The Group Chat: NCAA at USA's

While the sprinters are dominating most of the NCAA entries at USATF, a number of distance runners are continuing their seasons through the USA Championships and possibly beyond. That includes a number of runners who are out of eligibility, or who have turned pro early for a shot at making the Doha roster

A few notes before we get started...

We consider an "NCAA athlete" as someone who currently holds NCAA eligibility and is expected to use that eligibility. A "recent pro" is someone who officially became a professional athlete in 2019 either by running out of collegiate eligibility or by forgoing that eligibility to sign a professional contract.

Which current NCAA athlete do you think has the greatest chance to make the IAAF World Championships from the United States?

Ben: Because he hasn’t lost a race in a year, Bryce Hoppel has the best shot at qualifying for Doha. Championship racing comes down to the runners who are tactically superior to the field. Fitness is obviously important because it gives athletes a larger margin for error, but there is a reason why Matthew Centrowitz won a gold medal in the 1500 at Rio in 2016. He won not because he was the fastest in the field, but because he ran a smarter race than everyone else. It is rare for someone as young and as inexperienced as Hoppel to have elite tactical knowledge and poise. Because of this, I believe Hoppel will be able to earn a spot in the top three in the 800 at the US Championships.

John: After taking a look at the declarations, the name that stands out the most is definitely Bryce Hoppel. It’s a fairly straightforward answer, but the dude has been on fire and doesn’t look like he’s going to lose a race any time soon. That being said, I don’t think he wins the USA title, but he has the best chance to make the World team later this fall.

Ben: As for the women, Sinclaire Johnson looks to be in the best position to qualify for Worlds in the 1500. After a stellar performance at NCAA's that saw her win in a startling 4:05, the Oklahoma State Cowgirl has a season best that is within a second of Helen Schlachtenhaufen who is ranked #3 in the 1500. The real question mark with Johnson is experience. How she handles the bright lights of the US Championships, as well as the elevated level of competition, will determine how close she gets to earning a spot at Worlds.

Sean: It’s tough to really imagine any name other than Hoppel satisfying this answer for the men, especially since I believe he’s the only current NCAA man to hold an IAAF standard. Though if I have to, USC's Isaiah Jewett could also make the 800 team with a strong race. He would need to run a personal best by .31 seconds, but that’s very possible. Finishing in 3rd place (or having the third best runner with the standard) will be the harder thing to satisfy. I wish I had a women’s name to add as a strong contender, but I just don’t think anyone is quite strong enough to be a favorite, especially with the way Hoppel has been performing.

Which recent pro do you think has the greatest chance to make the IAAF World Championships from the US?

Ben: Allie Ostrander looks like she has a golden opportunity to earn a spot to her first World Championships. Since Emma Coburn has an exemption as the reigning world champion, the US will send four women to Doha in September for the steeplechase. She will have to compete with a quality field, but there should be an open spot for Ostrander assuming that Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley takes two of those spots. Like Hoppel, Ostrander runs well in championship races and has three steeplechase titles to prove her point. Whether this was because she was just better than everyone else or if it was because of good tactics will be put to the test this weekend.

Sean: I’m also going to stick with the steeplechase on the women’s side, but I think it will be Paige Stoner instead of (or in addition to) Allie Ostrander. Stoner just got the IAAF standard with her 9:39 race this week. Unlike Ostrander, Stoner focused entirely on the 10,000 meters earlier this season, so the possibility for more time to drop could surely come. With Coburn, Frerichs, and Quigley close to locks at this point, there’s a fourth spot up for grabs and there’s as good a chance Stoner grabs it over Ostrander.

Ben: For the men, I’ll keep the steeplechase train rolling and go with Obsa Ali. The Minnesota alumni just earned the IAAF World standard and, with the absence of Evan Jager, he will have a great chance at earning a top three spot. The 2018 NCAA steeplechase champion will look to put himself in a better position than he did at NCAA's in 2019 in order to book himself a ticket to Doha.

