As mentioned in our rankings rubric article, we are aware that certain conferences and universities will not be competing this fall due to ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, for the sake of content, we have constructed these rankings as if a regular cross country season will happen.
10. Aoibhe Richardson, Senior, San Francisco
The San Franciso senior had a relatively quiet 2019 cross country season, competing at smaller meets and facing limited competition until the National Championships -- a meet where she proved to everyone just how strong she was.
Despite what our introduction says, it would be misleading to suggest that Richardson didn't face tough competition last year. She took home the win at Roy Griak over Columbia standout Alexandra Hays as well as the Hasz twins from Minnesota (who were running unattached).
Richardson later took down Iona's Egle Morenaite (TSR #17) in the Pre-Nationals "Open" race.
After a pair of 4th place finishes at the West Coast Conference Championships and the West Regional Championships, Richardson return to Terre Haute for the national meet. This time, she would race against against elite competition that consisted of more than just Egle Morenaite.
The San Francisco star would end up dropping a huge 19th place finish at Nationals, validating her early-season wins and proving that she can handle the hills of Terre Haute better than most.
Following an indoor track season where she ran 15:52 for 5000 meters, it's hard to dislike Richardson's 2019 resume. She was fairly consistent and showed up when it mattered the most. The rising senior has now appeared at two cross country national meets and has a top All-American finish to go along with that experience.
In our eyes, Richardson is one of the most underrated distance runners in the country.
9. Taylor Somers, Senior, Oklahoma State
8. Molly Born, Junior, Oklahoma State
There weren't many 1-2 punches in the country that were as strong as what we saw from Molly Born and Taylor Somers last fall. Both women had huge breakout seasons in 2019, consistently taking down top names and ending their seasons with outstanding performances.
Born and Somers kicked-off their season at the Chile Pepper Festival finishing 5th and 6th, respectively. That may not seem like a super exciting result, but when you realize that the top four women were star All-Americans from Arkansas, it was hard to be disappointed with the results.
Their regular season performances were strong, but their postseason is where they began to find some serious momentum. The duo settled for 2nd and 3rd place finishes at the BIG 12 Championships (behind Cailie Logue). Somers later finished 2nd at the Midwest Regional Championships while Born finished 6th.
The Oklahoma State duo ended their season with yet another pair of outstanding results. Born crossed the line in 16th place while Somers was a few strides behind in 18th place.
It felt like these two women were sometimes the same runner throughout last year. They almost always finished races together, never straying more than four places apart at any meet. Born and Somers were wildly consistent and while it would have been nice to see them take down a few star names, it's hard to criticize what was otherwise a flawless season.
7. Cailie Logue, Senior, Iowa State
This Iowa State ace has been a top distance talent in the NCAA for years now. However, prior to last fall, she had never finished as All-American at any national meet despite qualifying for the Big Dance on two separate occasions prior to 2019.
Something was different about Logue last year and you could see it in her results. She came out on fire with a huge 8th place finish at Joe Piane. Of the four returners who finished ahead of her in that meet, three of them are ranked in our top six this fall.
Her Nuttycombe performance was admittedly a little less impressive, finishing 25th overall, but Logue only get better from that point forward. The Iowa State star took down the elite 1-2 punch of Molly Born and Taylor Somers at the BIG 12 Championships as well as the Midwest Regional Championships.
If that wasn't enough, she would later ride her momentum into the national meet and end up finishing 15th overall, one spot ahead of Born and three spots ahead of Somers.
Logue now has three years of cross country championship experience and you could see how her exposure to high-caliber competition finally resulted in her securing All-American honors.
The Cyclone front-runner has proven on multiple occasions throughout her career that she is capable of taking down top distance talents (mainly Born and Somers) regardless of the stage that she is on. For that reason, she secures the #7 spot in our preseason rankings.
6. Melany Smart, Sophomore, Washington
Earlier in our rankings, we talked about the impressive 2019 cross country performances that we saw from a variety of young women last year. Kelsey Chmiel consistently got better as the season went on while Ericka VanderLende seemingly dominated every race she toed the line for.
However, the best freshman in the country throughout last fall was Melany Smart. The rising sophomore won't be competing this fall, but she still has the resume of an elite top 10 talent.
Smart's NCAA debut came at the John McNichols Invitational last fall, finishing 5th overall behind a trio of veterans (Werner, O'Keeffe and Izzo) and fellow freshman Ericka VanderLende. For a very top-heavy field, it was an encouraging result that indicated bigger and better things for Smart's future races (which is exactly what happened).
At Joe Piane, the Washington youngster finished 4th overall, taking down long-time veteran superstars such as Ednah Kurgat and Anna Rohrer (amongst others). She didn't slow down as she later took to the PAC-12 Championships and again emerged as a top-five finisher, placing 5th overall over the Utah duo of Poppy Tank and Bella Williams, as well as the entire Colorado squad.
After a 3rd place finish at the West Regional Championships, Smart ended her outstanding season with a 12th place finish at the National Championships -- giving TSR no choice but to crown her as the best true freshman of the 2019 cross country season.
Although underclassmen like Smart, VanderLende and Chmiel lack experience, it's their raw fitness and untapped potential that make them so valuable. With a personal best of 9:06 in the 3000 meters also on her resume, it's clear that Smart is the future of NCAA women's distance running.
5. Joyce Kimeli, Senior, Auburn
I feel like we don't give Kimeli enough attention or recognition. Why? I'm not sure.
When it comes to top returners in the SEC, there aren't many who can match the overwhelming fitness that Kimeli has displayed throughout her career. She'll be the face of the conference whenever she ends up competing.
