It's an exciting time of the year for track and field fans. The school year is coming to a close, but the NCAA action is just beginning to ramp up with Payton Jordan and Conference Championships slated for the next two weeks. With only two major weekends of competition left before we get to the national qualifying rounds, we're beginning to see how the landscape of each distance event is beginning to unfold.
Although there are still plenty of changes and new names that will enter the rankings in the coming weeks, we still have a general idea of what most athletes will attempt to run at the Eastern and Western Regional Championships. However, there are a good number of individuals that have an interesting choice to make between a variety of events. We listed a few of the top names that will have to choose one event over the other (or maybe double). Keep in mind that athletes that are qualified in the 5000 and 10,000 meters will most likely double in both unless they want to go all-in for the 5000 (since that is the last event of regionals).
Carlos Villarreal (Arizona)
One of the biggest breakout stars of the NCAA this past spring (and winter) has been Carlos Villarreal. After an indoor season where he earned a 3:57 mile PR and qualified for Nationals, the Arizona sophomore has continued to show that he is the real deal. He ran away with the win in the 2nd fastest section of the Bryan Clay 1500 to secure a time of 3:38. Villarreal later came back this past weekend and rode a Saruni-led pace to drop a massive personal best of 1:46. He now ranks 5th in the 800 and 7th in the 1500.
If anyone has the resume to pull-off the rare 800/1500 double, Villarreal would be the guy. However, I seriously doubt that he'll attempt both events in the regional preliminary rounds. Villarreal has built his reputation in the 1500/mile distance and is familiar with the competition he would be racing in this event. In the 800, he's only run under 1:49 once and lacks the experience of racing more than one elite half-miler in a single race.
Brian Barraza (Houston)
Entering this season, Brian Barraza was considered to be a contender for the national title in the steeplechase (and he is still is). With a lifetime best of 8:32 and a seasonal best of 8:41 (NCAA #3), no one can doubt that Barraza is an extraordinary talent. Of course, there is more to this Houston senior than just the steeplechase. Just two weekends ago, Barraza battled a deep field of long-distance studs at Mt. SAC to finish as the 3rd best collegiate in a time of 13:38 (NCAA #7), a 14 second PR.
When we look at the scheduling of the preliminary rounds (and base it off of the 2017 schedule), we find an interesting opportunity for Barraza. The steeplechase would take place on Friday night (as the last event) while the 5000 meters would be run late on Saturday, giving Barraza a full day to recover for the double. At the same time, the 5000 meters would be good insurance just in case Barraza failed to qualify for Nationals out of the steeplechase. We certainly wouldn't want a repeat of 2016 where Barraza had qualified for both the 10k and 5k, but opted to scratch the 5k and go all-in on the 10k despite there being a two day recovery period. Barraza finished 13th in that 10k and ended his season a bit too early.
Cole Rockhold (Colorado State)
Cole Rockhold has been one of the key pieces of this Colorado State roster for a long time now and considering his career resume, it's easy to see why. Rockhold brings a lot to the table in terms of range and he consistently produces results. As of right now, Rockhold ranked 20th in the 1500 with a 3:41 while his 5k of 13:40 is ranked 13th. Granted, I think Rockhold is someone talented enough to go under 3:40, but the 1500 field is shaping up to be so incredibly deep this season.
Although he could probably qualify for Nationals in the 1500, his familiarity with the 5000 will be the best opportunity for him. However, this is also the guy who attempted the mile/3k double at Indoor Nationals this past winter and walked away as an All-American in the mile. We'll just have to wait and see.
Sean Tobin (Ole Miss)
A veteran like Sean Tobin has always been in the national qualifying conversation and this season has certainly been no different. As of right now, Tobin ranks 29th in the 1500 (3:42) and 27th in the steeplechase (8:55). I envision that his 1500 and steeplechase rankings will be close/relatively the same by the end of the regular season. That leaves Tobin with an interesting decision to make.
If he decided to double, Tobin would have to run a 1500 prelim on Thursday, the steeplechase on Friday, and the 1500 final on Saturday. That's a lot to ask from a guy who has only run the steeplechase once in his entire career.
