year, Kurgat ran away with the race where she finished 16 seconds ahead of 2nd. With the depth of talent this year, that likely won’t happen again.
My prediction is Kurgat will lead from the start and set a hot tempo to see who goes with her. If the likes of Jones or Ostrander can stay with her, there’s a chance they can beat her in a fast finish.
On the team side, the meet will be a good preview for Nationals with many of the teams coming back to the same course in two weeks for Pre-Nationals. The race provides a good first look at the course and should give an idea of what strategies each team will look to utilize.
1. New Mexico Lobos
2. Colorado Buffaloe
3. NC State Wolfpack
4. Wisconsin Badgers
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
6. Boise State Broncos
7. Portland Pilots
8. Villanova Wildcats
9. Iowa State Cyclones
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
1. Ednah Kurgat (New Mexico)
2. Weini Kelati (New Mexico)
3. Allie Ostrander (Boise State)
4. Katherine Receuver (Indiana)
5. Dani Jones (Colorado)
All rankings from TSR
● Air Force
● Arkansas (#10)
● Boise State (#5)
● Colorado (#2)
● Colorado State
● Georgetown (#24)
● Indiana (#21)
● Iowa State (#17)
● Michigan State (#18)
● New Mexico (#1)
● North Carolina State (#6)
● Northern Arizona
● Northern Illinois
● Oklahoma State
● Oregon State
● Penn State (#16)
● Portland (#11)
● Providence (#25)
● San Francisco
● Southern Illinois
● Southern Utah
● Texas Tech
● Villanova (#9)
● Washington State
● Wisconsin (#8)