NCAA XC Championship Preview: Women's Teams Nos. 10-1

Check out the final breakdowns for each women's team heading to the NCAA Cross Country Championships this Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana. Here are the previews for teams 10-1 in the women's race. 

No. 10 San Francisco

Region: West, 3rd
Conference: WCC, 3rd

The Dons of San Francisco recorded their best program finish in the tough West regional to shoot into the top 10 heading into the NCAA championships. "We felt pretty confident going into this meet that we could score around 100 points, and I think we were at 101," Dons head coach Helen Lehman-Winters told after the region meet this past Friday. "Charlotte [Taylor] was amazing today. Coming back off the challenges that she had at the conference meet and not feeling well going into this meet, her execution was phenomenal. To finish second in the West Region is an amazing performance for her."

The Dons were sixth at Wisconsin before narrowly losing to Portland and BYU at the WCC Championship. If senior Taylor can perform like she did in Madison (10th) and regionals (second, just ahead of Boise State's Brenna Peloquin), and their 2-5 pack replicate its 22-second spread from this past weekend, this team should greatly improve upon its program-best 18th-place finish.

Related: How USF's Lehman-Winters Broke Gender Barriers, Found NCAA Succsss

No. 9 Oregon

Region: West, 4th
Conference: Pac-12, 4th

The Oregon Ducks' runner-up finish at Pre-Nats behind No. 1-ranked Colorado was a good sign, but they haven't reached the podium since that race. The Ducks were projected as the preseason's No. 6 team and with a lot of potential, but fourth place in both conference and regional championships--Pac-12 and West regionals--doesn't translate into a podium team. What needs to happen for the Ducks is this: Katie Rainsberger, who finished sixth at Pre-Nats and fifth at Pac-12s, needs to be the top freshman, and she needs to be in or near the top 10. All-Americans Alli Cash (31st in 2015) and Sam Nadel (37th in 2014) also need to run like All-Americans. Cash has come around since her season debut at Pre-Nats, but Oregon has displayed some inconsistencies in its top five that could land them outside the top 10 on a bad day.

No. 8 Arkansas

Region: SEC, 1st
Conference: South Central, 1st

Lance Harter's young Arkansas team is led by All-American sophomore Devin Clark and a rotating group of talented freshman. Taylor Werner (27th at Pre-Nats), Abby Gray (ninth at SECs), and Carina Viljoen (15th at regionals) make this team a wild card heading into the NCAA championship, but with a low stick leader like Clark, the Razorbacks make a good case for the top 10. Clark was 48th as a true freshman at NCAAs this past fall, and most of these freshman are racing better than, if not the same as, Clark was in 2015.

No. 7 Penn State

Region: Mid-Atlantic, 1st
Conference: Big 10, 2nd

The Big 10 runners-up Nittany Lions displayed one of the most dominant NCAA regional performances, scoring 36 points to win the Mid-Atlantic on their home course. And after a narrow loss to Michigan in the Big 10, this team has a dangerous top three. Tessa Barrett, Jillian Hunsberger, and Elizabeth Chikotas have put up solid performances at Roy Griak, the PSU National Open, and both conference and regional meets. There's really no question about these three, especially Barrett, who should be in the top 10 on Saturday. But Penn State's fourth and fifth runners are key. This team won both conference and regional meets last year and entered the NCAA championships with high hopes only to finish 16th. Three of their top five faded into the 100s, and the Nittany Lions tallied almost 400 points. Their regional title victory was by a more commanding margin this year, winning by 57 points compared to a 15-point spread in 2015. Though PSU lost to Michigan in the Big 10 meet on Oct. 30, the Nittany Lions' Mid-Atlantic performance was a good sign heading into Saturday.

No. 6 Washington

Region: West, 2nd
Conference: Pac-12, 2nd

A team billed as a potential No. 1 has fallen to No. 6 heading into the final meeting of the year. Why? After winning the Nuttycombe Invite in Wisconsin, the Huskies couldn't defeat No. 1 Colorado at the Pac-12 meet, then fell to Stanford (racing without Elise Cranny) in the West regional. Washington coach Greg Metcalf told that the goal was to finish in the top two, so the team got the job done. Amy-Eloise Neale is running suburb, winning Pac-12 and regional individual titles, but Katie Knight, the Pac-12 10K champion, was only 19th and 24th at the conference and regional meets. If Knight can race to her potential and pack up better with Neale and No. 2 runner Charlotte Prouse, this team isn't out of it.

