Yesterday I analyzed the men’s results of the weekend’s two big meets, Wisconsin’s Adidas Invitational and the Pre-National Invitational at Louisville. Today it’s time to look at the women’s side of things.
In the men’s race in Wisconsin on Friday, the hosts and #1-ranked team in the nation took a tumble all the way down to 17th. In the women’s race there were some upsets as well, but not nearly as big nor (in retrospect) as surprising.
Two weeks ago, Arizona surprised the #1-ranked Washington Huskies at the Greater Louisville Classic, knocking them off by a narrow nine-point margin. In the next poll they zoomed up the rankings from #12 to #2. But Washington was without one of their star runners, Megan Goethals.
On Friday the Huskies still didn’t have Goethals running and it appears she’s injured and likely out for the season. Without her they’re not a #1 team, just one of half a dozen teams fighting for a top-4 podium spot at the NCAA Championships (and preparing to fight for the championship if the clear #1 team falters, as Florida State did last year). Armed with this knowledge, Arizona probably isn’t a #2 team because the team they beat two weeks ago wasn’t (and isn’t) a #1 team.
And that’s exactly what happened in Wisconsin on Friday: Arizona took third and Washington took fourth. #5 Iowa State took the win over #7 Stanford. This will lead to a minor readjustment in the coaches’ poll this week, with Iowa State probably ending up at #2 or #3. But again, all four of these teams are podium contenders and have only varying chances at the national title.
EDIT: as explained below, Goethals is not out for the season and may return to the lineup. But even if she had run on Friday and finished first, Washington would still have been just a few points behind Stanford for third. This means that even if she does come back to something near full strength, the Huskies still need improvement in other areas in order to contend for the title.
The real eye-opener was Cal Poly freshman Laura Hollander, who won and broke the course record by some twenty seconds. Clearly, she’s one of the best collegiate runners this year, but we should take it with a grain of salt. Iowa State’s Betsy Saina was only two seconds back, closing hard after Hollander opened a big lead in the middle of the race. Note that Saina had a team score to worry about and was probably ordered not to take big risks; Hollander’s Mustangs were back in 32nd and so she had the green light to go for it. What about that course record? You know very well that, as in golf, the same course can produce vastly different results depending on weather conditions and ground firmness. Hollander is good, but I wouldn’t call her an NCAA Championships favorite just yet.
Two weeks ago, Florida State decimated a quality field at the Notre Dame Invitational. This put them at #1 in the rankings and the Seminoles assumed the mantle of NCAA Championships favorites. This is how things were all of last season until the NCAA Championship meet itself, where the team just didn’t have it and finished fourth.
Yesterday at Pre-Nats, Florida State did nothing to change their favorite status. They beat #4 Oregon by fifteen points, with those two well clear of third place (Michigan). You can make an argument for Oregon to be ranked #2, and at this point I think they have the best chance of upsetting the Seminoles.
Why? The Ducks have two low sticks, and one is getting lower. Oregon star Jordan Hasay had an unexpectedly poor race at the Bill Dellinger Invitational two weeks ago, fading badly down the stretch. Here she finished a much-improved fifth, running with teammate Alexi Pappas for most of the way. Pappas, a grad-school transfer from Dartmouth, is the other low stick who can make a big difference at the NCAA Championships.
Florida State, obviously. Unlike the Oklahoma State men’s team, they are not playing it close to the vest. They’re letting everyone know how good they are. I’m of the opinion, though, that if you think you can win it pays to keep that a secret for as long as possible. Sometimes you keep that secret intentionally (by holding runners out or avoiding the best teams) and sometimes you don’t (through injury, illness, or other factors). There definitely is a certain pressure that comes with being a heavily-favored #1.
Does this mean I would bet against Florida State for the national championship? Of course not. On the other hand, how much fun is it to bet on the favorite? Coming at this purely from a fan’s perspective, it’s much better to put your $2 on a 20-to-1 longshot. My longshot is Stanford, a team that probably won’t win either of their next two meets (the Pac-12 and the West regional). They were winning on Friday in Wisconsin through the first four runners but their fifth hurt them, so if someone can step it up they will surprise people–and their #6 and #7 runners are freshmen.