Discussion by Ben Weisel and Sam Ivanecky
The Dr. Sander Columbia Challenge hosted at the Armory, fields a great mix of collegiate and professional talent. Many athletes will be making their indoor season debuts for their main events and we could see a handful of individuals throw down NCAA Indoor Championship qualifying marks.
Sam: While there are a lot of notable names throughout the meet, the event that stands out right away is the women’s invitational 800 meter race. We have three women from The Stride Report's Indoor Top 25 rankings in Carley Thomas (Washington), Nia Akins (Penn), and Danae Rivers (Penn State). Ben, right off the bat, who do you think is the top collegiate?
Ben: I like Danae Rivers in this type of setting. She has run with the pros before and put down some quick times. As this may go out quick, I think Rivers is the favorite to hang with the field and throw down an NCAA leading time. She's used to assertive paces.
Sam: Yeah, it’s definitely hard to bet against Rivers. She seems to have a knack for running well at The Armory after she dropped a 4:29 mile there at Millrose last year. I’m very interested to see what Carley Thomas does in her NCAA debut. The Washington freshman ran 2:01 (outdoors) before heading to Washington. She could be a dark horse to win an indoor title this season.
Ben: Thomas is certainly the one to watch this year. We have seen what Akins and Rivers can do, but we have yet to see Thomas on the collegiate stage.
Sam: Maybe the most enticing thing about this race is that we also have a slew of pros, including Ajee Wilson, who will (hopefully) pull the collegiates to some fast marks. Give me your order for the three NCAA stars and what does the fastest one run?
Ben: I’ll go with Rivers, Akins, Thomas (in that order) with the Penn State product running 2:02. I feel like we haven’t mentioned Akins enough, but she finished 2nd in both NCAA Championships last year in the 800 meters and is coming off a 54.9 for 400 meters last weekend. I still like Rivers more, but I think Akins will give her a run for her money. As for Thomas, I’m just not ready to fully commit to her yet.
Sam: Akins is certainly not to be overlooked. I felt bad not mentioning her much, but when you’re in the company of Rivers and Thomas, it’s easy to get left in the shadow. I think I’ll take Rivers-Thomas-Akins with Rivers dropping a blistering 2:01.67. My gut says that Ajee Wilson will win in sub-2:00 and consequently pull the others in her wake.
Ben: It will also be interesting to see how new pro and former Texas A&M Aggie Sammy Watson does as well. She is younger than both Akins and Rivers.
Sam: I saw her name on the entries and thought it makes for a very unique scenario. We saw her leave Texas A&M very early and this meet could give a little insight into just how good of a decision that was for her.
Ben: Absolutely. Why don’t we move on to the men’s invitational 3k? The three NCAA runners competing are Ryan Adams and Aaron Wier (both of Furman) as well as Alex Masai (Hofstra). Wier and Adams are coming off of some impressive mile performances at Vanderbilt while Masai had a great cross country season. Who do you like in this matchup?
Sam: I have to take Adams. He had an excellent cross country season and his early-season personal best in the mile (3:57) points to the fact that he is already in great shape. Wier is certainly very talented, but I don’t think he is on the level of Adams yet. As for Masai, I was thinking about this earlier and I’m really curious to see if he can run well on the track after a rough opener at Boston University.
Ben: I think Masai will bounce back. He has a PR of 7:59 while Adams is running in only the second 3000 meter race of his career. If this race doesn’t go out quick, then I like the Adams pick, but I think this is going to be run under 7:55 which plays into Masai’s hands more in my opinion.
Sam: Do you think either of them will run a time that eventually qualifies them for the NCAA Indoor Championships?
Ben: No, I think that will take 7:51 or under this year, and I think that might be a little out of their range.
Sam: Agreed. I don’t know if I see either of them making the indoor finals in this event, but somewhere in the 7:58 to 8:02 range this weekend seems reasonable.
Sam: Jumping to another loaded field…the women’s invitational mile is stacked and features two collegiates: Lydia Olivere (Villanova) and Whittni Orton (BYU). Here's the question on my mind. Is Orton talented enough to win the mile this year?
Ben: I think she certainly is. The NCAA mile field is wide-open this year, and after the cross country season she had, plus the 5k time that she ran at BU, I think you could make the case that she is the most well-rounded distance runner in the country.
Sam: In my eyes, Orton is the ultimate dark horse. She was hurt so frequently that I feel like I haven’t seen her put together consecutive seasons. Now that she's finally healthy, I think the sky's the limit. Yes, Dani Jones is probably the mile favorite, but like Orton, she could run a number of events. Orton, to me, is maybe the most unpredictable runner in the NCAA right now.
Ben: So what event do you see her doing? Additional question, how fast will the women’s invitational mile be?
