It’s that time again. The 29th women’s Little 500 gets underway in a little more than 24 hours.
Here’s how I think it will play out.
Pick to win: Kappa Alpha Theta
I’m boring, I know. Theta has won the last two races, and I think this year is lucky number three in a row.
Theta has already won six Little 500s, the most on the women’s side, and 21 percent of the races ever. EVER. The team is a powerhouse. Besides the six wins, the Thetas have also had 13 additional podium finishes. They’ve only finished outside the top 10 once. Once!
But put the program history aside. They lose only one rider from their championship team last year, but it was a huge loss. It was the field’s best rider in Liz Lieberman. So it seemed like Theta was poised to take at least a bit of a step back this year, right? Right?
If anything, the Thetas seemed to be even more dominant this spring.
They won Spring Series going away, meaning no one will wear the White Jersey on race day as the Thetas will wear the defending champion Yellow Jersey. They totaled 42 points to Alpha Omicron Pi’s 63, Teter’s 81, Delta Gamma’s 85 and Phoenix’s 95.
In other words, it wasn’t even close.
Sure, the Thetas finished second in Team Pursuit as Teter had a strong showing to take the title, but that doesn’t concern me. Theta still had a strong performance in what is considered the greatest indicator of race day success.
The reason I’m so confident in this pick? Theta has depth for days. The team placed five riders in the top 14 at Individual Time Trials. Five of the top 14? That’s ridiculous.
Sure, there’s the returning riders in Abby Rogers, Evelyn Malcomb and Madeline Lambert, all of whom had impressive springs, unsurprisingly. The surprise came from rookies Grace Bennett (third at ITTs) and Rachel Brown (12th at ITTs).
Brown went on to finish third at Miss ‘N Out. Her other four teammates all advanced to the semifinal before being eliminated one-by-one.
My guess would be Rogers will be the one on the bike for Theta if the race ends up being a sprint finish. But can the Thetas really go wrong in that situation? There’s speed all over the team. Not a single bad rider.
And that’s the reason I think the Thetas may try to sprint out ahead of the field and not even let the race get to a sprint. If they can push Phoenix’s Tabitha Sherwood, then there’s a possibility she may not be able to leg out the entire race and stay up with the Thetas.
Don’t forget, either, that the Thetas put up one of the best qualifications times in Little 500 history. That’s a sign of good, clean, smooth exchanges, something that will be critical to race day success.
Rounding out the top 5
2, Delta Gamma
Kristen Bignal finished second behind Tabitha Sherwood in both ITTs and MNO, proving she’s clearly the second best rider in the field. And she’s been close with Sherwood. She actually had the advantage on her at MNO until Sherwood flew around the outside to breeze to victory.
But the reason DG comes in ahead of Phoenix here is the depth behind Bignal. There’s Sarah Rivich (19th at ITTs, MNO quarterfinalist), Katie Ziegler (26th at ITTs, MNO quarterfinalist) and Hanna Coppens (28th at ITTs, MNO quarterfinalist). And Madison Borgmann, who didn’t compete at ITTs, but was a quarterfinalist at MNO. So some serious speed there.
But perhaps even more importantly, this is a team with a lot of experience. Ziegler and Borgmann are both seniors who will be competing in their third race. It will be the junior Bignal’s third race as well. This is a core group who has grown together and gained not only more speed, but more knowledge of the race.
DG also finished with the third fastest Team Pursuit time this year. Another solid indicator that they’re a team built to make a run.
The two biggest things to come out of Spring Series: Theta is deep, and Tabitha Sherwood is head and shoulders above any other individual rider in the field.
So we all know about Sherwood. We all know she won ITTs. We all know she won MNO with a flawless race move in Turn 4. We all know she’s a beast.
But there’s some underrated depth behind her, too.
Lauren Brand finished 22nd at ITTs and was a MNO quarterfinalist. Melissa Ragatz wasn’t far behind, finished 24th at ITTs and was also a MNO quarterfinalist. And Clara Butler was 33rd at ITTs and a MNO quarterfinalist (which means their team goes 33to1 in ITTs, which is amusing for this site).
So the speed doesn’t hinge solely on Sherwood. Will there be a dropoff when she’s not on the bike? Sure, but that’s inevitable when you have clearly the best rider in the field. Will Phoenix be dropped when Sherwood isn’t on the bike? Absolutely not.
While the depth of this team is solid, Phoenix is going to go as far as Sherwood can take them. I’m sure she’ll try to do as many laps as possible. But the issue becomes whether she has enough in the tank at the end to cross the finish line first.
4, Alpha Omicron Pi
When looking at AOPi against the likes of Theta or DG, in terms of program history, it’s truly a David and Goliath matchup. AOPi has never even been on the podium.
But the team’s best finish ever in the race came last year when the team finished 7th, just the third top-10 in program history.
This is the group that gets just that much closer to the podium, and gives the program its first top-5.
Theta got a lot of attention for putting five riders in the top 14 at ITTs, but AOPI also put four riders in the top 15. Not too bad at all. Had Theta not been as dominant as it was, it’s likely AOPi may have received substantially more attention.
As it was, it drew a lot of attention to the team. Just not as much as Theta.
Leigh Dukeman came out of nowhere as a rookie rider this year to finish 4th in ITTs, and also was a semifinalist at MNO. She’s a junior this year, so she should be back next year, too. Audrey Healey, back for her second Little 500, finished ninth at ITTs and was also a MNO semifinalist. Ali Oppel was 10th in ITTs and finished fifth in the finals at MNO.
And then there’s Michaela Ranft, who will be competing in her fourth and final Little 500 this year. Ranft has always been a very good rider, and has helped build this AOPi program greatly. The senior finished 15th in ITTs this year, the second consecutive year she has done so. Even as a freshman in 2013, she finished 33rd at ITTs. She’s always been a solid rider. She was also a MNO quarterfinalist this year.
This group has already moved the program so far forward, and look poised to take the next big step this year.
Teter had a bit of a down year last year, but they look like they have made a fine recovery this season.
It started with a solid qualifying time of 2:41.630, just behind the other four teams ahead of them on this prediction.
Oddly enough, Teter has run mostly under the radar this spring. Julia Thomas, back for her third Little 500, finished 8th at ITTs and was a MNO quarterfinalist. Eliza Heath was 13th at ITTs and was a MNO quarterfinalist. And rookie Kelsey Kluesner — who was a track star for IU before joining Teter — finished 17th at ITTs and was a MNO quarterfinalist.
Those three were able to work together and topple Theta for the Team Pursuit crown, something that came as a bit of a surprise to some.
So while having a very strong showing this spring, the spotlight still somehow seems to be off of Teter, one of the more storied teams in the field.
Teter looks very solid this year with lots of speed, but I don’t think it will be quite enough speed to take a victory lap.
Ski — Any team that has Megan Huibregtse should never be counted out.
Kappa Kappa Gamma — It seems like KKG is always in the top 10, and they have another solid team this year that qualified 8th.
Alpha Chi Omega — Alexandra Kolar is an all-star caliber rider who will try to catapult AChiO ahead of this year’s race favorites.
Melanzana — A perennial contender, Melanzana is always quietly among the race’s elite.
Dixie Highway Award: Phi Mu
After using their third attempt to qualify, Phi Mu played it safe and qualified 25th. Look for them to make the biggest move up the field.