2019 NCAA Indoor 800 Preview: Devin Dixon & Danae Rivers Try to Cap Stellar Seasons with Their First NCAA Titles

By LetsRun.com
March 5, 2019

The final meet of the 2019 indoor track & field season is upon us: the NCAA Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Alabama. We’ll be on-site at the Birmingham CrossPlex starting Thursday, and are previewing all of the distance events beforehand so you can get ready for what is always an exciting meet.

We begin with the 800 meters, where we are guaranteed a pair of first-time champions — no one in the men’s or women’s field has ever won an NCAA title. On the men’s side, Texas A&M’s Devin Dixon, who set the American collegiate record of 1:45.27 this year, enters as the favorite, while the women’s race is fairly wide-open with the NCAA 1000m record holder, Penn State’s Danae Rivers, and Virginia Tech’s Rachel Pocratsky (6th last year) the most dangerous contenders.

We break it all down below.

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

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

Men’s 800: Devin Dixon tries to do what former Texas A&M star Donavan Brazier could not — win an NCAA indoor title

(prelims Friday 8:27 p.m. ET, final Saturday 6:40 p.m. ET)

Name                        Year School                 Seed           
  1  Devin Dixon                   JR Texas A&M           1:44.97 
  2  Marco Arop                    SO Miss State          1:45.90 
  3  Bryce Hoppel                  JR Kansas              1:46.53 
  4  Joseph White                  SR Georgetown          1:46.59 
  5  Isaiah Jewett                 JR USC                 1:46.60 
  6  Carlton Orange                JR Texas A&M           1:46.74 
  7  Robert Heppenstall            SR Wake Forest         1:46.87 
  8  Vincent Crisp                 SR TX Tech             1:46.97 
  9  Jonah Koech                   SR TX Tech             1:46.98 
 10  Michael Rhoads                JR Air Force           1:47.22 
 11  Cooper Williams               SO Indiana             1:47.24 
 12  Michael Wilson                SR New Mexico          1:47.66 
 13  Matt Wisner                   JR Duke                1:47.68 
 14  Frank Hayes                   JR Ohio State          1:47.90 
 15  Bashir Mosavel-Lo             FR VA Tech             1:47.92 
 16  Domenic Perretta              JR Penn State          1:48.09

Junior Devin Dixon of Texas A&M enters this race as the favorite. He has the fastest time in the NCAA this year at 1:45.27 (converted down to 1:44.97 for seeding purposes as he ran it at slight elevation in Lubbock), and beat the only other man to break 1:46 this year, Mississippi State’s Marco Arop, to win the SEC title.

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But if you watch that race, you’ll see why Dixon is far from a lock for the NCAA title:

Arop led by Dixon by 10 meters on the back straight of the bell lap, but rigged up BIG-TIME in the final 100. Dixon ran his final 200 in 27.72 to Arop’s 29.05 to earn the come-from-behind victory, and you can either give him credit for running a measured race or dock him for showing vulnerability.

Arop is a very accomplished runner himself. He was the NCAA runner-up last year outdoors — he beat Michael Saruni — and a month later, he won the Canadian title at the age of 19. He’s certainly capable of winning the title in Birmingham.

Kansas’ Bryce Hoppel made both the indoor (8th) and outdoor (4th) finals last year, and enters NCAAs undefeated in 2019. His record includes a win over another Canadian, Robert Heppenstall (3rd indoors, 8th outdoors last year), of Wake Forest. Heppenstall is a perfect six-for-six in making NCAA 800 finals in his career, but that stat comes down to how you interpret it: do you give Heppenstall credit for always making it through the rounds, or does the fact that he has never finished better than 3rd (indoors last year) mean that he isn’t quite good enough to win an NCAA title? He has not lowered his indoor or outdoor PR since 2017.

Here at LetsRun.com, we like to bet on talent, and no one has flashed more of it this year than Dixon. With Donavan Brazier — who’s only five months older than Dixon — grabbing the headlines this indoor season with American and world records, it’s easy to overlook what Dixon has accomplished. That 1:45.27 in Lubbock was an American collegiate record and puts him #3 on the all-time NCAA indoor list, behind only Paul Ereng and Saruni. And in his next meet two weeks later, he unleashed a 44.24 split on the 4×400 at Clemson — the fastest indoor split in world history. That is not a typo; Dixon has serious wheels.

Dixon is a natural front-runner, and he led the NCAA outdoor final at the bell last year before fading to 5th. But he’s clearly improved a lot since then, and trying to go wire-to-wire for the win at NCAAs may be his best approach. Like Brazier, he’s a fairly tall athlete; running at the front gives him room to unfold his stride and leaves him less vulnerable to a fall. And if he goes and runs 1:45 from the front, it will be hard for anyone in this field to stay with him. That’s tough to do, of course — and he won’t have a rabbit, as he did when he ran in Lubbock — but Dixon is talented enough to pull it off.

The concern is that Dixon has yet to get it done on the big stage. He won SEC indoors last year but then was just 7th in his heat at NCAA indoors. Outdoors, he’s made the final the last two years, but his best finish was just 5th in 2018 — behind both Arop and Hoppel.

