What To Watch At 2018 NCAA Outdoors For Women: Schweizer & Orji Go for #7, The Sydney McLaughlin Show, & Could the Last Race at Hayward Be a Classic?
June 4, 2018
It’s here. The 2018 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, aka the final meet at Hayward Field as we know it.
While we can’t guarantee that the final race at Hayward Field will be as exciting as the one that brought last year’s meet to a close — Raevyn Rogers coming from behind to win the 4×400 for Oregon and clinch an unprecedented triple crown — this year’s meet will once again be full of current and future stars.
The NCAA is the best talent development system in the world. Which means that even when stars such as Christian Coleman and Emmanuel Korir, both of whom won titles at the 2017 NCAA championships, turn pro, there are replacements waiting in the wings — USC’s Michael Norman and Kentucky’s Sydney McLaughlin, to name just two.
We realize that not everyone reading this article may have had the time to follow the entire NCAA track season. Fear not! We’ve gathered all the top storylines for the meet in one place so that you know which races to get most excited for. So read this article, get hype, and come back and visit LetsRun.com every day this week as we will have boots on the ground in Eugene starting on Tuesday and will have full recaps and analysis of all the action from NCAAs, which run from Wednesday through Saturday.
Yesterday, we hit the top five men’s storylines — check them out here: LRC What To Watch At 2018 NCAA Outdoors For Men: A Historic 400, A Battle Of NCAA Champs In The 5K, & The Brilliance Of Holloway, Saruni, & Kerr — and now it’s time to preview the women’s meet with our top 5 women’s storylines.
Also, if you haven’t already done so, make sure to enter our Running Warehouse NCAA prediction contest. It’s totally free, and the top three win Saucony shoes and a $100 Running Warehouse gift certificate — as well as bragging rights. Make your picks here: LRC $200,018 LRC Running Warehouse NCAA Outdoor Prediction Contest
1. Syd the kid
No athlete in recent memory entered the NCAA system with higher expectations than Sydney McLaughlin when she enrolled at Kentucky last fall. An Olympian in the 400 hurdles following her junior year of high school, McLaughlin became the first person in history — male or female — to win Gatorade’s High School Athlete of the Year award twice. And remember, that award is for all sports, not just track & field — past recipients include LeBron James, Allyson Felix, and Maya Moore.
Despite those sky-high expectations, McLaughlin has lived up to the hype and then some. Indoors, McLaughlin ran 50.36 in the 400 at NCAAs, which would have gone down as a collegiate/American record — if USC’s Kendall Ellis hadn’t run 50.34 just minutes earlier. Outdoors, McLaughlin has been a sensation. In her first race of the season on March 29, she ran 22.39 for 200, which still holds up as the #4 time by a collegian this year. The next day, she clocked 50.07 in the 400 — #3 in the world right now. She even ran 11.07 in the 100, albeit with a 3.5 tailwind. In the relays, she was part of the 4×100 squad that ran 42.84 at the National Relay Championships (the 8th-fastest time in the country this year) and ran on Kentucky’s NCAA-leading 4×400 at SECs (3:25.99).
But none of those are McLaughlin’s best event. That would be the 400 hurdles. The first time McLaughlin ran the 400 hurdles this year, at Arkansas on April 27, she broke her own world U20 record by running 53.60. If that were McLaughlin’s only hurdles result, it would still be outstanding — no one in the world has run faster in 2018.
Then McLaughlin ran the hurdles at SECs. In that race — which McLaughlin won by over three seconds — she demolished her own world U20 record (and the collegiate record as well) with a 52.75, propelling her into a tie for 9th on the world all-time list. No one in the world has come within a second of her time this year. No one in the NCAA has come within three. And she’s done all this as an 18-year-old college freshman.
How could McLaughlin possibly top that at NCAAs? Well, she could help Kentucky win the NCAA title — the Wildcats are projected to be in a tight battle with NCAA indoor champion Georgia. If Kentucky wins, it would be the first NCAA track & field title in program history — men’s or women’s, indoor or outdoor.
Oh, and there are two words that are also being bandied around: “world record.”
