By Jonathan Gault
November 17, 2022
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We’re two days out from the 2022 NCAA Championships, and in the battle for the women’s team title, and in some ways, we are exactly where everyone expected we’d be at the start of the season. North Carolina State, the defending NCAA champions and heavy favorites to repeat back in September, have been ranked #1 all season and have yet to lose a meet. Pretty simple right?
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Not so fast. While NC State may be undefeated this fall, they’ve been far from dominant. At the Nuttycombe Invitational on October 14, NC State finished tied on points with New Mexico, 80-80, and only won because of the tiebreaker. At ACCs two weeks later, the Wolfpack eked out the win, 34-38, thanks to a big run from redshirt freshman Brooke Rauber. NC State has a real chance to become the first women’s team to repeat at NCAAs since Villanova in 2009-10, but they are by no means a runaway favorite.
And that’s a good thing! Superteams can be fun, but they tend to drain most of the drama from a race. It’s far more interesting to see two or three teams battling it out for the title on race day.
NC State, to be clear, is still the team to beat. But they are beatable. New Mexico and host Oklahoma State have the talent to win a national title, and Notre Dame has come on like a freight train late in the season. Let’s take a closer look at the reigning champs and the squads they’ll have to overcome if they are to go back-to-back in Stillwater on Saturday.
The reigning champs
Here is what I wrote about NC State before last year’s NCAA meet:
That gives NC State the best front three in the field. They just need to hold it together at #4 and #5…If their top five run to their potential on Saturday, NC State will win.
One year later, we are in basically the same situation. Two of NC State’s top three from last year’s title team returned this fall — Katelyn Tuohy and Kelsey Chmiel — and they have been running like absolute stars, going 1-2 in all three races they’ve lined up together (including Nuttycombe and ACCs). Both should be in the top 10 on Saturday (Tuohy tweaked her hamstring during regionals but NC State coach Laurie Henes told LetsRun it shouldn’t be an issue at NCAAs). NC State’s #3 from last year, Allie Hays, is out of eligibility, but Sam Bush (32nd last year, 8:54/15:35 pbs) has stepped up in her place and been terrific, finishing 18th at Wisconsin and 5th at ACCs.
If you look at the top three contenders, New Mexico has depth while Oklahoma State has stars up front (with Taylor Roe, Natalie Cook, Billah Jepkirui, OK State could actually score fewer points through three than NC State). NC State has both, and that’s why they’re the favorites.
NC State’s options at #4 and #5 include the following:
- Sydney Seymour — A grad transfer from Tennessee, Seymour ran 15:34 last spring and finished 13th in the NCAA 5k final. At the first meet of the year at Notre Dame , she was just 0.2 behind Bush and finished ahead of Notre Dame’s Olivia Markezich (11th NCAAs last year) and New Mexico’s #1, Gracelyn Larkin (21st NCAAs last year). She hasn’t as run as well since and bombed at ACCs (29th, NC State’s #7), prompting Gordon Mack to say the whole meet would come down to here which drew the ire of the NC State team. Seymour was never in the top Seymour has top-25 potential, and if she does that on Saturday, it’s game over for everyone else. Seymoure has never finished higher than 105th at NCAA xc however, but last year she was a DNS as she got sick the day before the race.
- Brooke Rauber — The redshirt freshman was 3-times top 10 at NXN in HS in NY. She started the year slow and was only 61st (Notre Dame) and 124th (Nuttycombe) in her two big invitationals but has come on as of late. Rauber saved NC State’s bacon at ACCs by finishing 10th and was a solid 14th at regionals. Will she be able to get it done again at NCAAs?
- Nevada Mareno — A sixth-year senior and Raleigh native, Mareno has had a star-crossed career. She was 3rd and 2nd at Foot Lockers in high school, then went to Stanford in the fall of 2017 but transferred back home to NC State after one semester. It has taken her a while to unlock her potential — she has finished 172nd and 131st in two appearances at NCAA XC — but 2022 has been her best year yet as she ran 4:13 for 1500 on the track and qualified for NCAAs in that event. She was NC State’s #5 at Nuttycombe (36th) and the Southeast Regional (12th) and #6 at ACCs (19th).
- Gionna Quarzo/Mariah Howlett — One of these women likely won’t run on Saturday as you can only run seven at NCAAs. Whoever it is will likely be the backstop in case something goes wrong (they’ve combined to score just once for NC State this fall), but neither is a bad option as Quarzo was an NCAA qualifier in the 10k last year (she finished 16th) and Howlett finished 68th at NCAA XC in ’19 (though only 130th in 2020).
NC State coach Laurie Henes believes it is a good thing that her team was challenged at ACCs. While she credits Notre Dame for running a great race, she also admits that a couple of NC State’s athletes weren’t at their best that day (Seymour, who had been sick in the leadup, was only 29th). She was impressed by the way her team responded. Henes preaches to her athletes that in any given race, all seven women have a chance to score and help the team win. That race was proof of concept, with Rauber and Quarzo getting it done at #4 and #5, and Henes believes that experience will give them confidence to do the same at NCAAs if one of their teammates struggles.
“There was a lot of good that came out of that for us, teamwise,” Henes says of their ACC performance.
If two out of Seymour/Mareno/Rauber have a great day at NCAAs, NC State wins in a blowout. If two of them have a good day, NC State can still win but it could be close. And if two of them have bad races, another team is probably winning the title.
(FYI: Marlee Starliper, who has run 15:36 and was NC State’s #4 at Notre Dame, is injured and will not run on Saturday).
