The 2009 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships Mile will certainly be one of the most exciting events of the competition. The event could potentially feature two of the more precocious athletes in years in German Fernandez and Andrew Wheating, as well as several other prominent names.
All of the athletes will be looking to fill the vacuum left by the departure of last year's champion Leonel Manzano, who outclassed NCAA competition in dominant victories in the 2008 indoor mile and the 2008 outdoor 1500. There are no shortage of speedy competitors ready to take his place. This year's ordered list features an astounding seven athletes under 3:58 for the mile, and an additional four under the magical four minute barrier.
To sort through all of the potential contenders, I've narrowed the field into groups. In the first group are three athletes who have separated themselves from the pack with memorable individual performances in both the mile and other events.
Tier 1: The Co-Favorites
What? Haven't heard the name, oh yeah Alex Rodriguez did steroids, I think that was on the news once. Seriously, everybody knows enough about German at this point that going through a lengthy summary of his credentials would be gratuitous. The important points are he ran his World Junior Record 3:55.02 doing all of the work by himself and has run 7:47 for the 3000 with a fast last 1200.
In other words, he has strength and speed and is unafraid of running his own even-splitted race that apparently all Big 12 runners decided they could have no part of. Still, he is not a slam dunk here.
As far as red flags go, he is inexperienced, and whether he can excel in a race where he could get pushed around or be blocked from the front is unknown. Still, you have got to like the chances of this racing metronome on a windless track with a two-second advantage on the field.
Whether German will compete in the mile is an unresolved issue as well. He could choose to run only the 3000 or skip the national event entirely to place full focus on the World Junior Cross Country Championships.
Before this year, Ulrey was perhaps the top under-the-radar middle distance runner in the NCAA. He captured second place in an absolute blanket finish in the NCAA outdoor 1500 and boasted excellent times from the relative obscurity of the University of Northern Iowa.
That all changed when he followed his Coach Chris Bucknam to track powerhouse Arkansas and its wonderful indoor facility. As notable as the aforementioned second place at the outdoor championships was, his second place behind Fernandez firmly entrenched him into the mainstream.
He has been running sensationally since that terrific 3:57 effort. He followed it up with a 7:50 3000 outkicking his teammate and 2008 10,000 meter runner up Shawn Forrest as well as a scintillating 3:54.6 1600 meter anchor carry to topple 2008 Olympian and indoor 5000 meter American record holder, Galen Rupp. He had a momentary setback when he fell at the Tyson Invite, but is clearly in good form considering an impressive double gold (mile: 3:59; 3000: 7:55) at the SEC Championships.
His racing acumen is strong judging from his impressive finishing kicks to defeat Forrest and Rupp, as well as his strong finish last year outdoors. His defeat to Fernandez was decisive, but it is only fair to recall that Ulrey ran the 1200 (2:55) the night before and was likely caught by suprise with little time to regroup when Fernandez passed him.
Given that the championship race will present a more competitive race situation without pacemakers and Ulrey's knowledge of what to expect will be much greater, Ulrey is a great pick to take home his first NCAA title.
By far the fastest 800 runner in the field as well as the only Olympian potentially in the field at the moment, Wheating is a force if he elects to compete in the mile. His 800 PR is in the 1:45s and his indoor campaign includes a 1:47.0 effort as well.
Although his mile time this season is "only" 3:59 it is important to note that last year as part of his magical outdoor season he clocked a 3:38 1500 with a blazing finishing 200. Similar to his tactics in that race, Wheating traditionally runs from the back and slowly moves up before burying the field in the final quarter of the race.
That type of formula seems ripe for success in a tactical mile. Wheating's speed, of course, is not a question of concern, but his strength seems relatively unquestionable as well. After all, he finished impressively in 75th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships for the Champion Oregon Ducks.
One question about Wheating against a strong frontrunner like Fernandez pertains to his typical strategy of hanging in the back of the field. Whether Wheating would be in danger of giving himself too much ground to pick up if Fernandez sets a torrid pace is definitely in question.
In addition, Wheating is an even bet to enter the 800 only and rest up for a carry on the second-ranked Oregon Duck Distance Medley squad. Still, if he competes, given his excellent closing speed, Wheating will be a lot to handle for anyone in the field.
Tier 2A: The Speedsters Moving Up
It was certainly one of the shocks of the season when the unheralded Michigan State Spartan Shane Knoll took the lead at the Meyo mile with 400 meters to go and didn't look back in rolling an impressive 3:57 mile that beat his personal best by over four seconds.
