2022 NCAA M800/1500 Preview: Monster Talents from Morocco
By Jonathan Gault
June 6, 2022
No Moroccan man has ever won an NCAA distance title, but that could change at this year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships at Hayward Field. LetsRun.com will have wall-to-wall coverage of NCAAs from Eugene all week long, and we’re starting our previews with the men’s middle distance events where two of the fastest guys on paper both hail from Morocco: Texas Tech’s Moad Zahafi (1:43.69 pb) in the 800 and South Carolina’s Anass Essayi (3:34.58 pb) in the 1500.
They’re far from the only story, of course. NCAA indoor champions Brandon Miller of Texas A&M and Mario Garcia Romo of Ole Miss will be looking to add to their hardware, and collegiate 1500 record holder Eliud Kipsang of Alabama (3:33.74 pb) cannot be ignored, either. Here’s what to watch for in both races this week.
Our men’s long distance preview is here: 2022 NCAA M5K/10K/SC Preview: NAU Duo of Abdihamid Nur & Nico Young Lead the Way.
Men’s 800: World leader Moad Zahafi takes on indoor champ Brandon Miller
(Prelims Wednesday 9:14 p.m. ET, final Friday 10:14 p.m. ET. Times below are from regionals, regular season times here)
1 Moad Zahafi SR TX Tech 1:44.65 2 Brandon Miller SO Texas A&M 1:46.03 3 Lorenz Herrmann SO Idaho 1:46.90 4 Yusuf Bizimana SO Texas 1:47.05 5 Christopher Conrad JR Missouri 1:47.33 6 Sean Dolan SO Villanova 1:47.37 7 Cebastian Gentil JR IA State 1:47.41 8 Sam Van Dorpe SR USC 1:47.48 9 Sebastian Fernandez FR BYU 1:47.62 10 Jason Gomez JR IA State 1:47.62 11 Abdullahi Hassan SO Wisconsin 1:47.75 12 Dayton Carlson FR AZ State 1:47.79 13 Navasky Anderson JR Miss State 1:47.83 14 Luis Peralta SO Oregon 1:47.92 15 Tim Zepf SR Notre Dame 1:47.94 16 Ayman Zahafi SR Miami (Fla.) 1:48.03 17 Aman Thornton JR Clemson 1:48.35 18 Collin Ebling JR Duquesne 1:48.41 19 Samuel Voelz SR Notre Dame 1:48.51 20 Baylor Franklin JR Ole Miss 1:48.58 21 Miles Brown FR Michigan 1:48.73 22 Clayborn Pender JR Georgia 1:48.77 23 Jonathan Schwind SR Lipscomb 1:49.04 24 Samuel Rodman FR Princeton 1:49.08
When you’re the world leader in your event, that usually makes you the favorite at the NCAA championships. But it certainly does not guarantee victory: one need only look back to four years ago, when UTEP’s Michael Saruni entered NCAAs as the collegiate record holder and world leader at 1:43.25 and was upset by Penn State’s Isaiah Harris.
In 2022, the world leader is Moad Zahafi, a 24-year-old in his first year at Texas Tech who showed up in Lubbock with a 1:44.78 pb. Back on April 16 in Gainesville, Zahafi tore apart a field consisting of some of the top 800 men in the NCAA — NCAA indoor champ Brandon Miller of Texas A&M, NCAA indoor 3rd-placer John Rivera of Ole Miss, SEC outdoor champ Navasky Anderson of Mississippi State — running 1:43.69 (#3 in collegiate history) to win by over two full seconds. It’s one of the most impressive results by any NCAA athlete in any event this spring.
That run made Zahafi the NCAA favorite, and he’s caught a few more breaks to boost his chances further. First, NCAA indoor runner-up Jonathan Jones of Texas — the only collegian to beat Zahafi in an 800 outdoors this year — isn’t running the 800 at NCAAs (he’s in the 400 instead). Second, Miller — who was sensational indoors — hasn’t looked the same outdoors and finished a disappointing 6th at the SEC champs last month.
