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September 29, 2022

NCAA XC Season Preview: Is NC State The Greatest Women’s Team? NAU Title 6th Chances?

CITIUS MAG has published the Wood Report rankings by cross country guru Isaac Wood since 2017. For those curious about the method to the madness, here is the introductory post on how Isaac started compiling his rankings and ratings. In the last two years, he’s been able to revamp and refine the algorithm with his own website.

It’s an exciting season ahead as the NAU men look to win their sixth title in the last seven years and NC State’s women try to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Villanova in 2009/2010.

Some factors to consider for this year’s championship race on Nov. 19:

The NCAA championship course at Oklahoma State: As we saw in March 2021, it’s tough. For comparison, Conner Mantz’s winning time in March was 53 seconds slower than his winning time in November of the same year, and Whittni Orton of BYU’s winning time at FSU was 36 seconds faster than Mercy Chelangat of Alabama’s from OK State. It’s such a hard course that the rolling hills could be a major variable in some teams having a great day and a good day or a bad day and an abysmal day.

There are fewer COVID seniors: Some teams reaped the benefits of getting an extra year or two from an athlete’s eligibility due to the pandemic. This may not be as big a factor for the returning champs, however: NAU returns four of its top five and NC State returns three, including NCAA champ Katelyn Tuohy.

September doesn’t matter: A favorite adage of legendary New Mexico coach Joe Franklin, the early season races do not always reflect results in November. Right now is a chance to have athletes compete and see what other teams have got, but some teams may not want to show all their cards just yet. You’ll really start to see where people are at during the Wisconsin Invitational, Pre-Nats and their conference championships. It’s kind of fun to see where people are at right now but there’s a long season ahead. We’re still looking at seven weeks until the NCAA Cross Country Championships. A lot can happen.

Women’s Rankings + Takeaways

NCAA Cross Country Womens Rankings

NC State Tops The Rankings As Defending Champions

THE WOOD REPORT: “Honestly, it might be the best women’s team ever. It could be. They have seven women who have run under 16:00 for 5000m. Most teams across the country won’t have a single runner better than seventh. In fact, there will be teams that will qualify for NCAAs that won’t have anyone on their team better than NC State’s top seven. That’s how deep they are. Their eighth is probably Brooke Rauber who is really good. She ran 4:34 and 16:30 out of high school and is running well right now. When your eighth is that good, that’s not even fair! Gotta give Laurie Henes a lot of credit. That NC State program is rockin’ and rollin’. I could see them scoring 30 or 40 points at NCAAs. I don’t think I’ve seen a women’s team this deep in a long time.”

The Battle For Second Between New Mexico, Oklahoma State, Alabama 

THE WOOD REPORT: “Alabama is criminally underrated on the women’s side. The national coaches’ poll has them at No. 10. Maybe they know something that I don’t but I’ve had enough conversations with people around the Alabama program to know this team is legit. You’ve got NCAA 10,000m champion Mercy Chelangat who could be the best runner in the country. Last year, they finished 15th. They’re in my podium conversation right now because they brought in some really good talent. Freshmen Hilda Olemomoi, Lily Walters and Cami Crouch are new to the program. They had one of their best recruiting classes ever. They’ve got several good low sticks since juniors Flomena Asekol and Amaris Tyynismaa are really good. They have the pieces to have a few women in single digits and a couple of All-Americans.

It’s crazy that this New Mexico team could be the best team in the country in another year but that’s just how good NC State is.

Natalie Cook is the real deal and making an instant impact at Oklahoma State

natalie cook oklahoma state

THE WOOD REPORT: “They’re looking to try and podium for the first time in program history. They and Alabama are pretty interchangeable for that third or fourth spot in the rankings. You have to give Dave Smith a lot of credit for what he’s doing with Natalie Cook right now. Probably one of the hardest things for a coach is taking someone who is really, really talented and helping them get even better. A lot of times those athletes can be tapped and there isn’t as high of a ceiling. Obviously, if they just maintain how good they were at the high school level, they can be relevant in college. But, Smith has already elevated Cook. That’s phenomenal for what they’re doing. They added a bit of depth to the team as well with freshman Billah Jepkirui from Kenya. Junior Sivan Auerbach, senior Heidi Demeo and junior Stephanie Moss have shown improvement. They’re pretty deep. Their low sticks might be better than Alabama’s so the battle between them will come in the backend 3-4-5 runners.

