For the next few weeks, The Wood Report will be counting down projected team finishes in this year's NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, IN. Make sure to stay up-to-date with The Wood Report throughout the season. Feel free to  follow him on Twitter, too.

View the full NCAA Top 31 Countdown HERE.

#7
New Mexico
Head Coach: Joe Franklin (7th Season)
2012 National Finish- 21th

 
Key Returners from 2012
  • Luke Caldwell (Sr., 3:44 1500m, 13:29 5k)
  • Ross Millington (Sr., 3:41 1500m, 7:49 Open 3k, 13:36 5k)
  • Adam Bitchell (Sr., 3:43 1500m, 4:05 Mile, 8:08 Open 3k, 13:57 5k)
  • Sean Stam (Sr., 14:03 5k, 29:46 10k)
  • Elmar Engholm (So., 3:45 1500m, 8:49 3k Steeple)
  • Pat Zacharias (Jr., 14:01 5k, 30:39 10k)
  • Sam Evans (Sr., 3:43 1500m, 4:02 Mile)
  • Alex Herring (Jr., 1:49 800m, 3:45 1500m)

Impact Recruits/Transfers
  • Alex Cornwell (Jr., From U.K.- 3:43 1500m, 8:09 Open 3k)
  • Ross Matheson (Jr., From U.K.- 3:46 1500m, 21st UK XC- All Ages- Nat'l Champs '13)
  • Jake Shelley (Jr., From U.K.- 3:46 1500m, 8:09 Open 3k)

Season Preview

Coach Joe Franklin says this is the best team that he has ever coached. This coming from a guy who has coached some solid teams in his career (coached Butler to a podium finish in 2004). If you look at their roster above, you can see why. The Lobos are absolutely loaded. Franklin has found a good balance between finding outstanding foreign recruits and mixing them in with the local talent and producing very good teams, year in and year out. 

The Lobos are led by two athletes with very good track credentials to go along with nice cross country experience. Luke Caldwell came to Albuquerque in 2012 and was instantly the no. 1 runner for the Lobos, while Millington was injured. Caldwell claimed the Mountain West Conference individual honors and had a very good showing at NCAAs finishing 27th. Caldwell kept his momentum from cross country going into the indoor and outdoor seasons where he finished 8th at the Indoor 5k and 7th at the Outdoor 5k. With his sub-13:30 ability, Caldwell is a shoo-in for a top-40 finish and is a potential top-15 finisher individually. 

Ross Millington has had plenty of time the past few years to think about the last time her ran a cross country race. The last time he spiked up for a race on the grass was in 2011, where he dropped out of the National Championships and his team finished 31st. There might not be a guy in country as motivated as Millington is for redemption. He has all of the tools to be a top-40 guys and to roll right with Luke Caldwell to a top-20 individual finish. His 7:49 3k and 13:36 5k PRs are superb, and those times should equate, as long as he's healthy, to another key low-stick for the Lobos. 

The rest of the returning guys for New Mexico have quality experience in cross country and on the track. Adam Bitchell was injured outdoors and if he can get healthy and get the necessary base, he will be a very good no. 3 for the Lobos (on paper). He has the ability to rise up and be another big time cross country guy for Franklin if he's healthy. Sean Stam has had a very consistent career in Albuquerque where he has gone from a walk-on to an All-Conference athlete. He provides stability to their top-7.  

Elmar Engholm is a young, but very talented runner. Engholm had a good track season, but was actually more impressive at Nationals in Louisville, where he stepped up big and was the no. 2 runner on the team finishing 85th. That kind of quality experience will help him push to make the top-five again this year (they are that loaded). 

Pat Zacharias is a local kid who spent a little while at Arizona before transferring back to his home state in New Mexico. Franklin has done an excellent job developing him and he has similar attribute to Stam as a solid and consistent performer, race in and race out. 

Sam Evans and Alex Herring are track studs that have yet to prove themselves on the cross country course. If that changes for either one of these guys and they can make the jump from their track abilities to cross country and 10k, they just add to the unreal depth of this team. 

What is even scarier about these Lobos is the awesome recruiting class that Joe Franklin pulled in, mostly coming by way of transfers from the U.K. Ross Matheson is the most ready to jump in and help out New Mexico right away in cross country. Matheson was 21st in the all U.K. cross country championships and will be pushing Caldwell and Millington up front. Alex Cornwell has the best 1500m PR of the bunch (3:43) and has the same 3k PR that the other recruit has, Jake Shelley (8:09). 

Honestly, if these guys all stay healthy and are fit, this is a podium team. Since Franklin has gotten to Albuquerque, New Mexico has yet to have a fantastic finish at Nationals. With the Mountain Region being brutal every year, New Mexico will need to be picking up points earlier in the year (they'll be fine) to make sure they can cruise through the Regional in Ogden, Utah. 

