2018 NCAA Indoor 800 Preview: Sammy Watson Is Primed to Break Through; Can Isaiah Harris — Or Anyone Else — Hang With Michael Saruni?

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By LetsRun.com
March 6, 2018

The 2018 indoor track and field season culminates this weekend at the 2018 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in College Station, Texas. We’ll be on-site in the Lone Star State starting Thursday, but before we get down there we’re previewing the mid-d/distance events so that you can know what to watch for at the meet. Below you’ll find our look at the men’s and women’s 800s. The men’s race should be terrific with a showdown between UTEP star Michael Saruni and Penn State’s Isaiah Harris, while the home team could go 1-2 in the women’s race with superfrosh Sammy Watson and NCAA record holder Jazmine Fray.

Be sure to enter the $200,018 Running Warehouse prediction contest.

800 preview: 2018 NCAA Indoor 800 Preview: Sammy Watson Is Primed to Break Through; Can Isaiah Harris — Or Anyone Else — Hang With Michael Saruni?
Mile preview: 2018 NCAA Indoor Mile Preview: Josh Kerr Favored To Repeat As Elle Purrier Tries To End Her NCAA Title Drought
3k/5k preview: Justyn Knight & Grant Fisher Renew Rivalry; Can Karissa Schweizer Avenge NCAA XC Defeat To Ednah Kurgat?

*Schedule/start lists/broadcast information *All LRC coverage

TV/Streaming: The meet will be streamed live on Watch ESPN.

Men’s 800 (prelims Friday 8:15 p.m. ET, final Saturday 6:30 p.m. ET)

NameYearSchoolQualifying markComment
Michael SaruniSOUTEP1:44.89His 1:45.19 @ Texas Tech was #2 NCAA all-time; broke 600 WR on 1/20
Bryce HoppelSOKansas1:47.09Big 12 champ is undefeated this year
John LewisJRClemson1:47.14ACC runner-up
Robert HeppenstallJRWake Forest1:47.19
5th at NCAA indoors, 4th at NCAA outdoors last year, but only 3rd at ACCs this year
Devin DixonSOTexas A&M1:47.37SEC champ ran 1:45, finished 7th at NCAA outdoors as true frosh in ’17
Isaiah HarrisJRPenn State1:47.482nd at NCAA/USA outdoors last year; undefeated at 800m in ’18
Avery BartlettJRGeorgia Tech1:47.585th at ACCs
Marco AropFRMiss State1:47.622nd at Pan Am juniors for Canada last year
Vincent CrispJRTexas Tech1:47.70Ran 1:46 as an 18-year-old to win USA juniors outdoors in ’16
Myles MarshallJRHarvard1:47.742014 Youth Olympic champ has started to put it together at Harvard
Dylan CapwellSRMonmouth1:47.862nd at NCAA indoors in ’15 but didn’t run NCAA indoors in ’16 or ’17
Daniel KuhnSRIndiana1:47.89Big 10 600 champ
Abraham AlvaradoSRBYU1:47.987th at USAs last year
Clay LambourneSRUtah State1:48.13Mountain West champ
Michael RhoadsSOAir Force1:48.22Mountain West runner-up
Dejon DevroeJRMiss State1:48.31SEC runner-up

The men’s 800 is always one of the most exciting events of any indoor meet, and at the NCAA level, it’s also been one of the strongest in terms of top-end talent in recent years. Just look at what the last two NCAA champions accomplished. In 2016, Akron’s Clayton Murphy won NCAA indoors; five months later, he ran 1:42 in Rio and took home an Olympic bronze medal. Last year, UTEP’s Emmanuel Korir won NCAA indoors; he finished 2017 as the world leader thanks to the 1:43.10 he ran in Monaco later that year.

Can Saruni join studs like Murphy & Korir and win the NCAA 800 title?

Can Saruni join studs like Murphy & Korir and win the NCAA 800 title? Photo courtesy Paul Ereng.

