Written by Maura Beattie, additional commentary by Garrett Zatlin
And so it begins. On Thursday night, the Mountain West distance events will begin at Fresno State. For most athletes, this is the last chance to chase an NCAA first-round qualifier, so it will be interesting to see how coaches attempt to balance maximizing points and securing regional qualifiers.
Michael Rhoads of Air Force leads the conference with a 1:47 which is a second more than Kristian Hansen of New Mexico. Even though Rhoads comes in holding the #5 time in the West Region, he will have to face-off against two underrated New Mexico talents, Hansen and Max Wharton. However, Rhoads won't be alone at the front of the pack. Teammate Gordon Kowalkowski of Air Force may lean on Rhoads in this race to solidify a spot in the West Region's top 48. As a result, this could end up being a very quick race.
So far, one runner from the MW is sitting in the West Region’s top 48 and that is New Mexico’s Michael Wilson (#23). Wilson ran a strong 3:43 at Bryan Clay a few weeks back and has quietly put together some strong performances. Henry Mong of Boise State and Iolo Hughes of New Mexico are close behind with a pair of 3:45’s (which were also run at Bryan Clay). At last year’s conference championship meet, Cole Rockhold of Colorado State dropped down in distance to the 1500. Sure enough, the 3:41 CSU ace is doing same thing this year with the possible goal of improving his speed. He'll need it for what will likely be a tactical 5000 meter race at NCAA's.
There are lot of interesting names in this field, but based on the marks that they have already run this season, I imagine this race will result in a sit and kick.
Colorado State’s Cole Rockhold is not only the defending champion from the 2018 MW Championship, but he also comes in with the #10 time in the West Region (13:35) which is 12 full seconds ahead of the next competitor. Rockhold has shown that he has fully recovered from the injury that ended his cross country season early. However, he'll have to battle Paul Roberts of Wyoming who thrived throughout the entirety of this past cross country season. That said, his success from October and November hasn't exactly translated on the track. If Robert’s wants to solidify a regional qualifier in the 5k, he will have to ensure that this race is honest from the gun.
Three other men have regional qualifiers heading into the race including Air Force’s Jacob Bilvado and the Boise State duo of Ahmed Muhumed and Elijah Armstrong. Keep in mind that Armstrong will be right on the bubble of the West Region's top 48 for this event if he does not improve upon his current seasonal best. That could add extra incentive for Armstrong to push the pace at some point in this race.
It is unlikely that this race will go fast seeing how the top five men already hold regional qualifiers. Eric Hamer of Colorado State is the top seed with a 29:13 and is followed by Boise State’s Riley Campbell. James Withers of Utah State may try and push the pace, but it can be difficult to run a fast 10K on his own. The Colorado State duo of Hamer and Hume could very easily go 1-2 in this race, but there are some underrated talents like Nathan Thomas, Christopher Henry, and Miler Haller (to name a few) who could shake things up.
Wyoming’s Harry Ewing enters this race with the #7 mark in the West Region at 8:42. There are four other men joining Ewing with marks under 9:00. Ewing’s closest competitor is Craig Huff of San Jose State who has run 8:47, but then there is a ten second gap back to New Mexico’s Jonny Glen. This race will probably turn tactical when you consider that six men are already well within the top 48 in the West Region, but this is still Ewing’s race to lose.
Top seeded Avi’ Tal Wilson-Perteete of UNLV has run 2:02 this season and has a four second lead over the next fastest entrant (Nyjari McNeil of San Diego State). Elisa Rovere of UNLV and Kristie Schoffield of Boise State will be looking to improve on their season bests which could very easily happen if Wilson-Perteete keep this race honest. It's her only individual race of the weekend, so that could very well be the case.
Boise State’s Alexis Fuller and Allie Ostrander went 1-2 last year in this race and on paper, it looks like the same could happen again this year. I was hoping to see New Mexico’s Weini Kelati show her foot speed after winning the MW indoor mile title this past winter, but she is not entered. Rather, teammate Adva Cohen is seeded third. Just last week, Cohen pushed Ostrander to the line in the steeplechase, and the same thing could happen this weekend in the 1500. Don't count out the Lady Lobo who has found her groove this outdoor season.
This race seems to be the highlight of the weekend on the women’s side as Allie Ostrander and Clare O’Brien of Boise State will battle New Mexico's Ednah Kurgat and Emily Martin (as well as Air Force's Jaci Smith) for the conference title. Ostrander has shown that she can compete with the best in the 1500, steeple, and 10k, but she has yet to race a 5k this season. Meanwhile, Kurgat leads the field by 16 seconds with a seasonal best of 15:32. Ostrander has been on fire over the past few months, but can she take down the one woman who has stood in her way for most of her career?
As for Jaci Smith, she has yet to race outdoors this season, so she could be a little rusty, especially if the race is quick from the gun. Last year’s race was won in 15:44 (by Ostrander) and this year could produce a sub-15:50 time once again.
The 10k podium spots are relatively wide-open and will likely be used by coaches as a way to pick up crucial team points. New Mexico’s Weini Kelati is entered in this race and is most likely be looking for a first-round regional qualifier. With a quick pace up front, O’Brien of Boise State and Alyssa Snyder of Utah State will likely battle for 2nd. Even though O’Brien has a faster PR than Kelati, the New Mexcio sophomore has built up a new level of fitness this year and has shown that she can mix it up with the professionals after finishing 6th in the Payton Jordan 5k last week.
Last week’s Payton Jordan proved to the track community that the steeplechase will be a race to watch come June. Between Ostrander, Cohen, and Prouse, the winner will be whoever wants it more that day...but it looks like we need to wait until regionals to see that match-up again.
Ostrander and Cohen have opted not to race the steeplechase this weekend, but are instead focusing on developing speed or running other qualifying times. Instead, it will be Prouse's title to lose. The New Mexico junior has a 10 second lead on the second and third seeds in this race, but that doesn't mean she'll be able to cruise to victory. Cierra Simmons of Utah State is the defending champion from last year after she beat Prouse in 2018 and is entering this race with a seasonal best of 10:07. Look for Simmons, along with Boise State’s Maxine Phaloek, to push each other to possible sub-10 minute finishes.