The Group Chat: Outdoor Track Recap

What were your biggest takeaways from the NCAA Championships?

Garrett: Way too many to mention, but there were plenty that I discussed in my Aftermath article that was posted yesterday. For me, I quickly came to the realization that if you couldn’t beat Dani Jones this past weekend, you aren’t going to beat her when she actually has a full block of training under her. She moved up in distance from the 1500 and still knocked down a very solid field.

Ben: Sinclaire Johnson’s stunning win over Jessica Hull. The performance wasn’t stunning because she beat Hull (although that did come as a surprise), but because of the time she ran. To run 4:05 in the Texas heat is no joke and we might have one of America’s best young middle distance runners blossoming before our eyes.

Michael: Bryce Hoppel’s win in the 800 stood out to me because it solidifies an undefeated year for him, staking a claim for him as a strong candidate for the Bowerman Award. Not only did he take down Devin Dixon again, but he ran 1:44.41 which was a big personal best for him. To pull that off in the heat is no small accomplishment.

Ben: One overall takeaway I had for the meet is that doubling in Texas is extremely hard. Not even Allie Ostrander could score in both the steeple and 5k (although we should give a major shoutout to Hannah Steelman for doing so). I wonder if less people will attempt the double at regionals next year after seeing how difficult it was for so many runners.

Quenten: I have to agree with Michael on this one, Bryce Hoppel’s win this weekend was historical. Hoppel is now 19-0 in his last nineteen races, this also includes all the preliminary rounds. That is just a very amazing stat to me and as a Texas native it’s awesome seeing a Texas guy tear it up at the collegiate level.

Maura: I agree with Garrett about Jones. After overcoming injury, she showed she is someone to look out for in either the 1500 or 5k. As for a takeaway on the men’s side, I’d have to say BYU is crazy good in the distance races. They seem to have guys on reserve who are able to still make an impact when one guy may have a bad day. Their performance in the steeplechase was rough, but look at the way their 10k and 5k men performed (i.e. Clayton Young and Conner Mantz).

Sam: One outcome that probably isn’t apparently obvious is that I think after struggling a bit on the track this season, Rory Linkletter may be moving to the marathon now that he has graduated. When I interviewed him he made mention of possibly jumping right into the event and in his latest Instagram post he emphasized starting his career on the road. While there’s no guarantee he actually does go right for the marathon, I think there’s a good chance he will jump into it pretty quickly. Also, I’d like to think the NCAA will consider championships in warmer settings moving forward. After the number of sprint records set this weekend, it only seems logical to have an environment that favors them rather than only host in Oregon.

What was the best race of the season?

Garrett: There is absolutely no question in my mind that the men’s 1500 was by far the best distance race of the season. It was an absolutely incredible finish and you truly had no idea who won the race when they crossed the line. They could have shown me a picture and I still wouldn’t have known who won. It was a thrilling race where the favorite got upset and just when you thought you knew what was going to happen, Yared Nuguse surprises you with a thrilling last second kick.

Sam: Assuming I’m not allowed to pick Grant Holloway running 12.98 in the 110 hurdles, I’d have to go with the men’s steeple at NCAA's. It was an interesting race the entire time, but when we saw two falls with only 150 meters to go AND on different barriers, it looked like it could be almost anyone’s race. Plus, seeing Fahy win was nice as it would have been devastating to watch him run so well and then lose it all with 50 meters to go.

Michael: I am tempted to say the women’s 10k just for Carmela Cardama Baez’s finish where she almost almost took down Weini Kelati. My other pick would be Allie O’s dominant win in the steeple. That race cemented her legacy as one of the best steeplechasers in NCAA history. Three straight national titles is no joke, and her post-race interview was great as well.

Ben: Michael, I might agree with you just because of the post-race interview. I’ve listened to that far too many times. But for me, the best race I watched all year has to be the men’s 1500. The race had so many twists and turns which led to what looked like a sure win for Kiprotich only for it to be ripped out his hands by Nuguse. Letting Nuguse pass on the inside only makes the results that much more bittersweet for the Spartan senior.

