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First Thoughts: Rising Stars & Breaking Monumental Mile Barriers

When I wrote our "First Thoughts" article recapping all of Friday's action, I truthfully thought, "There's no way we'll have that much to talk about on Saturday."

That, of course, was wildly inaccurate.

Instead, Saturday treated us to even more top-tier performances from some of the nation's best distance runners. Despite there being a pandemic and the NCAA landscape split between cross country and indoor track, fans of the sport are still seeing an immense amount of depth that you would typically see during a normal year -- and there is still one month to go until the indoor national meet kicks off.

While we can't necessarily highlight every single amazing performance in this recap (there were too many) we can dive into the ones that we felt were the most impactful.

Let's dive in, shall we?

Aaliyah Miller (2:02) and Laurie Barton (2:03) Validate Early-Season Success

Coming into this season, most of our attention when it came to the women's 800 meters was on Athing Mu and Laurie Barton (and Sage Hurta if you were anticipating her return).

So far, Barton has been everything we thought she could be. Her 800 meter debut earlier this season resulted in a promising mark of 2:05, but her 2:42 for 1000 meters one week later indicated that she could run much faster (as did her personal bests).

Sure enough, the Clemson star produced an excellent time of 2:03.91 this past weekend, forcing us to keep her in mind when talking about the women who could threaten Mu's goal of a national title at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March.

Barton's 2:03.91 was just barely off from her personal best, but she's trending in the right direction and could end up peaking perfectly for the national meet. If that were to happen, then she could be argued as the biggest sleeper pick in that women's national 800 meter field this year.

Speaking of trending in the direction, how about Aaliyah Miller? The Baylor ace has been a historically strong talent in the middle distances, but hasn't always been at her best over the past few seasons, at least not in the 800 meters.

However, after running an altitude converted 2:04 the other weekend, we were intrigued as to what she could possibly throw down throughout the rest of the season. Was that 2:04 performance just a fluke? Or was she actually at a point where she was in top-tier fitness?

Turns out, it was the latter, as Miller dropped a huge time of 2:02.35 for 800 meters this past weekend. Despite that being the third instance where she has run under 2:03 in her college career, it still gave her a new personal best, regardless of the season.

Historically, Miller has been an outstanding talent who hasn't always been able to showoff her true potential. That, however, seems to be changing. With a month to go, the Baylor star will have the ability to further fine tune her race tactics and carry her momentum into the postseason.

When it comes to the 800 meters, few women in the NCAA have as much experience in the event as she does.

Charlie Hunter Runs 1:45 After Running 3:53 Night Before, Oregon Teammates Dip Under 1:50

Naturally, Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker's mile performances from Friday night will be the talk of the entire weekend -- and probably the entire year. However, teammate Charlie Hunter probably had the most impressive double of any collegiate this past weekend.

The Aussie Oregon star ran 3:53 for the mile on Friday night, and then came back with a massive statement of his own, running 1:45.59 in the 800 meters, reminding everyone that he is truly one of the best distance talents in the entire NCAA.

Despite some people (such as myself) previously viewing him primarily as a miler, Hunter has since taken over the top spot on the national leaderboard when it comes to the 800 meters and frankly, it wouldn't be shocking if he stayed at that spot for the rest of the season.

Hunter had an outstanding run, but now we have an interesting conflict. With the Aussie star now boasting a personal best of 1:45, should he go all-in for the men's 800 meters and scratch out of the mile? Should Oregon even field him in their DMR?

Oregon's DMR, in theory, should have no problem winning a national title with a 3:50 miler on the opening leg and a 3:50 miler on the anchor leg. Do they really need Hunter on the 800 leg? There's only 50 minutes between the 800 meter prelims and the DMR. Couldn't Oregon just get Reed Brown to try the mile/DMR double? Or just put any halfway decent 800 meter runner into that spot?

In my mind, that would make the most sense and it would give Hunter a chance to pursue a national title of his own in the 800 meters. If that were to happen, then the Ducks would be maximizing the potential team points they could score assuming Teare and Hocker take the top two spots in the mile finals.

As for the rest of the Oregon men, they wrapped up an outstanding weekend with some promising speed work. Sophomore Cole Hocker (1:48) fended off Teare (1:49) and Brown (1:49) to further flex his incredible fitness.

Meanwhile, teammate Luis Peralta, who was in the same race as Hunter, showed that his freshman year success was no fluke, running a new personal best of 1:47 and entering the All-American conversation. I wish there was more to talk about here, but truthfully, that result seem to be about right for someone of his caliber. The freshman to sophomore jump is plenty evident in Peralta's case.