The only women to beat Kimeli throughout last fall (before the 2019 National Championships) were Alicia Monson, Weini Kelati, Erica Birk-Jarvis, Katie Izzo and Taylor Werner. Only one of those women (Kelati) were set to return this fall.
A 15th place finish at the National Championships was a strong result for the underrated distance star, although her regular season suggested that she would be closer to the top 10. Nonetheless, it was a great race that deserves plenty respect.
Kimeli later went to the indoor oval and threw down a monster personal best of 15:37 in the 5000 meters, easily qualifying her for the national meet and putting her in All-American consideration until the national meet was cancelled.
When a 15th place finish at the National Championships doesn't meet expectations, that just shows you how good Kimeli had been in every race prior to that. Kimeli is a top five distance star in the NCAA this year (if there was going to be a season) and I'm sure her list of regular season losses would have been far shorter in 2020 compared to last fall.
4. Jessica Lawson, Senior, Stanford
3. Ella Donaghu, Rs. Senior, Stanford
We have finally arrived at the best 1-2 punch in the country: Jessica Lawson and Ella Donghu. Together, these two women were expected to help the Stanford Cardinal battle for a national title in 2020, although those aspirations will have to be put on hold for now.
Both of these women truly broke out in the spring of 2019, securing big personal bests in the 1500 meters and each qualifying for the finals at the NCAA Outdoor Championships that year. However, if you fast forward through the summer and into the cross country season, you'll realize that their true breakout seasons had yet to happen.
At John McNichols, Donaghu finished 6th overall while Lawson finished 8th. It was a respectable pair of results, but the Cardinal duo would only get better from there on out.
At Nuttycombe, Donaghu secured a clutch 6th place finish while Lawson wasn't far back in 12th. At the PAC-12 Championships, the duo finished 2nd and 3rd overall with teammate Fiona O'Keeffe taking home the win. It was an absolutely dominating performance which showed the rest of the NCAA that the Stanford women were peaking at the right time.
After cruising through the West regional meet, Donaghu and Lawson toed the line for the National Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana where they would have the best races of their careers.
Donaghu would secure a huge 8th place finish while Lawson was only three spots behind in 11th. When the results were tallied, Stanford ended up finishing a surprising 3rd overall in the team standings. However, the emergence of two superstars (Donaghu and Lawson) led many fans of the sport to believe that the women from Palo Alto would be favorites for the national title in the fall of 2020.
But their success didn't stop on the grass. On the track, Lawson recorded personal bests of 4:35 (mile) and 8:59 (3k) while Donaghu was even faster with new PRs of 4:33 (mile) and 8:54 (3k).
There weren't many women who peaked as perfectly as Donaghu and Lawson did last fall. The Stanford duo capitalized on their newfound fitness from the spring of 2019 and only improved between August and November.
We're still unsure when this 1-2 punch will race next, but if they pick up any more momentum between now and the next NCAA XC Championships, they could potentially be in the running for both the team and individual national titles.
2. Whittni Orton, Rs. Senior, BYU
Truthfully, the 2019 cross country season was a relatively quiet one for Orton who only raced three times before the National Championships.
After an easy win at the Bill Dellinger Invitational over teammate Erica Birk-Jarvis, the BYU front-runner was rested at Pre-Nationals before going on to win the West Coast Conference Championships.
Orton once again rested at the Mountain Regional Championships in an effort to have her completely fresh for the National Championships. The plan seemed to work.
After battling with Monson and Kelati at the front of the pack, Orton faded a few spots in the final moments of the race. However, she was still able to cross the line with her two teammates (Wayment and Birk-Jarvis), leaving Orton with a 7th place finish in Terre Haute.
Those results were great, but when we think of Orton's performances from last year, we think about what she accomplished on the track. She opened up her season with a 5k personal best of 15:22 (the only collegiate 5k track race of her career) and followed that up with a 4:29 mile PR.
When she finally threw down a personal best of 8:49 in the 3000 meters, it became clear that Orton could have raced in any event at the National Championships and still been considered as a national title favorite.
Orton was expected to be the second-best returner in the country this year based on the 2019 national meet results. With numerous elite-level times, it would have been a sin to give Orton a ranking any worse than TSR #2.
1. Weini Kelati, Senior, New Mexico
Are you really surprised?
The New Mexico superstar has been argued as one of the best distance runners in the NCAA for years now. Seeing her at the top spot in our preseason rankings was likely expected by most of you.
There have been very few critiques that you could place on Kelati throughout her extremely accomplished career, although there have been moments where we questioned the execution of her race strategies.
But in 2019, Kelati seemed to figure that out as well.
After taking home the win at Joe Piane over Alicia Monson, the roles were reversed at Nuttycombe as Monson pulled away from Kelati in the latter stages of the race. That was likely a pivotal learning point in the season for the New Mexico ace who had not yet won a cross country national title.
After securing dominant wins at both the Mountain West Championships and the Mountain Regional Championships, Kelati toed the line for what would be a highly-anticipated matchup with Alicia Monson. Their 2019 records were tied at 1-1.
However, Kelati had learned from her Nuttycombe performance, opting to throw in a surge earlier than usual, leaving no room for anyone to have any heroic moments in the final few moments of the race.
The race plan, of course, worked as Kelati easily pulled away from Monson and the rest of the field to give herself a comfortable lead as well as the first cross country national title of her career.
The NCAA Championships may be cancelled this year, but that doesn't mean Kelati wasn't the favorite to repeat as the national champion. Sure, there are still some questions about her race tactics, but her overwhelming fitness and ability to pull away from her competition makes her boarderline untouchable.
With a personal best of 15:14 in the 5000 meters and an aggressive front-running approach, it was hard to put anyone else other than Kelati at the top spot in our preseason rankings.