Women's Way Too Early XC Preview (Part One)

In lieu of a long-winded essay, we opted to do a Group Chat article in an effort to preview the upcoming cross country season on the women's side. You can click here to read to our men's cross country preview...

Stanford or NC State?

Garrett: Aubrey Roberts transferring to Stanford changes everything. I was already unsure of who I would pick when given these two teams, but I think it’s fair to say that the Cardinal women are now the national title favorites. They just have far too much experience, too much firepower, an elite recruit in Zofia Dudek and better depth than some people may realize.

I think NC State will be great and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they won NCAA gold. However, I would be nervous about the Wolfpack relying on so much inexperience when it comes to the national meet.

Maura: If you had asked me last week who I thought was the top team in the NCAA this season, I would have told you that I was sold on NC State taking the title. With their returners, incoming freshmen and Hannah Steelman transferring into the program, I thought the firepower was there for them to be crowned as champions.

However, Aubrey Roberts' decision to transfer to Stanford now has me leaning towards the Cardinal. Roberts -- combined with the likes of Ella Donaghu and Jessica Lawson -- gives Stanford a solid top three. Plus, Stanford returns six of their top seven last year and many of those returners were outstanding on the track this past winter. That should propel the Cardinal ahead of NC State in my mind.

Sam: Stanford is the better team and I don’t think it’s really that close. I’m not sold on them winning the national title, but I do think they are significantly better than NC State. Aubrey Roberts is a top-10 runner when she’s healthy. Ella Donaghu and Jessica Lawson were 8th and 11th at the national meet in 2019. All the Cardinal women need is some combination of Abi Archer, Julia Heymach, Jordan Oakes or anyone else to have solid days at the National Championships.

As for NC State, they lose Elly Henes, but bring back Kelsey Chmiel. However, like we've mentioned before, their issue is that they will have to rely on a lot of inexperienced talent in a championship setting if they want to win a national title. Katelyn Tuohy and Marlee Starliper are incredible talents, but neither have actually run in the NCAA yet. Sure, we know what they did in high school -- and maybe they will do the same thing in college -- but until it happens, then who knows?

All of that being said, I made the statement in our group chat a few weeks ago that neither team would win the national title this year...and I stand by that.

Conor: To me, NC State seems like they can show up and immediately dominate with their young core. However, their lack of experience should be a cautionary aspect of their team. That’s not to say that Tuohy, Starliper and others won't have success, but it feels like a good portion of their top seven this fall could consist of women who have not yet raced collegiately. That may bring predictive success into question.

Despite the strength of the Wolfpack, it’s also hard to argue what Stanford can bring to the table. Having so much national level experience return this fall gives them a massive edge in that department. One of the biggest aspects composed by a national caliber team is having that national caliber experience, and when it comes to that, the Cardinal have been there before.

Sean: It’s just too tough to go against Stanford here. With Donaghu and Lawson being top-five returners from the 2019 national meet, I think that the Cardinal will create a gap over NC State from their 1-2 punch that just can’t be matched. Stanford’s crew of Abi Archer, Julia Heymach, Christina Aragon, Zofia Dudek and Jordan Oakes should be able to match the latter half of NC State's lineup. Now, with Aubrey Roberts joining the Palo Alto squad, I just can’t imagine a fully healthy Stanford team being overcome by the Wolfpack.

The easiest way for NC State to find their way above Stanford is if Katelyn Tuohy can contend for a top finish at the national meet. The general consensus at TSR is that Tuohy is likely an automatic All-American, but is probably NC State's #3 runner behind Hannah Steelman and Kelsey Chmiel. If Tuohy (or Starliper for that matter) is a top-15 runner instead of a top-40 harrier, the needle starts to turn in the Wolfpack’s direction.

Michael: As the weeks have gone by, the tables have continued to turn in Stanford’s favor. NC State established themselves as the favorites early-on thanks to an incredible recruiting class that will undoubtedly keep them at the top of the NCAA for years to come. However, in the fall of 2020, Stanford has the firepower and experience.