If you’re wondering when the last time someone set a world record at NCAA outdoors was, the answer is: a very long time ago. According to statistician Jesse Squire, Long Beach State’s Dwight Stones was the last athlete to break a world record at NCAA outdoors thanks to his 2.31m high jump in 1976. Per Squire, an official IAAF women’s world record has never happened at the NCAA outdoor champs, though Dan Lilot points out that Cal’s Sheila Hudson broke the triple jump record (13.78) at the 1987 meet — three years before the IAAF recognized the women’s triple jump as an official world record event.
Of course, a world record probably won’t happen; McLaughlin would have to shave at least .42 off her 52.75 pb to break Yuliya Pechonkina‘s 2003 mark of 52.34. But the fact that we’re even mentioning the possibility shows just how special McLaughlin is.
Considering how good McLaughlin is and how appealing she would be to shoe companies, we don’t expect her to hang around Kentucky much longer — if she doesn’t go pro after this season, we’d expect her to do so after her sophomore year. So enjoy her while she’s still around, NCAA fans. Kentucky fans should enjoy her as well as once McLaughlin leaves, she’ll be taking a guaranteed 10 points — plus her relay skills — with her.
2. Karissa Schweizer & Keturah Orji go for magnificent seven
Counting XC, indoor, and outdoor track & field, 11 women have won seven or more individual NCAA titles. Here’s the list:
|Suzy Favor Hamilton||Wisconsin||1987-90||800, 1500, Mile, 3K||9|
|Sally Kipyego||Texas Tech||2006-09||3K, 5K, 10K, XC||9|
|Vicki Huber||Villanova||1986-89||Mile, 3K, XC||8|
|Carlette Guidry||Texas||1988-91||55, 100, 200, LJ||8|
|Holli Hyche||Indiana State||1991-94||55, 100, 200||7|
|Trecia Smith||Pittsburgh||1996-99||LJ, TJ||7|
|Amy Skieresz||Arizona||1996-99||5K, 10K, XC||7|
|Seilala Sua||UCLA||1997-00||SP, DISC||7|
|Jackie Johnson||Arizona State||2004-08||PENT, HEP||7|
|Abbey D’Agostino||Dartmouth||2011-14||3K, 5K, XC||7|
|Kendell Williams||Georgia||2014-17||PENT, HEP||7|
Two SEC stars could join that list this weekend: Missouri distance runner Karissa Schweizer and Georgia jumper Keturah Orji.
Schweizer has five NCAA titles but is the top seed in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. When Schweizer is on her game, she has been close to unbeatable in the collegiate ranks. She had an off day at NCAA XC last year and finished 11th, but other than that, her only defeat at NCAAs in the past two years was in the 3k last year indoors, where she waited too long to make her move and lost to a big kicker in Colorado’s Dani Jones. Schweizer swept the 3k and 5k indoors in March without much trouble, and will be favored to do the same with the 5k and the 10k outdoors. The 5k is her stronger event: her sb of 15:19 is tops in the country, and she crushed the field last year, winning by almost five seconds (she went on to finish 4th at USAs). She’s new to the 10k, having only debuted in March. But that debut was pretty good: she ran 32:00, which is 15 seconds faster than anyone else has run this year.
Working against Schweizer: the double is tough. Only two women have won both the 10,000 and 5,000 at the same NCAAs sine 1999. She’ll have to deal with reigning champ Charlotte Taylor of San Francisco and two-time runner-up Alice Wright of New Mexico in the 10k, both of whom will want to make it fast to soften Schweizer’s kick. Can she come back two days after a hard 10k and hold off NCAA XC champ Ednah Kurgat of New Mexico (15:19 pb) and Stanford’s Vanessa Fraser (15:20), both of whom will be fresh, in the 5k?
Based on regionals, the answer is yes. Schweizer ran 32:14 in Sacramento to beat Taylor and Wright in the 10k and came back two days later to win her heat of the 5k in 15:19 (less than a second off her pb). While it’s fair to question why Schweizer ran that fast at regionals — particularly in the 10k, where she could have run far slower and still finished in the top 12 — it was an impressive display of fitness from someone who is equally comfortably grinding from the front or waiting until the final lap to deploy her kick. Assuming she’s not too drained from regionals — and while that may be the case, we should also point out she has had two weeks to recover — we expect her to win both events in Eugene.
