2019 NCAA Men’s Distance Preview: A Classic 5K, Wide-Open 1500 & 10K, & Bryce Hoppel Chases the Perfect Season
By Jonathan Gault
June 3, 2019
It’s time for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, and once again there’s a slate of great men’s distance races on tap. The highlight is undoubtedly the 5,000 meters, which will see Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher battle for the final time as collegians. Can McDonald, who also won crowns in XC and indoor track, go undefeated at NCAA championships as a senior, or will Fisher reclaim the title he earned two years ago? Or can Geordie Beamish, the NCAA mile champ from NAU, steal the show and take the crown for his own?
The 1500, steeple, and 10,000 are all fairly open races. Defending champions Oliver Hoare (1500) and Obsa Ali (steeple) both return, but they face deep fields behind them, while almost anyone could win the 10,000, a race that features six — yes, six — guys from BYU.
We dive deep into each race below.
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Men’s 800 (prelims Wednesday 9:14 p.m. ET; final Friday 9:44 p.m. ET): Bryce Hoppel tries to complete perfect season
June 8, 2018. That’s the last time that Kansas junior Bryce Hoppel lost a collegiate track race. Since then, he has been literally unbeatable. 800s, 1500s, prelims, finals, Hoppel has won them all, a perfect 17-for-17 in 2019. He enters this week’s NCAA championships as the favorite.
On paper, his biggest obstacle is Texas A&M junior Devin Dixon, who has the fastest season’s best in the field by over a second thanks to the 1:44.76 he ran to win SECs. He’s also the #2 returner from the NCAA indoor meet, as runner-up Marco Arop of Mississippi State failed to qualify and third placer Robert Heppenstall of Wake Forest is redshirting.
It’s worth revisiting the NCAA indoor final, however, to review why Hoppel is the favorite. In that race, the lanky Dixon held the lead for the first 2.5 laps but gave it up to Arop without a fight just before the bell. He faded to fourth over the final lap and finished more than a full second behind Hoppel.
Devin Dixon Texas A&M JR 1:44.76 #1 seed was 4th indoors. Won SECs by 2+ seconds.
Bryce Hoppel Kansas JR 1:45.87 Indoor champ is undefeated on the year
Isaiah Jewett USC JR 1:46.11 Pac 12 champ was 7th indoors
Jonah Koech Texas Tech SR 1:46.42 Used to run for UTEP
Festus Lagat Iowa State JR 1:46.58 1st NCAAs, 4th at Big 12s
Roshon Roomes Iowa State JR 1:46.88 3rd at Big 12s
Michael Rhoads Air Force JR 1:47.10 Mountain West champ was 8th indoors
Carlton Orange Texas A&M JR 1:47.13 Only 7th at SECs
Erik Martinsson UT-Arlington SR 1:47.34 Didn’t make final last year
Dixon was not a factor in his three other trips to NCAA indoors/outdoors. His results: 7th, did not make final, and 5th. That doesn’t mean Dixon is a choker. The last two years, he’s had to face studs like Emmanuel Korir, Michael Saruni, and Isaiah Harris. And Hoppel had a similar record in NCAA finals — 8th and 4th — prior to his breakthrough indoors. But if Dixon doesn’t at least contend for the win in Austin, it will be a major disappointment.
Dixon’s best bet is to do what he usually does and set a hard pace from the front. Dixon has run 1:44, and Hoppel is the only other guy in the field who has even broken 1:46 this year. Considering Hoppel hasn’t had to run faster than that to win any of his races, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him rip by Dixon and run 1:44 if that is what is needed to win at NCAAs. But by forcing a pace that (ideally) no one else can match, Dixon would give himself a chance to finish as high as possible and perhaps topple Hoppel. It’s the same strategy Dixon tried at NCAA indoors, but he needs to finish this time. 1:47 won’t win an NCAA title. 1:44 might.
Interestingly, Dixon and Hoppel are in the same prelim. Other guys who could pose a scare include USC’s Isaiah Jewett, the Pac-12 champ, and Big 10 champ Cooper Williams, who were both NCAA finalists indoors, and Harvard’s Myles Marshall, who is undefeated at 800 this spring vs. collegians and led all qualifiers out of the East region. Though Marshall’s pb is just 1:47.74, he beat Columbia’s Alek Sauer — another heat winner at regionals — by almost two full seconds to win the Heps title.