Knoll has followed that performance up with a 1:48.9 800 meter performance demonstrating his excellent speed. Still, one has to be wary of his lack of experience in championship races that do not usually resemble time trials. At the Big 10 Championships, in fact, he was a well beaten third behind another competitor in this field, Justin Switzer.
Closing behind Knoll at the Meyo mile was New Mexico's Lee Emanuel. Emanuel's strong close was impressive given that he held the pace for much of the time before being passed by Knoll. He promptly got boxed and weaved his way to a very nice finish.
He boasts a laudable mixture of speed and strength with a 7:56 3,000 to his credit as well as an early season 1:50 800 at altitude. One red flag is his elimination from the heats in last year's NCAA outdoors 1500 competition. His seed time was under 3:41, but he did underperform relative to that mark. If he does that again, he could slip out of the finals of a very deep field.
Working together seamlessly with his teammate David McCarthy, Providence Friar and Kiwi McClaren ran a workmanlike 3:57 mile at the BU St. Valentine's Invitational. His underdistance speed is impressive, which is demonstrated by a completely solo 2:21.5 1000 meter run last indoor season.
He demonstrated his speed again this season in a 2:22.0 1000 meter at the Big East Championships earning him the conference title. That strong effort was in contrast to last year when McClaren tapered off after a sub 4 minute performance in January to a ninth-place finish at the Big East Championship in the 1000 and an equally uninspiring 12th place at the NCAA Indoor Championships in the mile. When he is on, though, McClaren has a strong last 400 meters and is a threat for the podium.
Perhaps lost among the shuffle of the Meyo mile was a breakthrough by Michigan's Justin Switzer. Switzer turned heads last outdoor season when he ripped a 1:48.4 800 meters. That mark places him as one of the faster 800 meter men in the field.
Following his 3:58 in the Meyo Mile, Switzer has continued his strong campaign with a notable victory over Knoll at the Big 10 championships. He also has the benefit of some of the best training partners to be had with Olympic bronze medalist Nick Willis and 2009 USA Indoor 1500 Champion Rob Myers.
One question mark that arises for Switzer is his endurance given a dearth of good performances in the 3000 and Cross Country. In addition, while he has had great success in conference conference including the 2007 Outdoor 1500 Big 10 Championship he has yet to make his mark on the national stage.
Tier 2B: The Strength Milers
Nearly as surprising as Knoll's superb mile performance was Coe's near victory over German Fernandez in the 3000 meters. Coe, running with daring and confidence, nearly took down Fernandez in establishing a huge personal best of 7:48. Coe followed that up with an impressive 4:00 mile at the MPSF Championships.
While the time is not sensational, the fashion in which he did it was of more importance. Coe easily dispatched last year's third-place finisher AJ Acosta in the last 200 meters with an effortless final surge. The California Golden Bear, Coe, may opt for the 3000 to stay fresh for the second ranked DMR in the land. The Golden Bears have a first class 3:56.5 1600m anchor from Coe to thank for that mark, by the way.
If Coe chooses to run the mile, his perhaps below-par speed (for the field) will surely be tested but his strength given that 3,000 performance and his 51st place finish at Division 1 Cross Country Nationals will surely help him along.
As stated before, Providence's McCarthy collaborated with his teammate in a workmanlike 3:57 mile at Boston University's banked oval. The Irishman McCarthy, in contrast to his teammate McClaren has made his mark in overdistance events. He won a competitive Big East Championship in the 3000 beating big names like Bumbalough and Smyth after he pitched in on the winning Distance Medley squad.
His Cross Country credentials are among the best of the field featuring a 17th place finish at the Division 1 Nationals. Like Coe, his speed will be tested in the mile, but when he lets loose in the mile he will be someone to watch. His lack of experience on the national track stage is of concern.
Centrowitz has really put it all together since a strong cross country season that saw him crack a supremely tough top-seven group of the national champion Oregon Ducks. He dispatched of eventual USA 3000 meter indoor champion David Torrence in his 3:57 mile and then took down the two fabulous freshman, Chris Derrick and teammate Luke Puskedra, in a hotly contested 3000 meter dual at the MPSF Championships (7:55 for the distance).
Centrowitz did not have his greatest showing last year as a member of the Oregon Distance Medley squad, and his lack of great footspeed could come into play if the race is slow. Centrowitz, potentially, could opt to run the 3000 instead, and run fresh for his team's Distance Medley.