Shafiqua Maloney Just Keeps Getting Better

It's easy to get distracted by the grand success of Arkansas' longer distance group. Lauren Gregory and Katie Izzo have been amazing, but the Razorbacks have been (almost) just as good in the middle distances.

Shafiqua Maloney doesn't have much experience in the 800 meters when you look at her career resume, but that lack of experience has also left her with an incredibly high ceiling. Since last winter, Maloney has toed the line for the 800 meters a total of six times. Out of those six times, she has improved her personal best in five separate instances.

That is, without question, some of the best progression that you're going to see out of any middle or longer distance runner in the NCAA this season. She just ran 2:04 this past weekend en route to a clutch win and seems to be an All-American lock.

Maloney may not have the firepower that top talents like Mu, Hurta, Miller and Barton do, but out of all of those women, she has easily been the most consistent and she easily has the most momentum.

The Washington State Men Are On the Rise

Prior to this season, we knew that Washington State had a few respectable distance talents scattered throughout their roster. However, what we saw out of them this past weekend was far better than what we were expecting.

Paul Ryan doesn't have any NCAA eligibility until the outdoor track season, but he just ran 3:57 this past weekend. That is a majorly impressive time, even for one of the more underrated milers in the nation. He's been competitive with top names before and has a plethora of fast marks on his resume that haven't been fully appreciated, mainly because he can't officially don a Washington State singlet until the spring.

However, the more impressive name this winter has been teammate Colton Johnsen. The WSU senior had a solid 2020 indoor track season, running a variety of strong marks in everything from the mile to the 3k to the 5k. His range was impressive, but his times needed a bit more improvement until he could be considered as a true national contender.

And based on his most recent results, he understood that.

Johnsen put together one of the better distance doubles of the entire weekend. On Friday night, he ran 13:43 for 5000 meters and then came back the next day to run a jaw-dropping time of 3:57 in the mile. When you pair those marks with his 7:56 (3k) performance from earlier in the season, it's fair to suggest that Johnsen has established himself as a guy who could eventually battle for an All-American spot.

His range is some of the best in the NCAA and he now has multiple nationally-competitive marks on his resume, almost all of them coming in the last few weeks.

And how about Zach Stallings? What about him?

The Washington State junior just ran 3:58 in the mile this past weekend, improving upon his prior personal best of 4:00 from earlier in the season. That past 4:00 mile performance suggested that he would be able to eventually dip under that mark, but to see Stallings convincingly run under that barrier after hovering around 4:02 to 4:07 last winter just makes his race that much more exciting.

Finally, let's chat about Reid Mueller. The Canadian distance talent ran unattached because, much like teammate Paul Ryan, doesn't have any indoor track eligibility remaining. However, he just ran 4:00 for the mile this past weekend in the same race as Johnsen, Ryan and Stallings.

I'll admit, I wasn't too high on Washington State's distance program coming into this season. I knew they had a few decent names, but everyone on this team seems to be clicking like they never have before.

It would be one thing if just one or two guys were having good seasons, but we're beginning to see major success from four different men in this program. I'm not sure what they're doing in Pullman, Washington, but it seems to be working.

Hurta & Gear Emerge as Mile National Title Favorites

I have been so wildly impressed by Sage Hurta. She has been flat-out amazing in her two races so far this winter. Despite all of the obstacles that she's had to face with injuries and the pandemic -- which should have made her rusty when she returned to competition, but it didn't -- the Colorado veteran has still emerged as one of the best overall distance talents in the country.

Running a 2:02 in her season debut was a massive statement to the rest of the NCAA, but her 4:31 mile this past weekend at the Iowa State Classic was arguably just as impressive. She completely soloed that effort and won by almost 16 seconds over the next fastest runner.

With the women's 800 meters looking far more top-heavy than we expected it to be, could Hurta choose to scratch out of the 800 and only focus on the mile when it comes to the NCAA Championships? That feels like the most logical approach if she wants to give herself the best chance of winning NCAA gold.

Of course, Hurta isn't the only one in the national title conversation for the mile. Arkansas ace Krissy Gear also ran a huge time of 4:31 at the Tyson Invitational, just 0.03 seconds behind Hurta's mark.

One could argue that Gear's performance was actually more impressive as she took down a loaded field which featured upper-echelon distance talents. Those names included Maudie Skyring, Lauren Gregory and Katie Izzo, as well as rising stars such as Amaris Tyynismaa, Aneta Konieczek and Gracie Hyde.