LRC prediction: Hoppel FTW.
Men’s 1500 (prelims Wednesday 7:46 p.m. ET; final Friday 8:41 p.m. ET): The reigning NCAA champ, the NCAA-winning DMR anchor, & a host of others square off
For tension and drama, there’s nothing quite like an unpredictable 1500. Not to say that races with heavy favorites can’t be dramatic — heavy favorites can lose, as we saw in last year’s NCAA final. But when there is a favorite, everyone — fans and the other athletes — is waiting to see what that guy will do. In an even field, however, every move could be the big one, and no one knows when that move will come — or who will make it.
Look at the entries for the 2019 NCAA men’s 1500, and you could make the case for half a dozen guys. Wisconsin’s Oliver Hoare is the defending champion, and he’s been brilliant at times in 2019: he ran 3:54 for the mile indoors, the fastest time in the country, and followed that up by running 3:37.20 outdoors to win a stacked race at Bryan Clay — also the fastest time in the country this season. But there’s a difference between running fast and winning championship races. Bryan Clay was six weeks ago, and Hoare didn’t even win his conference meet. That honor went to Michigan State’s Justine Kiprotich, another contender for the crown here after finishing second in 2017.
One guy that we know can kick is Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse. He burst onto the scene by running down Grant Fisher to anchor Notre Dame to runner-up honors in the DMR as a true freshman in 2018, and went one better this year in Birmingham, again taking down Fisher and Stanford to win the DMR for the Irish. Nuguse was a convincing winner at ACCs, but he finished over a second back of Hoare and Arizona’s Carlos Villarreal at Bryan Clay. And he’s never run an individual race at NCAAs.
Villarreal looked great at regionals, running the fastest time of the weekend by some margin, 3:39.67. But Villarreal was only 4th at Pac-12s. The win there went to Arizona State’s William Paulson, a 24-year-old Brit by way of Princeton. Paulson himself has already lost three times this season, however. See what we mean? This event is complicated.
Villanova’s Casey Comber was the NCAA runner-up indoors, and with champion Geordie Beamish opting for the 5,000 outdoors, he’s the top returner from that meet. Yet he lost his first race of the outdoor season, falling to Ole Miss’ Waleed Suliman and Cade Bethmann back on April 13. Texas’ Sam Worley (the Big 12 champ), a sophomore, has shown great promise throughout his career: he was 5th outdoors last year and 6th indoors this year. Could he take a step forward and win an NCAA title on the home track?
The beautiful thing about track & field is that we have an elegant solution to determine who is the best: just throw ’em all on the start line let them race it out. The men’s 1500 this year reminds us a bit of 2015, another wide-open race that came down to the wire and saw the top four separated by just .26 (Oklahoma State’s Chad Noelle won it).
Oliver Hoare Wisconsin JR 3:37.20 Defending champ and #1 seed
Carlos Villarreal Arizona JR 3:37.22 4th indoors and 4th at Pac 12s
Yared Nuguse Notre Dame SO 3:38.32 DMR glory indoors
William Paulson Arizona State SR 3:38.35 Princeton grad won Pac 12s
Sam Worley Texas SO 3:38.64 5th as true frosh last year
Waleed Suliman Ole Miss SO 3:38.72 SEC champ was 9th indoors
Reed Brown Oregon SO 3:38.76 Last qualifier out of wets
George Kusche Nebraska SO 3:39.33 Just 4th at Big 10s
Cameron Griffith Arkansas SR 3:39.86 SEC runnerup
Mick Stanovsek Washington JR 3:41.20 Just 9th at Pac 12s
LRC prediction: Hoare was sick and not at 100% at NCAA indoors, so to finish 3rd in that race (after also running the 1200 leg on the DMR the night before) was pretty impressive. He would have been our pick a month ago, but losing your conference meet in your specialty event is not a good sign — only one man in the last 14 years has lost the 1500 at his conference meet and won the NCAA title in the same year (Oregon’s Mac Fleet in 2013).