Tier 3: The Shadrack Songok Category (Athletes not yet in, but threats nonetheless)
This tier's title refers to Shadrack Songok who qualified at the last minute last year only to capture the 5,000 meter crown. Who better to place in this category than last year's runner up, Jake Morse?
After a respite from NCAA track last outdoor season with a redshirt Morse (8:30 in the steeple unattached) has run a solid if perhaps underwhelming season. The departure of middle distance coach and guru Jason Vigilante to Virginia may have something to do with it. Morse's best times this season of 4:01.56 for the mile and 8:00 for the 3000 leave him well short of making the field at this time, but as last year's runner-up he will be someone to watch if he makes it in with a mark at a last-chance meet.
Two things to consider are that Morse finished an unimpressive 5'th in the Big 12 mile and is likely to be counted upon as the 1600 leg for the defending champion Texas Longhorn Distance Medley Relay.
AJ was a strong third last year at the NCAA indoor championships and ran a solid 3:40.52 1500 outdoors before a disappointing ninth at the Outdoor championships. An injury has held him back so far this season, but he has raced in an Oregon jersey and run 4:01.8 as mentioned before.
If he can sneak in with a top mark at a last chance meet, given AJ's experience he should not be counted out as a contender if he plays his cards right. His third-place finish last year was impressive because unlike much of the field he was willing to run at the front of the pack and contend with Manzano.
That type of confidence could help if he is faced with the frontrunning of German Fernandez. AJ may also see time as a member of a powerful Distance Medley squad for Oregon.
As last year's 3000 meter runner up at the NCAA Indoor Championship, it is more likely than not that we won't see Bumbi in the mile run. Still, if he chose to chase a mile mark at a last chance meet, Bumbalough would be a contender given his 3:40.22 1500 personal best and his considerable strength as one of the top cross country runners in the nation.
Of concern, though, is the fact that he has raced just once this indoor season and was trounced by McCarthy in that race. In addition, whether Bumbalough has the tools to finish with some of the faster closers in the 1500/mile is up in the air even when his personal best compares favorably.
Craig Miller/Jack Bolas
Maybe I'm just getting lazy, but I've decided to lump these two Badgers together. Bolas was last year's 1500 meter third place finisher in what was a blanket behind Leo Manzano. Miller finished just behind him. Still, neither is positioned well to make an impact this indoor season just yet.
Miller was poised to punch an auto ticket in the mile before rigging badly in the last 200 of the Meyo mile. He has a 7:59 to his credit and ran decently at the Big 10 Championships to get a well-beaten second to Minnesota standout Hassan Mead. Bolas has run 4:01.1 for the mile this season, but only competed as a member of Wisconsin's third place DMR at the Big 10 Championships.
His form is up in the air, and we'll see if both athletes take a shot in the upcoming weekend. Both have good, but not phenomenal closing speed as illustrated by Samuel Borchers' victory over both in last year's extremely slow Big 12 Outdoor Championships which preceded their more impressive finishes at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
I am assuming See must be hurt as I've seen very little from him indoors. Last year he was a scorer both indoors (sixth place) and outdoors (fifth place) at the Championships. When healthy and in form, he can mix it up with nearly anyone in the country.
The ultimate darkhorse, McClary, has not competed this season. He holds an outstanding 3:36.9 personal best in the 1500, though he has never competed to that level at the NCAA Championships. He was ninth indoors last year, but will need a big effort out of nowhere to make the field this year.
Tier 4: Notable Omissions
He did run 3:59.0 to ensure his spot his in the mile field, but I am holding him back considering his lack of national-level experience and an unimpressive fourth in the mile at the Big 12 Championships.
A finalist last year outdoors, Davidson won both the mile and the 3,000 at the Conference USA Championships and has posted a 3:59.97 this indoor season.
Ian Fitzgerald/Brad Miller/David Proctor
These guys have done very well in nearly breaking four this season. Still, whether they have the tactical ability to navigate the rounds and be factors in the final is uncertain.
Prediction, if everyone competed
1. German Fernandez (front-runs to victory)
2. Andrew Wheating (leaves too much work to be done to catch German)
3. Dorian Ulrey
4. Michael Coe
5. Lee Emanuel
6. Matt Centrowitz
7. Justin Switzer
8. Hayden McClaren
9. David McCarthy
10. Shane Knoll