Winchester & Martin Lead a Talented Young Group of DII Women’s XC Returners
NEW ORLEANS – With the past two individual Division II women’s cross country champions having exhausted their eligibility in 2013-14, the door is now open for freshman phenoms from each of the past three years to stake their claim to the spotlight.
Jennifer Agnew of U-Mary, who won the XC crown a year ago but didn’t have any remaining track eligibility, and Alicia Nelson of Adams State, who didn’t have any remaining XC time after winning in 2012 but dominated the distance events during track in 2014, have now both taken their final bows and exited stage left.
Adams State senior Lauren Martin – understudy to Nelson in Alamosa, Colorado – now leads a cast of women who have all experienced success at the highest level ever since their first years as collegians.
A two-time cross country All-American and two-time 2014 track champ, Martin is still the comparative "late bloomer" next to the rest of the top five returners – all because she wasn’t an All-American in her first collegiate season.
Top returner senior Allyson Winchester of Grand Valley State, No. 3 returner sophomore Breanna Hemming of Metro State, No. 4 returner sophomore Samantha Rivard of Minnesota-Duluth and No. 5 junior Jessica Janecke of GVSU have all earned All-America honors each and every time they competed the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The youth of the top five returners is microcosmic of the larger youth movement among the 20 returning All-Americans, as 11 of them are only sophomores or juniors this year.
While the youth permeates the returning slate of runners, there’s no replacing the veteran experience the top two returners Winchester and Martin have in abundance.
Winchester especially has thrived in the fall, returning as the only three-time All-American in the country. She went from 22nd her freshman year all the way to sixth in 2012 and third a year ago, leading the Lakers to their second national title in a row and their third in the past four years.
Her road to the top-three finish wasn’t always the smoothest – just one other time was she the top runner for GVSU in 2013, although that could be more of a testament to the depth of a team that returns six top-50 finishers from last year – but when it counted most she came up clutch.
She held her composure in the front of the chase group that was consistently more than 10 seconds behind Agnew, and ended up with the fifth-fastest second half of the race.
Her regular-season track campaign was low-key compared to those of her returners, but she was able to come up clutch again to finish third at 5000 meters on her home track at the NCAA Division II Outdoor Championships in a career-best 16:36.39.
The No. 2 returner Martin, however, followed up her breakthrough cross country campaign – from 72nd as a frosh to 38th in 2012 to sixth last fall – with an even bigger track season. The Grizzly, guided by her father Damon, the legendary ASU coach, won not one but two national titles at 5000 meters indoors and 10,000 meters outdoors, and finished as an All-American outdoors at 5000 meters and indoors at 3000.
For as close as the distances are between the 6k cross country championships and the indoor 5000 meters, relatively few women have been able to translate their indoor 5000 titles to cross country crowns the following fall. Neely Spence of Shippensburg and Jessica Pixler of Seattle Pacific did it in 2010 and 2009, respectively, but you have to go all the way back to Kasia Arient of Lewis in 1997 to find the only other woman who has done the indoor 5000/XC double in that order.
Outdoor 10,000-meter champions have even less frequently doubled back to win in the fall, with Arient in 1997 being the last to have achieved the outdoor 10k/XC double in the same calendar year after Tumaini Urio of rival Western State in 1995 and Christie Allen of Pittsburg State in 1992.
Martin would join Arient as the only women to win the indoor 5000, outdoor 10,000 and cross country titles in the same calendar year.
As Martin and Winchester are the standard-bearers for the senior class, so Hemming and Rivard appear to be for the future of Division II distance running. As freshmen a year ago, Hemming was seventh overall to Rivard’s eighth-place showing with just over a second separating the two. Their rivalry extended to the track, producing perhaps the year’s biggest "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" moment as Rivard claimed the indoor mile national title after Hemming – leading at the time – tripped on the final straight.
Hemming was particularly impressive in her NCAA Cross Country Championships debut, running the second half of the race faster than all but five other women and moving up 10 spots from her position at the 3k split. That jump was the second-biggest of any top-10 finisher, bested only by the 12-spot jump by Bentley’s fourth-place Tara Dooley, who will most likely redshirt the 2014 campaign after finishing fourth as a junior (per her coach).
She then went on to finish eighth in that devestating indoor national mile final and sixth outdoors at 1500 meters.
Rivard‘s trajectory to her exceptional XC finish was the inverse of Hemming’s, as she ran the slowest second half of the race of any top-12 finisher but managed to end up holding at No. 8 from the 3000-meter split to the finish.
Not to worry, because she blossomed into one of the Division’s rangiest championship runners on the track during the winter and spring. Not only did she win that indoor mile, but at the same meet she finished third at 3000 meters, and then was the national runner-up outdoors at 5000 meters and the 10th-place finisher over 10,000 meters.
Only one other woman has ever parlayed an indoor mile title into a DII cross country crown: Seattle Pacific’s Pixler in 2007, 2008 and 2009. After winning the indoor mile as a freshman, Pixler would win the next three cross titles. Could Rivard follow that trend?
Rounding out the top five returners is Winchester’s GVSU teammate Janecke. Now a junior, Janecke was even more impressive as a frosh than either Hemming or Rivard, finishing fourth in her NCAA XC debut in 2012. She notched another top-10 showing last year with a ninth-place finish as the second of four GVSU runners in the top 20.
Three times she was an All-American on the track in 2014, finishing third on her home track over 10,000 meters outdoors and notching two indoor All-America accolades at 5000 and 3000 meters with fourth and seventh-place showings, respectively.
Others to keep an eye on:
- Julie Pack, Western State – Ninth as a freshman in 2013 and 35th in 2013, she largely missed the 2014 track campaign
- Mara O’Brien, Adams State – 15th as a redshirt freshman, runner-up in the indoor mile
- Emily Short, Saginaw Valley State – Two-time All-American, 18th in 2013 and 20th in 2013
- Jessica Young, Winona State – Two-time All-American, 28th in 2013 and 35th in 2012
- Hannah Osborn, GVSU – Two-time All-American, 31st in 2013 and 26th in 2012, and a fifth-place finisher indoors at 3000 meters