But there are some question marks surrounding Zahafi, too. At NCAA indoors, he dropped out of the final (he appeared to suffer some sort of injury on the final turn but hadn’t been contending for the win with 100m to go anyway). And at Big 12s, he ran great in the prelims but didn’t run the final due to what Red Raiders distance coach Jon Murray described as a “medical situation.”
“We didn’t want to chance making it worse,” Murray said. “He felt pretty good at the regional meet so we feel it was a good decision.”
Maybe all is well and Zahafi blasts a 1:44 to win in Eugene. But NCAA 800 finals are rarely so simple. The two guys with the best shot to beat him both hail from the SEC — Brandon Miller and Navasky Anderson. You may be thinking, wait, didn’t they get smoked by Zahafi in Gainesville? And you would be correct. But that race was eight weeks ago, and just because someone was in great shape in April doesn’t mean they’re still in great shape in June — and vice versa.
Miller, for example, looks to be on the upswing again as he ran 1:46.02 at regionals to win by 1.59 seconds. That’s a ton in an 800, and his NCAA track record (2nd 2021 outdoor, 1st 2022 indoor) is spectacular. However, at SECs less than a month ago, he was just 6th – some 1.80 seconds off the win in 1:47.69. The 6-foot-4 Jamaican Anderson, meanwhile, is peaking at the right time and won the SEC title with an impressive final 100.
One other name to watch is ACC champion Ayman Zahafi of Miami. He’s Moad’s older brother, and considering he has run 1:46.79 this year and won the ACC title, it’s not totally out of the question we could see brothers go 1-2 in this race.
JG prediction: My head is telling me to pick Zahafi. He’s been the best guy all season and looked the best of everyone at regionals, running 1:44.65 in his heat to win by 2.25 seconds. But his championship record this year and this mysterious “medical situation” has me worried. Miller is a gamer, has run brilliantly in his two NCAA finals, and looked great at regionals as well. I’m taking Miller to move up one spot on the podium from last year and win the NCAA title.
Men’s 1500: Eliud Kipsang attempts to break the NCAA record curse
(Prelims Wednesday 8:46 p.m. ET, final Friday 9:12 p.m. ET. Times below are from regionals, regular season times here)
1 Luke Houser SO Washington 3:38.06 2 Adam Spencer FR Wisconsin 3:38.24 3 George Kusche SR No. Arizona 3:38.75 4 Elliott Cook SO Oregon 3:38.92 5 Jacob Brueckman SR CO State 3:39.04 6 Anass Essayi FR South Carolina 3:39.11 7 Nehemia Too SR IA State 3:39.15 8 Eliud Kipsang SO Alabama 3:39.47 9 John Petruno JR Mich State 3:39.70 10 Ryan Schoppe SO OK State 3:39.70 11 Nick Dahl SR Duke 3:39.78 12 Sean Peterson SR Youngstown St. 3:39.92 13 AJ Ernst SR Providence 3:40.05 14 Jesse Hunt JR North Carolina 3:40.31 15 Mario Garcia Romo JR Ole Miss 3:41.17 16 Sam Ellis SR Princeton 3:41.31 17 Thomas Vanoppen JR Wake Forest 3:41.31 18 Rhys Hammond SO Cornell 3:41.69 19 Nathan Henderson JR Syracuse 3:41.85 20 Jonathan Davis SR Illinois 3:42.69 21 Joe Waskom SO Washington 3:42.75 22 Cathal Doyle JR Portland 3:42.84 23 Isaac Basten JR Drake 3:42.90 24 Nathan Green FR Washington 3:43.00
One of the more bizarre streaks in distance running is the fact that, of the last eight men to break the collegiate record in the 1500 or mile, precisely none of them finished the season as the NCAA champion in that event. Lawi Lalang couldn’t do it. Josh Kerr couldn’t do it. Yared Nuguse couldn’t do it. Whether it was peaking too early, the emergence of a new rival, the differences between time trialing and championship running, or a combination of all three, it just hasn’t happened. And that’s bad news for Alabama’s Eliud Kipsang, who ran 3:33.74 back on April 15 to take down Nuguse’s year-old collegiate record in the 1500.