Gear has some of the best range in the NCAA, but the mile was always primed to be her best event. Just like her Arkansas teammates, she can do no wrong and seems like a true threat to Sage Hurta if the Colorado runner were to pursue the mile at the indoor national meet.

Gear has the keen understanding of how to execute race tactics, something that is often necessary to win a national title. It won't be easy, but NCAA gold is certainly possible for Gear after her most recent race.

Kipsang Posts Promising Double, Improves Mile to 3:56

Alabama's Eliud Kipsang has been having one heck of a season, but the results from around the country have left him a bit under the radar and maybe a bit underappreciated.

On Friday night, he won the men's 3000 meters at the Tyson Invitational with a personal best of 7:58. That was a strong time, but for someone who had run 3:57 in the mile the week prior, it wasn't all that surprising.

However, what was more impressive was seeing him come back the very next day to run yet another personal best in the mile, this time running 3:56. Back-to-back weeks running 3:57 and then 3:56, in addition to a sub-8:00 3k effort, deserves plenty of respect.

That consistency and ability to double throughout a weekend bodes well for Kipsang's chances at the national meet when he attempts to get through the preliminary rounds. He seems to have no problem following (or establishing) fast paces as shown by his multiple instances of running top mile marks.

Tyynismaa is the Real Deal

Speaking of impressive Alabama performances, I think it's safe to say that we have already found our "Most Improved" distance runner on the women's side for this indoor track season.

Amaris Tyynismaa is only a sophomore, but has rapidly ascended up the national ranks over the past couple of weeks, going from a respectable backend scorer for the Crimson Tide, to a true star who is now amongst the best in the NCAA.

After running 9:03 for 3000 meters seemingly out of nowhere the other weekend, Tyynismaa understandably caught our attention. However, just like everyone else, we needed to see another performance which validated that breakout result.

And of course, just like we asked, the Alabama runner went on to post an incredible time of 4:33 in the mile this past weekend at the Tyson Invitational. Yes, she did lose to Krissy Gear, but taking down Lauren Gregory, Katie Izzo, Maudie Skyring and a few others was a massive statement which let the rest of the NCAA know that Tyynismaa is the real deal.

The Alabama ace is proving to be just as dangerous as teammates Esther Gitahi and Mercy Chelangat. In fact, I would say that her past two performances have put her in a tier that is above those two.

The greater question remains as to how her performances will translate to the grass in cross country. Even so, the fact of the matter is that Alabama has yet another star in the making who could end up being a problem for established veterans at the indoor national meet.

Arkansas Men Load Up 5k, Adriaan Wildschutt Impresses in First Collegiate Indoor Track Race, Morris Looks Strong

When the entries for the Tyson Invitational were released, we saw that the Arkansas men were loading up the 5k with some of their best distance athletes. That gave us every indication that they were chasing national qualifying times which, of course, is exactly what happened.

Here were the 5k times from the top Razorback men...

1. Amon Kemboi (13:38)

3. Gilbert Boit (13:40)

4. Jacob McLeod (13:41)

5. Matt Young (13:42)

This is usually the point in the article where we dive into some deep analysis and try to pull major insights from these results. But honestly, these times are about what we expected from a lot of these guys.

Based on their cross country and past indoor performances, these marks seemed to be within their wheelhouse. McLeod and Young earned personal bests, but it's not like these times were so far out of reach that we were absolutely shocked by how well they ran (although McLeod's PR is a fairly big one).

However, what could be more impactful moving forward is Arkansas' potential ability to crowd the 5000 meter field at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Having numerous men in that race could allow the Razorbacks to dictate how the 5k plays out at the indoor national meet, although you could probably make a similar argument for the BYU men and Washington men (for now).

This is also assuming that these teams opt to seriously pursue the indoor national meet instead of cross country. That isn't a given.

As for Adriaan Wildschutt, his 13:39 performance was probably one of the more shocking results of the weekend. Why? Well, according to TFRRS, Wildschutt had never raced on an indoor track before, at least not in his collegiate career.

For a guy to transfer to Florida State this past winter, finish 3rd at the FSU Winter XC Classic, and then run 13:39 for 5000 meters in his first-ever indoor track race is wildly impressive.

We were worried about Wildschutt's consistency given certain postseason performances from him during his time at Coastal Carolina, but so far, he seems to be clicking on all cylinders and is now posting some of the best times of his career.

Finally, let's wrap up this section by talking about Graydon Morris. The Texas rookie looks incredible, running 13:48 for 5000 meters in his first collegiate 5k this past weekend. He has been on fire so far this season, running top times in the mile, 3k and 5k.

