5 Things to Watch: ACC Preview

Updated: Feb 27

Note: Due to the late release time of the ACC entries, the below analysis is only speculation as to what certain athletes will run.

1. Women's Mile: Edwards vs Skyring vs Schulz vs The Field

One of last weekend’s big storylines was Wake Forest’s win over Virginia Tech in the DMR at the JDL DMR Invitational. Virginia Tech is a team with an established history of success, not only in the DMR, but the middle distances in general.

Sarah Edwards has experience as an All-American and is one of the top milers in the NCAA. However, she ran the lead-off 1200 meter leg and teammate Sara Freix took over the anchor duties last weekend. Wake Forest’s Johanna Schulz ran the anchor leg for the Deacons and beat out Freix to the line, splitting 4:38 for 1600 meters and catapulting Wake Forest into national relevancy.

This was a surprising result as Wake Forest, on paper, didn't have the same level of firepower as the Hokies this season. Regardless, both squads will be on the line at the Indoor National Championships and their finish there is what will really matter. For now though, we are set to see a great race at ACC’s.

Sarah Edwards comes in as the top qualifier by a sizeable margin. She has run a flat-track converted 4:34.28 which puts her at NCAA #7. By the look of it, this should be Edwards’ race to lose. She is the reigning ACC indoor mile champion and finished 2nd in the 1500 meters at ACC’s last spring. Edwards almost certainly expects nothing less than a conference title and will want to control the race to make it happen.

Wake Forest’s relay hero Johanna Schulz is only the sixth fastest miler in the ACC this season. Her 4:41 result from earlier this season is strong, but it's not on the same level as Edwards. However, when you consider her (non-converted) 4:38 1600 meter split on a flat-track, the gap closes considerably. A confidence boosting performance like that could do wonders for Schulz entering this weekend.

Historically speaking, it is unlikely that this race will be won in the mid-4:30's. It will likely go out slow and come down to who brings the best kick. In this race, Sarah Edwards has experience in her favor. Johanna Schulz, however, is quickly establishing herself as someone to watch on a team that is quickly gaining traction as a national-caliber program.

I, for one, am excited to see what happens.

It would be an injustice not to mention some of the other very qualified contenders in this race. Florida State’s Maudie Skyring has run 4:37.64 and currently sits at NCAA #22 on the collegiate leaderboard. Skyring will need to move up eight spots to be in a qualifying position for NCAA’s, but that is the difference of just over one second. She could be incentivized to push the pace and try to secure a last-minute qualifier, making her a key name who could completely dictate how this race unfolds.

Boston College’s Paige Duca has run 4:39 this season, but holds a personal best of 4:37. We can expect her to be in the mix as well. Tactically, she is very underrated.

Virginia Tech’s Lauren Berman has run 4:39 and Duke’s Michaela Reinhart has run 4:40.99 this season. With a tight group of talented women, this will be much more than a two-person race in what will likely be one of the deeper mile fields of the weekend.

2. Men’s 3k: Peter Seufer vs Ari Klau (vs Maybe Nuguse?)

The men’s 3k is one of the more top-heavy distance events in the ACC. Five men have run under 8:00 and the three mentioned above are solidly ahead of the rest.

Yared Nuguse ran a solo 7:46 (with pacers) back on February 7th, which led the NCAA at the time. While Nuguse is typically more of a miler, 7:46 shows that he has no problem moving up in distance. The only issue, however, is that Nuguse hasn't run the mile yet this season. It is very possible (maybe even likely) that he forgoes the 3k and runs the mile (but more on that in a later section).

Nuguse is good enough that he could win the 3k, the mile and anchor Notre Dame’s DMR to a win. Whether or not he ends up running all three is up in the air (and somewhat unlikely).

Virginia Tech’s Peter Seufer has been on a tear all year long. After taking 4th place at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in the fall, he has run personal bests of 4:05 in the mile, 7:48 (flat-track converted) for 3000 meters and 13:36 for 5000 meters. Seufer was already one of the best distance runners in the ACC, but now he has become one of the best in the nation. Based on his successes so far, Seufer will likely be considered the favorite if Nuguse is held out of the 3k instead of the mile.

Coming into this season, Virginia’s Ari Klau was a good, but not necessarily amazing, runner. His personal bests of 13:57 for 5000 meters and (formerly) 8:03 for 3000 meters were impressive and made him competitive at the ACC level. Nationally, however, his success was limited.

