For the first time in six years, the South region is set to send more than two teams to the national meet. Right now Florida, Florida State, Georgia, and Ole Miss would all qualify for NCAA's if they finish in that order on Friday morning. Of course, the South region teams have been anything but consistent this fall and there is a very good chance a shuffling of teams on Friday will lead to mild chaos across the NCAA and the Kolas points system. Although this preview will not touch much on Kolas calculations and how the point system works, you can read about it more in detail at one of our other articles here.
One of the biggest team surprises this fall has been the rise of the Florida Gators. Under the coaching of former 10k American record holder Chris Solinsky, the Gators have gone from ranked 11th in the South to 21st in the NCAA (according to TSR). Florida is coming off of a runner-up finish to TSR#4 Arkansas at SEC's and has already won three other meets this season including a win over #24 Oklahoma State. After beating both Ole Miss and Georgia by substantial margins at SEC's, only Florida State looks good enough to challenge the Gators. However, if Florida continues to run like they have been, the South region is theirs to lose.
Arguably the only bigger surprise than Florida’s success is the emergence of Jessica Pascoe as their number one runner. Up until this fall, her highest finish at SEC' s was a 32nd place from 2016. This year, she took down Katrina Robinson, one of the best runners in the country, and came away with the individual title. Pascoe had been flying under-the-radar for much of 2018, winning three small meets in Florida before finally facing competition at the Arturo Barrios Invitational. There she was runner-up to Sinclaire Johnson of Oklahoma State, another one of the NCAA’s best.
Compared to last fall, the three returners for Florida improved an average of 55 places at the SEC meet (from 2017 to 2018). Add in the return of Elisabeth Bergh (8th in 2018 / 6th in 2016) from a redshirt season and the addition of freshman Imogen Barrett (32nd) and suddenly the Gators are a whole new team. With Pascoe and Bergh at the front, this team is the clear favorite going into the South regional.
The other team from Florida will be looking to prove a point after being left out of the rankings throughout the regular season. The Florida State Seminoles have been a solid team, but have always been just outside of the rankings this year. The team had an okay showing at ACC's to finish 4th, but were substantially behind the top-three teams.
Militsa Mircheva has been a strong number one this fall, placing 18th at Pre-Nats and 4th at ACC's, but behind her the Seminoles lack depth. Freshman Elizabeth Funderburk was their second at ACC's in 15th, but the team’s 3-4-5 finished well back in 31st, 41st, and 44th. The South region is likely going to come down to winning the head-to-head battles amongst the top four teams and this lack of depth could prove fatal for the Seminoles.
Florida State comes in ranked #2 in the region, but unlike Ole Miss and Georgia, the team has exactly zero Kolas points. To put it simply, if they are not top two, they are not going to NCAA's. The only notable team Florida State has beaten from the region is Georgia Tech, but the Seminoles finished behind Ole Miss at Pre-Nats and will have a lot of pressure knowing that it is top two or bust this weekend.
Georgia will also have some pressure as they also come in with no Kolas points. The team came into the season ranked TSR#12, but have since fallen a long way. The absence of 2017 All-American Samantha Drop and underperformance by the rest of the team has taken its toll on the Bulldogs who are now fighting to even get a sniff of Nationals.
The only bright spot for the Bulldogs has been the consistency of their other 2017 All-American, Jessica Drop. She has been finishing near the front of every meet with very similar results to last fall. Behind her, the Bulldogs begin falter in key scoring spots. In fact, they failed to have a second runner in the top 20 at SEC's. For perspective, Ole Miss was two places shy of putting four runners ahead of the second Bulldog. For Georgia to move through, they will need a big performance out of everyone behind Drop on Friday.
Ole Miss has a little more breathing room than the other teams as they come in with a few Kolas points. The Rebels have had an up-and-down season, starting with a win at Beantown before dropping to 12th at Pre-Nats. They are coming off a 3rd place finish at SEC's and look good enough to compete with Georgia and Florida State.
