2018 NCAA 800 Recaps: UTEP’s Michael Saruni & Oregon’s Sabrina Southerland Win First Titles

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By LetsRun.com
March 10, 2018

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The 800s tonight at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships were won by a pair of talented 22-year-olds, but on paper, that’s where the similarities end.

The men’s winner, Michael Saruni of UTEP, is from Kenya, only a sophomore eligibility-wise and was the heavy pre-meet favorite. The women’s winner, Sabrina Southerland of Oregon, is American, a 5th-year grad transfer from Georgetown and only came in seeded 14th.

Now, they both are NCAA champions.

Men’s Race

Harris put up a fight, but Saruni was in a class of his own today

Harris put up a fight, but Saruni was in a class of his own today

Yesterday, Michael Saruni only qualified for the NCAA men’s 800 final as a time qualifier but he assured the media afterwards that everything was fine — he knew his heat was fast enough to grab the two time qualifiers.

Tonight, Saruni backed that talk up as he looked as good as ever and he won by running a sensationally-executed, negative-split 1:45.15 – a new NCAA championship record and the #2 mark in indoor collegiate history, breaking Arizona’s Patrick Nduwimana’s old NCAA meet record of 1:45.33 which had stood since 2001. The only indoor mark faster than Saruni’s from today belongs to Saruni’s coach, Paul Ereng, who ran the NCAA record of 1:44.84 to win World Indoors in Budapest in 1989.

After hitting 400 in third (53.11), Saruni looked like he hit turbo in a video game as he quickly accelerated coming off  the turn and grabbed the lead on he backstretch. Saruni never gave up the lead the rest of the race, running the third lap in 25.88, and he still had plenty left on the last lap (26.17) to pull away from Penn State’s Isaiah Harris. Saruni wound up running a sizeable negative split of 53.10-52.05. Harris ended up second (just as he did outdoors last year) in a new indoor pb of 1:46.08 (1:46.24 previous pb).

After Saruni won, he did was quite excited and dropped to the track to do some pushups.

Southerland used a big move to surprise the field and win her first national title

Southerland used a big move to surprise the field and win her first national title

Women’s Race

In the women’s race, Oregon redshirt senior Sabrina Southerland, who came in as just the 14th seed, got the win in a big pb of 2:01.55. Southerland, a former HS star who sported a 2:03.59 HS pb but only modestly improved during her four years at Georgetown (2:03.10 pb), had never even made the final in her five cracks at NCAAs while running for the Hoyas. Now she’s an NCAA champion in her first appearance for the Ducks.

Her win means an Oregon 800 runner has now won the women’s 800 titles in four of the last five years (Laura Roesler in 2014, Raevyn Rogers in 2016 and 2017).

Southerland had the best last 200 of anyone in the field by more than half a second (30.64), as she pulled away from Texas A&M’s superfrosh Sammy Watson, who ended up third in 2:02.65, as she was passed late by a fast-charging Siofra Cleirigh Buttner of Villanova (2nd in 2:02.46). Buttner stole a page from Southerland’s playbook as she’d never made an 800 final in two previous NCAA appearances (although she was 8th in the mile last year).

Quick Take: Michael Saruni took a different mindset into today’s NCAA final

Saruni looked like a different runner from the one that had to rely on a time qualifier in yesterday’s prelims, and though he didn’t totally explain what the difference was, Saruni said that a change in mindset was the key.

“The brain is the biggest muscle,” Saruni said, cryptically.

One big difference that we noticed is that when Saruni decided to move, he moved with authority — as opposed to yesterday’s prelims, when he gradually worked his way up the field.

Saruni also wanted to thank his supporters, or as he called them, his “real ones,” a few of whom texted him advice after yesterday’s race.

“My real ones were texting me like ‘Boy, don’t stay at the back regardless.’ Man, I just want to thank all my real ones, man.”

Saruni thought that if he was able to lead today’s race wire-to-wire, he might have been able to break his coach Paul Ereng’s 1:44.84 collegiate record. Good thing he has two years of eligibility remaining to chase it.

Quick Take: Way less mileage helped Southerland win NCAAs

As noted above, this is the fourth time in the last five years Oregon has won the women’s 800, but this one was a total shock. On her journey from high school star to NCAA athlete who never made the final to NCAA champion Southerland said, “It’s just been a long time.”

When she saw an opportunity tonight she seized it.

“I saw the spot and thought I can go. I made a definitive move and just went for it. On the straightaway I thought ‘I’m not letting go.'”

When asked about what had changed about her training at Oregon she said her mileage has dropped a ton as she’s now with the sprint group under coach Robert Johnson.

“It’s been very different. I went from running 50-something miles a week to now running like 10, or 15 maybe. I’m working in the sprint group and that’s been beneficial for my running.”

Discuss: Mileage definitely isn’t everything: Sabrina Southerland dropped her mileage from 50 a week to 10-15 a wk and is NCAA champ

Quick Take: Class year doesn’t always mean a lot.

This is Southerland’s fifth year in the NCAA as she’s a redshirt senior. Saruni is a sophomore at UTEP. Both are 22 but Saruni is exactly six months older than Southerland (he was born on June 18, 1995, Southerland on December 18, 1995).

Quick Take: Isaiah Harris has nothing to be ashamed of

Harris ran an indoor PR of 1:46.08 today to take second and he can hang his head high in defeat. He was the only guy to hang with Saruni once the UTEP star made his winning move and hung on for a clear second place.

“Saruni’s just a talented runner, there’s no hiding that, everyone knows that now,” Harris said. “He went, I tried to go with him, and he just had a little bit more. But I’m proud of my effort, I gave it my all out there.”

We feel bad for Harris. He was 2nd at USAs last year and made the semis at Worlds, but he has yet to win an NCAA title. Why? Well just look at the list of guys who have won the title since he’s been in college:

2016 indoors: Clayton Murphy
2016 outdoors: Donavan Brazier
2017 indoors: Emmanuel Korir
2017 outdoors: Emmanuel Korir
2018 indoors: Michael Saruni

So if you’re keeping track, that’s an Olympic medallist/1:42 guy, the NCAA record holder, a 1:43 guy (who was the world leader in 2017), and Saruni, who is the second-fastest collegian ever indoors. Harris is only a junior, so he may well win a national title one day, but he happens to be competing at a time when the men’s 800 is totally stacked.

Interview with 2nd placer Siofra Cleirigh Buttner

Buttner has been a Penn Relays hero for Villanova in recent years but today was by far her best finish in an NCAA final.

Sammy Watson interview


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