Here are 5 things to watch for the upcoming NCAA Outdoor Nationals.
1. 4×400 showdown of the century (men’s & women’s)
• If the indoor Nationals were any indication of what we should expect for the outdoor championships, we are in for a real treat. On the women’s side, the indoor team title came down to the 4×400 relay and it was a race for the ages, with Phyllis Francis edging Ashley Spencer at the tape by .02 of a second. The two teams look to be setting up for a rematch, with Texas having the top time in the NCAA this season, but never underestimate the power of “Hayward Magic,” and a veteran relay with 3 seniors leading the way for the Ducks. The collegiate record of 3:23.75 set back in 2004 by Texas is one record I would bet will be challenged.
• On the men’s side, Florida is the unanimous favorite heading into Eugene – having already broken the 3-minute barrier this season at the Florida Relays. A relay with all underclassmen is poised to take a shot at the collegiate record of 2:59.59 set back in 2005 by LSU, but Texas A&M will have something to say about that. The Aggies have been running at sub-maximal strength with the injury to Aldrich Bailey for most of the season. With Bailey back in the line up, the Aggies have 4-quarter milers that have all broken 46.0 seconds in the open 400m this season. The Gators also have four 400m runners that have broken 46.0 seconds in the open 400m – setting up for the final event of the 2014 NCAA nationals to be something special.
2. 400m depth like none other
• Any great team in any sport has great depth, whether it’s overall depth or at a specific position or event. In Eugene, there are a few teams that have tremendous depth in the 400m and 400m hurdles. In the 400m, the state of Texas has depth enough to make your head spin. On the women’s side, the Longhorns of Texas look to score BIG points with four quarter-milers competing. The dynamic quartet of Spencer, Okolo, Nelson, and Baisden are all legitimate contenders to make the podium, and Ashley Spencer looks to continue her undefeated run at outdoor Nationals – having won the past two outdoor national championships. She’ll face her biggest competition from her teammate Courtney Okolo, who recently set the collegiate record in the 400m at Big 12s.
• On the men’s side, the Aggies of Texas A&M look to flex their 400m muscle with four quarter-milers competing in the open 400m. All four have broken the 46.0 barrier this outdoor season and all are ranked in the top 16 coming into the national meet (based off of the regional-meet results). If the Aggies have aspirations of winning the team title, they will need to have their 400m aces pull down big points in this event.
• The men’s 400m hurdle race is one that seems to be slipping under the radar. The superstars like a Jeshua Anderson or Reggie Wyatt will not be in the race, and based off of the regional results – this race is wide open! Michael Stigler, Kansas, looks to be the favorite based on his performances earlier this season, but there is a quartet of Huskers from Nebraska that look to shake up the podium race in Eugene. All four are ranked in the top 10 (again, based on regional results), with Big 10 Champion Miles Ukoama having the top time coming into Eugene. 400m hurdles is arguably the toughest race in the sport, and so most schools are lucky to have two 400m hurdlers in competition. The Huskers aren’t considered to be a team title contender, but look to show their 400m-hurdle dominance in Eugene.
3. Oregon’s Big 4
• No other program in the NCAA has as storied of a tradition in the long distance events than the U of Oregon. From the days of Jim Grelle and Steve Prefontaine to more recently Galen Rupp, the Ducks have had no shortage of distance talent grace the track of Hayward Field, but I would say that the “Big 4″ that the Ducks are sending to nationals might be the best overall distance group that Oregon has had in decades. Freshman Edward Cheserak is leading the men of Oregon, going for the distance double in both the 5K and 10K. Cheserak is undefeated in national championships this season – winning the NCAA cross country championships this fall, and winning both the indoor 3K and 5K in Albuquerque in March. Logic would say that Cheserak would continue his winning ways this outdoor season and will score big team points for the Ducks. Eric Jenkins, Parker Stinson, Trevor Dunbar round out the Big 4 for Oregon. All three are legitimate place contenders in the 5K, and Parker Stinson, former 2x USA Junior National Champion in the 10K, looks to double up his points by scoring in the 10K as well. Not included in the distance Big 4 for the Ducks is their 1500m ace, Mac Fleet – the defending 1500m NCAA champion. The Ducks look to be in a close team battle with Florida and Texas A&M, and the Big 4 will need to come through with big team points in order for the Ducks to take the team title.
4. no Sami Spencer
• Arguably the most talented athlete in NCAA track and field will be watching from the comfort of her home. Sami Spencer, Nebraska Omaha, has been the talk of the combined-event community this 2014 season. Due to restrictions by the NCAA for UNO transitioning from DII to DI – Sami Spencer is not eligible to compete at the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene. To say this heptathlete is talented is a severe understatement. At her indoor conference meet (Summit League), she scored 60 points for the team BY HERSELF!! Sami also had the NCAA’s top mark in the indoor pentathlon heading into the indoor nationals (finished top three in the rankings after indoor nationals). She followed up her indoor season by breaking the 6000pt-barrier in the heptathlon at Mt. Sac, and scored 51 points by herself at the outdoor conference track meet (not including the two relays she ran as well). It’s just a shame that the most versatile and accomplished athletes in the NCAA cannot compete for a national championship due a technicality that is out of her control.
5. Workhorse of the meet: Jenna Prandini
• For most athletes, competing in just one event at the national meet is reason to celebrate. For Jenna Prandini – she calls that her warm-up! The sophomore from Oregon will be taking on a daunting four open events (100m, 200m, 4x100m, Long Jump), and she is ranked in the top 4 in all four of those events. A potential six races and six jumps will surely have Jenna becoming best friends with the ice tub this outdoor nationals. Kind of the forgotten pawn in the chess-match for the team title between Oregon, Texas, and Texas A&M, Jenna Prandini will likely be the difference-maker if she can pull down big points in all four events.