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.
When you have the 2019 cross country national champion returning for her senior season, you are almost guaranteed to get a single point and just rely on four other scorers to pack together and finish as high (or technically "as low") as possible.
The New Mexico Lobos are in this particular situation with Weini Kelati and company.
Although the team loses 2017 NCAA XC Champion Ednah Kurgat to graduation, they bring back 2019 XC All-American Hannah Nuttall and 2019 steeplechase All-American Adva Cohen, as well as a few (very talented) new additions.
The New Mexico women have finished on the podium five times since 2014 and if this group has everyone running at full strength and peak fitness, then they not only do they have the potential to challenge for another podium spot, but maybe even the national title whenever competition returns.
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New Mexico's first test of the 2019 cross country season came at Notre Dame’s Joe Piane Invitational where Kelati led the team with an individual victory, as expected. The next 2020 returner (Alondra Negron) finished in 36th place, a respectable result after not competing in a New Mexico uniform in almost a year. Hannah Nuttall was only seven seconds behind Negron, proving she was in a stronger place after the 2018 cross country season and earning a 48th place result.
Even though Kelati contributed the least amount of points possible and Kurgat provided only five points of her own, runners 3-4-5 scored 176 points, leaving New Mexico in 7th place in the team standings. In other words, depth was an issue.
Two weeks later at the Nuttycombe Invitational, Kelati did her thing at the front of the race and walked away with a 2nd place finish behind Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson. However, her two points were still not enough to help the team finish in the top five. Negron wasn’t on the starting line and New Mexico started relying on underclassmen to bring up the rear of their scoring group.
Gracelyn Larkin and Alex Harris (a transfer from Villanova), did well working together during the race, but they needed to finish closer to Nuttall (who finished 77th) to alleviate the team's excessive scoring.
However, during both of these races, the Lobos were missing a key member of their team, Adva Cohen. Cohen got a late start to her 2019 cross country season after competing at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in September.
Cohen, competing for Israel in the 1500 meters and 3000 meter steeplechase, had a summer filled with track preparation, not cross country. If she had been racing in the United States at Joe Piane and Nuttycombe, New Mexico surely could’ve placed within the top five of teams both times if she were at full strength.
Cohen rejoined the team in time for the Mountain West Championships, but was only the eighth Lobo across the line. Kelati won the race by 49 seconds over teammate Kurgat while the other three scorers placed within the top-13 to outscore the Air Force, 31 to 54. Even though 33rd place at her conference championship didn’t reflect Cohen’s true potential, it was good to have her on the line with only a few weeks left before NCAA’s.
After cruising through the Mountain Regional Championships, Kelati continued to do Kelati-type things at the cross country national meet and finally earned her first cross country individual title, winning by 10 seconds thanks to a big surge at halfway. She was followed by Ednah Kurgat who secured a 9th place result.
Nuttall earned her first All-American honors when she finished 35th, 36 places higher than her finish in 2018. With limited grass racing during the 2019 season, Cohen still scored valuable points for the Lobos when she placed 55th. Larkin, Juanita Johnson and Harris gained key experience, but with some extra time to train before another national race, they could find themselves within the top-100 whenever the national meet returns.
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It goes without saying that Kelati (TSR #1) is a favorite whenever she toes the starting line, no matter what the distance. She ran a 15:14 (5k) PR in December and threw down a 4:32 altitude-converted mile during indoors. With her resume, the only question now becomes, how big of a margin will Kealti win by at the next NCAA Championship?
Nuttall (TSR #29) and Cohen (TSR #30) are two women to watch out for on New Mexico’s team. Nuttall will be a senior and will be going after her second All-American honor. Cohen is a veteran of the program and is experienced not only on the collegiate stage, but also the world stage. A multiple-time All-American at both the NCAA Division I and NJCCA levels, Cohen has the potential to rub elbows against the best.
If Cohen had focused solely on preparing for cross country, there is no doubt in our minds that she would have earned her first All-American honors on the grass this fall. If Nuttall and Cohen work in tandem, they could bring extremely valuable points to New Mexico after losing Kurgat.
Then we have Gracelyn Larkin who will be a sophomore this fall and now has key experience racing in the NCAA. She will need to work with Johnson and Harris to move their pack up during most races. The pack that these three create could provide valuable scoring stability.
We also can't ignore Negron who was an underrated scorer for this team at certain times last fall. She could be a major X-factor for this squad whenever competition returns.
The Lobos also have incoming freshman Samrawit Dishon, a 4:53 miler and 15th place finisher at the 2019 NXN meet. If she acclimates well to college training, she could be yet another solid contributor for this team.
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Despite their young and promising backend, as well as their numerous scoring options from last fall, this New Mexico team has brought in even more firepower from the transfer market which could help the Lobos contend for the national title.
The women from Albuquerque, New Mexico should greatly benefit from the additions of Anna Kostarellis (formerly of Xavier) and Hannah Miller (formerly of SMU).
Kostarellis (TSR #41) had a superb 2019 cross country season, qualifying for her first cross country national meet and placing 66th overall. She is an athlete right on the bubble of earning All-American honors and could be a lethal top-five runner if she latches onto Cohen and Nuttall.
As for Miller, she was a three-time individual national qualifier in cross country while at Southern Methodist. She has run 33:23 for 10,000 meters and has proven her versatility across multiple disciplines. If Miller can take the next step and maximize her experience on the national stage, she could be the missing piece who puts this team on top of the podium.
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There is obviously a lot to like about this team, but there are a few minor concerns which forced us to place them at the TSR #3 spot in our rankings.
First off, we know how talented Cohen is. However, she has not yet been an all-American on the grass. It's not necessarily a requirement that she finishes in the top-40 at the national meet, but if the Lobos wanted to be in the national title contention, it would have been huge for Cohen to match her preseason ranking (TSR #29) at the NCAA Championships in order for that to happen.
We also can't dismiss the fact that this team lost Ednah Kurgat. That is a ton of scoring potency that is simply gone. While we do believe that this team can compensate for some of that lost firepower with natural progression and development, that is still going to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.
Finally, we need to see the rest of this lineup make some improvements. There are a handful of promising names and young talents on this roster, but if a few women go down to injuries or someone in the upper-portion of this lineup does not have a good day, the depth needs to back them up. That is something that we did not always see at Joe Piane or Nuttycombe last fall.
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Despite our (somewhat minor) concerns, this team is still far more talented than some people realize. If their projected top five of Kelati-Nuttall-Cohen-Kostarellis-Miller all run to their full potential, then this team could have legitimately won the national title.
That's not an exaggeration.
At this point, most of our readers know who our top two teams in our preseason rankings will be. However, don't let that distract you from the fact that this New Mexico team could have been a major threat to pull off an upset and take home NCAA gold this fall.