The Big 12 may be one of the most underrated conferences in track and field. While conferences such as the PAC-12 and BIG 10 may garnish a reputation for sending athletes to national meets, the teams in the BIG 12 often produce some of the best runners in the NCAA.
The conference has produced recent stars such as Bryce Hoppel of Kansas and Sinclaire Johnson of Oklahoma State, as well as former national champions like Kaela Edwards and Sharon Lokedi. This three day meet kicks off the distance events this evening with a pair of 10,000 meter races and continues through Sunday where we will see top NCAA athletes face-off. Below, we break down some of the highlights heading into the action, along with which athletes to watch this weekend.
Can anyone stop Bryce Hoppel?
The Kansas senior has been a perennial star in the NCAA 800. In 2018, he finished 4th at the NCAA Outdoor Championships which highlighted his career until this past winter. In 2019, Hoppel has been on another level. The Jayhawk has not lost a race since last year's NCAA final and is coming off his first national title in the indoor 800. He currently ranks #2 in the NCAA with a mark of 1:45.87 and comes into this weekend as the top seed in the event by almost two full seconds.
If anyone can beat him this weekend, it may be Texas Tech’s Jonah Koech. The UTEP transfer currently ranks #11 in the NCAA with a mark of 1:47.21 (at altitude). At the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Koech finished 6th overall, only two places behind Hoppel. However, this year has been a different story. While Koech has run a fast outdoor mark, he failed to make the finals at the Indoor National Championships while Hoppel came away with the victory.
Although Koech is certainly a talented runner, this will not be the weekend Hoppel’s winning streak comes to an end.
Will Oklahoma State sweep the women’s 1500 podium?
Oklahoma State has a great reputation for producing talented 1500 runners. Two recent examples are Chad Noelle and Kaela Edwards, both NCAA champions in the event. This year, OK State will be looking to make the presence felt in the event by sweeping the podium on the women’s side. The team is lead by the only returning conference champion from 2018, Ariane Ballner. Right behind her is the 2018 runner-up Molly Sughroue, and to round out the trio is Jenny Celis.
Only four women entered this weekend have broken the 4:20 barrier in the 1500 - three of them are listed above. The other? Destiny Collins of Texas. Keeping Collins off the podium will be no easy task for the Cowgirls, but the trio will benefit from the tactics of championship style racing this weekend.
The rise of Ryan Smeeton
Running 8:41 in the steeplechase is an impressive mark. Until a couple of weeks ago, that was Ryan Smeeton’s personal best and an 18 second improvement from his 2017 best. That mark would currently put him at #8 in the NCAA, a great ranking for an athlete who did not make the NCAA finals in 2017.
Then Payton Jordan happened.
The Oklahoma State steeplechaser put together the best race of his life last weekend and smashed his personal best (again) running 8:27 which ranks him at #1 in the NCAA. That mark is a 32 second improvement on his personal best from 2017 and now makes him the favorite to win the national title this June. The BIG 12 Championships will be his first stepping-stone in that process.
Smeeton’s victory will not be easy this weekend. He faces two sub-9 competitors in Texas teammates John Rice and Alex Rogers. On paper, Smeeton should run away with the victory, but until last weekend, his personal best was only slightly better than Rogers’s mark of 8:46. This weekend will be a chance for Smeeton to prove his Payton Jordan performance was no fluke and validate his status as the new NCAA favorite.
A handful of men and women will be making their season debuts in longer distance events this weekend which could impact the regional meets. On the women’s side, Callie Logue of Iowa State will be making her first appearance in the 10,000 for 2019 and will be the heavy favorite to win the event.
After winning the BIG 12 XC title last fall, Logue had a disappointing national meet where she finished 53rd. She currently ranks #9 in the West region for the 5000 after running 15:40 at Stanford back in April. A solid performance in the 10,000 this weekend could present options for the regional meet, where she will be looking to qualify for her first NCAA Championship on the track.
In the 5000, Oklahoma State teammates Molly Sughroue and Sinclaire Johnson will be making their 2019 debuts for this event. Sughroue is also entered in the 1500 this weekend wheres Johnson is entered in the 800. For Johnson, the race presents a great chance to earn a BIG 12 title, but likely will not impact her regional meet plans. She currently ranks #3 in the 1500 for the West Region and should easily move through to NCAA's barring any disaster.
The plan for Sughroue is less clear. She currently sits at #20 in the West Region for 1500, but may have a better chance in the 5000. She would need to run sub 16:23 this weekend to move into a qualifying position for the regional meet, a mark that is certainly attainable for someone who has run 9:18 for 3000.
On the men’s side, Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State will toe the line for his first 10k of the season. His current personal best of 30:56 should easily get smashed unless the races becomes extremely tactile. The event will pit the 3rd place NCAA XC finisher against Oklahoma State senior and 29:13 man, Hassan Abdi. Both athletes have a solid chance of moving through to NCAA's this season, but Kurgat will first need to run faster than 29:25 if he hopes to qualify for the regional meet. In a similar fashion, Abdi will be making his season debut in the 5000 this weekend. His personal best is 13:41.
Other notable mentions:
Sam Worley of Texas will be the favorite to win the men’s 1500. He currently sits at #5 in the NCAA with a mark of 3:38.64.
The women’s 800 features 13 athletes who have run sub-2:10 this season. This might be the most competitive event at the meet.