That all changed at the Boston University Valentine Invitational when he ran 7:51.57 for 3000 meters. As a result, Klau immediately went from being a potential ACC medalist this weekend (he was 4th in the 3k last year) to a potential national qualifier.

Klau currently sits at NCAA #17 which is an agonizing place to be. He will have to rely on at least one scratch to get a spot on the starting line at NCAA’s. However, Nationals will not be Klau’s focus this weekend. He has a great opportunity to contend for an ACC title against some of the nation’s best and possibly bring Vin Lananna his first ACC individual title as head coach of the Cavaliers.

Klau has a great kick and it's clear that his strength has been bumped up a notch this year. He could be the perfect challenger to someone like Seufer.

3. Nuguse vs The Clock?

The reigning NCAA 1500 meter champion has yet to race his primary event this season. Yared Nuguse is a 3:38 1500 meter runner and a 3:57 miler. He has split 3:54 on the 1600 meter leg of the DMR and he's an incredibly clutch runner with a jaw-dropping finishing kick who can win a race in pretty much any manner that he wants.

Last year, Yared Nuguse more or less soloed his way to an ACC mile title in 3:57. This shows that he can win under any circumstances, whether the race is fast or slow, regardless of whether or not anyone decides to go with him. If he chooses to pursue the mile, he will be the clear favorite to win ACC gold.

Nuguse could go chasing an individual ACC title in the mile and just like last year, could end up with another national qualifying time. However, an individual NCAA title might not be his focus. Last year, Nuguse opted to skip the individual mile at the Indoor National Championships in favor of an all-in DMR effort.

In case you missed it, Notre Dame won that title thanks to a thrilling anchor leg from Nuguse.

There is no mistaking that Notre Dame places an emphasis on team titles and team success. It would be unsurprising to see Notre Dame once again go after the NCAA DMR title at the expense of chasing individual crowns. If this is indeed the route they choose to take, then Nuguse picking up an individual national qualifier in the mile doesn’t mean much as he will ultimately scratch the event anyway (especially with a strong 3k time already in his back pocket).

On the other hand, he has the top time in the 3000 meters and will have nearly 48 hours between the DMR (Thursday night) and the 3k (Saturday afternoon), making that a potentially more attractive double.

If Nuguse does opt out of the mile, will one of the biggest stories of the meet be the lack of a clear title favorite in the mile? Six ACC men have qualifying times of 4:00 or faster this season. Those men are:

  • Diego Zarate (Virginia Tech) - 3:58.06 flat-track converted

  • Zach Facioni (Wake Forest) - 3:58.58 flat-track converted

  • Kasey Knevelbaard (Florida State) - 3:59.00

  • AJ Ernst (Virginia) - 3:59.38

  • Nathan Henderson (Syracuse) - 4:00.52

  • Jack Joyce (Virginia Tech) - 4:00.58 flat-track converted

Any of these men could be capable of bringing home the title if Nuguse is not in the field. For some of these guys, having Nuguse in the race could be the best thing for them. Kasey Knevelbaard and AJ Ernst are both just outside of the national qualifying picture for the mile. If Nuguse is also chasing a time, they could jump on the train in an effort to chase that time. While their chances of winning an ACC title may go down, their chances of getting a spot at NCAA’s go up.

Zach Facioni might also like the idea of a fast race as he is just barely inside the bubble at NCAA #15 and improving upon that time would provide him with a cushion if other conferences record fast marks. Facioni tends to stick to the 3k/5k in championship races, but if he is primed for the mile and Nuguse is not in the race, this might be his best shot at a title as he avoids having to race Peter Seufer (and likely Nuguse) in either of the longer events.

However, guys like Zarate and Joyce may prefer a Nuguse-less field. They're tactically very underrated and have displayed impressive middle distance speed. A slightly slower pace could play into their favor.

4. Women's 3k: Freshman Phenom vs VT Veteran

Kelsey Chmiel came into the NC State program this past fall and immediately made an impact. From taking 4th at the ACC Cross Country Championships to 22nd at the NCAA XC Championships, her cross country season backed up why she was seen as one of the best recruits in the nation.

Two weeks after the NCAA Cross Country Championships, she wasted no time in making a statement on the track. In a ludicrously fast 5k at Boston University, she ran 16:02 behind some of the fastest collegiate times ever run on an indoor track. A couple of months later, she returned to Boston to run an NCAA #16 time of 9:10.74 in the 3000 meters, putting herself in position to run at the Indoor Nationals Championships.

