Lilli Burdon, Bethan Knights, Brie Oakley. Three former XC All-Americans, four runners we have yet to see race this fall. Will any debut on Friday?
Can anyone touch the top-ranked Colorado Buffaloes?
Should we believe in the Beavers?
There are a plethora of unknowns heading into Friday’s PAC 12' Championships, some of which will hopefully be answered. Let’s start with the team race.
The clear favorite going into Friday will be the Buffaloes of Colorado. Currently ranked TSR#1, the Buffs haven’t raced their top squad since the Nuttycombe Invitational back on September 29th. Led by 2017 PAC 12 individual champion Dani Jones, Colorado will return their full squad on Friday, featuring multiple runners who figure to be All-Americans this fall.
Jones may be the team’s number one, but Makena Morley and Sage Hurta are following closely behind. The pair finished 6th and 13th at Nuttycombe and should be in the top 10 this weekend. Behind them, the trio of Tabor Scholl, Val Constien, and Tayler Tuttle, were all in the top 40 at Nuttycombe.
Although Colorado held their top runners out of Pre-Nationals, they did race a full team and saw a huge performance by Brianna Schwartz. Last fall, Schwartz was 16th in the Mountain region before falling all the way back to 254th at NCAA's. At Pre-Nats she finished 23rd, just behind Oregon star Isabelle Brauer. Keep an eye on Schwartz this weekend as she could end up as the fourth Buff with how she’s been racing.
If Colorado runs to their potential they should defend their Pac-12 title without too much trouble. While the conference has quite a few NCAA podium contenders, the Buffaloes have more depth than any other NCAA team and unless they fall apart or another team makes a huge jump forward Colorado will run away victorious.
One team that could potentially upset Colorado is TSR#8 Stanford. Although they are ranked three spots below Oregon, we have yet to see the Cardinals play all their cards. Redshirt senior Elise Cranny leads the team and is one of the few top runners to race every meet this fall. She took the win over Katie Rainsberger at the Stanford Invitational and was 4th at Pre-Nats two weeks ago. Right behind her in 5th was junior Fiona O’Keefe, an All-American in 2017. O’Keefe has been right with Cranny at all three meets this year and that shouldn’t change going into Pac-12s.
The big question is who will fill out their scoring five? There are quite a few candidates, some of which haven’t even raced this fall.
Christina Aragon has only raced once this season at the San Francisco Invitational, where she finished right with Cranny and O’Keefe. While it’s unlikely Aragon will finish with them as the season goes on, if she is able to keep the gap minimal, she should be top 15 on Friday.
Junior Ella Donaghu was only 30th at this meet last fall, but jumped to 20th two weeks later at the West Regional. She ended the year with a 69th place finish at NCAA's and looked ready to be an All-American this fall. So far she has yet to toe-the-line and with only two guaranteed meets remaining, time is running out. Last fall, Aragon made her season debut at PAC 12's and it appears Donaghu may be doing the same.
Stanford doesn’t quite have the depth as previous years, but if their fourth and fifth runners are able to step up, they have potential to surprise Colorado. They have similar talent up-front, but are less proven behind them. Stanford should be a top three team, but will need some big performances to challenge for the win.
The Ducks of Oregon finished runner-up last fall, and look poised to do the same this year. Despite a new coach and the loss of their top two returners, Oregon has continued to find success this fall with a 2nd place finish behind #5 Arkansas at Pre-Nats.
That race saw a huge breakout performance by senior Jessica Hull where she took the individual win in the Cardinal race. Going into the race, Hull was more known for her 1500 ability after winning the NCAA title last spring. After beating a loaded field, she’s thrown her name into the ring as a potential NCAA champion this fall.
Three of the next four Ducks are returning All-Americans from last fall. Weronika Pyzik and Isabelle Brauer finished 5th and 15th last fall while running for the University of San Francisco. This summer, they followed coach Helen Lehman-Winters to Eugene and both finished top 25 at Pre-Nats. The other returning Duck (besides Hull) is Carmela Cardama-Baez. She was 34th last year and finished 19th at Pre-Nats.
One Oregon runner to watch is Philippa Bowden. The senior from the United Kingdom is finding success in her first NCAA season with a 17th place finish at Pre-Nats. She owns PR's of 15:53 (5k) and 32:33 (10k) which put her with the top talent in the NCAA. Although she’s been under-the-radar for much of this season, she will be a key runner for Oregon on Friday and could be vying for a top 10 finish.
Given the talent Oregon has, they have a very good shot at finishing 2nd behind Colorado. Stanford looks to be a wildcard after holding out so many top runners and if this lack of racing leaves them a bit rusty, the Ducks can easily capitalize.