Despite the long weekend, the double is still realistic. In fact, if you look at the rankings in the East region, Tobin is currently ranked as the 7th best steeplechaser while he is "only" ranked the 11th best 1500 runner. That just shows you that the steeplechase in the West region is incredibly strong.
At the end of the day, Tobin will most likely pursue the event that he is the most familiar with and the event that he has had the most success in (the 1500). However, the steeplechase is still a very real possibility and if he drops his time even more at SEC's, then we could see a change of plans at the East Regional Championships.
Waleed Suliman (Ole Miss)
Rarely do you ever see a true freshman like Waleed Suliman who is not only ranked at the top of his respective events, but also has plenty of options to choose from at Regionals. As of right now, Suliman is the top ranked 800 runner in the East region with a 1:47.29 and is 3rd in the East with a 3:39 (behind Justyn Knight and teammate Robert Domanic).
Honestly, it wouldn't be crazy to suggest that Suliman attempts the rare 800/1500 double. The only reason I'm going to say that he wont is simply because he's so young and because we've never seen him double aside from the 800/DMR double at SEC's during indoors (where he had an average showing).
If I was forced to choose which option I see Suliman taking, I'm going to say that he'll try the 800. As of right now, he's the top seed in that event and younger guys have typically found a lot of success in the half-mile compared to the 1500. Just take a look at the past two NCAA record holders for the 800...
Additionally, Suliman scratching from the 1500 would mean that there is one less sub-3:40 guy fighting for a qualifying spot. A scenario like that can only help teammate Robert Domanic who isn't necessarily the best tactical runner.
Abraham Alvarado (BYU)
Abraham Alvarado has to be one of the more underrated competitors in the NCAA (although I probably say that about everyone). The BYU mid-distance specialist has had seasonal bests of 1:48 and 3:41 so far this spring and is coming off of a winter season where he became an All-American in the 800. However, just because his focus has historically been on the 800 doesn't mean that's struggling in the 1500. So far this season, Alvarado has run 3:41 twice which is a nice sign of consistency and strength. He's set to run the 800 at Payton Jordan this weekend where I expect him to dip under that 1:48 mark.
Just like Suliman, Alvarado has two events to choose from and his West region ranking between the 800 (12th) and 1500 (13th) is almost the same as of right now. The only difference is that he'll have to face a West region that has far more depth at the top of the rankings. That could complicate things when it's time for him to choose if he will scratch or not.
It's a tough decision to make, but if we're being bold, his best bet may be to double. I think Alvarado is one of the few half-milers that could actually attempt the 800/1500 double and still make it to Nationals. Villarreal doesn't have a lot of experience in the 800 and Suliman is still super young. Alvarado, on the other hand, is a veteran in the 800 and has also shown that he can consistently produce results in the 1500. Although there is plenty of risk involved, there is also a lot of cushion just in case something goes wrong.
Alvarado's consistency in the 1500 and his proven ability to get through rounds at Indoor Nationals is a great display of strength to someone like myself. With a massive group of top ranked individuals in both events, it wouldn't be unrealistic if Alvarado struggled to get out of a preliminary round and ended his season early. Flukes happen and not everything goes perfectly. If he chose to double, the BYU senior would have a backup plan just in case something went wrong.
Sean McGorty (Stanford)
I like to think that this decision may be a little easier to make than some of the others. As of right now, McGorty currently owns season bests of 3:40 (NCAA #14) and 13:41 (NCAA #15). If I had to choose for him, I would pick the 5000. There is so much depth in the 1500 and those races typically turn into tactical, sit-and-kick affairs. Although the 5000 can turn tactical as well, you don't need the same kind of leg speed for that event as you do for the 1500. Plus, the 5000 was the event that McGorty ran at the Olympic trials.
There hasn't been much that the Stanford ace hasn't seen in this event. Plus, he was out-kicked by three (very talented) Oregon Ducks at the Stanford Invite 1500. That's why, with all of these things in mind, I think McGorty will opt to race the 5000.