There’s so much to love at the New Balance Nationals Indoor, the second straight year of a single national championship meet indoors for preps to settle who’s the best in the U.S. Here’s a primer to Baker’s Dozen best of the best over the three-day stretch (boys followed by girls, but in no pecking order).
Boys 800: Talent and drama to burn The boys 4-lapper at NBNI isn’t getting the buzz of, say, the 400 or pole vault, but there’s no doubt that there will be high drama, especially with the following four protagonists:
Liverpool (Liverpool, N.Y.) senior Zavon Watkins: Defending champ and the only sub-1:50 (outdoors) in the field, Watkins had a great run of mile victories, but at shorter distances (600, 800, 1k) he’s dealt with a few defeats and a DQ. He still has something to prove.
Columbus (Bronx, N.Y.) senior Strymar Livingston: USRs at 500 and 600, but definitely has something to prove at 800 (2nd at Simplot), which will be his main outdoor event.
Great Valley (Malvern, Pa.) senior Ned Willig: Still US#1 at 800 this winter at 1:51.25, he “won” the 1k where he and Watkins were DQ’d and might still be burning a little from his 10th at Millrose (mile).
Pascack Valley (Hillsdale, N.J.) junior Ben Malone might be the most talented of all. He was the official winner of the NB Collegiate 1k (2:23.56) when the DQs came in, and has a US#1 4:11.66 1600, a 1:51 800 relay leg, and even a 1:21 600 to his credit. A dark horse who could take it all for sure, but he’s also entered in the mile.
Don’t be surprised if Robby Andrews' USR comes under attack and more than one runner goes under 1:50.
Boys PV: Best indoor trio ever There have never been three pole vaulters at 17-6 or better in a single year, indoors. And, suffice it to say then that there has never been an undercover competition with three guys doing battle at such high altitude. It’s not completely shocking that Spring (Spring, Texas) senior Reese Watson and Lincoln (Gahanna, Ohio) senior Jacob Blankenship have reached that level, given their creds from 2011. But Kingwood Park (Houston) senior Shawn Barber was “only” a 16-6 vaulter when the season began. With his 17-8 outdoors last weekend, he actually leads the trio now. Interestingly, Texans Watson and Barber have not met this year, with Watson winning previous meetings between them before Barber’s big improvement. Blankenship has never vaulted against either of them, but his creds certainly match up: He was the surprise New Balance Nationals Outdoor (NBNO) champ last June and then earned a bronze at the World Youth Champs. These are three of the top six indoor vaulters in history, enjoy them.
Boys 400: From teammates back to rivals While the above-mentioned vaulters have relatively little competitive history between them, the top guns in this epic 2-lap battle could hardly be more familiar with each other (See Doug Binder story). Still, the drama could hardly be higher. St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) senior Arman Hall was the man almost all of last year – winning NBNO and World Youth titles – except when he was beaten by Timberview (Arlington, Texas) senior Aldrich Bailey at the World Youth Trials. That surely gave Bailey confidence, despite being second fiddle again at the World Youth Champs, and he came out sizzling this winter with 47.05 and 20.99 marks in January. But then St. Peters Prep (Jersey City, N.J.) Najee Glass – a runner-up in the biggest races last year – finally got his, too, when he beat Bailey by .01 at Brooks Feb. 26. Their 46.06 and 46.07 times are #2 and #3 all-time (all tracks). Hall has done little indoors, but is down to 46.41 outdoors now (his 46.01 PR is the best of the three). And that’s what has transpired to create a matchup that, despite the rivals’ familiarity with each other, will be as dramatic as any race in the meet. And don’t forget, Bailey and Hall are racing the 200, too.
Boys 60H: Can Robertson confirm? The boys short hurdle scene (55, 60) coming into 2012 was characterized by a big handful of guys with similar PRs, but no one having quite broken through to the super-elite level yet. And by the Brooks PR meet, the story was the same, with Potomac (Oxon Hill, Md.) senior Dondre Echols (7.17 55H) and Berea (Berea, Ohio) senior Donovan Robertson (7.87 60H) having pushed closes to all-time great territory. But then, shockingly, Robertson became that super elite performer Feb. 26 at the Brooks PR meet, hitting 7.77 in his prelim and then an eye-popping 7.57 in the final – cutting .03 off Wayne Davis’ 2099 standard. On Sunday, Robertson gets a chance to back it up. There will be eight other hurdlers in the deep field who have run 7.27 or better for 55H, or 7.89 or better for 60H. Robertson will have a big target on his back and it will be fun to watch if he can “get to the first hurdle first” (his words) and do it again, or if a challenger will rise up and take him down. One more thing worth remembering: In Robertson’s last national meet, NBNO last June, he led 110H qualifying (13.74, -0.1w), but finished last in the final. Think he won’t be motivated by that?