Orji should have a much easier path to her seventh title: she already has six in the triple jump (three indoors, three outdoors), and as the collegiate record holder, will be heavily favored to win the TJ this week. The question is whether Orji can become the first female field event athlete in history to win eight NCAA titles, as she’s also entered in the long jump. Indoors, Orji finished second as part of a 1-2-3 sweep by Georgia (teammate Kate Hall won the title), but outdoors Orji is #1 in the NCAA — and #8 in the world — thanks to her 6.81-meter winning jump at SECs. Orji will face tough competition in Hall, teammate Tara Davis (6.73 pb), but she caught a break when the #2 jumper in the NCAA this year, Arkansas’ Taliyah Brooks, failed to qualify out of the West Regional.
3. A wide-open 1500
Last year’s NCAA 1500 final was a thriller, with the racers going five-wide in the final meters to determine a champion. Remember this?
WHAT A FINISH!
— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) June 10, 2017
Since that race, however, those women have been cursed. Even though all five were underclassmen in 2017, only one is back in Eugene in 2018: Nikki Hiltz of Arkansas. Reigning champ Jaimie Phelan of Michigan missed almost all of this year with a foot injury. Samford’s Karisa Nelson (3rd) hasn’t raced since January. Oregon’s Katie Rainsberger (4th) spent the winter and spring dealing with Achilles and foot injuries and failed to make it out of regionals. And Dani Jones of Colorado (5th) is redshirting after battling injuries indoors, even though she just ran 4:07 at Pre. Heck, even Hiltz has been bitten by the injury bug this year — a knee injury meant that she didn’t race until SECs.
Even with all of those absences, this year’s race could be just as competitive as there are a ton of intriguing entrants. The favorite on paper is New Hampshire’s Elle Purrier. Purrier ran the steeple at NCAAs in each of the past three years, but after winning the NCAA mile title in March, she decided to enter the 1500 this time around. She had the fastest time of anyone at regionals (4:10.90) and her 4:26.55 mile indoors was #2 all-time in the NCAA behind only Jenny Simpson.
There are plenty of women who could challenge her, however. Mississippi State’s Rhianwedd Price-Weimer won this race way back in 2015, and after a couple of years of struggles, looks back to her old form this year (she ran 4:10.31 in March and won SECs last month). Stanford’s Elise Cranny, who came .01 short of winning the NCAA 1500 in 2016, is coming off a win over a strong field in the Pac-12 5,000 final. Her teammate, Christina Aragon, has the fastest PR in the field — 4:08.71 as a senior in HS — but hasn’t quite been able to reach that level at Stanford. The woman who beat Aragon at Pac-12s, Oregon’s Jessica Hull, is also in fine form as she won Pac-12s by almost two seconds. And don’t overlook Hiltz, Virginia Tech’s Rachel Pocratsky (the ACC 800/1500 champ and NCAA leader at 4:10.03), or Oklahoma State’s Sinclaire Johnson, who ran a massive 9-second PR of 4:11.57 at regionals.
Any of those women could win Saturday’s final; with any luck, we’ll get a finish to rival last year’s classic.
4. Which NCAA records will go down? Or, in the sprints, which records won’t go down?
This is an especially loaded year for women’s sprints, which could culminate with a slew of NCAA records falling. Let’s run through the sprint events quickly, beginning with the events most likely to see an NCAA record.
1. 4×100 (LSU, 42.05, 2018)
LSU set the collegiate record at SECs, and while more things have to go smoothly in a relay than an individual race, that also means there are more areas for improvement. With NCAA 100 champ Mikiah Brisco and NCAA 60 champ Aleia Hobbs, LSU has plenty of talent, and both will be fresh as the 4×100 is the first track final on Saturday.
2. 400 hurdles (Sydney McLaughlin, Kentucky, 52.75, 2018)
Sydney McLaughlin broke the NCAA record with her 52.75 at NCAAs. Running faster won’t be easy, because 52.75 is already the world leader by more than a second, but who are we to doubt McLaughlin’s greatness?
3. 100 hurdles (Brianna Rollins, Clemson, 12.39, 2013)
McLaughlin’s Kentucky teammate Jasmine Camacho-Quinn ran 12.40 at SECs, just .01 off Brianna Rollins‘ (now McNeal) five-year-old NCAA record. Like McLaughlin, running faster will be tough — 12.40 is already the world leader — but Camacho-Quinn is just .01 away. Also, can we pause to say how incredible Kentucky coach Edrick Floreal‘s hurdle group is? He’s got the world leaders in the 100 and 400 hurdles (Camacho-Quinn and McLaughlin), plus the 400 hurdles world champ (Kori Carter) and 100 hurdles WR holder/world indoor 60 hurdles champ (Keni Harrison). And on the men’s side, he’s got the world/Olympic champ in the 110s (Omar McLeod). What an embarrassment of riches.
