This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on Stanford sports teams.
In her final season of collegiate eligibility, fifth-year senior Elise Cranny led the women’s cross country team to a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships last fall. The 2018 campaign was marked by growth, particularly within the underclassmen ranks, and displayed the strength and depth of a relative young team.
The season kicked off with a first-place team finish at the San Francisco Invitational on Sept. 1. In the presence of Bay Area schools, the Cardinal women swept the top three spots, with all five scorers finishing in the top 10. The trio of Cranny and juniors Christina Aragon and Fiona O’Keeffe crossed together as the top finishers in the opening race of the season.
Three weeks later, the Cardinal hosted the 44th Stanford Invitational on the home golf course. With Aragon out to an injury that would cut her season short, the then ranked No. 3 Stanford women shined in front of a home crowd. Racing in her final home meet, Cranny repeated as the individual winner in dominant fashion. The veteran traversed the six-kilometer course in 20:32.50, seven seconds faster than the rest of the field. O’Keeffe finished in third and sophomore Jess Lawson, who had herself a breakout performance, in seventh.
Without the team’s No. 4 finisher at NCAAs a season ago, the team’s dynamic moving forward was led by two All-American front runners and a mix of up-and-coming underclassmen, which included sophomores Julia Heymach, Jordan Oakes and Lawson — the “J Crew.” True freshman Rebecca Story, a high school state champion from Texas, also jumped into the mix.
The first true test for the Cardinal women came at the Pre-National Invitational on October 13. Held at the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course in Wisconsin, which would host the NCAA Championships four weeks later, the women got their first taste of the collegiate talent.
Toeing the line against ranked competition for the first time all season, the then ranked No. 5 Cardinal women finished third as a team behind a strong showing from Cranny (4th, 20:06.9) and O’Keeffe (5th, 20:09.6). The two kept pace with the leaders for most of the race, but it was the third, fourth and fifth finishers for the Cardinal that gave the team the edge. Lawson (25th), Story (46th) and Heymach (49th) finished within 20 seconds of each other in a race that mimicked championship conditions, both in terms of competition and location.
No. 3 New Mexico claimed the team title and swept the top two spots individually. The cross country powerhouse scored 67 points to Michigan’s 120, which was good for second place. Stanford collected the bronze with 129 points.
The Cardinal returned to the home course for its second and final time of the season for the Pac-12 Championships on Oct. 26. Facing the top talent in the conference, Stanford mustered a competitive showing, with Cranny and O’Keeffe finishing third and fifth, respectively. In one of her strongest showings of the season, Oakes finished 20th overall and third for the Cardinal as Heymach finished 26th and Lawson 27th.
Stanford’s 81-point team total was good for the third, with Oregon (32) taking the top honors ahead of runner-up Colorado (48).
After a third place showing at the NCAA Regionals, the Cardinal women received a bid to the big dance in Wisconsin. Seeking the program’s sixth NCAA championship, the women combined for 232 points to place fifth. In her final collegiate race, Cranny placed 11th, earning her 12th All-America honors with her highest NCAA cross country finish.
Only three women in Stanford women’s cross country history have more All-America honors — Lauren Fleshman (15, 1999-2003), Erica McLain (13, 2005-08) and Arianna Lambie (13, 2003-08) — and they are all in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame.
O’Keeffe (20:11.7) received her third All-American honor after finishing 17th and Lawson (20:40.4) finished 44th overall, only four spots away from the All-American distinction.
As Cranny leaves, the women return all other NCAA finishers, including the “J Crew” and O’Keeffe.
Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.