Sean: Maybe this should just be a steeplechase section? Ali would be the favorite since he has the standard, but Daniel Michalski also has a shot in the steeplechase. He’s only one second off the standard and with two races, that’s something he could certainly secure. I think the second and third spots are definitely vulnerable and as NCAA's showed, the barriers can be the deciding factor.

John: Steeplechase portion it is! But I think you guys really hit it on the head. Both Allie Ostrander and Obsa Ali have very good chances of making the world team. Ben already mentioned it, but with Coburn already having the exemption, it means that Ostrander has the ability to race for 4th place and not be overly concerned about the three women who all have much faster times than she does.

Ali is an extremely smart racer in my opinion and his training likely says he can run faster than 8:28 and he’ll likely need to do that in order to find a spot in the top three. Daniel Michalski is my dark horse athlete. He fits the profile of a steeplechaser almost perfectly, and as Sean said, with two races to go he can get the World Standard.

Which US NCAA athlete or recent pro are you most surprised to not see entered? Is there anyone who made a surprise event choice?

Sean: Devin Dixon scratching the 800 is tough to see. Dixon was easily the second best 800 runner in the NCAA and might even have a slightly higher ceiling than Hoppel. Not sure if this was injury-related, but if it was, we can only hope he comes back healthier and faster. He had a great season, but I wish we could have seen him give USA's a shot.

Ben: It was strange to see Paige Stoner flip the script from NCAA's and run the steeplechase instead of the 10,000 meters. While this might be her best shot at earning a spot at Worlds as Sean mentioned, it is weird that she didn’t run the steeplechase at NCAA's where she could have placed much higher than she did in the 10,000 meters.

John: I agree with Ben here. I thought it was interesting that Stoner decided to make a run at the steeple. I thought she was a good 10,000 meter runner, but there obviously has to be some kind of confidence in her ability to race the event. It’ll be interesting to see how well she fares in such a high-level championship event that she hasn’t raced very much.

Whose 2019 seasons are going to be defined by their performance at USATF's?

John: Without a doubt in my mind, this is the place where Grant Fisher will be remembered. He’s too talented to be remembered for never really getting it done during his collegiate years. I think he makes a statement in the 5000 at USA’s. I’m not sure he can make top three given how fast the times are for those spots, but I think he can run sub-13:20 and put himself in a great position.

Ben: This is a tough one, but I think Dani Jones’ season will be defined by her performance at USA's. This might sound absurd seeing as she won the 5000 at NCAA's, but she only ran the 5000 because she wasn’t in peak shape for the 1500. After an injury-plagued track season, she got a late start to training and picked the event that required less speed. The former Buffalo showed that she is ready for the 1500 now after running a PR of 4:07 at the Pre Classic. If Jones can make the finals, or even finish top five at USA's in her main event, then I think Jones will have forcefully announced her arrival at the professional level.

Sean: I’m going with Nia Akins. Akins has 2nd place finishes at Indoor Nationals, Outdoor Nationals, and NACAC's, but I think she’s still an underdog when compared against Danae Rivers and some of the other 800 meter runners who have had success throughout their entire careers. If Akins can make the final and make a significant challenge for a top three position, I think she cements herself as a big name. If she doesn’t take the next step up, she might not get the recognition that fits a back-to-back runner-up.

Likewise, I think Grant Fisher has a ton to prove. He’s entered in the 5000 and the 1500, but does not have the standard in either. Fisher always seems to be on the edge of greatness, but never quite achieves it. It’s time for Fisher to step up and make a strong finish. That’s tough for someone with as much success as him, but it never quite lives up to the expectations and now he finally has a chance when the expectations are calm.

Ben: For the men, I have to agree with Sean and John and say Grant Fisher. After losing the 5000 to Morgan McDonald at NCAA's, the USA Championships could provide the former Cardinal with redemption.

John: I also want to mention Dani Jones from Colorado and Isaiah Jewett from USC. Jones' choice to opt for the 1500, likely her strongest event, intrigues me quite a bit. I’ll likely always wonder how this year’s NCAA Championship would have played out if we had a race between her, Sinclaire Johnson, and Jessica Hull.

