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The 2020 NCAA track and field season will always be remembered as the one cut short by a global pandemic, and although a public health crisis can make sports seem trivial, that’s no consolation for the athletes who were set to compete for national championships this year.
As it is, though, the season ended just a day before the indoor championships. Here are the five biggest unanswered questions in the wake of the cancelation:
Was Dani Jones set to become an all-time great?
Jones’ ambitious 800m-mile double attempt was set to be one of the storylines of the meet-- a cross country national champion stretching her range to its maximum limit. Penn’s Nia Akins was a massive barrier in the Colorado senior’s way as the second-fastest indoor 800m runner in NCAA history (2:00.71), but it’s also not a reach to think Jones hadn’t shown her best in the 800m (her converted 2:03 came in a race she won by five seconds.)
This was a chance for Jones-- who has national titles in cross country, the 3k, DMR and the outdoor 5k-- to set herself apart compared to a great like Jenny Simpson, who holds three collegiate records but never won a cross country title. In my opinion, Jones could have put herself in a similar stratosphere to Simpson’s remarkable NCAA career with a sweep in Albuquerque, but instead her trek up the mountain was cut short just as she approached the summit.
How would Devin Dixon respond to adversity?
The Texas A&M senior had the fastest seed times entering NCAAs both indoor and outdoor last year, and each time he failed to win nationals. Most of that was due to the brilliance of Bryce Hoppel, but Dixon admitted that his mental game was also holding him back. After a mediocre indoor season ahead of nationals this year (his 1:47.88 was just seventh-best in the NCAA), expectations for the 1:44 man were much more subdued. Perhaps a lessening of pressure would have allowed him to run better than before. As it stands, it’s tough to believe that a man of his talent-- if he opts to turn pro this spring-- will not have an individual NCAA title to his name.
Could USC win without Annelus and Brissett?
The Trojans were still projected to win NCAA Indoors without two of their biggest stars-- 2019 60m hurdles champion Chanel Brissett and two-time defending outdoor 200m champ Angie Annelus-- but the burden was set to be heavy on 60m star Twanisha Terry, hurdler Anna Cockrell, and the 400m trio of Bailey Lear, Kaelin Roberts and Kyra Constantine. Texas A&M's multi stud Tyra Gittens and jumper extraordinaire Deborah Acquah combined to score 39 points at the SEC meet, and a similar performance at nationals was certainly possible.
But you can’t get much more experienced and proven than Terry, Cockrell and Roberts, three individual NCAA champions, who, when supported by Lear and Constantine, could’ve tallied 50 points on their own when factoring in the 4x4.
Would NAU’s team race in the 5k have worked?
I’ll admit that not being able to see the Northern Arizona distance squad contend for an NCAA track title is perhaps one of the hardest pills to swallow because the cross country-focused program probably won’t have this chance for a long time, if ever. The pieces were all seemingly coming together for the Lumberjacks with seven guys clicking at the same time, but it’s ultimately a season that will be defined by unrealized potential.
Still, it’s fun to ruminate on how NAU would’ve attacked the meet. Once the championships were canceled, head coach Mike Smith said the plan for the 5k was to make the race fast from the gun with one guy “setting the trap” by running the first 800m in 2:04. Now, that’s preposterously quick (12:55 pace at 5,000 ft!) and Smith had a slight smirk on his face when he said it, so you can decide how much of that to believe. But an aggressive race at altitude made the most sense for 13:16 man Tyler Day and his 7:43 3k teammate Luis Grijalva, who train at nearly 7,000 ft., so the strategy passes the sniff test.
I imagine Joe Klecker and Edwin Kurgat would have anticipated this and held back, but many guys would not have been so wise. With the luxury of having a sacrificial lamb to blow up the race, NAU would’ve probably taken a lot casualties and made a double-digit point total much more attainable. I could easily envision this plan working.
Who would have become the biggest star in the NCAA?
Last year it was Grant Holloway, with a supporting role from Sha’Carri Richardson. Those two went pro in 2019, and in their absence a superstar had yet to assume the throne of the best in the NCAA. Of course, that’s what NCAA Championships are for, and we don’t have that luxury in 2020. But reading the tea leaves can give hints about who was primed to step up to the plate.
South Dakota pole vaulter Chris Nilsen held the early lead in the men’s Bowerman Award race after breaking Mondo Duplantis’ indoor collegiate record with his 5.93m from February. After beating Mondo and jumping 5.95m at NCAA outdoors last spring, it’s not hard to imagine him eclipsing the 6.00m outdoor record as well. With the world record tear Mondo just went on indoors, Nilsen’s resume benefitted even more.
The women’s field was much murkier, with Dani Jones, Nia Akins and Anna Cockrell just a few names capable of putting a historical imprint on the sport. Jones running indoor qualifiers in the 800m and 5,000m put her range in a category of its own. Akins was in position to run sub-2:00 outdoors. And Cockrell had a legitimate shot to sweep all the hurdle races indoor and out. I feel confident that one of these three women would’ve won the Bowerman.