The Villanova Wildcats are the defending NCAA women's cross country champions, and so they lead off our week's worth of women's team previews. What are their chances for defending their title?

Ranked #2 in the last poll released before regionals, the Wildcats only return three athletes from last year's squad. Those three—Sheila Reid, Bogdana Mimic, and Emily Lipari—are pretty darned good, and that's why they're one of the favorites. More importantly, they have filled the gaps with new stars.

Reid (senior, New Market ON) is the defending NCAA individual champion, and is favored to repeat. She had a fantastic spring track season, sweeping the 1500 and 5000 meter races at the NCAA Championships (the first woman ever to do so). She hasn't lost a college race since March, when Oregon's Jordan Hasay outkicked her for the NCAA indoor 3,000 meter title. She will score very low for Villanova.

Villanova's number two runner all year has been Bogdana Mimic (senior, Pancevo SRB). She was 27th at last year's NCAA Championships and has improved this year. She led the team with a 2nd-place finish at Lehigh's Paul Short Run (while Reid rested), took 6th at Wisconsin's adidas Invitational, was 2nd at the Big East Championships, and 3rd at the Mid-Atlantic regional. A top-ten finish at nationals is not out of the realm of possibility. The Wildcats easily have the best 1-2 punch in the country.

The third returner is Emily Lipari (sophomore, Greenvale NY). A high school superstar, she was 69th at last year's NCAA Championships, and has been a consistent contributor this year with a 39th place at the adidas Invitational and 16th place at the Big East Championships.

The single most-improved athlete on the Villanova squad is Nicky Akande (sophomore, Lawrenceville GA). Her only major cross country race in 2010 was the Big East Championships, where she came 77th. This year she was 12th, an improvement of 65 places, and she was probably the biggest single reason the team won its fourth consecutive team title. A middle-distance runner during track season with fairly modest PRs of 2:11 and 4:34, her cross country performances this fall have been unexpected to say the least. The Wildcats need her to run just one more stellar race.

Of all the major national title contenders, Villanova probably has the weakest 5th runner. Through most of the season, it has been Callie Hogan (senior, Bay Shore NY). She didn't have a particularly good day at the adidas Invitational, where the Wildcats finished fourth, but had a great day at the Big East Championships, where they won. If she runs at nationals the way she did at the Big East, then the Wildcats have a chance to win. It can't be easy for her to have to carry that much responsibility for the entire team's performance all by herself.

The other two runners likely to toe the starting line for Villanova are Summer Cook (junior, Thornton CO) and Courtney Chapman (freshman, Fayetteville NY).

My bottom line prediction: a team with potential, and likely to take home one of the trophies handed out to the top four teams, but a long shot to defend their national title. They're more than strong enough at the top, but lack depth.  They'd need huge races out of Akande, Lipari and Hogan to have a chance.