Stanford returns the 8th and 11th place finishers from the 2019 NCAA XC Championships and that’s difficult for me to bet against. NC State’s lineup will also feature two 2019 All-Americans (Kelsey Chmiel and Hannah Steelman), but the Stanford duo of Ella Donaghu and Jessica Lawson seems to have the upper-hand right now.

With all this said, it’s still early and there are many more factors that come into play. So while I’m picking Stanford here, I’m not all-in on them being the exclusive favorite.

Eric: I'm going to take NC State even though Stanford looks better on paper.

Yes, for NC State to win, they would need their incoming freshmen (likely Katelyn Tuohy and Marlee Starliper) to have huge years on the grass. That, however, is a risk that the Wolfpack should be willing to take if both of those women can immediately contribute.

Kelsey Chmiel was able to cap off last cross country season as an All-American as just a true freshman. If she can do it, then Tuohy and Starliper should be able to as well.

What is the biggest question that you have going into the upcoming cross country season?

Garrett: How good will Colorado be? They lost both Sage Hurta and Tabor Scholl to expired eligibility, but they bring back a respectable group of scorers, add Ohio State transfer Abby Nichols, will hopefully have Emily Venters healthy, and have yet to unleash redshirt freshman Emily Covert.

Simply put, there are a lot of moving pieces on this team that could really sway how the Buffaloes perform throughout this fall.

The 2019 cross country season wasn’t their best, but finishing 10th at the national meet last year is still pretty darn good. I think they could potentially better that mark in 2020.

Maura: How will Arkansas approach the season?

Not having Katie Izzo, Taylor Werner, Devin Clark, and Carina Viljoen will really hurt the Razorbacks. Lauren Gregory and Abby Gray are the only two returners from last year's championship team and will be relied upon to help lead a fresh crop of faces back to the national meet.

Incoming freshman Taylor Ewert and Furman transfer Krissy Gear will add depth and respectable scoring potency to this lineup, but it's unclear where that will place Arkansas in the national ranks.

Sam: Maybe the obvious one -- will there even be an actual cross country season?

Sports leagues are starting to open up again, but that’s easier than trying to decide how to manage a bunch of college kids. There will almost certainly be an uptick in COVID-19 cases over the summer, and universities will have to decide how they think they can handle classes, students on campus, etc. It seems likely that some variation of a cross country season will take place, but I’m not sold until it actually happens.

Sean: What happens when a runner tests positive for COVID-19? And will student-athletes have to test in order to compete?

I’m more optimistic than Sam about there being a season this fall, but I think there are serious questions to be answered about how meets will be run. Just today, a number of NCAA and NFL football players tested positive for COVID-19 and there’s no real consensus about what should happen to the rest of their teams.

Moving more directly to cross country, where there is no physical contact required, could we see updated race formats this season? Will athletes who test positive be able to run in a normal race? If there’s enough positive tests, what happens then? Will teams be able to substitute if a subset of their registered athletes test positive at NCAA's?

There’s so many more questions that could be included here and there’s no way to answer these questions right now. My biggest prediction is that there will be a lot of protests and arguments this season if they aren’t answered ahead of time.

Michael: Can anyone beat Weini Kelati at Nationals this year? Last fall, Kelati captured the title 10 seconds ahead of Alicia Monson. Even more impressively, she won the Mountain regional meet by 57 seconds. Her biggest competition will likely come from BYU’s Whittni Orton who was on fire during indoors before the national meet was cancelled. Kelati’s fearlessness when it comes to running hard from the front has generally worked in her favor, but Orton has seemingly taken one step up since last fall.

Eric: Which transfer will have the biggest impact on their new team?

