Updated: Apr 4, 2019
By: Ben Weisel
On Monday, news broke that collegiate record holder Michael Saruni was turning pro. Last year, Saruni won the 800 meter title at the indoor championships and later finished 3rd in the spring. However, it may be fair to say that he is best known for breaking Donavan Brazier’s collegiate record by running 1:43.25.
Saruni follows Isaiah Harris as the second 800 meter specialist to forego their remaining eligibility and strike while the iron is hot. The removal of overwhelming title favorites leaves the 2019 half-mile crown free for the taking.
Traditionally one of the deepest races at the NCAA Championships, many 800 All-Americans go on to have successful professional careers. However, the collegiate 800 field has seen significant turnover from their top stars. Over the last few years, elite talents such as Brandon McBride, Clayton Murphy, Emmanuel Korir, Shaq Walker, Eliud Rutto, and Donavan Brazier have left the NCAA behind to graduate and sign professional contracts. Runners who turned pro have gone on to race in the Diamond League, the World Championships, and the Olympics. Not only do these athletes compete in these prestigious races, but they challenge for titles.
Clayton Murphy won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Emmanuel Korir went on to win Diamond League races and run 1:42.05. Donavan Brazier backed up his World Junior record with a win at USA indoors in 2017. The standard for top NCAA performances is not too different than what you may see in your typical pro field. There are numerous runners who have consistently run sub 1:47, so winning or simply being an All-American in the 800 can lead to a relatively profitable professional career (or so it seems).
It's easy to understand why Harris and Saruni took a different route. Some may argue that they should have delayed inking a sponsored deal, but there frankly wasn't much left for them to accomplish. They've both run under 1:45 and have each secured a national title. These two can compete at the highest level right now, and it would be silly to pass up that opportunity. They are (arguably) just as good as Brazier, Murphy, and McBride were when they were in their collegiate prime.
In fact, the departure of Harris and Saruni is one of the best things that could have happened for top 800 runners around the nation. This will give someone new a chance to earn a national title or maybe even move up a few All-American spots. Not only will they have more room to accomplish their goals, but it could increase their chances of signing that coveted pro contract. Having two national champions leave the NCAA in a single year may actually be better for the sport in more ways than one.
In addition to pumping out pro contracts, the 800 has often been fast when it comes to the NCAA final. While most distance races are run tactically, 800 runners hit the gas right away. From 2014 to 2018, the race has gone out in 51.14, 55.64, 50.35, 51.69, and 51.09, respectively. In 2016, Donavan Brazier won in what was then a collegiate record of 1:43.55 thanks to McBride's blistering 50.35 first lap. If these mid-distance specialists want to make a name for themselves, their best chance to do it is at the national meet where they'll likely be pushed to a new personal best.
With the loss of Isaiah Harris and Michael Saruni, this year’s field is wide-open for the next 800 meter star to make his name at the 2019 NCAA Championships. Five of the eight from last year’s outdoor final return, but there are others who should also compete for the title. Let's take a look at who those candidates might be...
Marco Arop, Sophomore, Mississippi State (PR: 1:45.25)
The 2018 outdoor final for 800 meters was riveting. Harris would have the race of his life, earning a personal record of 1:44 and pulling off one of many exciting upsets from the weekend. More importantly for this year, the race also saw multiple rising stars post strong results. The most notable of these youngsters was Marco Arop. The Mississippi State Bulldog ran a personal best at NCAA's to place 2nd overall as a freshman, also upsetting Saruni in the process. The six-foot-four Canadian won his country’s national championship this past summer by beating Mississippi State alum and 2016 Olympian Brandon McBride. Arop will look to follow in McBride's footsteps by securing an NCAA title of his own.
Bryce Hoppel, Junior, Kansas (PR: 1:45.67)
+ Devin Dixon, Junior, Texas A&M (PR: 1:45.62)
Finishing right behind Arop at the national meet were sophomores Bryce Hoppel and Devin Dixon. Dixon had a strong 2018 season which saw him qualify for indoor nationals and run a new personal best at the LSU Invitational. After struggling for most of the regular season during outdoors, Hoppel rallied to place 4th at the national meet and lock-in a new PR of his own. Look for these two to lower their PR's this year and improve their tactical racing styles.
Joe White, Senior, Georgetown (PR: 1:45.73)
We didn't get to see White toe the line for the entirety of the 2017-2018 academic year, but that may have been a good thing. With Harris and Saruni now out of the picture and another year of development on his resume, White could scare for the title in 2019. The Georgetown star was one of the few individuals capable of competing (and even beating) Isaiah Harris. With a strong PR, multiple big-meet wins, and two bronze medals, the veteran should be considered a favorite to win it all this winter and spring.
Jonah Koech, Senior, UTEP (PR: 1:46.23)
You don’t even have to leave UTEP to find Michael Saruni’s replacement. Koech, who finished 6th at the outdoor national meet with a PR, was a little behind Hoppel and Dixon. He's a touch inconsistent, but he brings impressive range that you don't often see from other elite 800 runners. With times of 48.30 (400), 3:43 (1500), and 23:34 (8k), Koech could be an All-American in almost any distance event. Perhaps a season of concentrating on the 800 could push Koech into title contention.
Robert Heppenstall, Senior, Wake Forest (PR: 1:46.68)
Senior Robert Heppenstall may be one of the most consistent half-milers to ever come through the NCAA. The Wake Forest product has not only made Indoor and Outdoor Nationals every year of collegiate career, but he's also been an All-American each time he has qualified. With Harris and Saruni out of his way, Heppenstall could make 2018 the year where he finds himself in the top three.
Daniel Kuhn, Senior, Indiana (PR: 1:46.06)
+ Cooper Williams, Junior, Indiana (PR: 1:46.06)
Hoosier teammates with identical personal bests, Kuhn and Williams will look to make it to the outdoor finals this year. Kuhn just missed out on the finals by one spot in 2018 while Cooper was a few places behind him. With PRs of 47.06 (400) and 1:15.23 (600), Kuhn has the talent and speed to compete with anyone. Cooper, on the other hand, has a nice 3:44 (1500) personal best which shows he has the endurance and strength to hang with the best.
As we grind through cross country season, 800 specialists are usually forgotten because many are not contributors for top cross country teams. However, let’s not forget about one of the top track races in the NCAA...because who knows? Maybe the next Clayton Murphy or Donavan Brazier might show up.
Get ready, because in 167 days the next half-mile champion will be crowned in Birmingham.