Back to Cook for a moment, she took down a big time field at the Cowboy Jamboree. I think she showed some real moxie, which you sometimes don’t see. I like that a lot. I think maybe we have to go back to Jordan Hasay for a freshman at this level. There might be a few others who I may not be remembering from the last decade. [Editor’s note: Allie Ostrander’s runner-up finish at NCAAs as a true freshman in 2015 comes to mind] That run showed something for me.”

Remember Last Time BYU Was At The Oklahoma State Course?

THE WOOD REPORT: “You can never count out a team coached by Diljeet Taylor. She’s a mastermind. We’ll see how freshman Jenna Hutchins figures things out. She was in the mix at the Cowboy Jamboree in Oklahoma State until the last kilometer. When she figures out that last kilometer, which she will, then all of a sudden you’re looking at a team that will have two or three girls who are possible All-Americans at NCAAs. They’ve got a sneaky podium shot opportunity. Coach Taylor’s women always run well at the national meet. They’re a team where if I’m ranked above them, I’m a little nervous. I have them at sixth right now and that feels right but you could probably see them creeping up.”

Colorado, Stanford and Arkansas Have The Most To Gain

THE WOOD REPORT: “Something The Wood Report algorithm can’t take into account with all the data and ratings is The Wetmore Factor. The Colorado women are good. I think they would’ve finished better at the Cowboy Jamboree to start the season had Hannah Miniutti not DNFed. I think they’ll get better and keep climbing. Another coaching factor to account for is Lance Harter at Arkansas. His team is always going to be ready.

Stanford is interesting. From a talent perspective and a recruiting standpoint, they bring in the best kids year in and year out over the last 10 years. That’s a big question mark for me right now. Can they take what they’re bringing in and develop them to a point where they can be a factor?”

Notre Dame Finished 5th Last Year, Ranked 18th Right Now

THE WOOD REPORT: “Their ranking is lower right now because their early season races were either rated poorly or maybe they weren’t looking quite as sharp as they would be. I like Maddy Denner, who was ninth at last year’s championship. They got a nice pickup in recruiting Charlotte Bednar and having Katie Thronson coming from Tennessee. I think this is a team that will climb in the rankings.

Northern Arizona is also in a similar position. They’re a little low in the rankings although they ran really well at Oklahoma State. They’re low only because I didn’t have them quite as high to begin with so it’ll take a few meets to get them where maybe they should be. The only reason I do that in the rankings is to make sure they didn’t just have one great day. I take into account the average of their three best races.

What Stands Out About UNC 

THE WOOD REPORT: Dylan Sorensen is a great guy. Of course I have some positive things to say about sophomore Carlee Hansen because my brother was her cross country coach in high school. Brynn Brown is also talented. They’re bringing back a few other stars that were in a strong freshman class last year. We’ll get a better feeling for where they’re at by the middle of October. They’re a team that will be ready to run well when it matters. They had a strong recruiting class headed by Eva Klingbeil from Niwott High School, the same place that Elise Cranny came from. Plus, they added Fatima Alanis, who is coming from Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina after a successful focus on the triathlon for many years. They’re a solid team.”

Isaac’s Sleeper Teams

parker valby florida

THE WOOD REPORT: “I’ve got two. One of them is a bit out there and someone can tell me something I may be missing but I like Florida’s women. They’re not even ranked in the coaches’ poll. I’ve got them 12th. I like NCAA 5000m runner-up Parker Valby, freshman Angelina Perez from New Jersey and Australian 800m specialist Imogen Barrett. Maybe I’ll get an email explanation from coach Chris Solinsky explaining why they’re not ranked but for now, I like them. The other team I like – and this is a homer move – is Utah Valley. They ran well at the Cowboy Jamboree by finishing seventh. Everlyn Kemboi, who was third in that race behind Cook and Taylor Roe, is a top 10 to 15 woman at NCAAs on the right day. They’ve got a solid six or seven athletes that can crack the top 50 on the right day. I’ve seen them a couple of times in person this season and they look good.”

Who Is The Favorite For The NCAA Individual Title?