Some names that come to mind are Stephen Jones (Mississippi State to Colorado), Aubrey Roberts (Northwestern to Stanford), Thomas Ratcliffe (Stanford to North Carolina), Jacob McLeod (Belmont to Arkansas), and Hannah Steelman (Wofford to NC State).

Who will be the All-American that leads their team onto the podium?

Is New Mexico still a podium team in 2020 even after losing Ednah Kurgat?

Garrett: Maybe? It’s definitely not out of the question, but we saw what the Lobos looked like last year when they didn’t have Adva Cohen for most of the season. They were a talented team, but they weren’t podium contenders until they had a complete top five.

Now, Kurgat is gone, which leaves behind a massive scoring hole. I’m a believer in women like Alondra Negron, Alexandra Harris and Gracelyn Larkin, I just don’t know if they’ll be able to make up for all of the lost firepower. So for that reason, I’ll say that they won’t be a podium team in 2020...but that could change.

Sam: They certainly have the potential. It is way too early to wager much on who will be on the podium, but I believe they have the talent to get them there. Kelati is arguably the best runner in the country, Hannah Nuttall had a breakout year in 2019 and Adva Cohen will be substantially better without the World Championships on her schedule this year.

New Mexico will be on the bubble for a podium finish based solely on those three. If Joe Franklin can find another two or three talented runners, then the Lobos may find themselves even better than that.

Maura: When you account for Weini Kelati repeating as the individual champion and picking up one point in the process, it's possible for New Mexico to finish in the top four.

Last year, Adva Cohen’s cross country season was planned differently than her teammates, but without any major competitions this summer, Cohen can focus on preparing for the upcoming season. Hannah Nuttall has only gotten better since finishing 35th at last year's national meet and should continue to see that progress pay off later this fall.

I also really like the potential of Gracelyn Larkin and Olivia O'Keeffe heading forward. Larkin had a respectable first season in the NCAA while O'Keeffe will hopefully reemerge after not racing for more than a year now. They might not be All-Americans, but they could add a ton of value to the Lobo's lineup in October and November.

Conor: The loss of Kurgat will clearly hurt the Lobos. Having that second low-stick behind someone like Kelati will be extremely difficult for her teammates to replicate. There is no doubt that they will be a strong team once again, but finishing in the top four may be a bit of a stretch for New Mexico barring a huge breakthrough from a few other athletes.

Sean: It’s tough to see this team stepping into the top four, but it’s not out of the question. Adva Cohen will likely be better this fall after having to balance both the World Championships and the NCAA cross country season last year. Put Cohen alongside Nuttall and Weini Kelati, and you get a lethal top three.

As for the rest of their lineup, Gracelyn Larkin should be able to compete for a top 100 individual finish at the national meet while Alondra Negron should be able to step into New Mexico's top seven after an impressive 4:40 mile (converted) this past indoor season.

While Fiona O’Keeffe is transferring without cross country eligibility, sister Olivia O’Keeffe should step up to contend for the #4 or #5 spots after transferring from Washington in 2019.

I could see this team finishing around 5th to 8th place at the national meet, but they have the potential to earn a top four spot if everything comes together.

Eric: That's a no from me. I can't see them finding another runner who is capable of emulating the same elite scoring potency that Kurgat showed last fall. I think they are just too young and inexperienced as they had three underclassmen compete for them in Terre Haute last year. I think they will finish in the top 10, but I don't think they are going to be on the podium.

Michael: On paper, New Mexico has lost a lot, even if it's just one runner. Ednah Kurgat has been in the conversation to win any race she has entered for years now, and losing her will be a big hit for the Lobos.

That said, the trio of Kelati, Nuttall and Cohen will still give New Mexico a front-heavy lineup which should keep them competitive on the national stage. Losing Kurgat is tough, but I'm not ready to rule out a possible return to the podium for New Mexico.

Which team losing key scorers will still be competitive this fall?