No. 5 Stanford

Region: West, 1st
Conference: Pac-12, 3rd

This team is a bit of a wildcard. After missing this past season due to injury, standout Elise Cranny only got to race once before suffering an injury at Pre-Nats. Cranny will be racing, but her 12th-place performance from 2014 is probably out of reach. Vanessa Fraser, a 2015 All-American, will lead the Cardinal, and many freshmen will follow. The NCAA's best recruiting class, featuring Fiona O'Keeffe, Christina Aragon, Ella Donaghu, and Hannah DeBalsi, have been a major reason why the Cardinal--only sixth at Pre-Nats--finished third in the conference and first in their region. Stanford placed five athletes in the top 20 in the West region, arguably the toughest in the NCAA, and three of those were true freshmen. Betting on freshmen is always a risk, but Cranny is proof that this program prepares them to race well in their first NCAA championship.

No. 4 Providence

Region: Northeast, 1st
Conference: Big East, 1st

Providence boasts a squad with a solid top five pack. The Friars were fourth this past year and have been running like a podium team all fall. But what sort of podium team will we get on Saturday? If they run like they did at Wisconsin (third in 170 points), they'll finish in the 3-4 range. Issues keeping this team from the podium could arise if one of Providence's top five (Sarah Collins, Katie Lembo, Brianna Ilarda, Millie Paladino, and Abbey Wheeler) have an off day, because the Friars' No. 6 athlete could be 30 seconds back. The bright side? This squad returns all but Collins in 2017, plus adds back All-American Catarina Rocha, who is redshirting this fall.

No. 3 Michigan

Region: Great Lakes, 1st
Conference: Big 10, 1st

The Michigan Wolverines have a sure-fire low stick and potential NCAA individual champion in Erin Finn. Her only loss of the season came at Roy Griak, and at that point she had only just begun training on hard surfaces after suffering an injury this spring. Finn smoked the field at Pre-Nats, the Big 10 Championship, and even Anna Rohrer at the Great Lakes regional. Her teammates behind her, however, have been quietly improving all season, peaking at the perfect time for the Wolverines to land on the podium. Gina Sereno (fourth, Big 10; eighth, region) and Avery Evenson (14th Big 10; ninth, region), a serious triathlete who is in her first XC season under Mike McGuire, were instrumental in the Wolverines winning the conference and regional meets. Jamie Morrissey, a 800m specialist, has shaved nearly 20 seconds off her 6K best this fall as the Wolverines No. 4 scorer. If freshman Maddy Trevisan, 1500m All-American Jaime Phelan, and Morrissey pack up and avoid placing in the 100s, Michigan may find itself back on the podium after finishing sixth (33 points away from fourth) in 2015.

No. 2 North Carolina St.

Region: Southeast, 1st
Conference: ACC, 1st

This N.C. State team has so much potential. The Wolfpack returned nearly everyone from when they were sixth this past year with no All-Americans, and they brought in high school phenom Wesley Frazier, whose 10th-place run at the ACC championships was promising. 

This team was 44 points away from winning in Wisconsin over Washington, but Frazier did not compete and her younger sister, Ryen, finished 96th in her first race back from injury. Wesley's performances at the ACC championships (14th) and Southeast regional (10th) indicate that she's rounding into form at the perfect time. With consistent running across the board from Erika Kemp, Rachel Koon, and Alyssa Rudawsky, this team could put together a performance that makes even Colorado nervous.

No. 1 Colorado

Region: Mountain, 1st
Conference: Pac-12, 1st

Colorado coach Mark Wetmore stated in the summer that this could be his best women's team ever, and the Buffaloes have lived up to the hype. They recorded dominating victories at Pre-Nats, the Pac-12 Championship, and the Mountain regional and have an interchangeable top five that gets more and more impressive each week. 

"What makes this women's team special for us is the depth in the talent and the balance of egos," Wetmore told "They all have room for each other, no one is jealous of each other's success. Whoever ends up the alternate this weekend will be disappointed, but will still be happy to see the other seven run well." 

Colorado's depth is the best in the NCAA. Sophomore Dani Jones was the Buffaloes' second finisher at the Pac-12 championship (third overall), yet only their sixth runner in the Mountain region:

Erin Clark, 2nd 20:08
Kaitlyn Benner, 12th, 20:28
Dani Jones, 17th 20:30
Makena Morley, 26th 20:43
Sage Hurta, 36th 20:52

Clark, 2nd 20:23
Jones, 3rd 20:24
Benner, 4th 20:28
Morley, 9th 20:43
Hurta, 15th 21:00
Mackenzie Cladwell, 16th 21:03
Melanie Nun, 17th 21:04

Mountain Region
Morley, 5th 20:19
Benner, 6th 20:20
Clark, 7th 20:20
Caldwell, 8th 20:21
Tabor Scholl, 20:26
Jones, 12th 20:27
Nun, 21st 20:50

It would take a lot for another team to beat Colorado, namely the Buffaloes blowing up on themselves. The NCAA XC race can be unpredictable, but this team has not been all season.