Another wildcard is Lilli Burdon of Washington. The Huskies are currently ranked TSR#16 without her, but that would increase appreciably if she races. While competing for Oregon last fall, Burdon finished 21st at NCAA's and followed that up with a 3rd place in the 5000 meters outdoors. During the summer, Burdon and Katie Rainsberger followed Maurica Powell from Oregon to Washington. Rainsberger has raced numerous times this season, most recently placing 10th at Pre-Nats. Burdon, however, has yet to compete for the Huskies and questions have percolated regarding if she’s injured. If she is healthy, she should be the number two for Washington, but for now it remains unknown as to her future.
With Rainsberger as a clear number one, Emily Hamlin and Kaitlyn Neal have established themselves as the 2-3 pairing, finishing 22nd and 31st at Pre-Nats. The Huskies look solid through four runners with Allie Schadler finishing 51st, but with their fifth, Olivia O’Keefe, all the way back in 85th, the Huskies will have a hard time challenging any of the top three teams on Friday.
It's hard to see anyone shaking up these top four, but if anyone can it’s the Oregon State Beavers. After an okay performance at Nuttycombe (where they finished 16th) the Beavers bounced back with a dominant win at the Santa Clara Bronco Invitational. The meet lacked depth, but given the Beavers finished with 48 points to 2nd place UTEP’s 172, they clearly mean business. The Beavers don’t have the same star power or depth that any of the top PAC 12 teams have, but if anyone on Washington slips up, there’s a chance the Beavers could finish 4th on a perfect day.
The individual race would likely have a similar outcome if it was 1500 meters on the track. The three frontrunners of Dani Jones, Elise Cranny, and Jessica Hull have all proven their ability over 1500 meters with Jones and Hull each owning national titles and Cranny with a runner-up finish.
Dani Jones will be coming into this meet having only raced once this fall where she finished 4th at Nuttycombe in the deepest field of any race this fall. She is the reigning PAC 12 champion and owns the fastest XC 6k PR (18:57) of the three. If there was any reason to question her, it would be that she hasn’t raced in almost a month. However, given that Mark Wetmore frequently holds out his runners, this shouldn’t be much of a concern.
Hull is coming off of a huge upset victory at Pre-Nats and appears to still be riding the momentum of her 1500 meter national title this past spring. Although her PR isn’t as fast as Jones, that shouldn’t have much impact. Last fall she was 11th at this race and should easily improve on that this Friday. It’s a little hard to determine how legitimate of a contender she is as the win at Pre-Nats was far and away her best XC performance to date. If she can run well this weekend, she could walk away with an individual title and cement her status as NCAA contender.
Four years after finishing 12th at NCAA XC, Elise Cranny is back and means business. Over her past two cross country seasons she has struggled to find success like 2014, but this fall things have changed. She already has wins at the San Francisco Invitational (went 1-2-3 with O’Keefe and Aragon) and the Stanford Invitational, where she took down top NCAA runner Katie Rainsberger. After finishing 4th at Pre-Nats, there’s no doubt that Cranny is back this fall and looks poised to contend for a top 10 NCAA finish. She should challenge Jones for the title on Friday when they race on Cranny’s home turf.
The rest of the field features plenty of runners who could come away with a win depending on how Friday unfolds. Fiona O’Keefe of Stanford was an All-American last fall and has been right behind Cranny at every race this season. Weronika Pyzik, now of Oregon, was 5th at NCAA's last fall and has been near the front of both her races this season. Katie Rainsberger of Washington has finished in the top five at NCAA's previously, but had a rough outdoor season and doesn’t look to be in the same form this fall. While she’s had decent performances, she doesn’t seem to be on the same level as some of the other women in the PAC 12 right now.
The California duo of Brie Oakley and Bethan Knights have yet to race this fall, but given only two guaranteed races remain, it would be shocking if they don’t debut on Friday. Both were All-Americans last fall and finished 10th and 12th at PAC 12's in 2017. Neither are likely to win, but both could be somewhere in the front group if they show up Friday.
1. Dani Jones (Colorado)
2. Elise Cranny (Stanford)
3. Weronika Pyzik (Oregon)
4. Jessica Hull (Oregon)
5. Makena Morley (Colorado)
6. Katie Rainsberger (Oregon)
7. Fiona O’Keefe (Stanford)
8. Bethan Knights (California)
9. Sage Hurta (Colorado)
10. Philippa Bowden (Oregon)
1. Colorado Buffaloes
2. Oregon Ducks
3. Stanford Cardinals
4. Washington Huskies
5. Oregon State Beavers