That 13:48 is the first performance that has really caught our attention in a major way and it wouldn't totally surprise us if Morris dipped under the four minute barrier for the mile later this year. He already boasts a personal best of 4:02 from earlier this month.

Bienenfeld & Sandusky Post Top 3k Times

It's no secret that Aaron Bienenfeld is a talented runner. We highlighted him as a key name who will be going to Oregon as a graduate transfer next fall and his performances overseas in 2020 certainly caught our attention.

Still, seeing him run 7:50 for 3000 meters on the indoor oval is a time that will still leave us impressed. That's a mark that should allow him to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships with relative ease. Assuming he runs at the indoor national meet, then that will be the first time in a while that he races against the top collegiates on a national stage.

Not far behind him was teammate Alec Sandusky who has had a breakout year in his own right. He just ran 7:53 for 3000 meters and is recently coming off of a strong 5th place finish at the AAC XC Championships.

That 7:53 mark leaves him at NCAA #9 right now for the 3000 meters. He should be in a good enough position to qualify for the NCAA Championships with that time, although you never know in today's weird landscape.

Important Men's Mile Performances to Highlight

There are now a total of 30 men who have run under four minutes in the mile so far this year. Typically, that wouldn't be a big deal. After all, we saw 35 collegiate men run under 4:00 for the mile during the 2020 indoor track season.

However, there is still an entire month to go before the NCAA Championships, leaving more time for this mile field to get ever deeper.

Not only that, but the split responsibilities between cross country and indoor track, as well as potential challenges from COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, should have theoretically pulled top talents away from the indoor oval, thus creating less depth.

But for whatever reason, everyone seems to be faster.

There were A TON of sub-four mile performances this past weekend, some that we already talked about earlier in this article or in yesterday's article. We can't mention all of them, but we did want to highlight a few that were surprising or impactful...

Evan Holland (Oregon)

Tack on yet another Oregon runner who has dipped under the four minute mile barrier. Holland, a true freshman, was a stud in high school. He was amongst some of the best in the nation and although we knew he could be something special one day, I don't think we expected him to run 3:59 in the second track meet of his college career. He is now the fifth Oregon Duck to break the four minute mile barrier this winter.

Cole Lindhorst (Air Force)

Speaking of freshmen, Cole Lindhorst was another top-tier talent during his high school days and was one of the nation's better milers with a personal best of 4:07 for 1600 meters. However, much like Holland, I don't think we expected him to run 3:59 as a true rookie. He had shown excellent middle distance speed before, but a pair of 1:53's in the 800 meters leading up to this race didn't suggest that he was going to be running under four minutes.

Yusuf Bizimana (Texas)

Speaking of correlation between the 800 meters and the mile, Bizimana is a true freshman from London, England who just joined the Longhorns this past winter. Boasting a personal best of 1:46 for 800 meters, we weren't exactly expecting him to run anything remotely fast in the mile.

But Bizimana is full of surprises as he came out of nowhere and dropped a massive mile PR of 3:57 this past weekend. Does that mean that he'll pursue the mile at the national meet? We'll have to see how he fares in the 800 meters, but a 3:57 equivalent will be hard to replicate at the half-mile distance.

Tom Dodd (Michigan)

The Michigan ace, also from England, was primed for a sub-four performance and finally got one. After running a pair of 4:03's in two consecutive efforts, Dodd finally dipped under the four minute barrier this past weekend. Not only that, but he took down a established mile ace in Matthew Schadler in the process.

Dodd's 3:58, while impressive, isn't much of a surprise. His 4:03's came from earlier in the season and in the right race, he was going to get a sub-four mark.

Adam Fogg (Drake)

All seems right in the world now that Fogg is a sub-four miler. Fogg was an underappreciated talent for Drake and has earned top marks overseas. The Australian ace is far better than some people give him credit for and tactically, he's amongst some of the best in the NCAA. Now, he has a 3:59 mile personal best which pairs fairly well with his 3:39 (1500) PR from January.

* * *

A few other sub-four efforts that we didn't mention in this article (or yesterday's article) include George Kusche (Nebraska) running 3:57, Crayon Carrozza (Texas) running 3:59 and Matthew Schadler (Indiana) running 3:59.

Important Women's Mile Performances to Highlight

Just like the above men's section, there were a ton of women who ran under 4:40 this past weekend.

Here are the women who we have yet to mention in this article or yesterday's article...