Garrett: Give me the Washington Huskies. Melany Smart is the next big thing, Haley Herberg is a lot better than what she showed us in 2019, Allie Schadler is a key veteran name, and Shona McCulloch is an underrated scorer who finished 12th at both Pre-Nats and PAC-12’s last fall.

Losing two All-American talents -- Rainsberger and Burdon -- will not be easy to manage. However, this team had plenty of young reinforcements last year and will bring in another talented recruiting class to add more depth to this team in 2020.

Sam: I'm going with BYU. They lose Courtney Wayment, Erica Birk-Jarvis and Olivia Hoj, but they will find a way to contend for the podium with Whittni Orton leading the way.

Orton is the only runner I would consider potentially better than Kelati. She had a huge indoor track season and will be back with a vengeance this fall. Anna Camp-Bennett put together a solid 2019 and should see some big improvements again this year. I think BYU could have a few other names see significant improvements in 2020 which could push them into podium consideration.

Maura: I agree with Sam’s pick of BYU. Whittni Orton and Anna Camp-Bennett add much needed experience to a relatively young team. The Cougars are bringing in some talented freshmen this year such as Jenna Fitzsimmons, Lexy Halladay and Anna Martin -- all of whom have competed on the national stage at the high school level. BYU won't be the same juggernaught that they were last year, but they'll still be pretty darn good.

Conor: I like Garrett’s pick of Washington. The Huskies have a lot going on with their team, but in all of the right places. Despite losing names like Rainsberger and Burdon, their young and rising talent seem to know what it’s going to take to return to a high level of success. There's a lot of potential with this team and I could see them fighting for a top four finish later this year.

Sean: I'll go with the Northern Arizona women, the team that finished 14th at the National Championships last year. They lose Mikayla Malaspina and Miranda Myers (their top two NCAA finishers), but return Taryn O’Neill, Pipi Eitel and Bryn Morley who could all be top 75 finishers at the national meet later this fall.

Hannah Behunin had impressive performances at Nuttycombe and John McNichols. She should be able to offer plenty of scoring value despite a tough run at NCAA's last year.

There are a handful of really talented pieces on this NAU team. Figuring out what the rest of their lineup is going to look like will be interesting, but I'm confident that they'll remain as one of the stronger squads in 2020.

Eric: Colorado is a team that underperformed in my mind last season. 10th place at Nationals isn't bad, but considering they started out the fall ranked at #2 in our Preseason Top 25, it wasn't their best season.

Coming into the fall of 2020, they lose Sage Hurta, Tabor Scholl and Karina Mann -- but Hurta was the only All-American out of that group. Now they will add in Ohio State transfer Abby Nichols who finished 5th at BIG 10's last year as well as 41st at the national meet. Hopefully, Emily Venters will be healthy and Emily Covert will be able to wear the Colorado singlet after she redshirted last year.

Additionally, Annie Hill, Holly Bent, Madison Boreman and Rachel McArthur will all return for another year which should give the Buffaloes a very respectable and underrated group of scorers. I foresee the women from Boulder, Colorado being much better in 2020.

Michael: Arkansas is losing a great deal of talent from last year, but I think they will still have a strong showing this fall. Katie Izzo, Taylor Werner, Devin Clark and Carina Viljoen led the Razorbacks to a national title last year, but none of them will be returning to the lineup. This may seem like an insurmountable loss, but I will truthfully be surprised if Arkansas isn't competitive at the national meet his year.

Lauren Gregory will be back for Arkansas, and despite a 72nd place finish last year, she has the ability to make a difference for the Razorbacks if she's at 100%. Krissy Gear will be joining the Razorbacks after transferring from Furman, and could make a big impact. She had a huge indoor track season where she emerged as one of the best milers in the country.

The wild card here will be incoming freshman Taylor Ewert. The Ohio native has been one of the top high schoolers in the country for the last few years and could be a difference maker this fall. I don’t necessarily expect Arkansas to be on the podium, but they will probably still be a competitive team on the national level.

Who will be the best team in the BIG 10 this year?

