DIII Women’s Nationals Preview

DIII Women’s Nationals Preview

MASON, Ohio – Johns Hopkins has conducted one of the most vigorous and unusual title defenses in Division III history.  As I wrote in my men’s preview, the typical DIII regular season involves less traveling than an NBA game and about as much excitement as an NBA game involving the Sixers.  After dominating the division for two full years, the Blue Jays raced against some of the very best competition in DI and DII, facing off with vaunted squads like Georgetown, Michigan, Florida State, Adams State, and Grand Valley State at Paul Short, the Battle in Beantown, and Oshkosh.

Along the way, they’ve basically beaten the rest of DIII proved to be one of the most clearly deserving No. 1-ranked teams in recent memory.  They beat No. 3 St. Lawrence and No. 7 Williams at Paul Short, and No. 2 MIT, No. 8 Calvin and No. 9 Willamette at Oshkosh. The best team they haven’t beat is No. 4 Middlebury, but the Panthers are 0-2 against MIT.

Here’s where it gets unusual: it’s been an almost entirely new flock of Jays building this ridiculously stacked resume. Ashley Murphy, Abby Flock, and Tess Meehan were the only two out of the seven from last year’s national championship squad who ran at Paul Short, Oshkosh, and their conference meet.  Sophia Meehan, Bridget Gottlieb, Caroline Powers, and Grace Hancock have been leading the country’s most dominant team without any cross country nationals experience.

If everything you knew about Hopkins stopped there, you might think they were a little bit vulnerable.  They have a very callow lineup for a title contender, and when removing DII teams, they only beat MIT by ten points at Oshkosh.  Only seven out of the 33 women’s national championships have been decided by ten points or less, indicating that it’s pretty unusual for a champion to have such a thin margin separating them from another contender.

The next development in their season might move things from the realm of unusual to plain unfair.  Those wins were piled up with what has been essentially revealed to be Hopkins’s B team (well, perhaps B+/A-), as All-Americans Hannah Oneda and Frances Loeb returned to the lineup at the Mideast Region meet.  Imagine if North Central or Colorado’s men had had their dominant regular seasons, and then added two top-15 NCAA runners to their lineup the week before nationals.  Sarcastic proclamations like Robert Johnson’s “Let’s just mail the trophy to Colorado” would suddenly become earnest.

One team can legitimately dream of beating Hopkins.  The advantage of being an inconsistent team in a fundamentally individual sport is that you can pull off a major upset if all of your individuals are the right kind of inconsistent on the same day.  Nearly every runner in the MIT Engineers’ pack has varied their performances in the last month. 

Let’s take a look at the results from NEICCCAs, Oskhosh, and regionals. Nicole Zeinstra has been 38, 24, and 53 seconds off of their #1 runner. Christina Wicker has been 16, 36, and 18 seconds behind #1.  Elaine McVay has been 25, 9, and and 20 seconds back.  Maryann Gong was their #1 at NEICCCAs; since then, she’s been 28 and 27 seconds behind the leader.

If those four can somehow replicate their season’s tightest spread off Sarah Quinn—they don’t even need to run their best race, they just all need to run well at the same time— on Saturday, then they could, wait…….

engineer an upset.

MIT would particularly relish a shocking win, as they tied Chicago 261-261 for fourth place last year but lost out on a trophy on the tiebreaker.

Assuming the Baltimore and Boston research institutions take two of the four podium spots,

Who are the rest of the podium contenders?

The NESCAC has had a team on the podium every year since 1998. (In fact, since the ‘CAC began permitting teams to compete at nationals in 1993, there’s been a women’s podium team from the conference 17 out of 21 times) Their strongest representative is No. t4 Middlebury, who hasn’t lost to any DIII teams other than MIT this fall.

The Panthers are tied for that No. 4 ranking with SUNY Geneseo. Coach Mike Woods retires this year with no unfinished business: his women won a national championship in 2005.  But other than that, the Knights have never stood on the podium.  Their second best finish was a fifth place in 2007.  One of the fun things about running is that it usually just comes down to fitness and tactics; the sport’s immunity from smarm is what makes “Saint Ralph” a comedy to the experienced runner.  If the Knights make the podium, they’ll have done so because they trained really hard and ran a smart race.

Check out where Canton, New York is on a map.  It’s a miracle that we get to see No. 3 St. Lawrence compete at all, but they still don’t face off against top teams as much as the other top-ten squads do.  The Saints haven’t lost since finishing between Hopkins and No. 7 Williams at Paul Short.  They beat Geneseo by one point at regionals last weekend, so it’s safe to view those two teams as pretty similar.

Speaking of Williams, Pete Farwell’s squad has been in the top five a ludicrous 16 times in their 22 appearances at nationals.  The Ephs don’t look like a podium team, but it’s unlikely that all 13 of their podium teams had that status sewn up before the meet.

As Williams alum Scott Rod pointed out, No. 6 WashU’s fate is in Sarah Curci’s hands.   Without Cursi at Oshkosh, their 1-5 gap was 2:15.  That fat spread is exclusively reserved for teams that leave meets without hardware.  But with Curci, the Bears’ spread off Lucy Cheadle has been a much more manageable 80-90 seconds at conferences and regionals.

The Individual Race

There are two schools of thought with the individual race: Cheadle is going to destroy the field, or Cheadle and Amy Regan are going to destroy the field.  The WashU senior hasn’t lost a race longer than a mile since indoor nationals in March, and turned in three blowouts to start her season.  The first time she betrayed even a hint of humanity was at regionals last week, where she ran 11 seconds slower than she did on the same course a month prior. Still: no one has come within ten seconds of Cheadle all fall.

The same is true about Regan, though she hasn’t quite beat the stellar quality of opponents that Cheadle has.  A Regan-Sophia Meehan matchup at Paul Short would have been salivating, but Regan’s Stevens Institute squad was relegated to the B race.  (Regan ran 12 seconds slower than Meehan, but won) What the junior has lacked in quality wins, though, she’s more than made up for with quantity. She’s raced a whopping seven times, winning each and never giving herself the opportunity to make the detestable “it was just a tempo” excuse.

My personal opinion is that Cheadle will win, and do so handily.  But there isn’t a ton of data to back that up, as the duo have hardly faced any common opponents. (NYU is the only significant team I can find that’s raced against Stevens at WashU) The two finished just nine-tenths of a second apart in fifth and sixth at nationals last year; if that happens again this year, we probably witnessed one of the greatest individual races ever.

I’m here in Mason. Find me and we’ll try to do an interview today or tomorrow.  If you’re not here, follow along on Twitter and at the Results Wall.