2018 indoor champ Josh Kerr turned pro this summer, and the next three finishers behind him at the national meet all graduated or ran out of eligibility. Out of the 10 men in last year's final, four should be returning this spring for another shot at a title.
The first favorite I have listed is Kasey Knevelbaard (Southern Utah). Knevelbaard was the 5th place finisher last year before redshirting the outdoor season. He was a sophomore last year in terms of eligibility and holds some of the best PR's in the field. With personal bests of 4:00 (unconverted) and 7:54, he’s bound to break that four-minute barrier this upcoming season. After redshirting cross country and opening up the season with a 13:56 win at the Hoosier Open, Knevelbaard seems poised to do some serious damage in 2019.
Oliver Hoare (Wisconsin) raced the 3000 meters at last year’s Indoor National Championships where he finished 8th. He also helped Wisconsin to a 6th place DMR finish last winter giving him the first two All-American honors of his career. Hoare proceeded to run 3:37 (1500) during outdoors and would eventually take down the heralded Josh Kerr for the national title.
I think that victory is enough to convince him to pursue the mile this season to see if he can keep the crown as the best miler in the country. His 17th place finish at XC Nationals has set him up for immediate success going into the indoor season.
Cole Rockhold (Colorado State) has arguably the strongest times of the returning field. He was the 6th place finisher just .04 behind Knevelbaard at last year's indoor national meet. He also finished 9th in the 3000 (off the double) giving him one of the most impressive efforts of the weekend.
Rockhold moved up in distance for the outdoor season where he finished 11th in the 5000 at the national meet. He was well on his way to yet another strong season of cross country before a stress fracture took him out of commission. His PR's of 3:59 and 7:50 are some of the best in the country and if he gets back to full health, he should be back in contention.
One of the most appealing middle distance candidates is Carlos Villarreal (Arizona). He didn’t make the final during the indoor national meet last year, but he did break the four-minute barrier at the UW Invite for the first time in his career. He would eventually go on to run 3:57 at the Husky Invite.
Villarreal also had a spectacular outdoor season, running monster times of 3:38 and 1:46. He recently had a very strong cross country season which saw him place 2nd at the West Regional Championships. The finish to his cross season surely wasn’t what he was hoping for, but he has set himself up for success heading into the indoor season. Villarreal should be among those we’ll be talking about in March.
Sam Worley (Texas) was a freshman who seemingly went under the radar last year for the Longhorns. He immediately came in and had an instant impact on his team. He broke 4:00 in the mile running 3:58 at Husky, and then ran 1:48 at BIG 12’s two weeks later. He didn’t qualify for the final in the mile, but his 3:40 1500 time was good enough to get him to the national meet during outdoors where he placed 5th. He’s on his way to repeating that success in his sophomore season with a year of experience under his belt.
Oregon transfer Mick Stanovsek (Washington) should find his way back to the national meet. Stanovsek was a big part in helping Oregon place 3rd in the DMR last year, but had some bad luck in the prelims after an unfortunate fall which forced him out of the finals. Still, Stanovsek ran 3:39 and 1:49 during the outdoor season en route to another championship appearance. After following Coach Powell to Washington, we’re hoping the same success stays with him.
Reed Brown (Oregon) was another one of those freshman that immediately came in and made some noise. The freshman ran 3:57 last year and finished 8th at the national meet. He backed that up with a 3:39 1500 to get him into the West Prelim. Despite a not-so-great cross country season this past fall, getting back to the track where he has built his reputation can only mean good things for Brown. His talent should allow him to come back towards the top of the field.
The last contender on this list is recent transfer Jonah Koech (Texas Tech). The former UTEP Miner may have left his long-time program, but he still has the potential to be one of the best milers in the country. He finished 9th at the indoor national meet, and while he hasn’t broken 4:00 (unconverted), it’s likely that that will change in 2019. He was 5th during outdoors in the 800 and ran 1:46 in the final as he claimed his stake as one of the best mid-distance athletes in the country. There should be no reason Koech isn’t part of our conversation when Nationals roll around.
I think the biggest dark horse of the year is Waleed Suliman (Ole Miss). While his freshman year of indoor wasn’t anything amazing, he did help Ole Miss to a 10th place finish in the DMR. He also ran 4:00 at the Iowa State Classic and he likely would’ve broken the barrier anywhere else. Suliman would go on to run 1:47 and 3:39 a month later. Both times were good enough to get into the qualifying rounds, but he elected to race the 1500 where he failed to make the national meet. I think that choice in and of itself gives us an idea of where he stands in terms of event preference.
Suliman finished 36th at the Cross Country National Championships this past fall, showing us that he is in better shape heading into indoor than he was last year.
One of the more interesting athletes for the 2019 season is Cameron Griffith (Arkansas). He finished 3rd in the 3000 at last year’s indoor meet and has some of the best range we've seen from a distance runner in years. He has run 4:03, 7:49 and 13:52. He’s on this "what if" list because if he were to decide to move up in distance, he’d have a real good shot at being in the top five of both the mile and the 3000. He ran 3:43 during the outdoor season to get himself into the national meet where he was savvy enough to make the final and snag the 8th place position. Keep an eye out for this Razorback throughout the winter.
Justine Kiprotich (Michigan State) finished 7th in the 1500 last year (2nd the year before that) and followed it up with a strong cross season this year. He's had great success during outdoors, but hasn't always been at his best during the indoor season. Will that change in 2019?
Luis Grijalva (Northern Arizona) is another freshman who had a strong season last year. His 4:03 and 1:52 PR's put him in a good position coming into the season.
Diego Zárate (Virginia Tech) will likely continue the trend of the middle distance dominance for the Hokies. He has PR's of 1:48, 4:02, and 8:18 which complement his 10th place finish in the 1500 at last year's outdoor national meet.