PAC-12 Championship Preview


Men's preview written by Ben Weisel

Women's preview written by Sam Ivanecky

Men's Preview

Teams

The PAC-12 conference is always loaded and this year is no exception. There are three TSR Top 10 teams with two more squads inside the top 20 who will arrive to Monmouth, Oregon ready to prove their talent.


Unlike many other conference meets, the top five teams at this meet have their ticket to NCAA's essentially punched, so this weekend will be an opportunity for each of these teams to see how they match up against other top groups in a somewhat smaller field.


With some teams planning on cruising through regionals on their way to Nationals, this is likely the last time we will get to see some of these runners go all-out before the national meet.


So buckle up, we have plenty of action to prepare for.


Based on the results we have seen so far, the favorite to take home the team title is TSR #2 Stanford. They have raced twice this season and have earned runner-up finishes behind three-time reigning NCAA champion Northern Arizona at both the John McNichols Invitational and the Nuttycombe Invitational.


Coming into the season, it looked like the Cardinal would be led by the four All-Americans of Thomas Ratcliffe (TSR #6), Alex Ostberg (TSR #11), Alek Parsons, and Steven Fahy.


That has turned out to be half true.


Ratcliffe and Ostberg have run extremely well this year, finishing 2nd and 7th, respectively at McNichols as well as 4th and 3rd (respectively) at Nuttycombe. Unfortunately for Stanford, Parsons and Fahy both found themselves outside of the team’s top four at Nuttycombe. In the mean time, it was Clayton Mendez and Callum Bolger who stepped up to take the two spots ahead of Parsons.


While it is certainly possible that Mendez and Bolger could fill in about 80% of what Parsons and Fahy could have run if they were fully healthy, there is some reason for concern. Stanford was our preseason #1 because they appeared to have four All-American locks, but Parsons and Fahy have yet to regain the form that they showed when they were All-Americans.


There is still plenty of time left, and so far, the team has only lost to NAU. The less-than-expected firepower does, however, leave them susceptible to a potential upsest from a dynamic Colorado team.


To seal the win, Stanford needs one of two things to happen. First option: Bolger and Mendez need to have big-time performances to keep the gap from Ostberg and Ratcliffe small. If that doesn’t happen, then we get to the second option: Fahy or Parsons need relocate their top-tier fitness and earn top 10 performances at the PAC-12 meet.


Although Stanford is no longer the preseason lock to win the PAC-12 title that they once were, both of those possibilities are (somewhat) realistic which is the reason why they still remain the favorite to beat Colorado and take home another conference title.


As we already mentioned, the team most likely to break up Stanford’s two year reign as PAC-12 Champions is TSR #4 Colorado. Led by top returners Joe Klecker (TSR #7), John Dressel (TSR #21), and Eduardo Herrera (TSR #45), the six-time PAC-12 champions entered the season poised for another great season...but only if they could find two morerunners to support their strong top three.


So far, they have had great success thanks to Kashon Harrison (TSR #46) and Alec Hornecker who have both stepped up in a big way. Harrison was 11th at Pre-Nationals and 18th at Joe Piane while Hornecker was 38th and 26th at Pre-Nationals and Joe Piane, respectively.


Their top three has been just as good as we expected, leading the Buffaloes to a win at Joe Piane and a 2nd place finish at Pre-Nationals. The loss to BYU in Terre Haute is a touch puzzling, mainly due to how the race unfolded. The Cougars were able to put their top two in front of Dressel and Klecker while both teams' bottom three scorers finished in the same vicinity of each other.


With Ratcliffe and Ostberg looming, Colorado will need to make sure that Klecker and Dressel are not outpaced by both Stanford runners. In a smaller race like PAC-12's, there will be less of a scoring gap than at Pre-Nationals, but it will still be a very important for Colorado’s top two to - at worst - only finish a few places behind Stanford’s top two. Additionally, how far back Hornecker is another thing to track throughout the race. If he is within eight places of the Buffaloes #4 runner, then Colorado’s chances of taking home the title are much higher.