What we most remember from Jewett is how he pulled up at the line at NCAA's and missed out on the final. Maybe that’s what we remember from him, but he has a chance to rewrite that script at USA’s. He has a decent chance at making the finals and if he does that, I’d say he successfully rewrote the script for 2019.

Since USA's is all about qualifying for Doha, it’s important to think about who we might see there. Which non-US NCAA athletes/recent pros do we think will earn a bid for their nations? Who has the best chance to place highest?

Sean: My first thought is the Canadian national team that should (or at least could) sponsor a couple of these athletes. Ryan Smeeton could certainly qualify in the steeplechase especially as he is one of only two Canadians with the steeplechase standards heading into their National Championships next weekend. Marco Arop of Mississippi State will also likely represent Canada at 800. Finally, for the Canadian men, William Paulson is less than a second off the 1500 qualifier and is clearly the best 1500 meter runner in Canada right now. There are currently no Canadian NCAA women with the IAAF standard.

Ben: He will certainly have plenty of competition, but I think Morgan McDonald has a great chance of earning a ticket to Doha. The Aussie put on an absolute clinic this year by winning four NCAA titles and eviscerating any challenger who came in his way. His overall fitness and devastating kick will give him a chance in most races. While he likely won’t finish in the top five at Worlds, I wouldn’t rule out a top 10 finish for the former Wisconsin Badger.

John: I’m a big believer in Morgan McDonald. I think after his redshirt season and running sub-13:20 in Australia, this has almost been a no-brainer for the past year. He’s way too good of a racer and can run any pace at any time. I think he is a surefire pick for Worlds in the fall.

I also really like Thomas Staines from Great Britain. He’s got the world standard and he’s proven himself as a racer. The question is obviously if he can race well enough to make the top three. He has the experience and while he’s not as strong of a pick as some others, I still really like his chances.

Expanding to all athletes, what is the biggest surprise looking at the USATF entries?

Ben: Looking through the entries, I had to do a double-take seeing both Clayton Murphy and Donovan Brazier entered in the 800 AND the 1500. I thought Murphy and Salazar learned their lesson two years ago when Murphy attempted the double and, in the process, failed to qualify for either event. For both Brazier and Murphy to attempt the double seems foolish as they will end up competing for the same six spots to Worlds. NOP seems to think they will be able to take four of these six spots with just Murphy and Brazier. With a deep 1500 field that includes teammate Craig Engels, it will be tough for Brazier who will be running his second-ever 1500 in the first round of the US Championships. The risk of injury and fatigue seems greater than the potential reward, but who knows, maybe Coach Salazar’s all-in gamble will pay off.

Sean: My takeaway isn’t exactly surprising, but certainly telling as Drew Hunter opts for the 5k instead of the 1500. While long term he might be a better 5k runner, Hunter certainly identifies as a miler now. The decision definitely comes from the security of having already gotten the 5k standard and because USATF stated that an athlete cannot earn the standard after the US Championships. I don’t blame Hunter for this decision, but it illustrates a potential problem with this year’s qualifying structure.

John: I’m very surprised by Kate Grace entering both the 1500 and 800. Both are tough races and the fields she’s facing won’t make it any easier. Not to mention there’s less than an hour in between the events. The weather likely may only make her life more difficult.

I also find the Grant Fisher double somewhat odd. He didn’t try and do it at NCAA's but now has the capability to do it at USA's? I understand giving yourself two chances, but if this was the plan why not try it in a setting that mimics the biggest meet of his life so far?

Two bold predictions each: 1 NCAA/recent pro + 1 Overall

John: Thomas Staines makes the GB team and shows his dominance at D2 is the real deal. My guy Centro wins the 1500 title and I can go back to bragging about him.

Ben: Bryce Hoppel extends his winning streak to 23 as he wins his first-round heat, semifinal heat, and the US title taking down Donovan Brazier and Clayton Murphy. Dani Jones sneaks into the top three in the 1500.

Sean: Clayton Young wins the 10,000 meters, but doesn’t hit the standard. Lopez Lomong finds a way onto another IAAF team by hitting the standard at USA's.