Garrett: I’ll go with Minnesota. They return their top seven from last year’s qualifying team and also add the Hasz twins back into their lineup. That alone should vault the Golden Gophers into the BIG 10 title conversation.

After them, I would say that Michigan State and Michigan are probably a close 2nd. Even so, Michigan needs a lot of things to go right while Michigan State loses a few key scorers (including All-American Jeralyn Poe).

Sam: If “in the BIG 10” means at the conference meet, then I like Michigan State. If it means throughout the whole season, I like Minnesota.

Michigan State will bring back a handful of their roster from last season, including redshirt senior Annie Fuller. They look to be a better team in smaller meets where their top five spread is the most important.

Minnesota will see the return of the Hasz twins this fall which will be a huge benefit in larger meets. Both Bethany and Megan have top 25 potential at the National Championships this year and will be crucial low-stick scorers for the Gophers throughout this fall. While Minnesota may not be as deep as Michigan State, the significance of the Hasz twins will prove to be too much for the Spartans.

Maura: Garrett and Sam have already spoken on the strength of the three teams that I see competing for the title of “Best in the BIG 10.” Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State are my top three going forward, in that order.

Minnesota returning the Hasz twins and Anastasia Korzenowski gives the Gophers some serious firepower up front.

Meanwhile, Michigan will rely on rising sophomore Ericka VanderLende to lead the team, but with Katelynne Hart arriving in Ann Arbor, and Camille Davre and Anna Forsyth returning to top form, Michigan can make some noise.

And then there’s Michigan State. Graduating some key runners will hurt, but the Spartans have been competitive in the BIG 10 and know what it takes to win a title. They were also one of the deeper teams in the country last year.

Sean: There’s something about this Michigan team that stands out. In fact, I think they have the most potential out of the three teams that Maura mentioned above.

VanderLende had a remarkable first-year campaign ending with her 25th place finish at the national meet. Camille Davre and Anne Forsythe should both be back to top form as well and the addition of Katelynne Hart will only strengthen the front of this pack. Maddy Trevisan should also be in contention for a top five spot in the Wolverines' lineup. If this group can all stay healthy and run at their best, then I think they have the greatest potential of these three.

However, if anyone in that group struggles, then the Golden Gophers are too stacked not to take the top spot. Even without the Hasz twins, Minnesota still managed to qualify for Nationals last year. Knowing that they have all seven returners from their 2019 NCAA team -- in addition to returning the Hasz twins -- should help prepare them for their first BIG 10 title since 2008.

Michael: Most of my points have already been mentioned, as I think the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be the top BIG 10 team this year. There are only a few teams in the nation that can boast the return of their entire top seven. So for Minnesota to return their seven top seven and then ADD two low-sticks to their team is incredible.

The Hasz twins will be two All-American caliber talents coming into the BIG 10 which will make it difficult for other teams like Michigan and Michigan State to keep up. If the rest of their top seven can pull their weight and keep a tight spread, Minnesota will be difficult to beat.

Eric: I have to acknowledge that the BIG 10 will come down to Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota. Illinois is a dark horse in my mind. However, my pick is the Wolverines of Michigan.

Incoming freshman Katelynne Hart stays in the midwest by choosing Michigan and I think she will have a similar impact that Ericka VanderLende had for Big Blue last year. Michigan does lose Anna West and Emma Sloan (who scored at last year's BIG 10 Championships), but I am confident in Micaela Degenero, redshirted Anne Forsyth, veteran Kathryn House and the aforementioned VanderLende to bring the hardware back to Ann Arbor.

Conor: I like Michigan State as the best team in the BIG 10 this season. Lynsie Gram, Jenna Magness and Annie Fuller are all returning scorers who finished in the top 50 at the national meet last fall. That's a very respectable top three with All-American potential. Plus, the Spartans dominated last year's "B" race at Nuttycombe. There is a lot of depth on this team that some people may be overlooking.