One of the surprise teams of the year has been TSR #6 UCLA. Like Colorado, they have been led by a potent top three of Robert Brandt (TSR #10), Colin Burke (TSR #35), and Garrett Reynolds (TSR #50). This trio led the Bruins to a 5th place finish at Nuttycombe over Purdue and Indiana. All of this comes after an impressive performance at the Bill Dellinger Invitational where they finished 3rd, but were only two points behind BYU and eight points behind Oregon. Since then, it seems that Oregon and UCLA’s fortunes have flipped as the Ducks finished five places behind the Bruins at Nuttycombe.


Chris Morzenti has proven to be a consistent #4 runner after his 76th place finish in Wisconsin. George Gleason and Millen Trujillo placed 99th and 100th, respectively at Nuttycombe and give UCLA a few options for who their #5 man will be which lowers the risk of a bad team performance.


I’m not sure if the Bruins have enough scoring potency in the backend of their lineup to compete with Colorado and Stanford, but they are set up well to earn a top three spot if they run as well as they did two weeks ago.


Now moving onto the most confusing team in the country, TSR #18 Washington Huskies. Although they lost top returners from last year, most notably Tanner Anderson, the Huskies brought in a top recruiting class as well as star transfers such as Andrew Jordan (TSR #39) and Jack Rowe. All of that while returning Tibebu Proctor and Talon Hull.


After a series of underwhelming performances during the regular season, a team we thought would challenge for the podium will likely hope they can snag a 4th place finish at PAC-12's.


Mick Stanovsek has stepped up in a big way for the Huskies in terms scoring, but Washington finished 4th at Pre-Nationals because Hull, Proctor, and Rowe finished too far behind Jordan. This is still a team with loads of potential, Hull and Rowe had solid races at the Battle at Beantown, and if they put it all together on the same day, they could run like we expected them to in the preseason.


As for TSR #12 Oregon, they started off the season in impressive fashion, beating BYU at the Bill Dellinger Invitational. Cooper Teare (TSR #20) and James West led the way as the Ducks flashed some impressive scoring potency and depth. It was a different story for the Ducks at Nuttycombe. Teare was an impressive low-stick, but West was over 40 spots behind him. Cole Hocker continued his solid freshman campaign by placing 64th, but their #4 and #5 runner were too far behind. Consequently, Oregon finished 10th.


Another issue for the Ducks was the absence of Noah Affolder at Nuttycombe who would have been a huge help for the team. In a smaller field, the Ducks could run like they did at Dellinger, but they will need better performances from West and the latter half of their lineup.


Overall, it looks to be a two-team race for the title while Oregon and Washington will look to challenge UCLA for 3rd. Based on what we have seen so far, the Bruins should be able to fend off the Ducks and Huskies, but both teams have the talent to pull off an upset.


Individuals

The individual race is between two of the top Americans in the country and should give us a good indication of who is ready to challenge Edwin Kurgat and the Alabama duo at NCAAs. Klecker did not finish as high up as expected at Pre-Nationals while Ratcliffe was beaten by teammates Ostberg at Nuttycombe.


Speaking of Ostberg, he is a good pick to take the win if Klecker and Ratcliffe slip up. Cooper Teare, John Dressel, and Robert Brandt will all be in the mix as well. TSR #41 Amir Ado of Washington State finished 20th Nuttycombe and is another runner who will be in the top 10 who we haven’t talked about yet. Carlos Villarreal of Arizona is an additional name to watch after his 15th place run at PAC-12s last year. I anticipate a slower start that leads to big pack up front before one of the favorites starts pushing the pace, but no matter the tactics, we will get an interesting insight on how some of the best runners in the country match up against one another.


Men's Predictions

Teams

1. Stanford

2. Colorado

3. UCLA

4. Washington

5. Oregon

6. Washington State

7. California

8. Arizona

9. Arizona State


Individuals

1. Thomas Ratcliffe (Stanford)

2. Joe Klecker (Colorado)

3. Alex Ostberg (Stanford)

4. Robert Brandt (UCLA)

5. John Dressel (Colorado)

6. Cooper Teare (Oregon)

7. Andrew Jordan (Washington)

8. Colin Burke (UCLA)

9. Garrett Reynolds (UCLA)

10. Amir Ado (Washington State)

11. Kashon Harrison (Colorado)

12. James West (Oregon)

13. Alek Parsons (Stanford)

14. Eduardo Herrera (Colorado)

15. Talon Hull (Washington)

16. Tibebu Proctor (Washington)

17. Carlos Villarreal (Arizona)

18. Cole Hocker (Oregon)

19. Clayton Mendez (Stanford)

20. Jack Rowe (Washington)


Women's Preview


On the women’s side, the PAC-12 is a heavyweight bout among the NCAA's best. The conference includes 13 individually ranked women and five ranked teams, including the #3, #4, and #5 ranked squads in our TSR XC Top 25. While some conferences may have more depth, none can match the firepower that the PAC-12 brings to the table.


