2017 DI NCAA West XC Regional

NCAA Women's XC Preview: Title Contenders And Podium Dark Horses

NCAA Women's XC Preview: Title Contenders And Podium Dark Horses

Months of team battles, rivalry showdowns, and upsets have culminated with the final NCAA women's team podium projections.

Nov 15, 2017 by Taylor Dutch
NCAA Women's XC Preview: Title Contenders And Podium Dark Horses

The 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships are finally upon us. Months of team battles, rivalry showdowns, and upsets have culminated with the final podium projections. Based on the season performances up to this point, we present you with the women's team title contenders and podium dark horses, and how each team could either win or sneak onto the NCAA podium in Louisville, Kentucky, this Saturday.

Watch the NCAA Cross Country Championships LIVE on FloTrack

Title Contenders

No. 1 New Mexico

Region: 2nd at Mountain

Conference: 1st at Mountain West

2016 NCAAs: 7th

How They Will Win: The Lobos have done an excellent job of putting four runners at the front of nearly every race this season, but the best indication of the Ednah Kurgat, Alice Wright, Charlotte Prouse, and Weini Kelati quartet's strength was seen at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational when they finished first, fourth, seventh, and 15th respectively. The Lobos have the front-runner firepower and a heavy favorite for an individual title contender in Kurgat, but the key to this team's chances at a team victory will be the fifth runner. Luckily, the team's fifth has been changing every meet and continues to improve.

Watch the New Mexico Reloaded team feature:

In Madison, Alondra Negron finished 60th and contributed to the Lobos' 87-point win over runner-up San Francisco (126). At the Mountain West Conference Championships, Sophie Eckel was the fifth scorer and finished 11th overall. Alex Buck was right behind her in 12th place. At the NCAA Mountain Regional, the Lobos rested Wright, but gave the opportunity for fourth and fifth positions to Buck and Negron who finished 27th and 34th, respectively. For every meet, the fifth runner has changed and improved, which indicates an even stronger chance at victory for this impressive New Mexico squad.

FloTrack spoke to world steeplechase silver medalist Courtney Frerichs, who was a key contributor to the 2015 New Mexico squad that won NCAAs with just 49 points. Frerichs commented that the 2017 Lobos squad shares many similarities with the 2015 team, and she draws confidence from the fact that the fifth runner has changed throughout the season.

Watch the On The Run Podcast interview with Frerichs:

No. 2 Colorado

Region: 1st at Mountain

Conference: 1st at Pac-12s

2016 NCAAs: 3rd

How They Will Win: Colorado's biggest strength this year has been the close pack, on and off the course. Looking at the results from the meets so far season, the Buffaloes' first and fifth runner have only been separated by 33.75 seconds on average. This year, the Buffaloes had the difficult task of returning from disappointment from the 2016 NCAA Cross Country Championships, when the heavily favored Buffaloes fell to No. 9-ranked Oregon and Michigan. Compared to the third-place podium team from last year, the 2017 team only lost one senior but returned two NCAA champions and a title-winning DMR squad. The talent remains, but the "it" factor of this team -- according to NCAA 3K champion Dani Jones -- is the shift in culture.

null"Our main goal this year was to have a great dynamic outside of training and racing," Jones told FloTrack's Johanna Gretschel. "Spending a lot of time together outside of practice has helped us a lot. I can get on the line and know that all those girls are my closest friends and we would do anything for each other. We were probably stronger last year with the individuals we had, but we're more closely knit this year and that's why I feel better about this team."

Related: After Heartbreak In 2016, No. 1-Ranked Colorado Women Just Want To Have Fun

The closeness of this year's Buffalo squad is also evident in races. At Notre Dame, Colorado beat New Mexico with 36 seconds separating the No. 1 runner from the No. 5. At Pre-Nationals, the team fell to Oregon with 59 seconds separating the first from the fifth, but the Buffaloes quickly rallied for Pac-12s to beat the Ducks with just 32 seconds between race winner Jones and fifth woman Tabor Scholl. And most recently, the team ran a conservative race to win the NCAA Mountain Region and beat New Mexico to automatically qualify for the championship. If Colorado can rally the top five to place within the first 25 finishers at NCAAs, the title could go to the Buffaloes.

No. 3 San Francisco

Region: 1st at West

Conference: 1st at WCC

2016 NCAAs: 6th

How They Will Win: Like Colorado, San Francisco has an extremely close top five group of scorers. Ever since 2011, when the Dons made the championship for the first time, the team has been on a steady rise -- highlighted by a program-best sixth-place finish at last year's championship. This year, coach Helen Lehman-Winters has guided the team to an impressive near undefeated streak (with the exception of the Wisconsin Invitational) this fall.

