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.
For 90% of the 2019 season, the Washington Huskies looked like a podium team.
The women from Seattle were led by the dynamic duo of Melany Smart and Katie Rainsberger, with a strong supporting cast close behind. The Huskies cruised through the regular season and held their own in the postseason, but faltered to an 11th place finish in Terre Haute despite being picked by many of us at The Stride Report to finish on the podium.
Now, the team will no longer have the services of Rainsberger and two-time XC All-American Lilli Burdon due to expired eligibility, as well as varsity runner Kaitlyn Neal.
But somehow, this team remains just as strong as last year.
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Last fall saw the rise of Shona McCulloch and Allie Schadler on the cross country course, with Camila David-Smith also making substantial gains for the Washington women. Maurica Powell was able to bring in another outstanding recruiting class this year and that group should provide both an immediate and long-term impact. Not only that, but Melany Smart is just a sophomore and is already a top-10 runner in the NCAA.
Still not convinced that this team deserves our TSR #7 spot? Alright then, let’s dive deeper.
The superstar of this program is Melany Smart. As only a freshman, Smart racked up top-10 finishes throughout the regular season and finished the year as the top freshman in the NCAA. Her 12th place finish at the NCAA XC Championships cemented her status as an elite low-stick and immediately launched her into the top-10 of our individual rankings (TSR #6) for the 2020 season.
There really isn’t much more that needs to be said about Smart. She will be a legitimate contender at any meet she toes the line for and was set to be one of the best distance talents in the country this fall. Let's move on.
If you ignore the NCAA meet, Shona McCulloch and Allie Schadler were excellent in 2019.
Schadler placed in the top 30 of every competition she raced in and saw improvement in each meet. Her final two races prior to the national meet were a 15th place finish at the PAC-12 Championships and a 14th place finish at the West regional meet -- two substantial results when considering the depth of those fields.
McCulloch followed a very similar pattern after a rocky start. Her season opener at the John McNichols Invitational was mediocre at best, coming in only 48th place. However, she jumped almost 10 places at the Joe Piane Invitational to place 39th, but had a real breakthrough at Pre-Nationals when she crossed the line in 12th place.
From then on, McCulloch looked like a different runner. Similar to Schadler, McCulloch was phenomenal at the PAC-12 Championships and West regional meets, placing 12th and 11th, respectively.
Should we be concerned with how these women performed at the NCAA meet? Maybe, but it shouldn’t outweigh the strides that both athletes made throughout that season. Sure, McCulloch was 115th and Schadler was 242nd in Terre Haute, but they were both capable of far more and it would be surprising to see them repeat a similar showing whenever the national meet returns.
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Not to be overshadowed by her teammates, rising junior Camila David-Smith made great improvements throughout last year and could rise to another level this fall.
After redshirting the 2018 season, David-Smith made an immediate statement by placing 20th at the John McNichols Invitational -- 14 places higher than her previous best placing.
She would continue to improve as the year went on, peaking with a 19th place finish at the PAC-12 Championships. Similar to her teammates, David-Smith struggled at the national meet, but that was the only stain on an otherwise spotless 2019.
Based on her progression, it seems likely that David-Smith would continue to improve in 2020, potentially following a similar path to Schadler and McCulloch.
One other returning Husky who also deserves a mention is former Oklahoma runner and 2019 transfer Haley Herberg. The junior did not start racing last fall until the PAC-12 Championships where she placed 25th.
Herberg was one of the top runners in the Midwest region as a freshman during her time with the Sooners and placed 78th at the National Championships that year. She appeared to find her form again at Washington during the track season and could have been a fringe top-50 runner at NCAA's in 2020 if she was able to carry her momentum into the season.
In fact, she just ran a personal best of 15:52 for 5000 meters at the "Big Friendly" meet in Portland a few weeks ago. She was a bit inconsistent last year, but the talent is so clearly there. If your backend scorer is running 15:52 for 5000 meters, then only good things can come for the Washington women.
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Coming back to the recruiting class that we mentioned earlier, the Huskies are bringing in two major talents in Sophie O’Sullivan and Kirstie Rae.
O’Sullivan is a former Australian athlete now competing for Ireland and was one of the top middle distance runners in Europe last year. She owns personal bests of 2:06 for 800 meters and 4:22 for 1500 meters, while also earning a silver medal at the 2019 European U18 Championships.
Although O’Sullivan leans more towards the middle-distance realm, we have seen a number of 1500 meter runners such as Dani Jones and Jessica Hull have great cross country success. We shouldn't necessarily expect O’Sullivan to be a top runner, but she could round into a solid varsity contributor runner who could add to the Huskies' depth.
On the other side of things, Kirstie Rae may be the next young star for the Huskies. The incoming Kiwi is a cross country standout who has experience taking home wins in championship settings.
In 2019, Rae won both the Australian and New Zealand National XC Championships, earning her a trip to the World Junior Championships. There, she finished 17th overall, showing that her success reached beyond domestic soil.
She also has solid track credentials, having run 9:38 for 3000 meters and 16:44 for 5000 meters. Rae comes to Washington with a similar background to Smart, and it seems likely that Coach Powell will try and lead her down the same path.
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We like this team a lot, and there were actually arguments about giving them a better ranking as we were crafting this list.
However, the loss of Katie Rainsberger leaves a massive hole in this lineup when it comes to scoring potency and firepower. She was a strong 1-2 punch alongside Smart last year, but that scoring burden has now largely been placed on Smart.
It also didn't help that a few women showed some inconsistency last year and that they performed poorly at the National Championships. Not having Lilli Burdon and Kaitlyn Neal leaves less room for error when it comes to big-time races.
Even so, Washington was able to rebuild and reload with a young team that could be a powerhouse in the coming years. Only Schadler would have been a senior this season while Smart, Rae and O’Sullivan will all have at least three years together.
The Huskies' success this fall would have likely hinged on the performances of Rae and Herberg. With Smart, Schadler, McCulloch and David-Smith, Washington was set through four runners.
If either Rae or Herberg were able to jump up to a similar level, Washington could have stood on the podium this year.