Joe Franklin is looking to finally have a podium team in New Mexico, and if there ever was a year for that to happen, this is it. With the possibility of three All-Americans and some awesome transfers, (we did not even mention Peter Callahan of Princeton transferring--granted he's never had much success in xc, which could change) these Lobos are the most dangerous team in the NCAA in 2013.

#7
Villanova
Head Coach: Gina Procaccio (14th Season)
2012 National Finish- 20th

 
Key Returners from 2012
  • Emily Lipari (Sr., 4:15 1500m, 9:08 Open 3k)
  • Nicky Akande (Sr., 4:17 1500m, 9:39 Open 3k)
  • Megan Venables (Jr., 17:03 5k, 35:26 10k)
  • Stephanie Schappert (Jr., 2:07 800m, 4:18 1500m)
  • Courtney Chapman (Jr., 4:26 1500m, 9:31 Open 3k)
  • Kelsey Margey (So., 2:06 800m, 4:17 1500m)
  • Ariann Neutts (Sr., 2:07 800m, 4:22 1500m)

Impact Recruits/Transfers
  • Julie Williams (Fr., 4:51 Mile, 10:50 2 Mile, NXN Qualifier '11)
  • Katie Brislin (Fr., 4:29 1500m, 10:18 3k, 29th NXN '12)
  • Angel Piccirillo (Redshirt Frosh, 2:05 800m, 4:21 1500m)

Season Preview

Although it feels like they have been around forever, Emily Lipari and Nicky Akande have finally reached their senior years at Villanova. Coach Gina Procaccio has done a great job keeping this Villanova team consistently good throughout the years, and this year will be no different. With two very solid front-runners returning, some nice depth and a good freshman class, the Wildcats are ready to return to NCAA prominence after their 20th finish in 2012. 

Emily Lipari has had quite the storied career at Villanova. She is the only returning member from the 2010 NCAA National Championship winning team. Lipari has the tools and experience to be a top-15 runner. She has good range from 800m to 3k. If she steps up and becomes a huge low-stick for this team, they will see the success they are capable of this season. 

Nicky Akande is one of the more under-rated athletes in the NCAA. Akande was awesome for the majority of the cross country season in 2012. She finished 3rd at the Big East Champs and took home the individual title at the Mid-Atlantic Regional. An unfortunate Nationals race in Louisville last year will have her hungry to improve upon her 95th place finish, this upcoming season. 

Villanova's Men's and Women's programs, though coached by different people, share a similar attribute--they are loaded with middle distance talent. Lipari and Akande are both gems in the middle distance events (with some range) and have two other athletes that are sub 4:20 for 1500m. Coach Procaccio has proven that she can coach up the middle-distance runners and this played a huge reason in their ranking so high this season. 

The rest of the squad that will help the Wildcats break into the top-10 this season is comprised of a few girls with pretty good experience in xc and a few that have limited opportunities, but have some very good upside. 

Stephanie Schappert, Kelsey Margey, Ariann Neutts and Angel Piccirillo all are excellent middle-distance runners. Neither of these athletes have necessarily excelled in cross country (Piccirillo redshirted her freshman xc season) but all have the capability of stepping up in distance and being solid pack runners for Villanova behind Lipari and Akande. 

Megan Venables and Courtney Chapman have a little bit better chops for the longer distances than the previously mentioned girls, but do not quite have the leg speed to compare with them. If these two can get some good miles in this summer, they should rise up and push the middle-distance girls for the no. 3-5 spots. 

The recruiting class for Villanova this year is solid, though not sizable. Julie Williams is an immediate impact distance runner that has experience running well for the mile and two-mile races. Katie Brislin has outstanding track PRs and will also be able to contribute "from the gun." Brislin and Williams both come from high-profile high school teams-Fayatteville-Manlius and Tatnall and will bring their top-notch prep experience to an already very good returning Villanova squad. 

The good news for the Wildcats is that every single athlete that competed in Louisville in 2012 returns for them in 2013. This not counting the loss of Summer Cook who decided to focus on the triathlon and moved to Colorado Springs to train with the OTC group there.

With all of these girls returning, Villanova will have the hunger to improve from 2012 and to make a statement in 2013. The pieces are there for a top-10 teams. Two awesome low-sticks up front (Lipari and Akande) and a bunch of very good middle-distance girls and high school stand-outs.

 If things come together like they should, Villanova will have a fun battle through their conference and regional with Georgetown. Their front-runners will help keep their score low enough at Nationals and they will be looking at a big improvement this season at Nationals from 20th to 7th in Terre Haute