(Nuguse, by the way, returned to Notre Dame for the 2022 season but strained his hamstring at the Sound Running Track Meet on May 6 and will not be at NCAAs this year.)
Last nine men to break the NCAA 1500/mile record
Kipsang, a 25-year-old Kenyan, is certainly a contender for the NCAA if it goes fast. In 2021, he was 2nd in the mile indoors and 4th in the 1500 outdoors, and none of the guys who beat him in those races are back this year. What did both races have in common? The winning times were very fast. Contrast that to this year’s NCAA indoor mile, which was won in a glacial 4:07.54 and in which Kipsang only finished 8th.
Thus, the onus will be on Kipsang to make the race fast to shake off the kickers. The problem for Kipsang is, he already faced one of those kickers at SECs, NCAA indoor champ Mario Garcia Romo of Ole Miss, and it did not go well for Kipsang even though the race was pretty fast: Garcia Romo ran 3:36.91 to stomp him by more than two seconds.
Pretty much everything has gone right this year for Garcia Romo. The 3:36 was a reminder that he can run fast if necessary (his pb is 3:35.79 from last year) and his kick has remained sharp as he anchored Ole Miss to a pair of Penn Relays titles in the 4×800 and DMR. He has but one flaw on an otherwise perfect season: a 1500 defeat to South Carolina’s Anass Essayi.
Essayi is no joke. He ran 3:34.58 just a few weeks after his 20th birthday last year and was a 2021 Olympian for Morocco, but he’s still a bit of a mystery at the NCAA level. He didn’t race race for South Carolina until SEC Indoors, and while he won that race in 3:57, he didn’t run fast enough to qualify for NCAA indoors. Outdoors, Essayi developed a hamstring strain in May, causing him to miss training as well as the SEC championships.
But let’s revisit that race against Garcia Romo on April 9. The results say Essayi beat Garcia Romo, 3:39.03 to 3:40.27 — a solid victory. The context makes it far more impressive. Conditions for the race were far from ideal — 40s and windy — so both men’s performance was likely worth a few seconds quicker. But the really crazy thing about it is that it came during Ramadan. Essayi is a devout Muslim, which means he cannot eat or drink during daylight hours throughout Ramadan (March 22 – April 22 this year). Despite that handicap, he still beat the guy who won the NCAA mile title a month earlier. So yeah, he’s a serious contender to win in Eugene.
With Kipsang hailing from Kenya, Garcia Romo from Spain and Essayi from Morocco, it looks likely the streak of American champions in this event will end at two. The fastest American 1500 collegian on the year, NAU’s Abdihamid Nur (3:36.33) is running the 10k instead, and the second-fastest, NCAA mile third-placer Reed Brown of Oregon (3:36.44) didn’t make it out of regionals. Illinois’ Jonathan Davis (3:36.85, 4th NCAA indoors) is the best shot at a US champ, but he was also beaten at the Big 10 meet by another impressive young talent, 20-year-old Aussie Adam Spencer of Wisconsin.
JG prediction: It’s a similar situation to the 800. Essayi may be the biggest talent but there are more questions about him than Garcia Romo, who has been consistently brilliant all year and is a great championship racer. Garcia Romo was beaten convincingly by Essayi in April, but he also destroyed a 3:33 guy at SECs and it’s hard for me to pick against that. Garcia Romo FTW.
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More: More: Complete 2022 NCAA Outdoor Coverage
*2022 NCAA M5K/10K/SC Preview: NAU Duo of Abdihamid Nur & Nico Young Lead the Way Nur will be looking for his 3rd NCAA title in the 10k while Young is chasing his first against a strong 5k field.