Watch the Dons in Workout Wednesday:

The Dons showed early season pack running with the low 22-point win at Roy Griak, but really opened up at the Wisconsin Invitational with a runner-up finish to New Mexico. At the time, the Dons' top five was no match for the Lobos's 87-point winning score, but the team has continued to throw down impressive performances since mid-October. Most recently, San Francisco scored 59 points to beat Stanford and defending champion Oregon at the NCAA West Region. Led by an individual win from Charlotte Taylor, the Dons put all five scorers with the first 31 finishers to topple the west region standouts and claim the program's first region title.

With an individual title contender and a tight group of scorers, San Francisco has the potential to rise to the occasion to become NCAA champions.

No. 4 Stanford

Region: 2nd at West

Conference: 3rd at Pac-12s

2016 NCAAs: 5th

How They Will Win: The key to Stanford's title chances will be the fourth and fifth runners. Head coach Liz Debole has executed an impressive progression of the Cardinal squad by returning key contributors and All-Americans Elise Cranny and Christina Aragon at the perfect time. The duo returned to racing at the Pac-12 Conference Championships and made an immediate impact with 19th- and 25th-place finishes, which helped Stanford finished third in a tie-breaker with Oregon. Cranny, Aragon, and sophomore Ella Donaghu turned out another series of breakthrough performances at NCAA west when the trio finished 18th (Cranny), 20th (Donaghu), and 24th (Aragon).

Stanford also has more star power up front in sophomore Fiona O'Keeffe and Vanessa Fraser who have been working together consistently to finish 1-2 at the front of every race this year. But if the Cardinal want a shot at a title, the team will have to carry the momentum into NCAAs with an even closer top five pack.

No. 5 Oregon

Region: 3rd at West

Conference: 2nd at Pac-12

2016 NCAAs: 1st

How They Will Win: Based on the past two performances at the Pac-12 championships (second) and NCAA West Region (third), the Oregon Ducks have seemingly fallen out of contention for an NCAA title this year. But after the breakthrough performance of last year's NCAA championship, we have learned the the Ducks are capable of anything.

Oregon started the 2017 season off with a convincing win at the Bill Dellinger Invitational against several Pac-12 opponents. The momentum continued at the Pre-National Invitational when the Ducks beat then-No. 1-ranked Colorado with a low score of 63 points over the Buffaloes' 91. In a heavy week of training, the Ducks still put the top five all within the first 30 finishers in Louisville. But as seen from Pre-Nats and the Pac-12 Championships, the Ducks only raced six women total and have very little room for error. But the Ducks returned a potentially low stick with Alli Cash, who came back from injury earlier this season. The All-American returned for NCAA west where she placed 43rd as the team's seventh runner.

Watch head coach Maurica Powell talk at-length about this year's team after Pre-Nationals:

Even though the Ducks got beat at the last two meets, the team cannot be counted out of the title race. Heading into last year's championship Oregon was ranked ninth, and this team -- especially with the addition of Cash -- is even better than last year's championship squad.

Podium Dark Horses

No. 6 NC State

Region: 1st at Southeast

Conference: 1st at ACC

2016 NCAAs: 4th

How They'll Make the Podium: North Carolina State's chances at a podium finish are strong this year with several impact freshmen and sophomores making a statement up front. For the second year in a row, the Wolfpack won the ACC Conference Championship and the NCAA Southeast Region crowns. The back-to-back region title marked the first time NC State has won the region since 2006-07. The performance also qualified the team for the program's 31st appearance at the NCAA meet, more than any other Division I program.

If the Wolfpack wants a chance at a podium finish, the team needs run like they did at the Wisconsin Invitational but mix up their top three runners with the front-running contenders from New Mexico, Colorado, San Francisco, Stanford, and Oregon. In Madison, NC State claimed 16th, 22nd, 31st, 41st, and 59th, while runner-up San Francisco finished in third, fifth, and 11th place before the Wolfpack's first runner. If NC State can break up the scorers from contending teams, the Wolfpack has a shot at a podium finish. The most recent winning performance at southeast, led by freshman Dominique Clairmonte (fifth), sophomore Elly Henes (sixth), and sophomore Bethlehem Taye (eighth), is a good indication of the Wolfpack's momentum heading into the meet.

No. 7 Arkansas

Region: 1st at South Central

Conference: 1st at SEC

2016 NCAAs: 19th

How They'll Make the Podium: Arkansas has remained undefeated during the championship portion of the season. Dominant wins at the SEC Championships and the NCAA Southeast Region Championships have the Razorbacks on an understandable confidence high. But if Arkansas wants to make the podium at NCAAs, the top five pack can't get caught up in the middle of the pack in Louisville. They must move up with the podium contenders.

At Pre-Nationals, the Razorbacks finished third to Oregon and Colorado in part because Oregon's first four and Colorado's first two scorers finished ahead of Arkansas' No. 1. But with just 24 seconds separating No. 1 from No. 5, the Razorbacks still executed one of the strongest packs. The separation has decreased with each following meet and could very well continue this weekend.

Watch the NCAA Cross Country Championships LIVE on FloTrack