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.
No team in our rankings had a bigger jump than the Minnesota women heading into our theoretical 2020 cross country season.
Despite only finishing 28th at last year’s NCAA XC Championships, the Gophers bring back their entire team from last fall and have developed an excellent young core under Coach Sarah Hopkins.
Along with the return of their entire team, Minnesota will also reintroduce redshirt seniors Bethany Hasz (TSR #16) and Megan Hasz (TSR #20) -- two of the NCAA's fastest 5000 meter runners this past indoor track season.
The Gophers have often been overlooked, but this is a team that could have made a big jump in 2020 -- maybe even onto the podium.
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Last year, the Gophers opened their 2019 cross country season at the Roy Griak Invitational where they placed 3rd as a team behind California Baptist and Columbia. Both of the Hasz twins raced unattached, but had they been competing for Minnesota, the Gophers would have easily won the meet.
The individual results held little weight as the overall field was not particularly strong, but it was the first time that we saw Anastasia Korezenowski begin to breakout.
Only a sophomore at the time, the Minnesota runner was right on the heels of Alison Pray from Southern Utah and Katie Wasserman ofrom Columbia -- two quietly strong talents in their respective conferences. In just that race, Korezenowski began to look like a real leader for the Hasz-less Gophers.
At Joe Piane, Minnesota was officially without the Hasz twins, but continued to see strong progression from their young core.
Korzenowski placed 24th overall and was close behind some of the best runners in the country. Meanwhile, Jaycie Thomsen and Abby Kohut-Jackson put together strong performances, placing 46th and 52nd. Neither woman ran well enough to stack up against the second and third runners from other top-ranked teams, but when you consider that they would normally be Minnesota’s fourth and fifth runners, Thomsen and Kohut-Jackson were actually outperforming their counterparts.
The Gophers had a strong contingent behind those two, placing four runners (Zetta Mason, Olivia Hummel, Tate Sweeney and Carissa Dock) all between 71st and 83rd place. Through seven runners, Minnesota was actually deeper than a majority of the teams ahead of them.
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The Gophers had a rough day at the Nuttycombe Invitational where the entire team struggled, specifically Korzenowski, who was the third runner for Minnesota that day. However, both the team and Korzenowski rebounded well for the BIG 10 Championships where the Golden Gophers (and Korzenowski) would finish 7th.
That conference meet performance was when most people realized that Korzenowski had the potential to be a true front-runner and that Minnesota could actually make it to the national meet without the Hasz twins. Five of the six women who finished ahead of Korzenowski in that BIG 10 race would go on to become All-Americans in 2019.
After making it out of the Midwest region and securing a spot to Terre Haute, the Golden Gophers would end up falling short at the NCAA XC Championships with no one finishing in the top 100 places. However, the team of mainly sophomores and juniors had shown substantial progression throughout last year.
And now, they get back two of the top runners in the country.
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Similar to most meets last fall, Minnesota consistently looked good, but never great. Their young group was progressing throughout the fall months and Korzenowski was becoming a budding star, but they weren't going to make much noise without the Hasz twins leading the way.
That, however, was all going to change this fall.
Coming off of redshirt seasons from last fall, Bethany and Megan Hasz lit up the track in their first races back in uniform. The pair opened their 2019-20 indoor track seasons at the famous BU Season Opener where they smashed their previous 5k personal bests as Bethany ran 15:25 and Megan ran 15:39.
Those times would finish the 2019-20 indoor track season as the NCAA #5 and NCAA #10 marks in the country, earning them qualification to the eventually-cancelled NCAA Indoor Championships.
Prior to this indoor track season, the Hasz twins had shown plenty of promise in cross country. Both women earned numerous top 15 finishes during the 2018 cross country season and looked to be amongst the best individual talents in the NCAA. Bethany also finished 49th at the 2018 NCAA XC Championships, missing out on All-American honors by a few spots.
The Hasz twins have also displayed exciting potential on the track prior to this past winter, with Bethany placing 10th in the 5000 meters and Megan finishing 20th in the 10,000 meters at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
When you pair two high-level, All-American candidates next to the 7th place finisher from the BIG 10 Championships -- which was arguably the deepest conference in the country last fall -- you get a lethal top three capable of taking down some of the best programs in the NCAA.
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Outside of that top three, this team is full of lineup options.
The aforementioned runners of Jaycie Thomsen and Abby Kohut-Jackson put together a handful of respectable performances last fall. Not only did they have nice races at Joe Piane, but they both finished in the top-30 at the BIG 10 Championships.
Both of these women likely would have improved this fall and offered underrated scoring value at the fourth and fifth spots of Minnesota's lineup.
What's even crazier is that women like Sarah Werking (41st at BIG 10's) and Lindsey Greenlund (47th at BIG 10's) weren't even part of the Gophers' top seven at Joe Piane. However, they did enough to not only emerge as varsity runners, but also top five scorers.
As for the rest of this group, a long list of potential varsity contributors includes Zetta Mason, Olivia Hummel, Tate Sweeney, Carissa Dock, Maria Eastman and Sophie Schmitz. At the very least, Coach Hopkins has a variety of options to choose from.
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The one knock on Minnesota would have been where the Hasz twins finished at the national meet during cross country. They have previously run well during the regular season, but neither runner has been an All-American on the grass.
Although the Gophers could have been a strong team even without any All-Americans, a program usually needs at least two top-40 finishers if they want to make the podium come November. This fall, Minnesota would have had three women capable of doing it, but none who have actually delivered.
The backend of their lineup is also a bit unclear. While we do believe that a few of their women will make improvements and continue to add depth, we also don't have a guarantee that those improvements will be significant. It's not a necessity, but it would be nice to have great clarity as to what this entire top seven is going to look like whenever we have a National Championship next.
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Regardless, it is incredibly hard not to get super excited about this Minnesota team. Their top three is overwhelmingly strong and the young group behind that trio offers great depth and exceptional upside.
The Gophers would need substantial improvement across the board, but earning a spot on the podium would have been well within reason for this team in November.