Quenten: Like my colleagues said, the men’s 1500 was pure entertainment from start to finish. You had many top favorites like, Reed Brown, Waleed Suliman, and Carlos Villarreal not qualify for the final. We had no clear cut favorite besides Oliver Hoare, but as the end result showed, a lot of things can change from a year ago.

Maura: The women’s 10k and the men’s 1500 were the two races that stood out to me. Carmela Cardama Baez’s performance was gutsy. In most races, the one behind is able to make the pass because the one in front cannot match the surprise move, but Kelati showed that she had an extra gear that most people were probably not expecting. As for the men’s 1500, it really came down to that last 100 meters to determine who would be crowned not only the champion, but also First-Team All-American.

Which runner was the biggest surprise performer this season?

Sam: Normally, I would object to highlighting an NCAA champion, but I think Jazmine Fray winning the 800 at NCAA's was a huge surprise. She had consistently put up good times, but seemed to struggle in championship settings up until this weekend. Going wire-to-wire and running an NCAA leading time earlier in the season was something I would not have expected entering outdoors.

Ben: For me, it has to be Thomas Ratcliffe. We knew he had the talent to compete with anyone in the country and this year he finally put together a healthy and successful season. To finish 3rd in a stacked 5k field was a perfect way to finish out his breakout season. Stanford, even with the loss of Fisher, is quietly set up to have a very nice cross country team especially with Steven Fahy announcing that he will likely be back assuming that NCAA grants him additional eligibility.

Garrett: Oregon’s Cardama Baez was a name that I truthfully didn’t have much faith in prior to this past weekend. She had a handful of strong performances, but there wasn’t a ton on her resume that told me that she was going to threaten Weini Kelati in a massive final kick for the national title. She completely elevated her game at the right time and produced an extremely clutch performance.

Quenten: It has to be Hannah Steelman from Wofford. She ran a great race in the steeplechase earning her a bronze medal. Then, just 75 minutes later, she toed the line for the 5000 and finished 8th! That’s two All-American performances in arguably the hardest races in distance running.

Michael: I have to agree with Ben that Thomas Ratcliffe had one of the most surprising seasons. We have seen a couple great races from him prior to this season, but never at a championship meet. He ran 13:32 at the Cardinal Classic and then had an underwhelming performance at PAC-12’s which did not give me a whole lot of faith in his championship racing ability. For him to come back and finish 3rd in the 5k at NCAA's was huge.

Maura: I’m going to have to agree with Quenten. Steelman had a great double in the steeple and 5k. I had never heard of Steelman before this season, but she made it clear that she will be a title contender in years to come. In the 5k, she beat the two women ahead of her from the steeplechase, which speaks to how well she recovered and believed in her fitness.

Which runner was the most underwhelming?

Maura: Danae Rivers not qualifying for the NCAA final surprised me. She didn’t have the strongest of seasons, never really dropping a standout performance.

Quenten: For me personally, it has to be Grant Fisher. Fisher had a huge PR in the 5000 at the Cardinal Classic in April with a 13:29.52, but it never really translated at NCAA’s. He seems to be mentally beat by Morgan McDonald before the race even begins. The one national title to his name does stain his resume just a tad.

Ben: Ooh, I was wondering if anyone was going to say Fisher. For all of Fisher’s accomplishments, of which there are many, it was tough to watch him lose to McDonald again this weekend.

Garrett: I would say Fisher’s loss was the most frustrating (because it was literally the same race that we’ve seen 100 different times), but I would have to agree with Maura that Danae Rivers not making it to the finals was absolutely shocking. This is a woman who was considered by most of us to be the national title favorite. Not winning is one thing, but failing to get out the prelims is another. Imagine if Jessica Hull or Bryce Hoppel didn’t make their final...the world would have fallen apart.

Sam: Rivers was by far the most underwhelming in my opinion. Back at the Wanamaker mile this past winter, she ran 4:29 which was an NCAA leading mark. However, she then opted to run the 800 at the indoor national meet which she narrowly won. I thought she would be dominant again outdoors, but she was somewhat under the radar all year. Not making the NCAA finals was the nail in the coffin for her outdoor season. Part of me wanted to say Fisher, but I think getting 2nd to an incredible athlete like McDonald, is more frustrating than underwhelming.