THE WOOD REPORT: “I actually have Parker Valby at No. 1 in my rankings right now. She hasn’t run a race yet so that might change. I was basing that on how well she looked indoors and outdoors on the track. She’s run 15:20 for 5000m and was second behind Katelyn Tuohy, plus 8:53 for 3000m. I would throw Chelangat, Valby, Tuohy, and Cook all together in the pot of people who have a shot of winning the individual title. Factor in Roe as well because she’ll be on her home course. I like those four or five. The scary thing in my individual rankings is who comes after them… there are three or four N.C. State women. That’s how good they are.”

Men’s Rankings + Takeaways

Why Isn’t NAU Atop The Rankings? The Algorithm Has To Be Wrong, Right? We’re In The Middle Of A Lumberjacks Dynasty

THE WOOD REPORT: “We still are in the dynasty. If you look at how close the [top 4] teams are in the ratings, it’s only a 0.6 differential between Stanford and NAU. So this early in the season, it’s a toss-up. I was really high on NAU freshman Colin Sahlman, who was part of the Newbury Park High School squad deemed one of the greatest ever and ran 3:56.24 for the mile, but then I learned he might not be running. I had them at No. 1 with him on the team so I moved his rating down for now – just in case he does or doesn’t end up running. Maybe they’re just redshirting him because coach Mike Smith is a genius and knows what’s best for his guys. I never count out a Mike Smith-coached team. I also think because they had to do the Coaching Tree Invitational in Bloomington, Indiana and then the Cowboy Jamboree a week apart that maybe some guys ran on tired legs. Redshirt senior George Kusche’s ranking dropped a little bit and that hurt them at the Jamboree – if he finished a bit higher, that might be the difference between finishing 1st and 4th in my rankings. That’s just how good the top four teams are. They’re all deep. They all have lots of talent, really good coaches and plenty of reason to believe they should win a national championship.”

So Stanford Tops The List. They were 5th Last Year. What’s Their Biggest Strength?

THE WOOD REPORT: “They picked up a lot of experience from last year. Charles Hicks ran really well to open up the season. The team looked smooth and under control at the Jamboree. You can watch it for yourself on YouTube. I like the big jump that Ky Robinson took during the outdoor season running 13:23.61 for 5000m and then 27:44.33 for 10,000m with a sixth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games. He didn’t even race at the Jamboree yet and I’m not sure why. He might not be ready or he’s dinged up a little. Stanford has yet to even debut the freshman Sherry twins, Gavin and Callum, from Connecticut. Devin Hart and Thomas Boyden looked solid over the weekend so they have the pieces. Coach Ricardo Santos has had a lot of good teams in the past as well from his days at Iona. He’s an experienced coach who can get them right for NCAAs.”

Oklahoma State Made The Podium Last Year With A Third Place Finish. Alex Maier Took The Win At The Jamboree And Looks Good. 

THE WOOD REPORT: “They’re at No. 2 because they haven’t run Isai Rodriguez, Shea Foster or Fouad Messaoudi yet and that’s probably their 2nd, 3rd and 5th/6th guy. They’ll be on home turf for the championship so you have to factor that in. Coach Smith has won national championships in the past. With the way Maier is running and the good performances by Rory Leonard to start the year, they’re the kind of team that makes you nervous because they’re running that well without showcasing their stars.”

BYU Is Ranked 3rd And They’re Trying To Make It Back On The Podium With Casey Clinger Trying To Fill Conner Mantz’s Shoes

THE WOOD REPORT: “Casey is the leader of this team. He’s really motivated and tough. I think he’s got a little chip on his shoulder. I think that feels odd to say for someone who won Nike Cross Country Nationals twice in high school. But that’s also why. He wants to prove that he was not just one of the best high school runners of the past decade but also do it at the college level. He will put himself in position to try and make it three years of a BYU champion but we’ll see if he’s got what it takes at the end of a 10K.