4. 400 (Courtney Okolo, Texas, 49.71, 2016)
USC’s Kendall Ellis became just the second collegian under 50 seconds with her 49.99 at Pac-12s. Courtney Okolo‘s NCAA record stands at 49.71, and there’s a great chance that Ellis, who ran an American record of 50.34 to win NCAA indoors, takes that down in Eugene.
5. 200 (Kyra Jefferson, Florida, 22.02, 2017)
This record is only a year old, but it would take a big effort to beat as no one has come within two-tenths of it this year (Georgia freshman Lynna Irby is the closest at 22.25). Harvard’s Gabby Thomas, who ran an NCAA record of 22.38 to win NCAA indoors, also has a shot.
6. 100 (Dawn Sowell, LSU, 10.78, 1989)
LSU’s Aleia Hobbs already has the NCAA low-altitude record thanks to her 10.85 last year, but another Tiger, Dawn Sowell, has run faster as Sowell clocked 10.78 at altitude at the 1989 NCAA meet in Provo, Utah. 10.78 may be beyond her reach, however, as only one woman in the world ran that fast in 2017: Olympic champ Elaine Thompson.
7. 4×400 (Oregon, 3:23.13, 2017)
Oregon set this record last year to win NCAAs. Kentucky ran 3:25.99 at SECs, but that’s still a long way from 3:23.13.
Outside of the sprints, a couple NCAA records have already fallen this year — Orji in the triple jump (14.62) and Arizona State’s Maggie Ewen in the shot (19.46) — and both women could go even further at NCAAs. Both will have targets to chase as well, as Orji recently lost her American record to Tori Franklin (14.84) while Ewen will be chasing Raven Saunders‘ 19.56 — the longest throw ever by a collegian, indoors or out. Ewen is also the NCAA record holder in the hammer but did not qualify in that event after three fouls at regionals.
5. The final race at Hayward Field — will the Track Gods give us Sydney McLaughlin vs. Kendall Ellis on anchor?
As we mentioned in the intro, last year’s meet ended with an all-time classic in the women’s 4×400 between USC and Oregon:
— ESPNU (@ESPNU) June 11, 2017
Oregon needed to win the race to win the national title, and the Ducks did just that thanks to Raevyn Rogers’ heroics.
Flash-forward to 2018 and we could see the same scenario, with Kentucky taking the place of Oregon. While Georgia are the pre-meet favorites for the team title, both USC and Kentucky are in the mix for the win, and both have terrific 4x400s: USC won NCAA indoors, while Kentucky has the fastest time in the country this year at 3:25.99. It’s possible that whoever wins the 4×400 could wind up winning the entire meet.
And as if those stakes aren’t high enough for you, the women’s 4×400 will also be the last major race run on this track before Hayward Field is scheduled to be knocked down.
Oh, and we could also see a matchup of all-time NCAA greats on the anchor leg. USC will be running Kendall Ellis — #2 all-time NCAA at 49.99, who has a chance to break the NCAA record in the individual 400. Kentucky can counter with McLaughlin — a global superstar in the making, who also happens to be the NCAA record holder in the 400 hurdles and #3 all-time in the 400 at 50.07.
The only problem? All four times she’s run the 4×400 this year, McLaughlin has run the third leg, with Kayelle Clarke (a 200 specialist who, per Tilastopaja, has never run an open 400) on anchor. And at NCAA indoors, McLaughlin ran the second leg.
It’s not our place to question the wisdom of Kentucky’s Edrick Floreal — one of the world’s best coaches — but it would be awesome if he put McLaughlin on anchor at NCAAs so that she can battle Ellis.
So Track Gods, if you’re listening, here’s our request: McLaughlin and Ellis getting the batons together on the anchor leg, with the team title on the line. That’s an awful lot to ask, but it would only be fitting for the final race at Hayward Field.
Talk about the meet on our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: NCAA Champs is going to be bonkers (in the sprints, at least)
MB: What will be the best race at Outdoor NCAAs?