And as great as Murphy and Korir were, neither of them ran as fast indoors as collegians as UTEP sophomore Michael Saruni. The 22-year-old Kenyan did most of his damage this year during a three-week stretch in January. On consecutive weekends, he ran 1:45.92 in Nashville, broke the 600 world record by running 1:14.79 in Albuquerque, and ran 1:45.19 in Lubbock — the second-fastest indoor 800 ever by a collegian.

The two concerns about Saruni:

1) That stretch of dominance came a little while ago — his 1:45.19 in Lubbock came six weeks ago. Is he still in that kind of shape?

2) Can he improve his positioning after two disastrous NCAA finals in 2017?

We’re not that concerned about #1. Saruni ran well at the Conference USA meet (1st in 800, 2nd in mile to teammate Jonah Koech) and while six weeks is a while ago, the indoor season isn’t that long. It’s not like Saruni’s been hitting it hard for six months.

#2 has a bigger chance to become a problem. At NCAA indoors last year, Saruni found himself boxed in at the bell and panicked, running up on the back of leader Drew Piazza of Virginia Tech, which led to Saruni being disqualified. At NCAA outdoors, Saruni had the lead on the outside with 200 to go, but when he moved in toward the rail entering the turn, he appeared to make contact with teammate Korir, which caused him to trip and fall. Tactically, the indoor 800 is one of the toughest events in the sport, and there’s always a lot of contact. Saruni’s SB may be almost two seconds faster than the rest of the field, but if he gets caught up in traffic, something bad could happen.

The good news: when you’re the best guy in the field, you have a bigger margin for error than everyone else. Korir did not run a strong tactical race last year indoors, but he was so good that he was still able to win once he finally found some room on the home straight. But it doesn’t even need to come to that. Our advice to Saruni is simple: You’ve run 1:45.19 this year. No one else has broken 1:47. Just try to run 1:45.5 from the front and you should be able to drop everyone else.

That plan would be perfect if it wasn’t for one thing: Isaiah Harris.

While this year’s field overall isn’t anywhere close to last year’s when there were nine men entered at sub-1:47, Isaiah Harris is a worthy challenger to Saruni.

Harris’s season best is only 1:47.38, but he is capable of much faster. He ran 1:46.24 indoors as a true freshman in 2016, and outdoors he’s run 1:44.52 — even faster than Saruni’s 1:44.61 pb — and made the World Championship semifinals last year. Harris has won all three of his 800s in convincing fashion this year, and beaten some strong competition in the process, including Indiana’s Daniel Kuhn (Big 10 600 champ) and BYU’s Abraham Alvarado (USA outdoor finalist) at Iowa State on February 10 and Michigan State’s Justine Kiprotich (NCAA 1500 runner-up) at Big 10s. If Saruni goes out in 50.5 and tries to run 1:45, it’s entirely possible that Harris comes through just a bit behind in 51.0, uses Saruni as a rabbit and runs him down in the home stretch.

There are some other good guys in this field — Alvarado made the USA final last year, while Texas A&M’s Devin Dixon ran 1:45 as a true frosh last year to win SECs outdoors — but Saruni and Harris stand out as the two titans, and it would be a surprise if one of them did not win this race.

LRC prediction: Harris is really good and has been winning races, but Saruni has been winning races and running historically fast. 1:45.19 is moving indoors. It’s only .09 slower than what Donavan Brazier ran to crush everyone at USAs, and it would have been the fastest time in the world indoors in 2015, 2016, and 2017. If Brazier were running this race, we’d pick Brazier over Harris for sure.

And remember, last year Saruni finished third in the Kenyan World Championship Trials. The guy right behind him, Ferguson Rotich, is a 1:42 guy who was the Diamond League champ and 5th at the Olympics in 2016 (though we should point out that Harris finished only .17 behind Rotich in their semi at Worlds).

Oh and we haven’t mentioned that Saruni trains with the world leader, Emmanuel Korir.

Saruni FTW.

