2018 NCAA Indoor Mile Preview: Josh Kerr Favored To Repeat As Elle Purrier Tries To End Her NCAA Title Drought

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 miles.

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

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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 mile (prelims Friday 6:35 p.m. ET, final Saturday 5:10 p.m. ET)

Name Year School Qualifying mark Comment
Josh Kerr SO New Mexico 3:54.72 Reigning NCAA indoor/outdoor champ is heavy, heavy favorite
Jonah Koech JR UTEP 3:55.81 6th in ’16, went out in semis last year. Got in with altitude-converted 4:01
Kasey Knevelbaard SO So. Utah 3:55.95 Big Sky champion. Got in with flat track/altitude-converted 4:04
Vincent Ciattei SR Virginia Tech 3:56.56 Anchored Va Tech DMR to 2nd last yr. Got in with flat track-converted 3:59
Patrick Joseph SR Virginia Tech 3:56.58 Made indoor/outdoor NCAAs in 800 last yr. Got in with flat track-converted 3:59
Cole Rockhold JR CO State 3:56.85 Mountain West runner-up behind Kerr. Got in with altitude-converted 4:02
Sam Prakel SR Oregon 3:56.89 7th at USAs in 1500 last year
Neil Gourley SR Virginia Tech 3:57.19 4th in mile, 5th in 1500 last year. Defeated loaded field to win ACC 800 in ’18
Reed Brown FR Oregon 3:57.23 Foot Locker champ is a true freshman
Zach Perrin SR Colorado 3:57.28 Went out in prelims last year. Got in with flat track/altitude-converted 4:03
Diego Leon SR MT State 3:57.37 6th at Big Sky champs. Got in with flat track/altitude-converted 4:05
Amos Bartelsmeyer SR Georgetown 3:57.53 Big East champ
Carlos Villarreal SO Arizona 3:57.64 3rd in 800 at MPSF champs
Mick Stanovsek SO Oregon 3:57.90 Walk-on is now 3:57 miler
Sam Worley FR Texas 3:58.04 True frosh was 3rd in Big 12 800
Sean Tobin SR Ole Miss 3:58.28 SEC champ ran on NCAA-winning DMR last year

In recent years, repeating as NCAA mile champion has proved exceedingly difficult. The last seven NCAA mile titles have all been won by men with eligibility remaining, but none have successfully defended their title. Here’s the list:

Name School Year of title Next year result
Miles Batty BYU 2011 3rd
Chris O’Hare Tulsa 2012 7th
Lawi Lalang Arizona 2013 2nd
Anthony Rotich UTEP 2014 3rd
Edward Cheserek Oregon 2015 N/A (ran+won 3k/5k/DMR instead)
Henry Wynne Virginia 2016 Did not qualify
Josh Kerr New Mexico 2017 ???

It’s not like all of these guys suddenly got significantly worse. Batty, O’Hare, and Lalang all broke the collegiate record the year after they won their title and still lost at NCAAs. Cheserek broke the collegiate record by running 3:52.01 last year and got beat at NCAAs. There’s a lot of talent in the U.S. collegiate system, which makes repeating really hard.

Kerr won't be sneaking up on anyone this year

Kerr won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year

New Mexico’s Josh Kerr is the reigning champion looking to end the skid and, like many of the men in the table above, he will be favored to repeat. Since winning the NCAA mile title last year, Kerr has done the following:

  • Run 3:35 for 1500 outdoors
  • Won the NCAA outdoor title
  • Finished 2nd at the British champs to qualify for Worlds, beating a 3:34 guy/Diamond League winner in Jake Wightman in the process
  • Run 3:54 to finish 2nd in the Wanamaker Mile — a full two seconds faster than anyone else in the NCAA this year

Add all that together and Kerr, still just 20 years old, is a big-time favorite at NCAAs. As we mentioned above, big-time favorites have lost at this meet before (one need only look back to Kerr himself, who slayed the dragon that is Edward Cheserek in 2017), so we’re not going to say that Kerr is invincible. But he’s really, really good, and we fully expect him to become the first man to repeat as NCAA mile champion since Lee Emanuel — who, like Kerr, was a Brit running for New Mexico.

Unfortunately for the rest of the NCAA, there’s no magic bullet for beating Kerr. Outside of the World Champs, the only person to beat Kerr on the track since NCAAs last year is Chris O’Hare, and O’Hare is a world-class runner. O’Hare beat Kerr at Millrose by soloing a 3:54 from the front. Considering that the only guy in the NCAA to run even close to 3:54 this year is Kerr himself, that’s not a viable strategy. But allowing the race to come down to a kick isn’t a great idea either. Remember, Kerr put two seconds on Edward f***ing Cheserek on the final lap at NCAAs last year. Do you really want to try to outkick that guy?