That’s why we’re going with Nuguse. He was the best miler at the NCAA indoor meet and has a big-time kick. He gave up his shot at an individual title indoors and it paid off. Now he’ll get an NCAA title that’s all his.
Men’s steeple (prelims Wednesday 8:02 p.m. ET; final Friday 8:54 p.m. ET): Can Obsa Ali repeat?
More than any other distance event, you can usually get a pretty good idea of where the steeplechase stands by looking at the regional results. The steeples at regionals usually go pretty fast, and, as can be the case in running, the fastest guys are often the best. The last three years, the man who ran fastest at regionals wound up winning it all at NCAAs. Which is good news for Aussie Ed Trippas of Princeton, who PR’d by a whopping 16 seconds to run 8:33 in Jacksonville.
That said, Trippas’ time was just .26 faster than that of defending champion Obsa Ali of Minnesota, who looked good in putting up the fastest time out west. Compared to this time last year, Ali’s PRs are faster across the board (8:07/13:43/8:36 compared to 7:54/13:38/8:31), but unlike last year, when he entered NCAAs undefeated in the steeple, he has suffered a defeat, to 20-year-old Canadian Ryan Smeeton of Oklahoma State. Smeeton bombed in his first shot at regionals in 2017, running 9:31, and redshirted last spring. But he made a huge breakthrough by running 8:27 (a 14-second PR) to beat Ali by 3+ seconds and win Payton Jordan.
There are several other guys who could win. Stanford’s Steven Fahy was third a year ago, and though a hip injury sidelined him during the cross country season, he bounced back to run 13:34 for 5,000 this spring — easily the fastest of anyone in this field. The BYU duo of Matt Owens and Clayson Shumway, who finished 6th and 7th a year ago, should also be formidable, though neither was the fastest BYU guy this year. That was true freshman Kenneth Rooks, who debuted with an 8:59 in his first collegiate steeple in March before improving to 8:46 at the Stanford Invite and running a 10-second PR of 8:36 to win his heat at regionals.
Ryan Smeeton Oklahoma State SO 8:27.90 PR heading into year was 8:54.
Obsa Ali Minnesota SR 8:31.15 Defending champ also ran 13:38 this year
Matt Owens BYU SO 8:32.59 6th last year
Ed Trippas Princeton SO 8:33.90 Ausse ran 16.19 second pb at regionals
Daniel Michalski Indiana SR 8:34.26 Big 10 runnerup -.34 behind Abdi
Alec Basten Minnesota SO 8:34.50 NCAA debut
Alex Rogers Texas SR 8:35.25 Has also made NCAAs in past in 1500 and flat 3k
Kenneth Rooks BYU FR 8:36.08 Was valedictorian of HS class
Clayson Shumway BYU JR 8:36.25 8:36 is 3rd fastest for BYU on the year
Kigen Chemadi Mid. Tenn. State JR 8:38.28 Won 1500, steeple 5k at conference
Steven Fahy Stanford SR 8:39.60 3rd last year, has also run 13:34
LRC prediction: Ali’s big kick carried him to the NCAA title last year, and he only seems to have improved in 2019. He’s our pick.
Men’s 5,000 (final Friday 10:25 p.m. ET): A slugfest between a trio of NCAA champions
As far as we’re concerned, this is the best distance race of the meet. Morgan McDonald vs. Grant Fisher has delivered three great showdowns so far in 2018-19, and though McDonald has already won the war — he has three NCAA titles this year to Fisher’s zero — both men will want to conclude their NCAA careers as a champion. For McDonald, he’d become just the sixth man to win NCAA titles in XC, indoor, and outdoor track in the same academic year. The other five are all legends:
|Edward Cheserek||Oregon||2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16|
|Gerry Lindgren||Washington St.||1966-67|
For Fisher, it would be redemption for defeats to McDonald in XC and indoors and the chance to reclaim the title he won as a sophomore in 2017. Back then, it seemed a given that Fisher would deliver at least one more NCAA title, but right now, almost two years later, that remains his only NCAA victory.
For both men, it will be a legacy-defining race.