The Stanford Cardinal come in ranked at #3 in our XC Top 25, having only lost (twice) to TSR #1 Arkansas this season. The Cardinal finished only five points off from the Razorbacks in their season opener at John McNichols and finished runner-up (again) by 36 points at Nuttycombe. Redshirt senior Fiona O’Keefe continues to lead Stanford and comes into this weekend as the #5 ranked individual in the NCAA. As the top individual in the conference, O’Keefe is the favorite to win the individual title which would be big for Stanford's championship title hopes.


Two Stanford teammates behind O'Keefe who have been outperforming expectations are Ella Donaghu (TSR #23) and Jessica Lawson (TSR #25). Last year, neither woman finished in the top 25 at the PAC-12 meet, but after finishing 6th and 12th at Nuttycombe, this pair could very easily find themselves in the top 10 of the PAC-12 come Friday. Dare we suggest that one of them could finish in the top five? It's certainly not a reach...


Behind Stanford's top three is some combination of Julia Heymach, Jordan Oakes, Abi Archer, and Kristin Fahy who should round out the scorers. Oakes (TSR #49) finished 30th at Nuttycombe two weeks ago and looks poised to be Stanford’s #4 option in their lineup. However, Julia Heymach finished just ahead of her earlier in the season at McNichols. Fahy was not far off from Oakes at McNichols, but DNF’d at Nuttycombe.


Oakes and Heymach will likely be the final two scorers for the Cardinal and should give Stanford a complete scoring five, all of whom should finish inside the top 20 on Friday.


The one question still hanging in the air is if (or when) will Christina Aragon return for Stanford? The middle distance star did not race cross country in 2018 or thus far in 2019, but she has enough raw talent to be a top 10 runner at PAC-12's. With Aragon in the lineup, the Stanford women are almost untouchable in comparison to their PAC-12 opponents. However, without her, it looks like it will still be a tight battle with Washington and Colorado.


The Washington Huskies started the season a little shaky at John McNichols and Joe Piane, failing to capitalize on the idea that they could be a favorite for the podium. However, they recently bounced back with a stellar run at Pre-Nationals to claim the team title over an Orton-less BYU team (although Washington didn't race Melany Smart).


Despite finishing 5th at Joe Piane as a team, the silver lining was freshman Melany Smart putting together an absolutely phenomenal run to finish 5th overall, taking down NCAA stars such as Ednah Kurgat and Anna Rohrer in the process. She also beat notable PAC-12 opponents such as Sage Hurta, Bella Williams, and Tabor Scholl in the process.


Smart did not race at Pre-Nationals, but is expected to return to the lineup for PAC-12's where she could be a huge contributor. Currently ranked #20 in our XC Top 50, Smart has a chance to challenge O’Keefe for the overall win and should certainly be a top 10 finisher if she races. The fact that Washington was able to win Pre-Nationals, ahead of fellow PAC-12 rival Colorado, without Smart speaks volumes about the depth of this group.


Behind Smart, perennial distance star Katie Rainsberger could also be in contention for a top spot on Friday. Rainsberger is coming off of a 6th place finish at Pre-Nationals and is currently ranked at #13 overall in our XC Top 50. In the past couple seasons, Rainsberger has consistently been near the front of their races, but never looked dominant enough to get the win. She should be considered a strong bet to finish in the top five this weekend.


Outside of the lethal 1-2 Washington punch are a handful of women who could round out the Huskies' scoring group.


Sophomore Shona McCulloch had the best race of her season at Pre-Nationals where she had a breakthrough performance to finish 12th overall. Not far behind her were teammates Lilli Burdon and Allie Schadler coming in at 21st and 22nd, with Camila David-Smith in 28th.


All four of these women crossed the line before Colorado’s #3 runner at Pre-Nationals and a similar showing on Friday puts the Huskies in a very good position to challenge Stanford. If you add Smart back into their lineup, then Washington has a very real chance to win the meet.