Women’s 800 (prelims Friday 8:25 p.m. ET, final Saturday 6:40 p.m. ET)

NameYearSchoolQualifying markComment
Agnes AbuSRMid. Tenn. St.2:02.30Her 2:02.30 in Boston on 2/25 was a 2+ sec indoor pb. Only 1 win all year. 25 years old.
Jazmine FrayJRTexas A&M2:02.30NCAA record holder was 4th last year, but lost to teammate Watson at SECs
Danae RiversSOPenn State2:03.133rd in NCAA mile last year; went out in semis in 800 at NCAA outdoors
Rachel PocratskyJRVirginia Tech2:03.17ACC champ has never run at NCAAs before
Sadi HendersonSRBoise State2:03.26Mountain West champ
Sammy WatsonFRTexas A&M2:03.42Ran 2:00 in HS; 2016 World U20 champ; undefeated this year & spanked Fray at SECs
Fellan FergusonSRClemson2:03.593rd at ACCs
Kamryn McIntoshFRClemson2:03.592nd at ACCs
Jasmine StaeblerJRIowa State2:03.59Big 12 runner-up
Siofra Cleirigh ButtnerSRVillanova2:03.89Has run 2:01 outdoors; 8th in NCAA mile in ’17
Olivia BakerSRStanford2:04.00Has made 4 NCAA finals, with best finish of 2nd (’16 outdoors)
Avi’ Tal PerteeteFRUNLV2:04.012nd at Mountain West
Abike EgbeniyiJRMid. Tenn. St.2:04.11CUSA 400 champ
Sabrina SoutherlandSROregon2:04.38Georgetown transfer has been to NCAAs five times but never made the final
Kaylee DoddJROklahoma St.2:04.523rd at Big 12s
Ashley TaylorSRN. Arizona2:04.53Big Sky champ

The NCAA lost an all-time great last year when Oregon’s Raevyn Rogers turned professional after her junior year. During her three years in Eugene, Rogers piled up five NCAA titles, set the collegiate record outdoors and, in her final race, anchored the Oregon 4×400 to victory to clinch a historic NCAA triple crown. In December, she won The Bowerman, collegiate track & field’s highest honor.

How long will it take until we see another NCAA talent like Rogers in the women’s 800? 10 years? 20 years?

Sammy Watson after earning World Junior gold in 2016

Sammy Watson after earning World Junior gold in 2016

Actually, the answer may be just one year. There’s a decent chance successor to Rogers may be in the NCAA at this exact moment. Her name is Sammy Watson.

You don’t even need to follow high school running closely to know Watson’s name as her accomplishments as a high school senior last year spilled into the professional ranks: she was 4th at USA indoors in the 1000 and 6th at USA outdoors in the 800. She entered her freshman season at Texas A&M this year with a PR of 2:00.65 — #3 all-time among U.S. high schoolers, behind only Mary Cain and two-time Olympic medalist Kim Gallagher — and Watson is actually young for her grade, as she only turned 18 in November. She could easily still be in high school.

Watson is also already a two-time world champion as she won the World Youth title in 2015 and the World Junior title in 2016. The last U.S. woman to pull that off was Ajee Wilson (World Youth champ in 2011, World Junior champ in 2012), and though Wilson skipped college to turn pro, she wound up running 1:58 and finishing 5th at Worlds after what would have been her freshman year.

So how does Watson stack up with Rogers and Wilson? Very well, it turns out.

NameGraduating yearHigh school PR*Age 17 PBWorld YouthsWorld Juniors
Ajee Wilson20122:00.912:02.64^Gold in ’11Gold in ’12
Raevyn Rogers20142:03.322:04.40Bronze in ’13Out in 1st rd in ’14
Sammy Watson20172:00.662:00.66Gold in ’15Gold in ’16

*We’re counting times run the summer after their senior year, which is when Watson and Wilson set their HS PRs
^Wilson ran 2:00.91 at age 18 and 2 months.

Watson was also younger than Wilson and Rogers when she competed at Worlds as World Youths was held after her sophomore year and World Juniors after her junior year (for Wilson and Rogers, World Youths was after their junior years and World Juniors was after their senior years). Wilson was 18 years, 2 months, and 4 days old when she won World Juniors. Watson was 16 years, 8 months, and 11 days old when she won World Juniors.