Sam: I think Orton will wait to make her decision based on what she runs later in the season...and what Dani Jones runs. If Jones is locked into the mile, then maybe Orton goes for the 3000 meters, plus a leg of a stacked BYU DMR? As for the winner, I imagine Nikki Hiltz is going to run right around 4:28 to 4:30, so Orton could be around 4:30 to 4:31.
Ben: I agree on both counts. I pitched the idea of Orton running the 3k plus the DMR on the last episode of The Blue Oval podcast. Orton has run 4:34 before and I would be shocked if she didn’t better that mark.
Sam: Let’s talk men’s mile. The field has a handful of collegiates who could run under the four minute barrier this weekend. Of the bunch, who is your favorite to be the top runner from the NCAA?
Ben: This is a tough question because there are plenty of top options. How about Kieran Tuntivate from Harvard? He’s been on a tear and while he’s not necessarily a miler, I do see him throwing down a big PR this weekend.
Sam: His name definitely stands out. He’s a gritty runner who seems to find a way to compete no matter the circumstance and I really like that during indoor track where anything can happen. I forgot Matt Owens even had eligibility left, but his personal best of 4:01 makes me think that he (and maybe others) could go sub-4:00 this weekend. It’s a shame that all of the collegiate guys are in heat two and aren't mixed in with the pros.
Ben: I’m honestly not sure if anyone will go sub-4:00, but another name to look out for is Conor Lundy of Princeton who has run 4:06 and is coming off a solid fall season. I do like the Owens pick, though. He probably has the best chance of going sub-4:00.
Sam: Lundy almost has a “home track” advantage…right? Sorta? I agree that there are guys capable of running sub-4:00 who probably won’t this weekend. If I had to guess, the winner will be in the 4:01 to 4:02 range.
Ben: I guess if anyone has the most home track advantage it would be Lundy. I think 4:01 or 4:02 is about right. Why don’t we move on to the second fastest heat of the women’s 800 meters? We have two top BYU athletes (Anna Camp-Bennett and Lauren Ellsworth) competing. How do you think the two stars of my fantasy track team will do this weekend?
Sam: BYU is a team that seems to show up well at every race. You rarely see them have an off-day and I think Camp-Bennett and Ellsworth will put down very solid marks this weekend. Both were in our consideration for the preseason power rankings and could be contenders at this year’s Indoor National Championships. I think the BYU duo runs in the 2:04 to 2:05 range this weekend for a very solid opener.
Ben: I hope you are right because if they do run in that range, then they will be in a good position to qualify individually for NCAA's this March. Even if they just miss out, they will be key members of a very strong Cougar DMR team.
Sam: I have a hard time seeing them miss out on making the National Championships this season. I also really like their odds if/when they do because they are held at altitude this year and guess where BYU also is?
Ben: That’s a fair point, I forgot about the altitude factor. It will be important for them to start out the season strong this weekend so they don’t have to worry about qualifying for the rest of the season.
Sam: Ellsworth or Camp-Bennett...who wins?
Ben: I’ll go with Camp-Bennett by a hair.
Sam: I agree, but a really small hair. Last race I want to touch on - the men’s invitational 800 meters. All but one of the men in the field are professional runners. The one who isn’t? Matt Wisner of Duke. Does Wisner run well enough to get a spot at the National Championships with his time this weekend?
Ben: Wisner ran a converted 1:47 last year on the JDL flat track, but he just ran a 2:25 in the 1000 meters last weekend, finishing 2nd to Virginia Tech's Jack Joyce. I don’t know if I see him running the 1:48 low that he needs to qualify for NCAA's this weekend. The race will certainly be fast with Robby Andrews, Isaiah Harris, and Eric Sowinski in it, but I don’t know if the Blue Devil will be able to hang.
Sam: What concerns me is that I don’t know if any of the pros will take it out hot. Andrews is notoriously a kicker and he is coming back from a long injury. Sowinski generally runs pretty even, but always seems to come on late. With how early it is, I would not be surprised if Wisner only managed a 1:49 or 1:50 this weekend.
Ben: Agreed. It will likely be a rapid last 400 meter after a pedestrian first two laps which will make it that much harder for Wisner to get his qualifying time. Either way though, it will be a fun race to watch.
Sam: “Rapid last 400” is giving me horrific flashbacks of my days as an 800 meter runner when I was just trying to keep my legs moving on that third lap. Even so, I agree that this should be a very entertaining race. Any final bold predictions or takeaways that we’ll get from this weekend?
Ben: We didn’t mention her much in the mile preview, but I think Lydia Olivere will run sub-4:35 to punch her ticket to NCAA's. She ran very well this past fall and I think this race sets up well for her.
Sam: Woah. That’s bold...but fair. Villanova runners have done well here in the past (i.e Nicole Hutchinson, Rachel McArthur). I’m personally excited to watch Orton run. She has the craziest potential with how much of an unknown she has been over her collegiate career. I’ll give her an NCAA leading 4:29 in an epic battle with Hiltz.