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.
North Carolina State was one of the best teams in the NCAA last fall and are only getting better. Despite losing star senior Elly Henes, the Wolfpack bring in the nation's top distance recruiting class (maybe ever) with names like Katelyn Tuohy, Marlee Starliper and Claire Walters now injected into this roster (among others).
Paired with a group of seasoned veterans and rising stars, NC State is going to be one of the best teams in the country this year and beyond.
In fact you may be looking at the next NCAA's next great cross country dynasty.
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There was a lot of hype around incoming freshman Kelsey Chmiel (TSR #13) last fall. She was one of the best prep runners in the country heading into her freshman year and many wondered if she would carry that success into the NCAA.
The answer? Absolutely.
Chmiel was the second-fastest freshman at last year's NCAA XC Championships, finishing 22nd overall and earning her first All-American honors. She racked up a number of top-10 finishes throughout the regular season, highlighted by a 4th place result at the ACC Championships.
She was also an indoor national qualifier in the 5000 meters (prior to cancellation) and nearly qualified in the 3000 meters as well. Chmiel would have been a borderline top-10 finisher at the national meet this fall, helping fill the gap left by the departure of Elly Henes.
Also returning for the Wolfpack this fall are the trio of Julia Zachgo, Mariah Howlett and Dominique Clairmonte -- three highly-experienced veterans who offer plenty of depth and scoring stability for this lineup.
Zachgo filled the spot of “third runner” for much of last season, keeping close on the heels of Chmiel. The senior saw a big jump between her sophomore and junior seasons, putting together a handful of strong performances that were capped off by her 6th place finish at the Southeast Regional Championships. Despite a disappointing end to her season (209th at NCAA's), it wouldn't have been shocking to see Zachgo emerge as an All-American contender this fall.
Speaking of fringe All-Americans, Clairmonte finished 54th at the NCAA XC Championships last fall despite fairly average performances during the regular season. The redshirt senior had shown flashes of potential in previous years, but spent much of 2019 farther back than normal.
After failing to crack the top 50 at both Nuttycombe and ACC's, Clairmonte did not even race at the regional meet. The biggest concern for 2020 would be her consistency, but because NC State has such a deep roster, they can afford to gamble a bit with Clairmonte, who has a tremendous ceiling and a wide-array of accomplishments which suggest that she can a key piece in this varsity seven.
As for Howlett, she was part of a top-ranked recruiting class in 2019 and similar to Chmiel, she lived up to the high expectations. Despite not even making the travel roster for Nuttycombe, Howlett would go on to finish 38th at ACC's and follow-up that result with a 19th place run at the Southeast Regional Championships.
It can be challenging to predict how young runners will do in their second year, but NC State has historically shown excellent development in their underclassmen which sets up Howlett for an even better second season.
We could seemingly go on forever talking about this NC State roster as they bring back even more women who could have had a big impact this fall. Nevada Moreno, Savannah Shaw, Isabel Zimmermann, Heather Holt and Samantha Bush were all part of NC State's top seven at least once during the 2019 cross country season and should only get better with another season.
Moreno is a key name to watch. If she's healthy, she has great upside and could be a major X-factor for this team. As for everyone else, the depth on this team is just ridiculous and it's a major reason why we have them in the national title conversation.
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At this point, it’s hard to believe NC State that has any more room for talented runners, but we haven’t even touched on their recruiting class or their newest transfer.
The Wolfpack are bringing in the best group of young women in the country, including the top two high school individuals in Katelyn Tuohy (TSR #14) and Marlee Starliper (TSR #37). This influx of talent not only boosts NC State into title contention during the short term, but it also makes them a title contender for years to come.
Anyone who is familiar with American distance running knows the name Katelyn Tuohy. She was so good in high school that it almost seems trivial that we even need to mention her.
She won three NXN titles in a row, was the Gatorade National Player of the Year and even took down a handful of professionals in a few races. She also ran the high school 5k national record of 15:37 in the winter of 2018 and finished runner-up at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships last fall in a field that was scattered with professionals such as Natosha Rogers, Dani Shanahan and Emily Oren.
The biggest question surrounding Tuohy is how well she will transition to the NCAA. Despite having yet to run a single race, Tuohy is already listed as our TSR #14 ranked runner in the country, and to be fair, that’s almost low-balling her potential. It’s very possible that Tuohy could follow a similar career path to Edward Cheserek and begin winning national titles in her first collegiate season. She’s certainly not the favorite, but it’s also not an unheralded possibility.
Not to be outdone by Tuohy, Marlee Starliper was also a phenomenal runner in high school. She was the 2019 Foot Locker runner-up after finishing 13th in 2017 and 2018. The former Pennsylvania prep has won multiple state titles and comes into the NCAA with personal bests of 4:37 for the mile and 9:54 for 3200 meters.
Those marks already make her competitive in the NCAA and like Tuohy, she has yet to face elite competition on a consistent basis. In fact, Starliper is one of four NC State runners in our preseason individual rankings, coming in at TSR #37. While there’s always a chance she stutters in the transition, it feels more likely that we see Starliper show up big this fall.
So just how deep is the NC State recruiting class? Here are four runners we have yet to mention:
Claire Walters: Three top-five finishes at NXN over the past three seasons.
Jenna Schulz: Three top-25 finishes at NXN over the past three seasons.
Alyssa Hendrix: Three-time top 20 finisher at Foot Locker, 15th in 2019.
Gionna Quarzo: Owns personal bests of 9:51 (3k) and 16:56 (5k).
Honestly, this freshman class at NC State is so good that if they were their own team, they probably could have qualified for the national meet and been (at least) a top-20 team.
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We talked about the returners.
We talked about the recruits.
How about Wofford transfer and the 23rd place finisher from the 2019 NCAA XC Championships, Hannah Steelman (TSR #12)?
The incoming senior was one of the best in the NCAA last fall despite competing at mainly smaller meets, although she proved her overall talent when she got to the biggest stage.
Of course, high-pressure situations aren't new for Steelman. In 2019, she finished 8th in the 3000 meters at the Indoor National Championships and later went on to place 3rd in the steeplechase at the Outdoor National Championships. She has proven her ability to thrive in championships settings and brings a veteran presence to a relatively young group.
So yeah, she's talented.
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It is hard to look at this team and find many flaws. They have four women listed inside our the top 40 of our preseason individual rankings. They have elite depth, a ton of firepower, an experienced group of veterans and some of the best youngsters in the nation.
So why don't have them as our top-ranked team?
Truthfully, it just comes down to inexperience. Despite the overwhelming level of talent on this roster, the Wolfpack would have heavily relied on a ton of underclassmen (specifically this freshmen class) to earn them their points. That may work out during the regular season, but it can be very risky to rely on youth and inexperience on championships stages.
They also lost top-scorer Elly Henes from last year's squad, so although this team brings in Steelman and a top recruiting class, they still have to fill in that scoring role before the rest of the lineup is figured out.
Admittedly, that shouldn't be much of an issue, but it is something to note.
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The Wolfpack were a strong team in 2019 and the additions of a top-ranked recruiting class, as well as Hannah Steelman, have transformed them into an instant title contender.
The trio of Steelman, Chmiel and Tuohy give NC State an overwhelmingly strong top three while the depth of this roster is good enough to ensure that they won't be upset.
There are plenty of arguments why NC State could be the top-ranked team in the country, and had there been a season this fall, they would have had plenty of chances to prove it.