Maudie Skyring (Florida State)

I won't lie, I had a little bit of doubt about Maudie Skyring coming into this indoor track season. She was fairly quiet when it came to cross country and I wasn't sure if that would follow her to the indoor oval.

However, after a huge 3k/mile double in her season debut, Skyring shook off any doubts about her fitness. She split a huge 4:32 on the anchor leg of Florida State's DMR on Friday night and came back the next day to run a massive personal best of 4:34.98 in the open mile.

Skyring was one of the NCAA's most consistent milers last year and previously held a strong personal best of 4:37. However, this is a time that really completes her resume and makes her one of the best overall milers in the country.

Gracie Hyde (Arkansas)

I've been saying for the past few weeks that Hyde and/or teammate Abby Gray were on the verge of a potential breakout performance. They had made steady and consistent improvements in a variety of meets and just needed the right race to truly pop off something fast.

Lo and behold, Hyde had the best race of her life this past weekend, dropping an outstanding mile time of 4:37 in a field of top-tier talents. She is currently ranked at NCAA #9 in the mile and should make it into the indoor national meet without much of an issue. The entire Arkansas team has a ton of momentum, but Hyde may be the most ideally positioned to peak at the national meet out of all of her teammates

Aneta Konieczek (Oregon)

The Oregon women were admittedly without a ton of firepower after losing a handful of top veteran talents from last year's roster. Luckily for them, they had a sleeper name in Aneta Konieczek.

The recent breakout talent had a respectable career at D2 powerhouse Western Colorado, but was largely unexciting in her first cross country season with Oregon and prior to this past weekend, had previously posted mile performances during that 2020 indoor track season that didn't inspire much confidence.

However, with an unexpected 4:35.88 mile PR now under her belt and a 3:21 split on the 1200 leg of the Ducks' DMR, we have to reevaluate Konieczek's place in the NCAA's hierarchy of distance talents.

Kate Hunter & Simone Plourde (BYU)

The BYU women had plenty of firepower between Courtney Wayment, Olivia Hoj, an unattached talent in Anna Camp and a currently sidelined Whittni Orton. However, the emergence of senior Kate Hunter and freshman Simone Plourde were very encouraging as they now offer BYU with additional depth in the distance events.

Hunter ran a very solid mile time of 4:41 earlier in the season, but that was a fairly big personal best for her, leaving us to wonder how much more improvement she still had left. Apparently, she still had plenty of additional upside.

A recent 4:38 mile PR from her this past weekend has placed Hunter in the national qualifying conversation and has made her a key name on the rise.

Meanwhile, rookie teammate Simone Plourde also dipped under the 4:40 barrier with a new personal best of 4:39 this past weekend. The Canadian youngster was a standout talent during her prep days, so it's not totally shocking that she ran something as fast as this.

Even so, the emergence of Hunter and Plourde has allowed BYU to become one of the deeper distance programs in the country on the track (in addition to cross country) with Arkansas really being the only ones ahead of them.

Imogen Barrett (Florida)

I really don't have much to say here, but a 4:39 mile is strong for the Florida middle distance runner who has typically been better on the outdoor oval in the 1500 meters.

Barrett has also been a respectable half-miler, but the Gator standout seems to be at an improved level of fitness, dropping almost seven seconds off of her prior mile PR to finally dip under the 4:40 barrier.

Could Sam Tanner Contend for the NCAA Mile Title?

When Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker each ran 3:50 for the mile on Friday night, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that they would be the overwhelming favorites for the NCAA national title in the mile this year...right?

Well, the next day, New Zealand star Sam Tanner toed the line against an elite field of professionals for an indoor 1500 meter race. Wearing a Washington singlet, Tanner beautifully navigated through the crowd of distance running stars and eventually came away with a jaw-dropping mark of 3:34.72. That time set a new collegiate indoor record and a New Zealand indoor national record as well.

Depending on the conversion calculator that you use, Tanner's time converts a 3:51.90 for the mile, although the NCAA will not recognize Tanner's mark/conversion for national qualifying purposes since it wasn't a true mile.

It seems hard to fathom that anyone not in an Oregon singlet would be on the same level as Teare and Hocker right now, but 3:34 for an indoor 1500 meter race is truly incredible. Tanner was running extremely well prior to this performance and he now seems to be peaking as we head into the latter portion of the winter season.

Teare and Hocker may be the national title favorites, but assuming that Tanner eventually gets a national qualifying time in the mile, then the Oregon duo may not be complete locks to sweep the top two spots in Fayetteville one month from now.


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