NCAA DI Indoor Championships Preview: Women’s Distance & Mid-Distance

NCAA DI Indoor Championships Preview: Women’s Distance & Mid-Distance

The NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships are this weekend – March 13-14 – in Fayetteville, Arkansas, so to get you ready we’re breaking down each event at the Championships.

Here we look at the women’s distance & middle-distance events, and we will take a look at those same men’s events in a separate article here.

Check back throughout the week for event group previews that include:

  • Sprints & Hurdles (Men | Women)
  • Jumps (Men | Women)
  • Throws & Combined Events (Men | Women)

Be sure to tune in live on Friday and Saturday to ESPN3 (WatchESPN) to witness one of the best and most tightly contested indoor track & field meets on the planet.

For full meet details, visit the USTFCCCA National Championships Central page, and be sure to check out the USTFCCCA’s newly launched NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships History Record Book page.

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Women’s Distance Preview

If you squint at them in just the right way, Emily Sisson-Dominique Scott going head to head in the 3k at the end of the meet is a poor woman’s version of Jenny Barringer-Sally Kipyego: the collegiate record holder—hailing from the United States—going against an African star. (Sisson set the 5000 meters record two weekends ago, and Scott is the 3000-meter national leader from South Africa).

Scott and Sisson will both be doubling back from events earlier in the meet; before we get to the premier individual women’s distance matchup of the weekend, let’s see how tired they’ll be when they get there.

First up is Friday night’s 5k. I don’t want to waste hundreds or even dozens of words on this race: Sisson is going to win.

The reason she ran so fast from the gun at the Big East meet wasn’t because she thought that was the best venue in which to break the collegiate record; it was because she wanted to give that front-running tactic a dry run before the NCAA meet. (If her goal were breaking the collegiate record, she would have entered a 5k at any other meet with better competition.) Now that she’s proven to herself and Ray Treacy that she can run that fast by herself, she can break out the tactic in Fayetteville, knowing full well that no one else in the field can hang with her.

The much more compelling race on Friday night is the DMR. If it comes down to the anchor leg, as these relays are wont to do, nearly every great miler in the college ranks save Shelby Houlihan will be involved. Katrina Coogan of Georgetown, Leah O’Connor of Michigan State, Scott of Arkansas, Elise Cranny of Stanford, Sammy Silva of New Mexico, Colleen Quigley of Florida State, and either Angel Piccirillo or Stephanie Schappert of Villanova will all be carrying the stick. That’s seven of the top eleven milers on the descending order list.

This is an imperfect metric, since teams sometimes just run to qualify, but let’s eliminate every team that qualified with a loss to other teams. Nobody in the field qualified with a quartet inferior to one that they could use at nationals, so knocking off the “losers” is relatively safe. That knocks out Villanova (lost to Georgetown), Michigan (lost to Michigan State), New Mexico, and Notre Dame (both lost to Baylor).

So we’re left with Georgetown, Michigan State, Baylor, New Mexico, Arkansas, Stanford, NC State, Florida State, and Washington. I’m next going to eliminate Baylor, NC State, and Washington for not having a superstar miler on their anchor leg, leaving us with six teams: Georgetown, Michigan State, New Mexico, Arkansas, Stanford, and Florida State.

If Florida State wins less than two weeks after their coach abruptly resigned, that’s a major blow for Tom Donnelly’s idea that coaches make athletes “maybe one percent” better; if Stanford wins, they’ll be the first squad with two freshmen to win the women’s DMR since the Cardinal themselves did it (with Lindsay Hyatt and Lauren Fleshman) in 2000. But all six of the above teams have a chance of winning, and though they’re separated by seven seconds, all six teams won their races and plausibly could have run faster.

O’Connor, Quigley, Silva, and the two Villanova runners have run a mile prelim three hours before the DMR. If you place a premium on freshness, you like Georgetown, Arkansas, and Stanford.

Those five women plus Houlihan, Iona’s Rosie Clarke, North Dakota State’s Erin Teschuk, and Mississippi State’s Rhianwedd Price are the top nine seeds for Saturday’s mile final, assuming they all make it through safely.

Houlihan has by far the best championship chops and apocryphal “leg speed;” if the race goes out slowly, she’s the favorite.

At any pace, nothing has happened since Houlihan won the outdoor 1500 meters to change her status as the favorite. In addition to being the defending DI 1500 champ, she’s better than everyone in this field at longer races—she beat them all at NCAA XC—and she’s better then everyone at shorter races, with by far the fastest 800 PR in the field.

If you’re looking for someone to beat Houlihan, the two best candidates are Quigley and O’Connor. The former ran the nation’s fastest time a month after losing to Scott by seven seconds. The latter allegedly split 4:25 in the Big Ten DMR and hasn’t lost a track race to a collegian since losing to Rachel Sorna in the Princeton steeple last April.

If you’re looking for a true out-of-nowhere dark horse, Erin Teschuk hasn’t lost to a collegian in an open race this winter.

But the biggest dark horse winner of the weekend, in my opinion, won’t come out of the DMR, mile, 3k, or 5k. It will be Chrishuna Williams in the 800 meters. The Arkansas senior is the only woman in the event who has run an open 200 or a 4×100 in her college career, meaning that she has by far the most lethal speed in the field. And her progression is extremely promising. She’s raced six 800 finals in her career, going 2:09 and 2:06 outdoors last year and 2:07, 2:05, 2:05, and 2:02 this indoor season. Alabama’s Kimberley Ficenec beat her at Tyson, but Williams beat Ficenec by nearly three seconds in the SEC final.

Letsrun smartly points out that when Goule won the NCAA title in 2013, her season was nearly identical to the current one, including a loss at her conference championship. In addition to having a PB three seconds faster than everyone else in the field, Goule will also be fresher than Williams, who is listed on Arkansas’s DMR for Friday night. Reasonable people and smarter people than me will say that Goule has done nothing to be dislodged as the clear favorite. For me, though, it’s not about what Goule hasn’t done—it’s about what Williams has done. It seems clear that Williams is the female Brandon Johnson, a tremendous talent who was in the wrong event for years. She was just lucky enough to figure it out while she was in college.

That brings us back to Saturday night’s Sisson-Scott 3k. (Apologies to Rachele Schulist, Shelby Houlihan, Jess Tonn, Erin Teschuk, Samantha Nadel, and Dana Giordano, who are all undefeated in the 3k this season) We just might be getting the women’s indoor edition of the Lawi-Ches 5k at last year’s outdoor meet: two historically great runners forgoing sit-and-kick to drop bombs on each other well before the finish line. Neither has lost to a collegian in 2015—Sisson lost to Sarah Disanza in December—and both will be chasing historical greatness.

If the team battle is tight, Scott could need all ten points to help deliver Arkansas’s first-ever team title on their home track. And if Sisson has already won the 5k on Friday night, she’s chasing the ghost of another Friar, Kim Smith, who won the 3k and 5k at Arkansas in 2004 with what were then two NCAA and meet records. Smith still has the meet record in the five. Jenny Simpson’s 8:42 in the three is one of the best meet records on the books.  In 2009, Simpson ran her last 1600 meters in 4:34 in one of the greatest individual performances in NCAA meet history.

It’s unlikely that Scott or Sisson will touch that level of individual greatness. But their head-to-head showdown will be just as transcendent to watch.