But we’re not going to fall into the trap of labeling this a two-man race. After his double win in the 3k/5k at NCAA indoors, McDonald, perhaps with one eye on the World Championships in Doha, has laid low during the outdoor season. He raced the B section at Bryan Clay, content to simply grab a regional qualifier, ran only the 10k at Big 10s (which he won), and cruised through at regionals by finishing second in his heat. Those are his three individual races this spring, though he did help Wisconsin to a pair of Penn Relays titles in the 4xmile and DMR. Fisher finally improved his three-year-old pb, clocking 13:29 in April — the top time among anyone in the NCAA 5,000 field. But he failed to win either the 1500 or 5,000 at Pac-12s, and while there are valid reasons for that — he lost the 1500 to a stud in William Paulson and ran the 5,000 on tired legs — he’s not invincible.
So who could upset the apple cart? The most obvious choice is Northern Arizona’s Geordie Beamish. As the NCAA mile champion, he’s not someone that McDonald or Fisher will want hanging around late in the race. That may put the onus on McDonald, whose 13:15 pb is way better than anyone else’s, to keep the pace somewhat honest. One potential source of aid for McDonald: the BYU men. Clayton Young did much of the early leading at NCAA indoors and wound up third in that race; his teammate Conner Mantz is never afraid to run from the front and, with a 13:29 pb, may feel that strategy suits him best in Austin. However, both Young and Mantz will be doubling back from the 10k, which could be particularly sapping given the Austin heat.
Another guy we’ll be watching closely is the man who beat Fisher at Pac-12s, Oregon’s Cooper Teare. Remember, Teare was a big-time recruit two years ago, running 8:41 for 3200 to set the meet record at the fabled Arcadia Invitational, and he’s blossomed in 2019, finishing 4th in the 3k at NCAA indoors and winning that Pac-12 title outdoors. Can he take the next step and beat the big boys at NCAAs?
And speaking of big-time Pac-12 talents, what about Fisher’s teammate Thomas Ratcliffe? Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg told us in the fall that he thought Ratcliffe could be as good as Fisher long-term. Ratcliffe, who ran 4:01 in the mile in HS despite being only a part-time runner (he played soccer in the fall), missed a huge amount of training as he barely raced in 2017 or 2018, but he signaled his return in 2019 by running 7:54 indoors and 13:32 outdoors. He may need another summer of training under his belt until he contends for an NCAA title, but he’s a big, big talent. It will be exciting to see how he fares in his first NCAA track final.
Grant Fisher Stanford SR 13:29.52 2017 champ lost twice at Pac-12s but is #1 seed
Conner Mantz BYU SO 13:29.73 Doing 10k/5k double
Geordie Beamish Northern Arizona JR 13:31.58 Indoor mile champ opted for 5000 only outdoors
Clayton Young BYU SR 13:31.79 Double scorer indoors
Cooper Teare Oregon SO 13:32.73 Beat #1 seed Fisher at Pac-12s
Thomas Ratcliffe Stanford SO 13:32.81 1st NCAAs as he’s struggled with injuries as a full-time runner
Edwin Kurgat Iowa State JR 13:34.10 9th indoors
Gilbert Kigen Alabama SR 13:34.95 SEC runner-up
Robert Brandt UCLA JR 13:36.18 6th at Pac-12s
Morgan McDonald Wisconsin SR 13:46.76 Almost unbeatable this year
LRC prediction: McDonald has outkicked Fisher to win NCAA titles twice already this year. That doesn’t mean Fisher can’t win on Friday, but in a battle between two nearly-even athletes, we have to side with the previous evidence. McDonald FTW.
Men’s 10,000 (final Wednesday 10:08 p.m. ET): A quarter of the field is from BYU; can an American win at last?
It’s been 10 years since an American man won the 10,000 at NCAAs — Oregon’s Galen Rupp. That could change on Wednesday, and if it does, Brigham Young University will probably have something to do with it.