Michael: Karisa Nelson is a name that comes to mind for me here. The 2017 indoor mile champion was 2nd in the mile at the Indoor National Championships this year, but failed to make the final in the 1500 outdoors. There was a considerable amount of hype around her return during indoors, but she did not deliver outdoors. Danae Rivers’ performance at NCAA’s was also very unexpected.

Maura: Nelson rarely made headlines this season. Her performances were similar to most women in the NCAA. I feel that even if she had a good day, she would not have been the champion. Nelson never produced a time that turned heads.

Ben: Does it count if I say NAU’s men's team? While Day threw down a spectacular 5k at Payton Jordan to run 13:25, it was tough to watch the rest of the team fail to score a single point. The Lumberjacks certainly won the battle against their rivals at BYU in cross country, but the Cougars turned the table during indoor and outdoor track. It will be an interesting matchup to watch again next cross country season.

Michael: That is a good point, Ben. NAU has always seemed to be a cross country focused program, but they had a lot of potential on the track this outdoor season and did not deliver. Tyler Day’s 6th place finish in the 10k was impressive, but in my mind he should have been top two.

What was the biggest overall surprise of the season?

Garrett: For me, the biggest surprises were the ones that have nothing to do with actual running. After we saw a ton of transfers and coaching changes last summer, I thought this year would be a little quieter. That, however, has not been the case as we have seen a handful of big-name talents switch programs and shakeup the balance of power in the NCAA...and that wasn’t even during the official off-season.

Sam: I definitely agree with Garrett about the transfer of power. As for my biggest surprise, I would say that it seemed like there were a lot more athletes from non-traditional NCAA powerhouses at the National Championships this year. Notable names like Hannah Steelman, Nia Atkins, and Jack Anstey were all prominent in their respective finals this year despite coming from schools like Wofford, Penn, and Illinois State.

Maura: Sam, I’m not at all surprised about Anstey, but that’s just because I know him well. His racing all season proved he could compete alongside the best in the NCAA. Besides that point, the biggest overall surprise of the season for me had to be how many women decided to focus on an event where they weren’t exactly the favorite. For example, Paige Stoner was highly ranked in the steeplechase, but decided to focus on the 10k where she ultimately finished 7th. Erica Birk went all in for the steeple, but also walked away 5th. Rachel Pocratsky attempted the 1500, but didn’t even make the finals. How would NCAA’s have turned out if these women opted for different events?

Quenten: I’m sorry, but I have to go back to Grant Fisher for me. If you told me that he would come up empty of a National Championship win in his senior year I would call you crazy. After racing McDonald so many times and being defeated so many times, often the same way, you would think he would capture just one more title during his senior year at Stanford.

Michael: Jessica Hull losing the 1500 at NCAA’s was surprising based on how dominant she was all year. In our predictions, I did pick Sinclaire Johnson 1st and Jessica Hull 2nd, but I was not confident that Johnson would be able to beat Hull. Sinclaire Johnson also had a great season, so this may not have been the biggest surprise, but I do not think most people imagined Hull losing.

Ben: I was surprised and a little disappointed in Oliver Hoare’s season. After such a dominant start to the indoor season, it seemed like he was destined to win two more titles this year. Instead, he was upset in both the mile and the 1500. I hope we see a stellar revenge season from him next year...if he decides not to go pro.

Which athletes are you most excited to watch in 2020?

Sam: Christina Aragon. We didn’t see her in cross country or track, but she was one of the best in the NCAA. Assuming she comes into next fall/spring healthy, she should be a lot of fun to watch and will add to an already strong Stanford squad.

Quenten: It will be interesting to see if Jessica Hull returns to Oregon or turn pro. If she does stay in Eugene for her senior year, I would love to see how she rebounds from her loss to Sinclaire Johnson. Johnson is also a junior, meaning we could have a huge rivalry taking form. Of course, all of this is assuming that the two women stay in the collegiate system.

Garrett: 2020 will be the year of Erica Birk. She has already showed off tremendous range and incredible times. If she doesn’t fall on that final water pit, she is likely finishing higher than 5th at NCAA’s. With Ostrander and a handful of other women no longer in her way, she can enter any event and be an immediate national title contender next year. As for the men, Joe Klecker will have a very good chance of winning a national title next year - something he very much deserves if everything goes right. He’s been incredibly patient and by 2020 that patience will most likely have paid off.