They won the Jamboree and looked pretty good without senior Brandon Garnica – maybe he’s got some development or fitness to gain in the next few months. It just goes to show you how good this factory is. They bring in these athletes who have tons of talent and they’re surrounded and get to run with some of the best runners so it makes them better. The big names that really stepped up for BYU are Creed and Davin Thampson. Not a lot of people know who they were because their senior year of high school in Utah was the COVID year so it was hard to see what their level was at. Davin ran at NCAAs last year and didn’t have a great day – finishing 227th. They’ve taken the jump. Every coach knows what I’m saying by that. You’ll see these athletes, bring them in and then they elevate their race readiness, belief and mindset after a year in. When you can score under 200 points, you’re going to be on the podium and I think BYU has a shot at that.”

From Your Top 10, Who Can Be The Biggest Winners And Losers

THE WOOD REPORT: “I’m not quite as bullish on Washington as I was earlier in the year. I’m not sure what they’re doing to decide if Brian Fay will run. Again, I’m being a bit careful with early-season results. They’re still probably a top-10 team but that might be a bit high for them.

The two teams that I’m most excited about compared to what the other polls will say: Montana State and Tennessee. I think Dylan Jacobs [of Tennessee] wins it all this year so then you’re basically scoring four people after that. The Vols are bringing in some heavy hitters with Nate Kawalec from NC State and Yaseen Abdalla from Texas to go along with Karl Thiessen, who competed at NCAAs last year individually. Those are three guys who should be in the top 70 to 100 at NCAAs. If you have one more runner do well then you’ll be a top 10 team. Coach Sean Carlson might be the best young coach in the NCAA and they brought him in for a reason.

dylan jacobs tennessee

Isaac’s Sleeper Teams

THE WOOD REPORT: “I like California Baptist University. This is their first year of NCAA Division I cross country championship eligibility after their transition from Division II. They have seven to 10 guys who have run under 29:30 for 10K. They had a solid showing by finishing second at the Roy Griak Invitational. I have them at No. 20, which might be a bit of an overreaction based off that run, but I can see them in that range right now.

Oregon is No. 16 and maybe that doesn’t feel right with me. That’s what the data says for now. They have a good top guy in Aaron Bienenfeld, who was 18th at last year’s championship. What does it take to be good at NCAAs? You need a good low stick who can maybe score single-digit points. They have that. So they’re capable of doing that and that helps them beat a lot of teams.

Colorado is probably better than its No. 13 ranking. I thought they’ve had some guys running really well early on.  It’s a classic Wetmore team. You have James Kent (45th at NCAAs last year) and Charles Sweeney (124th at NCAAs last year) up in front for them. However, I’m not used to looking up runners I’ve never heard of before and I had to do that with this squad. Sophomore James Overberg was that guy for me. He was a Colorado high school star and just took 40th at the Jamboree and was their No. 3 guy. They’re developing guys.

Predicting Dylan Jacobs For The Win Over Nico Young? What About Alex Maier?

THE WOOD REPORT: It’s hard to forget the image of Jacobs outkicking Abdihamid Nur for the NCAA 10,000m win. Maybe it’s a bit of recency bias. I liked seeing Alex Maier run so well last weekend on his home course. He took it against some really good dudes so for now I put him ahead of Nico Young at the No. 2 spot. Young will keep coming along. I can see this trio being together into the final stretch of the race. The one thing that Maier has over everyone else is that he knows exactly when and where to move. He cranked up that hill, hit the downhill hard and it was over. There was almost a look of shock on everyone else’s face. There’s something to be said about the comfortability of being on your home turf. These three guys all have similar ratings and I think they’re the top three guys in the country right now.

One last thing…Santa Clara Has Gone Viral For Their Headshots. Can The Internet’s Favorite Team Make NCAAs?

THE WOOD REPORT: “I like Santa Clara. I like what they do. Felipe Montoro and Pete Cushman are great coaches and they’re even better people. They’re a team that reminds me of how Cal Poly would sneak into the NCAA Championships on the men’s side about a decade ago. They were a team that hit it out of the park in the West Regional and if you do that, you’ll have a shot. They could sneak in there. I agree that they’re on the outside looking in for now. I like Zach Litoff, Nick Russell and Harvey Chilcott (and that’s not just the looks). They also picked up redshirt senior Alex Miley from Duke. They’ve got some good athletes. The hard thing about being an individual in that region is just how deep it is and the West is usually the one that gets a bunch of individual qualifiers for NCAAs. Santa Clara could get a couple of those.”

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