As for the defending national champions, they have not quite met their usual standard of success this fall. Colorado has finished runner-up and 3rd in their two meets this season, but were not particularly close to either Washington or BYU at Pre-Nationals. While doubting any team under Mark Wetmore is almost always a mistake, there are reasons to be skeptical of the Buffs heading into Friday.


Sage Hurta and Tabor Scholl have provided Colorado with a strong 1-2 pairing. The duo finished 3rd and 10th at Pre-Nationals and come in ranked #2 and #4 individually in the conference. Both have been very consistent this season and should have no problem finishing in the top 10 on Friday. Hurta should be in contention for the individual title and her prowess as a middle-distance runner could give her a leg up if the race comes down to a fast finish.


The problem for Colorado has been the strength of their 3-4-5 runners. While the Buffs have decent depth, they really need those scorers to make notable improvements and close the gap between them and the top two.


Annie Hill has been having a solid season and finished as Colorado’s #3 runner at both Joe Piane and Pre-Nationals. However, one runner the Buffs really need to step up is Villanova transfer Rachel McArthur. Last fall, she finished 29th in a deeper Nuttycombe field compared to her 39th place finish at Pre-Nationals this fall. Realistically, Colorado needs McArthur to be top 20 on Friday and ideally closer to 10th than 20th. McArthur certainly has the potential to do just that, but transferring across the country (and to altitude) is never easy in terms of adjusting.


The other big hit to Colorado’s roster has been the absence of Boise State transfer Emily Venters and freshman Emily Covert. Both would likely be huge additions to the team, but based on interviews with Wetmore, neither are likely to suit up this fall.


Realistically, the top three teams at PAC-12's should be some order of these three. Utah (TSR #12) is certainly a strong team and had a big surprise run at Joe Piane to win the meet, taking down Colorado in the process. That said, the Utes most recently finished 11th at Nuttycombe and look like a safe bet for at least a 4th place result on Friday. However, it is important to note that Scarlet Dale didn't run for the Utes at Nuttycombe, so her return could swing the results in Utah's favor if she returns. Meanwhile, Utah low-sticks Bella Williams (TSR #41) and Poppy Tank (TSR #43) should both be in contention for top 10 finishes.


The only other team that could mix it up are the Oregon Ducks. Normally a powerhouse in the distance running world, Oregon is in the midst of an off-year and should be looking for a 4th or 5th place finish on Friday. Susan Ejore is the only Duck ranked in our XC Top 50 (TSR #33), but after her, Oregon is severely lacking in terms of reliable depth.


That said, keep an eye on Taylor Chiotti who had a very solid run at Nuttycombe to finish 31st and could be in the mix this weekend as a key sleeper pick. After Chiotti, the next Duck was Amanda Gehrich in 97th with Isabelle Brauer (125th) and Philippa Bowden (135th) rounding out the scoring five. All three are definitely capable of much better performances, but likely not enough to move past Utah.


Essentially, all of the contenders on the individual side have been covered already. O’Keefe should be the favorite, but not by much. Hurta and Smart should both be right on her heels and it would be ridiculous to count out Rainsberger given how consistent she has been.


Although both Scholl and Donaghu have been having strong seasons, they likely fall into the next tier of women, along with Williams, Tank, Lawson, and Ejore. If the race is fast from the start, then O’Keefe should have the edge, but if they let it come down to a kick, Hurta will be dangerous.


Women's Predictions

Teams

1. Washington

2. Stanford

3. Colorado

4. Utah

5. Oregon

Individuals

1. Fiona O’Keefe (Stanford)

2. Sage Hurta (Colorado)

3. Melany Smart (Washington)

4. Katie Rainsberger (Washington)

5. Tabor Scholl (Colorado)

6. Ella Donaghu (Stanford)

7. Susan Ejore (Oregon)

8. Bella Williams (Utah)

9. Jessica Lawson (Stanford)

10. Poppy Tank (Utah)

11. Lilli Burdon (Washington)

12. Shona McCulloch (Washington)

13. Taylor Chiotti (Oregon)

14. Jordan Oakes (Stanford)

15. Allie Schadler (Washington)

16. Christina Rice (UCLA)

17. Scarlet Dale (Utah)

18. Julia Heymach (Stanford)

19. Annie Hill (Colorado)

20. Rachel McArthur (Colorado)