Michael: I am excited to see what Thomas Ratcliffe can do in cross country (as well as on the track). As a freshman he won the Stanford XC Invitational in a time that stacked up with performances by All Americans and athletes who have gone on to have very successful pro careers. His 3rd place finish in the 5k shows that he has what it takes to run with the top dogs and I think he can have a huge career if he stays healthy.

Maura: For the women, I’m going to have to say Adva Cohen. Cohen had a decent showing this past weekend, but I think there’s a chance she could have pushed Ostrander further in the steeplechase. For her first season in D1, she walks away with plenty of experience. Cohen didn’t even qualify for the indoor national meet this past season so imagine what she can do next year with the way she performed outdoors. As for the men, like Michael, I’m going to say Ratcliffe. His 3rd place finish hopefully means he has found a way to stay healthy throughout a season. If he keeps the momentum going, he could fill the shoes of Fisher.

Ben: On the men’s side I am really excited to see what Bryce Hoppel can do as an encore to his historic season. Will he make it through the season undefeated again? How fast will he be able to run? Add him to the list of 800 meter studs who have come through the NCAA in the past few years. For the women, I am looking forward to watching Weini Kelati try to win her first cross country title. With the distance being only 6k, will she be able to distance herself from the rest of the field to win? She certainly would benefit the most from moving the distance up to 8k.

Any way too early thoughts on the upcoming cross country season?

Sam: My first thought - it sucks that Dani Jones is out of eligibility. I would have loved to see her and Weini Kelati face off again this fall.

Garrett: I am absolutely amped for cross country. So many of the top teams from last year graduated their top runners, so the balance of power is completely up in the air for both the men and the women. Washington’s addition of Andrew Jordan makes things extremely interesting while NAU and BYU will need to bounce back after losing a number of low-sticks. Colorado loses a ton of All-Americans from last year’s title team, but they gain McArthur and Venters as consolation prizes.

Maura: Notably absent during NCAA’s was Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson. I think she will be one to once again look at during the cross country season. 4th at last years cross country national meet and winning the 5k indoors gives her some confidence, but now she has to bounce back from a tough outdoor season.

Ben: Like Garrett, I am stoked for cross country because anything could happen. This is the first time in a few years where there isn’t a clear favorite going into the season. We could see a handful of teams compete for the top spot which just was not the case this past year where two teams were clearly head and shoulders above the rest. In addition, this coming season will give plenty of teams and athletes a chance to build their legacies. If NAU can win yet another title after the loss of Baxter, Day, and Lomong, then their dynasty might be considered the best ever. Like the team title, the individual title is wide open. Both defending champions have run out of eligibility so we will see two brand new NCAA XC champions.

Sam: Colorado also gains a phenomenal freshman in Minnesota’s Emily Covert who finished top five at NXN and Foot Locker this past fall.

Michael: I have absolutely nothing against NAU, but I am ready to see another team win. My prediction is Washington comes up big to break into the top three and threaten for the win. The Huskies finished 6th last fall after being ranked much worse all season so they have already proven their ability to mix it up with some of the top teams. I think they can make a huge statement this year. NAU and BYU will be weaker than what we saw from this past fall, so there is no better time for a new team to break onto the scene.

Quenten: Truthfully, I am ready to see a different champion on the men’s side which coincides with Michael’s thoughts. A great analogy I like to think of is NAU as the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have dominated for years now, but everyone seems to be rooting for them to lose during this year's NBA Finals. I think fans would love to see a different champion, just like the world is cheering for the Toronto Raptors to pull off the upset. NAU is losing huge pieces due to eligibility and this could be the year a different team rises to knocked them off.

Maura: For the men, I’m looking forward to seeing the NAU/BYU rivalry come alive again. It doesn’t really seem to be present during the track season, but come cross country, it will likely be reignited. As for a potential surprise, Oregon rebuilt their program after losing Coach Powell to Washington and they just got a superb transfer in Noah Affolder. With this addition, it will be interesting to see what the men of Oregon can do in September, October, and November.