The NCAA West Preliminary Round begins Thursday in Austin, Texas. The top 12 athletes in each event at the three-day meet will advance to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in two weeks in Eugene, OR. Below are the top storylines to follow and predictions for the women's sprint and distance events.
CLICK HERE FOR OUR OFFICIAL TOP 12 PREDICTIONS
Ducks' next step to triple crown
The University of Oregon women have won the NCAA DI Championship in cross country and indoor track this year and are projected to win the team title in Eugene by an absurd 40 points over Georgia. When all is said and done, the Ducks are probably the best women's college team ever -- but the first step to securing the outdoor crown is qualifying as many bodies as possible to nationals. They have 31 entries in the West Prelims, more than any other team, and individuals in every event except for pole vault and high jump.
Of the sprint and distance events, we predict that 15 athletes will advance to nationals, including the deadly trio of Deajah Stevens, Ariana Washington, and Hannah Cunliffe in both the 100m and 200m. More on that next...
Can anyone put the brakes on Oregon's sprint trio?
While LSU's Aleia Hobbs owns the fastest 100m time in the NCAA this year, there's a strong chance that a Duck could take home that title in addition to the 200m. It's just hard to say which one.
Stevens, a junior, is Oregeon's top-ranked sprinter at the moment: Her 11.00 (+0.7) from the Mt. SAC Relays ranks No. 2 behind Hobbs in the NCAA; she leads the NCAA in the 200m (22.09); and she most recently swept the 100m and 200m at the Pac-12 Championships. Stevens is a 2016 Olympian and made the finals of the 200m last summer in Rio, but she's never won an NCAA individual title.
It was Washington who made a splash at the 2016 NCAAs in sweeping both sprint titles as a redshirt freshman; she is in good form again this spring and was runner-up behind Stevens in the 100m at Pac-12s. Cunliffe, the NCAA 60m champion and collegiate record-holder, has struggled through health issues this year but took third place in both the 100m and 200m at Pac-12s and looks to be rounding into form at the right time.
If you can't stop thinking about it, don't stop working for it pic.twitter.com/PqWrr2rAAk— Hannah Cunliffe (@hannahcunliffe5) May 24, 2017
Of course, there are plenty of women determined to make sure this isn't the Oregon show.
USC's Deanna Hill was runner-up to Stevens in the 200m at Pac-12s, beating Cunliffe, and fourth behind the trio in the 100m. Her season-best mark of 22.41 (+1.5) ranks No. 2 in the NCAA this year.
The Big 12 Championship resulted in some very quick, albeit wind-aided, times from event champions Teahna Daniels of Texas and Taylor Bennett of Baylor, who ran 11.12 (+3.0) and 22.47 (+3.4) to win the 100m and the 200m, respectively. Hometown favorite Daniels, the 2016 NCAA 60m champion, does not actually have a non-wind-aided mark this year for the 100m, though she did sneak under the 22-second barrier in the 200m for the first time in her career with a season-best 22.99 (+1.5) at the Longhorn Invitational.
Watch Taylor Bennett of Baylor win the Big 12 title in the 200m:
San Diego State's Ashley Henderson swept the 100m and 200m at the Mountain West Championship with all-time PBs of 11.05 (+0.2) and 22.54 (-1.2), which rank No. 3 and No. 5 in the NCAA this year, respectively.
Who is double-dipping in distance events?
The distance events at the Prelims are always somewhat lackluster to watch because the best athletes are simply trying to run fast enough to advance from their sections while conserving energy for the nationals. However, that does not mean these events are without their own drama.
Take several top stars who are entered in multiple events: Allie Ostrander is scheduled to run the 3K steeple and 5K in her first outdoor season, but will she opt out of Saturday night's 5K if she advances in the steeplechase on Friday night?
Amy-Eloise Neale of Washington made a stunning debut at 5K to beat out two-time NCAA champion Karissa Schweizer at the Stanford Invitational in 15:39.3, but she hasn't quite let go of 1500m yet -- she's entered in both events. Also going for the 1500m/5K double is Lilli Burdon of Oregon, sixth in the 5K at Pac-12s; and Taryn Rawlings of Portland, whose 16:08 at Stanford was the first and only 5K of her career.
Several runners are in both the 5K and 10K: Erin Clark of Colorado, the Pac-12 10K champion; Charlotte Taylor of San Francisco, the NCAA leader for 5K at 15:29.07; and Makena Morley of Colorado, the Pac-12 10K runner-up.
With the 10K held on Thursday night and the 5K on Saturday, there is enough time for athletes to do both. The 1500m/5K double is a little more challenging: the 1500m first round is on Thursday at 5:30 PM CT; on Saturday, the 1500m quarterfinal is at 6:30 PM; and the 5K semifinal is about 90 minutes later at 8:05 PM.
Watch Amy-Eloise Neale take down two-time NCAA champ Karissa Schweizer with a devastating kick at the Stanford Invitational:
An all-star 1500m in the works
The women's 1500m is one of the most unpredictable and therefore highly anticipated events of the NCAA Championships, and we get our first taste of the action this weekend with a loaded West Prelim.
With the notable exceptions of NCAA indoor mile champion Karisa Nelson and 2015 NCAA 1500m champion Rhianwedd Price, the leading contenders for June's 1500m title are all in the West region. Seven of the top 10 marks in the NCAA for the women's 1500m come from the West region. And though many of the athletes had qualifying marks in the 800m or 5K, they're all focusing on track's most thrilling middle distance event (sorry, a little biased!).
Our lineup: Pac-12 5K and 1500m champion Dani Jones of Colorado, who also won the 3K and anchored the Buffs' thrilling come-from-behind DMR win at the NCAA indoor championship; Pac-12 1500m runner-up Katie Rainsberger of Oregon, who has 4:11 credentials this year and set the national high school record for 3K last year in 9:00.62; Christina Aragon of Stanford, who ran 4:08.71 for bronze at the IAAF World U20 Championships last summer and is largely untested in the event so far this year as she opted to race the 800m at Pac-12s; Elise Cranny of Stanford, the 2016 NCAA runner-up at 1500m and a 4:09 performer; Kaela Edwards of Oklahoma State, the 2016 NCAA indoor mile champion; Savanna Camacho of Oklahoma State, a multiple-time All-American over 800m who is moving up in distance for her senior year; and Arkansas All-American Nikki Hiltz, the SEC champion this year and a 4:12 performer.
Washington standout Neale is the only big name attempting to double. She ranks No. 2 in the NCAA this year with her 1500m PB of 4:11 and No. 3 in the 5K with her 15:39.3 debut. She will likely be running with some vengeance this weekend, as the junior tripped in the 1500m finals at Pac-12s and had to battle her way to sixth place after being a title favorite. She then took runner-up honors in the 5K to Jones, who, as mentioned earlier, is focusing solely on the 1500m for NCAAs.
Dani Jones was one of the biggest stars of the NCAA Indoor Championships, winning both the 3K and DMR with her signature come-from-behind kick: