Nothing is guaranteed at this weekend’s NCAA DI Cross Country Championships, including the weather. Projected temperatures in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday morning call for a low of 19 degrees and a high of 32 with a 40 percent chance of snow showers—which could favor teams and athletes who train in the north.
The title favorites in this year’s women’s team race are reigning champions New Mexico, who captured gold over San Francisco by 15 points last fall. The Lady Lobos are led by two women with individual title potential—reigning champion Ednah Kurgat and teammate Weini Kelati, who has defeated Kurgat four times this fall.
New Mexico Lobos Seek To Secure Third Crown In Four Years
New Mexico certainly has the strongest top three runners in the NCAA with Kurgat, Kelati and Charlotte Prouse—all of whom placed within the top 12 at NCAAs last year and are running at the same level or better this fall.
To replace four-time cross country All-American Alice Wright, head coach Joe Franklin added Israeli steeplechaser Adva Cohen, the 2017 national junior college champion. Cohen is not running near Wright levels yet, but has consistently improved from her first outing at Nuttycombe, where she placed 44th, to regionals, where she ran with Prouse for a top 12 finish.
There’s a significant gap back to Sophie Eckel and Creighton transfer Emily Martin in the No. 4 and 5 spots, which is where a few other teams could sneak in for the win. Last year, San Francisco was that team knocking on the Lobos’ door—just 15 points back in second place.
This year, it could be Oregon—but with the Dons’ coach.
Longtime San Francisco head coach Helen Lehman-Winters took over the helm of the Oregon women’s program this fall following the departure of longtime Ducks coaches Maurica and Andy Powell for a co-head coaching position at the University of Washington. Top Duck runners Katie Rainsberger, fourth at the 2016 NCAA XC Championships, and Lilli Burdon, third in the 2018 NCAA Outdoor 5K final, transferred to Washington but Lehman-Winters brought in enough new talent that the Ducks are surprisingly much stronger than they were a year ago.
Weronika Pyzik, fifth in 2017, and Isabelle Brauer, 15th in 2017, followed Lehman-Winters from San Francisco to Pac-12 rival Oregon and though they don’t seem quite as strong as last year, their talent and experience should prove critical on race day. They certainly provide reliable back-up for Oregon’s No. 1 runner in Jessica Hull, the reigning NCAA 1500m champion, who stayed put in Eugene and has improved into one of the top cross country runners in the nation after barely cracking the top 100 at NCAA XC last year. Teammate Susan Ejore, who only raced once last cross country season, has also improved tremendously to keep pace with Hull and Pyzik.
Despite New Mexico’s seeming superiority and Oregon’s exciting storyline, neither team is undefeated this year. Both Colorado and Boise State, led by Dani Jones and Allie Ostrander, respectively, handily defeated New Mexico at the season-opening Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational: Colorado 80, Boise State 91, New Mexico 130.
Arkansas toppled Oregon by 20 points at Pre-Nats, 51 to 71, before absolutely obliterating everyone at SECs (24-69 over Florida) and the South Central Region (21-99 over Texas). The Razorbacks are aided by Katrina Robinson, a true freshman from Australia, as well as a healthy Taylor Werner and Lauren Gregory. The Arkansas women have not made the podium since placing runners-up to BYU in 1999.
Another interesting team is the revamped Villanova squad, which features Big East champion Carolina Alcorta, a grad student who previously ran at UNC; as well as a much-improved Rachel McArthur, who won the Mid-Atlantic Region; and true freshmen Lydia Olivere and Taryn O’Neil. The Wildcats won both the Big East Conference and Mid-Atlantic Region meets by significant margins.
Lobo vs. Lobo: Ednah Kurgat’s Biggest Threat Is UNM Teammate Weini Kelati—Or, Is It?
Kurgat hasn’t looked like the world beater of 2017, when she ran essentially unchallenged in every cross country race throughout the fall and won NCAAs by eight seconds. The New Mexico junior was somewhat humbled during the track season when Karissa Schweizer took back her crown as the top female distance runner on the collegiate circuit. This fall, she consistently runs as the No. 2 athlete on her own team behind blue-chipper Kelati.
But as dominant as Kelati has been this season—with wins at Pre-Nats, Mountain West Conference and the Mountain Region—she isn’t undefeated, either.
After an aggressive early push at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational in October, Kelati and Kurgat lost to Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson in a wild sprint finish. The junior, a native Wisconsinite, finished 96th and 139th in her previous two appearances at the NCAA XC Championships, so it’s hard to imagine her actually pulling off a victory on the biggest stage of the year. But with wins at the Big Ten Championship and the Great Lakes Region under her belt, plus All-American track credentials, heck…there can’t be a single woman at the front of the race who knows the course better than her.
Other top women with the chance to win on the right day include Jones of Colorado, Ostrander of Boise State and Hull of Oregon.