With no elite runners on the roster, Ole Miss relies heavily on the ability of their pack to carry them through meets. At SEC's, they kept a gap of only 22 places from their 1-5 runners, the smallest of any team besides Arkansas. This should play to their favor since the South region is not particularly strong individually, limiting the amount of runners to break up their pack. This should also limit the impact Mircheva has for Florida State and could allow Ole Miss to finish 2nd if they run well enough.
Georgia Tech started the season looking great when they finished a shocking 2nd to Ole Miss at Beantown. Since then, the team has been on the decline, finishing a distant 3rd at Penn State and most recently 7th at ACC's. It is hard to be overly optimistic about a team that did not even have a runner in the top 20 at their conference meet, especially since the ACC is not overwhelmed with firepower. The Yellow Jackets would have to run substantially better than they have all season to even try for 2nd place finish and unless three teams ahead of them really blow up, Georgia Tech will not be moving on in my mind.
The individual race should come down to only a handful of women who are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the region.
Jessica Pascoe is the clear favorite after taking down Katrina Robinson at SEC's. With the way Pascoe has been running, she clearly is not intimidated by competition and will no doubt be going for it from the gun.
Jessica Drop finished 3rd last fall and comes in as the top returner. Drop has been putting up similar performances to 2017 and should be in contention again this year. Given she was over 30 seconds back of Pascoe at SEC's, it seems unlikely she can win it, but cross country is anything but predictable. Expect her to be near the front, especially with Georgia relying heavily on her performance.
Militsa Mircheva has been steadily rising this season and finishing behind three All-Americans at ACC's bodes well moving late into the season. She has yet to run against either Drop or Pascoe this fall, but she has the credentials to hang with them up-front. Similar to Drop, Mircheva’s team will be relying on her as a low-stick, so she will likely be near the front. While it is likely she will not beat Pascoe, she could find herself in a race for 2nd with Drop depending how the race unfolds.
Purity Sanga of Tennessee Tech is a relatively unknown name in the NCAA, but might become a little more popular after this meet. This fall she has raced six times, three of them wins, and has never finished outside the top three. Her most notable performance was at the Louisville Classic when she finished 3rd behind ACC champion Dorcus Wasike. In that race, she beat a number of big names including Avery Evenson of Michigan and Rachel Walny of Bowling Green. Sanga has been relatively unchallenged all fall, but will be running with the extra incentive that an NCAA qualifier will be on the line.
Sanga should take one of the four individual qualifiers, but the other three are much less certain. Since runners on qualifying teams are not included, it is easiest to assume that Florida, Florida State, Georgia, and Ole Miss all qualify for NCAA's (based on current KOLAS projections). So who might get the other spots?
Joyce Kimeli of Auburn is coming off of a 5th place finish at SEC's and is the next best runner behind Sanga. Kimeli finished 16th at the Louisville Classic and also had a 28th place showing at Pre-Nats. Last fall, she finished 20th at this meet, but should easily better that this year to grab a qualifier.
Mary Prouty of Georgia Tech is coming off a rough 39th place finish at ACC's, but was looking impressive prior to that race. She finished 7th at Beantown, 9th at the Penn State Open, and comes in as one of the top returners in the region. Given Georgia Tech would need huge performances to move through as a team, Prouty will likely be in the mix early with hopes of being able to hang on. After her run at ACC's, it is hard to say where she is at, but if she can replicate earlier season performances she will have a chance of qualifying.
The two spots behind Sanga and Kimeli are going to be hard to predict. Depending how the team race plays out, if either Florida State and/or Georgia do not qualify, then Drop and Mircheva would be top candidates for qualifiers.
1. Florida Gators
2. Florida State Seminoles
3. Ole Miss Rebels
4. Georgia Bulldogs
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
1. Jessica Pascoe (Florida)
2. Purity Sanga (Tennessee Tech)
3. Jessica Drop (Georgia)
4. Militsa Mircheva (Florida State)
5. Joyce Kimeli (Auburn)
6. Elisabeth Bergh (Florida)
7. Morgan Hull (Florida)
8. Clio Ozanne-Jacques (Ole Miss)
9. Sara Tsai (Vanderbilt)
10. Mary Prouty (Georgia Tech)