Ed Cheserek: Doing the “Verzbicas” The races and circumstances may be a little different, but for all intents and purposes, Ed Cheserek looks to be trying to pull a “Verzbicas” this weekend at NBNI. No, he won’t be running the 5,000 and going for a record there – he’s already done that this winter. But he is expected to anchor St. Benedict’s (Newark, N.J.) US#2 DMR (Friday) and US#1 SMR (Saturday), both with a solid chance to win. And he is entered in both the 2-mile and mile on Sunday. If he (and his team in the relays) wins all four, would it be as big a deal as what Verzbicas did last year? In comparing the Friday-Saturday part, Verzbicas pushed fairly hard to break his own 5k mark Friday before resting Saturday. With his respective 1600 and 800 relay legs, Cheserek would probably have to run PR-level marks to carry St. Bene’s to victories. On Sunday, Verzbicas had to beat Cheserek himself in the deuce, whereas Ches will not have nearly as tough a foe. And in the mile, Verzbicas faced a more experienced field for sure, but not necessarily more talented than what Cheserek will encounter. By Sunday night, we’ll see how the two historical efforts compared.
Boys Distance Relays: Can the Brothers beat ‘em all? Whether or not a top cross-country program carries it through all year long to be a top indoor and outdoor distance power, in individual events and relays, is more hit and miss than people think. Some harrier outfits aren’t as well suited for the mile on down at the national level. So what the Christian Brothers Academy (Lincroft, N.J.) has done already this winter – US#1s in the 4x800 (#2 all-time) and DMR – and are poised to do this weekend is pretty special. Besides the favorite’s role in the above-mentioned events, you certainly have to give them the nod in the 4x1 Mile, where they are defending champions. Could they win all three, something no boys’ school has ever done? Certainly; they look to have a good margin on the fields in the 4x1 Mile and 4x800, while Ed Cheserek and St. Benedict’s (2011 outdoor champ) may offer the toughest challenge in the DMR. As for national records, CBA might not have quite the top-end power to take down the very tough 4x800 or DMR marks, but WWPN’s 17:21.58 4x1 Mile from two years ago could go down.
Girls 800: Cain chases Ajee chases the clock One can hope for more competitive drama, but in all likelihood, the girls 800 will turn into three races:
1. Neptune (Neptune, N.J.) senior Ajee Wilson chasing the clock, trying to strengthen her hold on #2 all-time or even, perhaps, making a decent run at Mary Decker Slaney’s 38-year-old USR.
2. Bronxville (Bronxville, N.Y.) soph Mary Cain running in no-man’s land for a fast time, somewhere in the 2:05-2:08 range.
3. The rest of the pack having a good race for third place.
Can Cain challenge Wilson? Maybe, on a really good day. And remember, Wilson is a racer – not someone who’s often tried to push alone in a race where she’s the clear favorite. But for Wilson, who has run all of her fast races this winter against elites in the U.S. Open, Millrose Games, and New Balance Boston Indoor GP, what other motivation would there be to run here? She won last year in 2:06.17 and to come to The Armory Sunday just to run to win seems pointless. Been there, done that. Thus, if she really lays it on the line, maybe we’ll see something as special as we presumed two years ago when she authored that epic relay leg at NBON. Stay tuned.
Girls distance relays: New girls on the block If you assess the girls distance relays starting with the 4x800 and 4x1 Mile, you’ll notice some typically good fields with a handful of teams that could go low 9s or just under 9:00 in the former, and another potential challenger (Haley Pierce and Tatnall, Del.) to Saratoga’s 2005 USR in the latter. But then you check out the girls DMR – now THAT could be interesting. Grosse Pointe South, Michigan and the amazing Meier twins have never entered a national meet relay since they burst on the scene two years ago. Now, just off 4:43.24 (Hannah Meier) and 4:48.10 (Haley Meier) indoor mile PRs at the Brooks PR meet, they will see if their combined talents can attack the 11:35.43 USR by Mountain View, Utah from 2004. Remember, they also have Kelsie Schwartz who has run 4:59 for 1600 and Ersula Farrow, who has run 5:05. One wonders why they didn’t go for the 4x1 mile, but running the Friday night DMR allows the Meiers a day of rest before tacking Sunday’s mile (Hannah his defending champ). If Schwartz and Farrow can combine for a 60-62 400 and a 2:18-20 800, the twins ought to be able to do the rest.