That’s great, you might be thinking, but what has Sammy Watson done lately?

Well, in her last race, she won the SEC title and beat the NCAA record holder (Jazmine Fray) by 1.17 seconds.

Watson has run two other individual races this year. In the first, on December 9, she ran 2:42.12 for 1000 meters, beating Fray by 2.69 seconds. In the other, on February 10, she ran 2:03.42 at Clemson to win by 3 full seconds. The runner-up in that race was Clemson’s Fellan Ferguson, who has run 2:03.59 this year, putting her #7 on the NCAA list.

Watson’s situation is very similar to the one Rogers was in before she won her first NCAA title at the end of the 2015 outdoor season. That year, Rogers mostly laid low before ripping a huge performance at her conference meet (she ran 2:01.67 to win by 2.10 seconds). She entered NCAAs as one of several strong women on paper but broke out with her first NCAA title in dominant fashion. Like Rogers, Watson ran a very impressive race at her conference meet but doesn’t enter NCAAs as a huge favorite based on what she’s accomplished this year. But we would not be surprised at all if she went out and, like Rogers, delivered a dominant performance to win her first NCAA title on her home track.

Other women to watch

  • Agnes Abu, senior, Middle Tennessee State: Abu, a native of Ghana who turns 26 years old in May, had not run faster than 2:05.31 this year before ripping a huge indoor PR of 2:02.30 two weeks ago in Boston. The performance wasn’t totally out of nowhere — she did run 2:02.70 last year outdoors and made it to NCAAs — but she’s far from a sure thing even if she is currently tied for the NCAA lead.
  • Jazmine Fray, junior, Texas A&M: Fray shockingly broke the NCAA indoor record by running 2:00.69 last year, and though she went on to place 4th against a strong field at NCAA indoors, she could not even make the final at the NCAA outdoor meet. Fray picked up wins in her first two races of 2018 but was a distant second to Watson at SECs.
  • Danae Rivers, sophomore, Penn State: A big talent, Rivers ran 4:32 and was 3rd in the mile at NCAA indoors last year but elected to run the 800 at NCAAs this year as her 2:03.13 SB puts her a lot closer to the top in the 800 than her 4:37.71 SB would in the mile. Rivers is the Big 10 champ.
  • Siofra Cleirigh Buttner, senior, Villanova: Buttner, who has a 2:01.98 outdoor PB, has delivered for Villanova at the Penn Relays through the years, but she’s only made one NCAA final in three appearances (she was 8th in the mile last year).
  • Olivia Baker, senior, Stanford: Baker, who earned World Junior bronze in the 400 in 2014, seemed destined for greatness after running 2:01 and finishing as the NCAA 800 runner-up outdoors in 2016. But she regressed last year, failing to run faster than 2:03.41, and her best 800 this year indoors was only 2:04.00.

LRC prediction: This is easy. Watson FTW. If you’re a fan of college track & field, savor watching her run as we don’t imagine she’ll stay in college too long.

Who do you think will win? Tell us on our world famous messageboard: MB: 2018 NCAA indoor 800 – Who wins M. Saruni or I. Harris? Will freshman phenom Sammy Watson take over for Raevyn Rogers?

Be sure to enter the $200,018 Running Warehouse prediction contest

800 preview: 2018 NCAA Indoor 800 Preview: Sammy Watson Is Primed to Break Through; Can Isaiah Harris — Or Anyone Else — Hang With Michael Saruni?
Mile preview: 2018 NCAA Indoor Mile Preview: Josh Kerr Favored To Repeat As Elle Purrier Tries To End Her NCAA Title Drought
3k/5k preview: Justyn Knight & Grant Fisher Renew Rivalry; Can Karissa Schweizer Avenge NCAA XC Defeat To Ednah Kurgat?

*Schedule/start lists/broadcast information *All LRC coverage

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