The NCAA Regional Championships have finally concluded and what a weekend it was! Overall, The Stride Report correctly predicted 73 of the 120 available qualifiers between both regions. Not bad, but it didn't beat our 2017 record of 76 out of 120 qualifiers. You can view all of our correct (and incorrect) picks on our PREDICTIONS page by clicking the link here.
With so many big storylines, notable misses, and breakout performances, there is a lot that we can take away from the three days of results. We decided to break down our analysis of the East and West Regional Championships and see if there are any lessons that we could take away from this weekend.
Established Superstars In The West Region Struggled
No one is exactly a safe pick, but when you look at the results (the West specifically), you'll notice that many of the top names and seeds failed to advance to the NCAA finals in Eugene. Abraham Alvarado, Jack Bruce, Carlos Villarreal, Ben Saarel, James West, Daniel Carney, Jacob Heslington, Yusuke Uchikoshi, Troy Fraley, Simon Grannetia, Reed Brown, and Jerrell Mock are just a few of the big-name talents that won't be racing at Nationals two weeks from now.
It's tough to say why this may have happened. For the 1500, it was unrealistic to think that all four of the Oregon 1500 runners would be qualifying. From a probability standpoint, at least one of them was not going to advance. That was probably the deepest and most talented field of the entire Regional Championships (both East and West). We'll have to think that one through next time.
The same goes for the BYU men in the steeplechase. The first heat of the event was incredibly fast which caused havoc in heat two as runner battled with each other to get into qualifying position. This led to heat filled with tangled legs and steeple hurdling errors. I also have to wonder why Portland's Simon Grannetia failed to even toe the line for this race (he is listed in the results as a DNS).
Others like Jack Bruce, Jerrell Mock, Carlos Villarreal, and Abraham Alvarado really surprised me. They had such phenomenal seasons with great success in multiple events. In fact, all four of those men scratched out of other events to go all-in on a single race. Unfortunately, that didn't work out for them.
Kickers & Tactical Running Trumps Fast 1500 Seeds Times
This may not be the exact case for everyone, but there are plenty of great examples (especially in the East 1500). Villanova's Ben Malone has been known for his kick and although his spring season hasn't been perfect, he came up big by surviving through the two rounds and securing a birth to Nationals. The same goes for Justine Kiprotich who lacked excitement throughout his spring season, but beautifully executed his race plan in both the prelims and finals. Virginia Tech's Diego Zarate had a great season in both the 800 and 1500, but showed off his patient racing style in the prelims with excellent positioning.
Speed specialists clearly did well in the West 1500. Of the 12 NCAA qualifiers in the West 1500, half of them had 800 personal bests under 1:50. Meanwhile, Ben Saarel struggled. He's someone known for his endurance rather than his speed. He's just one of a handful of athletes in a similar boat.
In Championship Racing, Youth Is Still A Liability
At the NCAA level, it usually takes years of base training, physical growth, and speed development to get to the top level. That mindset becomes more relevant at the longer distances. Shorter events like the 800 require more speed than stamina and endurance.
Yet, even with that being the general train of thought, there was only one qualifier in the 800 between both regions that was a freshman (Marco Arop). In the West 800, four of the last five finishers in the finals were freshmen.
Freshmen Sam Worley and Luis Grijalva may have moved on to Nationals for the 1500, but qualifying favorite Reed Brown failed to make it. We saw almost the exact same thing in the East region as Yared Nuguse and 3:39 man Waleed Suliman failed to qualify (although Ole Miss freshman Everett Smulders did qualify).
In the 5k and 10k, between both regions, only three freshmen qualified for Nationals. Cooper Teare (5000), Conner Mantz (10,000), and Ben Veatch (5000) are rare exceptions as well as phenomenal talents.
The steeplechase was the only event that broke expectations. In an event that is brand new to many incoming freshmen, longer in distance, and has literal barriers in the way, you'd think that freshmen would struggle. However, the young group performed much better in the steeplechase than others. Between both regions, five freshman qualified for the Big Dance. That may be an anomaly and I'm unsure if that is a consistent trend over the past few years.
Team Racing May Be Something We Just Made Up
Prior to the Regional Championships, we mentioned how having teammates racing with you in the same event could be beneficial. The idea that you could create a game plan and execute race strategies certainly sounds appealing, but there is only so much one runner can do in a single race. Just look at the 1500. The Ole Miss men fielded five runners while the Oregon men fielded four. Both teams would qualify two individuals each, leaving home a total of three runners that had run under 3:40 on the season.
The same can be said for the BYU steeplechasers who had five men toe the line. Despite their dominance throughout the season, only two Cougars qualified for the Big Dance in Eugene.
Of course, when you get to the longer distances, you do see more teammates qualifying together. Alabama had three men qualify in the 10k and the 5k. BYU had four men qualify in the 10k and three men qualify in the 5k. The examples go on and on...
Is there any relationship or trend between the number of runners a team enters and the number of qualifiers they have? Maybe, maybe not. That's a topic for another day. Still, it may not have as crucial of a role as I once thought it did.
Have Sleeper Picks, Just Make Sure They're The Right Ones
Between the five distance events in both regions, I would say that we had a total of 21 "sleeper" picks that we projected to qualify for Nationals. The term "sleeper" is relative, but I'll just classify it as someone that most people would not have initially chosen.
Of our 21 "sleeper" picks, none of them were correct...
Yep, I'll admit it. We went bold, but nothing good came out of it. However, that shouldn't suggest that we just stop taking sleeper picks altogether. When counting the number of "sleeper" picks that actually did qualify, I came up with a total of 21 individuals. Remember, that term is super relative, but from my perspective it seems like we at least got the total correct.
Who would have guessed that Bethune-Cookman's Jonathan Moore would run a huge personal best to get an automatic qualifier? Or what about Ole Miss freshman Everett Smulders stealing the thunder from fellow freshman teammate Waleed Suliman and taking a qualifying spot? Kevin White and Chandler Teigen were certainly surprises in the West 1500. The list goes on...
When race tactics come into play, things can become a bit crazy. It leaves opportunities for sleeper picks and underrated names to step up and have a breakout/surprise performance. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened this weekend.