This past week of action may have been the most exciting NCAA Championship I have ever seen. Four of the five distance events all ended with a major upset while the steeplechase was wide-open in terms of who would take the title.
With so much going on, it's important that we try to break down the action and highlight some of the most crucial and interesting results. Here are some of the most notable and interesting headlines.
No Favorite Was Safe
Both Josh Kerr and Michael Saruni ran NCAA records this season which essentially secured their status as the title favorites for the NCAA Championships. Not only that, but they had earned national titles prior to their record breaking performances.
Yet, on any given day, even the best can fall. Josh Kerr looked gassed in the final 200 as he was out-run by Wisconsin's Oliver Hoare who unleashed a huge kick in the final 100 meters to snag the victory. Virginia Tech's Vincent Ciattei also (barely) nipped Kerr at the line. Hoare's win validates his 3:37 1500 from Bryan Clay earlier in the season and proves that he can compete in races that are slightly more tactical.
And how about Isaiah Harris? Even when Saruni made his move with 200 to go, Harris went with him and continued to attack the shoulder of the UTEP half-mile star. At the end of the day, it was pure strength and guts that gave Harris the edge and allowed him to pull off the upset with a mind-boggling 1:44 performance.
As exciting as those victories were, my favorite performances may have come in the 5000 and 10,000 meters. After years of trying to get past Cheserek and battling through injuries, McGorty walked away as the national champion. The Stanford ace gapped the rest of the chase pack who waited too long to start their kicks. With only 50 meters to go, it became clear that McGorty's lead was too large to overcome. It was a beautifully executed race by a superstar veteran.
Speaking of veterans, is there a guy more likable than Ben Flanagan? Despite entering the East Regional Championships with a personal best of 29:33 and being seeded 22nd in the NCAA final, Flanagan still walked away with a gold medal around his neck. His poise, composure, and patience made him the perfect candidate to succeed in a field that had sporadic surges, a fast pace, and a big kick.
B1G Time Performances
Of the five men's distance events, four of them were won by BIG 10 runners. In an era where the PAC 12 has typically dominated the title conversation, the BIG 10 had one of the best showings I have ever seen by a single conference. For the sake of comparison, not a single BIG 10 program won an NCAA title in the distance events during the winter season (including the DMR). In fact, the BIG 10 had not won an NCAA title in the men's distance events since the spring of 2016 when Michigan's Mason Ferlic brought home gold in the steeplechase. That's how important this weekend was for the conference.
Between the 5k and 10k, the Cougar men simply didn't have their best weekend. An aggressive early pace in the 10k pushed half of the field out of contention, forcing many runners to shut it down early. Linkletter, Young, and Mantz found themselves together and cruised in the final few laps to take the last three spots. Connor McMillan had a respectable finish after placing 12th overall.
The 5k was certainly a better overall performance, but I'm sure the finishes weren't quite as strong as they were hoping for. Linkletter collected himself and rebounded to snag 8th place, the last All-American spot. Meanwhile, Young finished 12th while McMillan dropped to last.
With seven total entries between the 5k and 10k, BYU walked away with only one All-American honor. However, it would unfair to leave out the steeplechase, a race where BYU's Matt Owens and Clayson Shumway finished 6th and 7th.
Hoppel & Ford Rebound
It's been a breakout year for Bryce Hoppel who had a phenomenal indoor track season. During the winter, he was undefeated (prior to Nationals) in both the 800 and mile. He also ran a personal best of 1:47 and qualified for NCAA's. Unfortunately, Hoppel would struggle in the NCAA final where he finished last in 8th place. It was still an All-American finish, but it wasn't a satisfying one.
Fast forward to the outdoor track season and things weren't looking great. The Kansas sophomore had two wins (compared to his seven during indoors) and failed to break 1:48. Despite his struggles during the regular season, Hoppel came up big by qualifying for Nationals, making the final, and running a HUGE personal best of 1:45 to place 4th overall. Talk about an exciting way to end your season...
As for Robert Ford, he made the most out of his senior year. Despite multiple seasons of running 1:47, he never qualified for Indoor Nationals and never became an All-American in the two outdoor seasons that he did qualify for NCAA's (prior to 2018). All of that, however, changed this spring season as he ran a 1:46 PR and made it to the NCAA final where he finished 6th overall (where he ran 1:46 again). For a guy who has always been a perennial All-American talent, it's exciting to finally see him get the finish he deserves.
Barraza Finishes 10th, But Wins The Hearts Of Track Fans
In the final lap of the NCAA steeplechase, Barraza held a lead that left the rest of the field chasing him. Although it was clear that he was struggling, it still appeared that he had a very real chance of taking the win. Unfortunately, Barraza clipped his foot on a barrier in the final lap which left him falling hard to the ground. He would get up and eventually finish the race in 10th.
As frustrating and devastating as that might be, Barraza has to be commended for an incredible race and career. He had a gutsy performance and put himself out there against a field of high-level talent. If it wasn't for him, the race may not have been as fast as it was. He was an indoor All-American, a 13:38 5k runner, and an 8:32 steepler during his redshirt season in 2017. Barraza proved to the critics that Coach Magness can develop talent and walked away with a lot to be proud of.
Robert Brandt's Transfer Decision Pays Off
Despite two successful years with the California Golden Bears, Robert Brandt opted to leave the program for in-state rival UCLA. The move was certainly a big one, especially when you consider the amount of progress that Brandt was making at Cal. During his first year in a Bruin singlet, Brandt had solid success, but failed to become an All-American in cross country and didn't even qualify for Nationals during indoors. It wouldn't be until the spring season where we saw Brandt hit a new 5k PR of 13:41, qualify for Nationals in the 10k, and place 8th to grab the last All-American spot.
The pressure was on for Brandt to perform (even if we were the ones that put it on him) and he delivered during these last few months. The 2018-2019 academic year will certainly be an interesting one for Brandt who will look to improve upon his fitness and establish himself as an All-American contender (or more) once again.