What the BYU men have done at 10,000 meters this spring is one of the most impressive feats by any event group, ever. Not only are they sending six guys to NCAAs — the most any school has ever sent in one event — but they were also responsible for the four fastest times in the NCAA this year:
1. 28:11.30 Connor McMillan
2. 28:12.42 Rory Linkletter
3. 28:18.18 Conner Mantz
4. 28:18.50 Clayton Young
Connor McMillan BYU SR 28:11.30 #1 seed was 4th indoors in 5000
Rory Linkletter BYU SR 28:12.42 Just 24th last year, but did 8th in 5000
Conner Mantz BYU SO 28:18.18 10th indoors in 5000, 7th in 3k
Clayton Young BYU SR 28:18.50 3rd in 5k indoors, 6th in 3k
Gilbert Kigen Alabama SR 28:20.28 SEC champ was 7th last year
Tyler Day Northern Arizona JR 28:24.94 Top returner in field from last year (#4)
Gilbert Boit Arkansas JR 28:25.15 SEC champ didn’t make meet last year
Iliass Aouani Syracuse JR 28:25.36 ACC 5 and 10 champ
Aaron Templeton Furman SR 28:27.85 5th in XC
Perhaps it’s appropriate considering their coach, Ed Eyestone, was a two-time NCAA champ at 10,000 himself. There’s a case to be made that any of those four could be the top BYU finisher on Wednesday. McMillan has the fastest time this season, Linkletter was the NCAA runner-up in 2017, Mantz was BYU’s top guy at NCAA XC (10th), and Young had the best NCAA indoor meet (3rd in 5k, 6th in 3k). Three of the four are American; Linkletter went to high school in Utah but represents Canada internationally.
But those are far from the only guys with a shot at the win. Last year, Michigan’s Ben Flanagan came in ranked 19th out of 24 and stunned everyone, winning the whole damn thing before trying to find his mom on national TV. This year’s race is similarly wide-open.
The top returner from last year’s race is Northern Arizona’s Tyler Day, but Day has had a very up-and-down 2019. After finishing 3rd and 6th at NCAA XC the last two years, he was just 13th in the indoor 5,000 this year. He ran 28:24 at Stanford on March 29 — the fifth collegian in that race — before ripping a 13:25 at Payton Jordan, the fastest 5,000 by a collegian this season. But then Day, shockingly, failed to qualify in the 5,000 at the West regional, finishing 11th in his heat. So we’re a little hesitant to pick him.
Gilber Kigen is the fastest non-BYU guy based on SB (28:20), but he wasn’t much better than Day in the indoor 5,000 (12th). While he was the top qualifier at the East regional, he got beat in the 5,000 at SECs. Furman’s Aaron Templeton, who was 5th at NCAA XC, is an intriguing prospect, but he was only 11th at the East regional, over 20 seconds behind Kigen. But he still qualified by 10 seconds, so it’s possible he was holding back, knowing his spot was secure.
LRC prediction: Almost every guy in the field has a small chance to win this race (thanks in part to Morgan McDonald not wanting to try to double outdoors; if he was in this field, he’d be our HEAVY favorite). Collegians run so few all-out 10,000s that it can be hard to judge who is the best unless there’s a clear stud like Cheserek. We see a lot of good runners here, but no clear studs.
So our pick may be a little unorthodox. We’re calling Ben Veatch of Indiana FTW. Veatch was 7th in the 5,000 indoors, and outdoors he ran Morgan McDonald close on two separate occasions. The first was the anchor leg of the 4xmile at Penn, where McDonald and Wisconsin edged out Veatch and Indiana on the anchor leg by just .04. And at Big 10s, Veatch made McDonald work all the way to the line in the 10k, finishing just .23 behind (Veatch also won the 5k at that meet).
MORGAN MCDONALD DOES IT AGAIN
He earns his 4⃣th Big Ten title since September! pic.twitter.com/vNaUe3uoFE
— Wisconsin Track & Field (@BadgerTrackXC) May 11, 2019
Plus if Veatch doesn’t win, you’ll probably forget we made this pick a few weeks from now. If he does win, we get to brag about it forever.
One other thing worth noting about this race is the weather. The projected high in Austin on Wednesday is 84 degrees, with thunderstorms in the forecast. That’s actually the coolest day in the forecast for the next 10 days — the high is 92 or above for every other day — but with the humidity, it could still be uncomfortable for a 25-lap race.
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