LRC prediction: We like Dixon FTW, but making even one mistake can prove fatal in an indoor 800. If he slips up, Arop, Hoppel, and Heppenstall will all be in with a chance. Georgetown’s Joseph White, who was 3rd at NCAA indoors and outdoors in 2017, is also worth mentioning, but he mysteriously did not run the Big East 800 final after qualifying in the prelims so it’s possible he’s not at 100%.

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Women’s 800: Prepare for chaos in a wide-open race

(prelims Friday 8:17 p.m. ET, final Saturday 6:30 p.m. ET)

Name                        Year School                 Seed           
  1  Martha Bissah                 JR Norfolk State       2:02.58 
  2  Allie Wilson                  SR Monmouth            2:02.65 
  3  Danae Rivers                  JR Penn State          2:02.94 
  4  Rachel Pocratsky              SR VA Tech             2:03.43 
  5  Marleena Eubanks              SR Kansas              2:03.63 
  6  Abike Egbeniyi                SR Mid. Tenn. St       2:03.65 
  7  Susan Aneno                   SR Connecticut         2:03.94 
  8  Kristie Schoffield            SO Boise State         2:04.34 
  9  Gabby Crank                   SR Texas               2:04.50 
 10  Nia Akins                     JR Penn                2:04.74 
 11  Katy-Ann McDonald             FR LSU                 2:05.11 
 12  Kayla Johnson                 SO Miami               2:05.21 
 13  Jazmine Fray                  SR Texas A&M           2:05.42 
 14  Ersula Farrow                 SR LSU                 2:05.45 
 15  Kelsey Harris                 SR Indiana             2:05.46 
 16  Amber Tanner                  JR Georgia             2:05.59

Last year, we thought we had a pretty good handle on the women’s 800 heading into NCAA indoors and confidently predicted Texas A&M’s Sammy Watson would take the title. Then Oregon’s Sabrina Southerland, who barely made it to NCAAs (she was seeded 14th out of 16) and had never made an NCAA final in five previous trips to NCAAs, stunned everyone by winning in dominant fashion.

This time around, we’re not going to pretend there is any certainty. This is a year in which Watson, the reigning NCAA outdoor champ, decided to turn pro in the middle of the season after running just 2:06.89 in her 800 opener on January 26. And a year in which the NCAA record holder, Watson’s former Texas A&M teammate Jazmine Fray, could barely run within five seconds of her 2:00.69 PR, making it into NCAAs as the 13th seed. Anyone who says they know what is going to happen next is lying.

The top seed is Martha Bissah of Ghana and Norfolk State, but she doesn’t actually have the fastest time in the country this year; her 2:03.99 on a flat track was converted down to 2:02.58. No Norfolk State athlete — men’s or women’s, indoor or outdoor — has ever won an NCAA track title, and we don’t expect Bissah to become the first.

The woman with the actual fastest time in the NCAA this year is Monmouth’s Allie Wilson, but she’s already lost twice this season, to UConn’s Susan Aneno and Penn’s Nia Akins.

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No, if we had to pick someone, we’d say it comes down to Penn State’s Danae Rivers and Virginia Tech’s Rachel Pocratsky. Rivers has been a star ever since stepping on campus, finishing 3rd in the NCAA mile final as a true freshman two years ago and taking 7th (indoor 800) and 8th (outdoor 1500) at NCAAs last year. The 2019 indoor season has been her best campaign yet, as she ran a collegiate record of 2:38.58 in the 1000 on January 12 and was the only collegian to break 4:30 in the mile this year, running 4:29.47 (#11 all-time NCAA) at Millrose. She’s only run two 800’s this year, but she won both handily, beating Bissah by 1.33 seconds on January 26 before winning Big 10s by 2.23 seconds.

We do wonder, however, if Rivers will regret not running the mile; she is the NCAA leader in that event and her biggest threat, NCAA 1500 champ Jessica Hull of Oregon, has opted for the 3k/DMR instead, which would have left Rivers as a strong favorite. If Rivers wins the 800, she won’t care, but it’s something to think about.

Pocratsky poses the biggest challenge to Rivers and actually beat Rivers at both NCAA indoors (6th in the 800) and outdoors (5th in the 1500) last year. She has not lost a race to a collegian all season and is coming off her fastest time of the year, a 2:03.43 win at ACCs.

Finally, we should mention Jazmine Fray. Though running 2:05 when your PR is 2:00 isn’t that impressive, she’s trending in the right direction. Fray ran just 2:12.00 in her first 800 of the year on February 2, but she’s improved every time out, going 2:09.13 and 2:07.06 the next two weeks before running 2:06.66 in the SEC prelims and 2:05.42 to win the SEC final. But she’ll have to run faster than that to win NCAAs; it’s been 11 years since the winner at NCAAs failed to break 2:05.

LRC prediction: We’ll take Rivers over Pocratsky as she has been in better form this indoor season, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see an unheralded champ in this event.

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