No, the only way to beat a stud like Kerr is to be a stud yourself, and we don’t see anyone on his level in this field. UTEP’s Jonah Koech is the #2 seed (though his 3:55.81 seed time actually comes from a converted 4:01.06 mile at altitude) and he’s got some wheels (1:46.53 800 pb) but he didn’t even make the final at NCAAs last year and lost earlier this season to freshman Sam Worley of Texas. Oregon’s Sam Prakel was the second-fastest miler in the country this year at 3:56.89, and he finished an impressive 7th at USAs last year. But had Kerr been in the USA final, he would have placed much higher than 7th — Craig Engels was 4th in that race, and Kerr beat Engels convincingly at NCAA outdoors just two weeks earlier.

There is one guy that intrigues us, and like Kerr, he’s a Scot: Virginia Tech’s Neil Gourley. Gourley was 4th in the NCAA mile last year (top returner behind Kerr) and 5th in the NCAA 1500 outdoors. Two weeks ago, he ran the 800 at ACCs, and Gourley won the race in 1:47.04, which puts him #2 on the 2018 NCAA list at 800. He beat a loaded field as well, as the guys who finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th all ran times that put them in the top 10 in the NCAA this year.

The problem is that Gourley has only run one mile all year, and in that race he was only the third-fastest guy on his own team as he lost to fellow Hokies Vincent Ciattei and Patrick Joseph (both of whom are also entered in the mile at NCAAs). If the race is extremely tactical and it comes down to Gourley, a 1:47-low guy indoors, against Kerr in a kick, Gourley might have a chance.

The one other variable in play is that Kerr could be running the DMR as well. New Mexico coach Joe Franklin said that they won’t decide for sure until Friday night as it’s “dependent on how [Kerr] feels” after the first round of the mile but we’d expect that, with over three hours between the mile and the DMR, Kerr will probably attempt the double. It’s possible that Prakel (Oregon) and the Virginia Tech guys run the DMR as well, but it’s also possible that their coaches pull them off the relay to keep them fresh for the mile. Even if Kerr does run the DMR, however, it shouldn’t put him at that much of a disadvantage: Miles Batty (2011) and Cheserek (2015) have both successfully pulled off the mile-DMR double in recent years.

LRC prediction: Kerr is too good for this field. He’s one of the greatest mile talents to ever lace them up at the NCAA level. Kerr gets his repeat title.

PS. How highly do we think of Kerr? Well if Edward Cheserek were in this race — and Cheserek ran a 3:49 mile indoors this year — we’d be very tempted to pick Kerr FTW as Kerr beat him last year. Kerr is a true miler while Cheserek is a great distance runner who can run fast at the mile but not necessarily change gears quickly like Kerr.

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Women’s mile (prelims Friday 6:50 p.m. ET, final Saturday 5:20 p.m. ET)

Name Year School Qualifying mark Comment
Elle Purrier SR New Hampshire 4:26.55 #2 in NCAA history behind only Jenny Simpson
Dani Jones JR Colorado 4:29.32
Won NCAA 3k & anchored winning DMR in ’17. Has only raced 2x in ’18. Altitude/flat track-converted 4:36
Elise Cranny SR Stanford 4:31.29 Anchored Stanford to 2nd in DMR last year; NCAA 1500 runner-up in ’16
Millie Paladino JR Providence 4:31.98 7th last year
Nikki Hiltz SR Arkansas 4:33.44 NCAA 1500 runner-up; 6th at USA outdoors last year
Whittni Orton SO BYU 4:34.88 6th at MPSF in 800
Rhianwedd Price-Weimer SR Miss State 4:35.37 2015 NCAA 1500 champ
Haley Meier SR Michigan 4:35.69 Big 10 champ
Jessica Harris SR Notre Dame 4:36.46 ACC champ; split 4:27 on ND’s DMR at NCAAs last year
Amy Cashin SR West Virginia 4:36.89 5th in 3k at Big 12s
Claire Green SR Arizona 4:37.44 6th at MPSF
Paige Duca JR Boston College 4:37.55 3rd at ACCs
Molly Sughroue JR OK State 4:37.74 Big 12 mile champ the last two years
Sarah Hardie SR Columbia 4:37.94 Has won 3 Heps titles in 1k
Grace Barnett SR Clemson 4:38.35 Ran 4:33 & was 10th at NCAAs last year
Susan Ejore SO Oregon 4:38.65 8th at MPSF
New Hampshire's Elinor Purrier winning the 2016 BC Coast to Coast Battle in Beantown cross country meet (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

New Hampshire’s Elinor Purrier winning the 2016 BC Coast to Coast Battle in Beantown cross country meet (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

There’s something about steeplers and the indoor mile. The NCAA record holder in the mile, Jenny Simpson (then Barringer) of Colorado, who ran 4:25.91 in 2009, was also a three-time NCAA champion in the steeplechase. The NCAA meet record holder, Leah O’Connor of Michigan State, who ran 4:27.18 in 2015 (#3 in collegiate history), was the 2014 NCAA steeple champion. And Elle Purrier of New Hampshire, whose 4:26.55 earlier this season puts her between Simpson and O’Connor on the all-time NCAA list is, you guessed it, a steepler.