While Kelsey Chmiel has established herself as someone to watch on the NCAA level, she is set to make an even bigger impact in the ACC. In the 3k and 5k, Chmiel is the second-fastest performer behind Virginia Tech’s Sara Freix in both events.

Freix has a three second edge over Chmiel in the 3k and leads by 10 seconds in the 5k. Both of these gaps are significant, but still small enough that Chmiel is on the same playing field as Freix. As a senior, Sara Freix has the edge over Chmiel in terms of experience and the number of races under her belt, but she will also be racing for her first individual ACC titles.

Both the 3k and 5k are pretty deep after these two, so it is by no means guaranteed that one of them will win either/both events. Women like Lauren White (Boston College), Nicole Feagans (Georgia Tech), Savannah Shaw (NC State) and Michaela Reinhart (Duke) have all had very impressive and underrated performances this season. Each of these women have shown promising range and great consistency. In a championship setting, they'll be primed to contest with the top of the field (assuming they run the 3000 meters)

The same can be said for women like Emeline Delanis (Boston College) and Elizabeth Funderburk (Florida State) in the 5000 meters.

Although Chmiel is not the singular favorite in either event, her status as a newcomer will make any success more impactful. With young talent, the conversation naturally moves in the direction of what they may be capable of in the future.

5. Potential DMR Implications

The weekend prior to conference weekend is generally a pretty quiet one. Some mid-majors have their championships before everyone else while the rest of the NCAA takes the weekend off from racing to gear up for championship season.

And then there are the teams who went all-in on the DMR.

The Alex Wilson Invitational and the JDL DMR Invitational were some of the most anticipated meets of the year, as top teams from all over the country flocked to South Bend, Indiana and Winston-Salem, North Carolina in search of national qualifying performances.

For a refresher on what went down, check out our Group Chat article breaking down the action.

Two big things we hit on were the percent chances that the Washington men and the Duke women keep their NCAA #12 positions to make it to the national meet (the final qualifying spot). Answers ranged from 3% to 50% for Washington and 0% to only 15% for Duke.

In other words, Duke has work to do.

The MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) Championship is also this weekend, and will serve as a last-chance qualifying attempt in many different events. The entire PAC-12 competes in the MPSF and competition will be steep as teams aim to break into the top 12 nationally.

Notably, the Oregon women need a faster qualifying time and will almost surely get one if they chase it.

Other women’s teams like Utah (MPSF) and Georgetown (BIG East) may make last-ditch efforts to get a spot on the line at NCAA’s. Only one team will have to beat Duke’s flat track converted 11:06.57 to bump the Blue Devils out.

Combine Duke’s need to hold their spot with the fact that Notre Dame is currently three seconds outside of the qualifying bubble, and we could have a race on our hands.

The question then becomes...just how much faster will the qualifying time get?

In the Group Chat, we gave Duke an average chance of 4.33% that they keep their spot. From our point of view, it is all but inevitable that the last time in gets faster. If Duke wants to keep their spot and Notre Dame wants to take one last stab at qualifying, they will need to run fast.

On the men’s side, the approach will be a bit different. Teams will be racing to get into NCAA’s rather than hold a spot they already have (although Virginia Tech is currently at NCAA #10 and may want some more security). In our Group Chat article, we gave the Washington men an average chance of 27% that they keep their spot. While they will likely also be racing to improve their time, teams from all around the country will be looking to take it, including in the ACC.

With teams like Penn State and Michigan (BIG 10) and Georgetown and maybe even Villanova (BIG East) trying to accomplish the same goal at their conference meets, the ACC teams on the edge of qualifying will be under a lot of pressure. Realistically, they may need to shoot for something a few seconds faster than the current NCAA #12 time of 9:35.64.

The Virginia men are currently ranked at NCAA #16 and less than two seconds away from Washington. North Carolina is less than a second behind Virginia. No team wants to miss out by such a small margin, so it will not be surprising if these two teams go after qualifiers. If both programs put their best teams on the line, both will benefit. Additionally, if Notre Dame wants the title (which they almost surely do), they will have to go with the fast pace as well.

Luckily, the DMR is the first running event of the meet on Thursday night, so everyone will be fresh. On the other hand, the ACC DMR will be the first of the weekend, so these squads will really need to go for it in anticipation of multiple teams running faster at other meets.

Sneaking into the NCAA #12 spot on Thursday might not be good enough come Sunday.