New Mexico won national titles in 2015 and 2017 and was 2nd in 2018, but coach Joe Franklin says there is no doubt that his 2022 squad is “significantly deeper” than any team he’s had in the past. The big difference: this team doesn’t have a guaranteed low stick like Ednah Kurgat or Weini Kelati up front.
“I literally have no idea who’s going to be our top runner on Saturday,” Franklin says. “And that’s good because they all tend to run together. I hope that they’re together through 4.5k, 5k, and then can move up that hill.”
The recipe for a New Mexico win is to do essentially the same thing that got them second at Nuttycombe. In that race, NC State went 8-9-12-25-26 with a spread of 12.5 seconds. It’s hard to win NCAAs without a top-10 finisher, but not unprecedented — BYU did it on this course just two years ago. If New Mexico’s #1 — whether it is Gracelyn Larkin (15:29 5k, 9th Nuttycombe), Amelia Mazza-Downie (15:37, 12th Nuttycombe), Emma Heckel (15:41), or Samree Dishon (15:54, 8th Nuttycombe) — can finish in the 10-15 range and the Lobos keep that 12-second spread, they will have a shot at toppling North Carolina State.
It should be noted that Dishon, the team’s top finisher at Nuttycombe, didn’t run the Lobos’ conference meet due to illness and was only 98th at regionals. Franklin says the latter performance was due to stomach issues stemming from her pre-race meal and expects her be back to normal for NCAAs on Saturday.
It would not be surprising if OK State is ahead of NC State through three runners. Taylor Roe, who was 2nd at NCAAs the last time it was held on this course, is one of the best runners of the country, and Natalie Cook — a true freshman superstar who set a US high school record by running 15:25 last spring — won the Cowboy Jamboree (ahead of Roe) on this course in September. And Kenyan freshman Billah Jepkirui has adapted quickly in her first year in the NCAA, winning Pre-Nats and taking 3rd at Big 12s (ahead of Cook). Roe, Cook, and Jepkirui should all be in the front pack on Saturday.
The Cowgirls have never finished on the podium at NCAAs, but this team, running on its home course, has a chance not just to podium, but to win. If they do, OK State coach Dave Smith believes it will look something similar to his 2010 team that won it all on the men’s side. That squad had three stars who finished in the top 10 (Girma Mecheso, German Fernandez, Colby Lowe), a solid #4 (Tom Farrell), and a mid-distance guy stepping up at #5 (Johnathan Stublanksi). His 2022 women’s team has a similar composition.
“We’ve got three women who can run for a top-10 spot,” Smith says. “We’ve got Gabby Hentemann, who is a veteran and has done some good things (15:45/33:18, 6th NCAA 10k) who has to come through. And then some middle distance runners and young kids on the back end that are wild cards. Gabija Galvydyte, who has run 54 (for 400) and 2:01 (for 800), I have no idea what she can do in a 6k when she’s really running hard. But we’re kind of counting on her to come through. Same with Stephanie Moss, who is a 2:05/4:23 girl who is just starting to get cross country figured out and is running pretty well.”
Smith sees OK State as a team that can score in the 100-120 point range at NCAAs and NC State and New Mexico as teams that can score in the 80-100 point range. But if OK State’s stars have a big day up front, or if one of Galvydyte or Moss steps up and finishes as an All-American, the Cowgirls could push their ceiling high enough to win it all.
Editor’s addition: If Galvydyte pulls off something amazing, it’s a wild story. She came to Ok State as the Lithuanian national junior record in the 400-meter hurdles, an event she ran was in the top 10 at World Jrs in 2017 and 2018. She just ran her third college cross country race ever at Big 12s (and first of the year) and did pretty damn well – 9th. She was 16th at regionals.
Last year, Notre Dame was just 11th at the Nuttycombe Invitational and 5th at ACCs, but the Irish timed their peak perfectly and wound up 5th at NCAAs. This year, they’ve done something similar as ND was just 5th at Nuttycombe, scoring 257 points, but improved to 2nd at ACCs (just four points behind NC State) before scoring 33 points at the Great Lakes Regional to win in convincing fashion.
Notre Dame has one star up front in Olivia Markezich (11th at NCAAs last year) with a strong 2-3-4 behind her in Maddy Denner (15:27), Katie Thronson (15:54), and Siona Chisholm (7th at the World U20 champs in the 3k for Canada). The Irish need more things to go right to win than NC State, UNM, and OK State, but there is a path to victory: Markezich in the top 10, the next three in the 20-30 range, and #5 (either 16:07 5k woman Erin Strzelecki or 4:17 1500 woman Anna Sophia Keller) stepping up to finish in the top 50.
Other podium contenders
- Alabama can compete with anyone in the country through four runners as the quartet of Mercy Chelangat, Amaris Tyynismaa, Hilda Olemomoi, and Flomena Asekol is very strong. Alabama’s #5 will likely be too far back to mount a serious title run, but this team is absolutely good enough to finish on the podium.
- NAU has its best women’s team since the 1991 squad that finished 3rd at NCAAs. The Lumberjacks were 2nd at the Cowboy Jamboree and 3rd at the Nuttycombe Invitational and if they run like that on Saturday, they could be a podium team.
- BYU was only 6th at the Mountain Regional, but they have a strong 1-2 in Aubrey Frentheway and Lexy Halladay-Lowry and McKenna Lee was 46th last year. This isn’t the same team that finished 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in the last three NCAA meets, but coach Diljeet Taylor always has her squad ready to go on the big stage.
- Colorado and Utah both scored 66 at the Pac-12 meet (Colorado won on the tiebreaker) and it wouldn’t be a shock to see either on the podium on Saturday with a great race.
Prediction: 1) NC State 2) New Mexico 3) Oklahoma State 4) Alabama
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