The big difference between Purrier and her predecessors is that Purrier has yet to add the “NCAA champion” moniker — though not for lack of trying. The 23-year-old senior has finished in the top four in each of her last four NCAA appearances on the track, finishing 3rd in the mile and 3rd in the steeple in 2016 and 2nd in the mile and 4th in the steeple last year. Add in 7th place finishes in the steeple (in 2015) and cross country (in 2016), and Purrier, now a senior, is tired of being the bridesmaid.

This is Purrier’s best shot yet at that elusive title. The only woman who beat her at NCAAs last year, Karisa Nelson of Samford, only raced once all year (a 2:05 800 in early January) and is not running NCAAs in 2018. The next three women from last year’s final have either graduated or are running different events at NCAAs this year. Plus Purrier is running even better than ever right now. Though she broke 4:30 in both 2016 and 2017, the 4:26 mile she laid down in Boston far surpasses anything she’s ever done. It still stands as the world leader and came in a race in which she blew away Olympians Gabriela StaffordMarta Freitas, and Nicole Sifuentes. Again, only Simpson has gone faster in college, and Simpson is one of the best 1500 runners the world has ever seen. Purrier has also been terrific at other distances: her 2:03.64 800 SB ranks 10th in the NCAA, while her 8:55.68 3k is second only to Karissa Schweizer‘s collegiate record. All the pieces are in place for a first NCAA title.

While it’s unlikely that someone emerges from nowhere to win the mile as Nelson did last year, there are several already credentialed women who could derail Purrier’s dream. The #2 seed is Colorado’s Dani Jones, who had an NCAA meet to remember in 2017, running the anchor leg on the winning DMR on Friday and doubling back to win the 3k on Saturday, both times with big kicks on the final lap. Purrier’s 800 pb (2:03.64) is faster than Jones’ (2:04.35), but Jones is a strong closer whom you do not want to see on your shoulder with a lap to go.

Stanford’s Elise Cranny‘s talent has been obvious ever since she ran 4:10 and took 4th at World Juniors as a high schooler in 2014. Though Cranny has battled injury issues since enrolling at Stanford that fall, when healthy, she’s a serious NCAA contender. As a true freshman in 2015, she finished 2nd in the 3k and anchored Stanford to 2nd in the DMR, and she’s missed out on two more NCAA titles (2016 outdoor 1500, 2017 indoor DMR) by a combined .03 of a second. Cranny has only raced twice in 2018, and she was well-beaten in one of them (running 9:06 for 11th in the 3k at the Husky Classic on February 10), but she won the MPSF mile in 4:31.29 in her last race. Those two results are almost identical to Dani Jones’, who ran 4:36 in the mile on February 3 (converted to a 4:29 due to flat track/altitude) and 9:05 for 3k at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston in her only other race of the year on February 10.

Like Purrier and Cranny, Arkansas’ Nikki Hiltz has also come agonizingly close to an NCAA title in the past. Last year outdoors, she finished 2nd in the 1500, just .02 behind champion Jaimie Phelan of Michigan. Two weeks later, she finished 6th at USAs, and though she lost to Purrier head-to-head at Millrose earlier this year (4:31.85 to 4:33.44), Hiltz did win the SEC meet two weeks ago. The runner-up in that race at SECs also bears watching at NCAAs: Rhianwedd Price-Weimer of Mississippi State. The NCAA outdoor champion in 2015, Price has struggled to recapture that form. She has come within three seconds of her 4:09.56 pb just once since 2015, and until SECs had not come within six seconds of her 4:32.74 mile pb since 2015, either. But Price showed something at SECs, running 4:35.37, and though she finished second to Hiltz, it was a performance that hinted at her ability of old. Price probably won’t win, but she and Jones are the only women in the field with NCAA titles.

All of these women are great, but only one has run 4:26, and that’s Purrier. If we were coaching her, we’d tell her to trust in her training and do what Leah O’Connor did to win in 2015: take it out hard and try to go wire-to-wire. That’s not easy to do, obviously, but if it’s a 4:27/4:28 race, we don’t see anyone beating Purrier.

LRC prediction: This is a good field and we expect a good race, but 4:26 is really freaking fast. Purrier has been brilliant in the 800, mile, and 3k this year and she finally gets her NCAA title this weekend.

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Who do you think will win? Tell us on our world famus messageboard: MB: 2018 NCAA mile: If Edward Cheserek were racing Kerr this year, who would you pick? Will Elle Purrier win NCAA title #1? Come back later in the week and enter our free prediction contest.

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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