Girls 5K: Rematch for elite trio While Tatnall (Wilmington, Del.) senior Haley Pierce, Ravenscroft (Raleigh, N.C.) junior Wesley Frazier and West Bloomfield (West Bloomfield, Mich.) junior Erin Finn may have a broader perspective on Friday’s 5,000 than how it compares to their NBNO 5,000 last June – the comparison is certainly interesting to fans (see Doug Binder’s story). Pierce’s creds coming in last spring had made her an exciting favorite, but when she faded mid-race, Frazier and Finn put on quite a show in finishing 1-2. Since then, Pierce and Finn both had national runner-up finishes in XC (NXN and Foot Locker, respectively), while Frazier was off form. But as evidenced by their 2-3-4 finishes in the Brooks 2M, quite a battle should be ahead. In grave danger may be the 16:35.15 USR set just last year by Waverly Neer. And don’t forget about North Shore (Glen Head, N.Y.) senior Brianna Nerud, who could beat all three with a really good day.
Girls 60H: Hall gets another shot at unseating the queen St. Mary’s (Berkeley, Calif.) senior Trinity Wilson has been one of the nation’s elite hurdlers since before her high school years and she has absolutely owned the 60H and 100H for the last year-plus. But if there’s anyone that could deliver the upset, it’s George Washington (Denver, Colo.) super soph Dior Hall. As the track world saw at Simplot, Hall pressured Wilson to be at the absolute top of her game at Simplot, only to stumble herself at the end and finish sixth. Atonement was sweet at Brooks, as Hall lowered her 60H PR to 8.28. Now she gets a rematch with the World Youth 100H champion, with both having to face a very good field. Can the young gun top the senior veteran? Or might Wilson be better than ever and take down Jackie Coward’s 2008 USR of 8.16? Watch and see.
Girls LJ: Battle of the 20-footers Given that the national record in the girls indoor long jump is 21-7.5 (Carol Lewis, 1981), a 20-foot jump isn’t necessarily something to get really excited about. But five of them in the same years is pretty good, and having four of those five competing together for a national title is special indeed. The key players really haven’t crossed each other’s path much and don’t have a lot in common. Newton North (Newtonville, Mass.) junior Carla Forbes (20-1.25) is defending champ (and 2010 Nike Indoor TJ champ), so this meet is familiar to her. Fayetteville (Fayetteville, Ark.) senior Sydney Conley (20-1.5) has Olympic genes (her father is 1992 TJ Gold Medalist Michael), but is a relatively late bloomer and this is her first NSSF championship, in or out. And in Virginians Javanique Burress (junior AA champ from Louisa County at 20-1) and Shakeela Saunders (senior AAA runner-up from Nansemond River at 20-0.5), you have another national newcomer who’s made a big leap up this winter (Burress) and a veteran all-arounder (hurdles, TJ, long sprints) who has starred since her frosh year but popped that huge one way back in December (Saunders). These four girls have PRs within an inch of each other.
Multis: Familiar names If it seems like Kendell Williams has been around forever, you may be surprised to realize that the Kell (Marietta, Ga.) junior is … still just a junior. Williams is everywhere, whether it’s in the number of events she competes in at a meet, or the number of meets she competes in during a given year. One of her many successes last year was winning NBNI with 3,792 points (#3 all-time) and while she must missed Shana Woods’ soph USR, she can get the junior class mark with just a 36-point improvement. Oh, and she’s also entered in the high jump (current US#1 5-10.75) and 60H (US#4 8.39). Meanwhile, on the boys side, the last name of the leading light should be familiar (Lazas), even if the first name (Jake) isn’t. Jake’s older brother Kevin battled Gunnar Nixon in 2010 in becoming one of history’s great multi-eventers in and out and is now a star at Arkansas (as is Nixon). But Jake, now a Brentwood (Tenn.) senior, has struggled with injuries somewhat. There’s no question, however, that he has tremendous physical talent and attributes and with a healthy senior year could challenge or surpass some of his brother’s marks. So don’t be surprised if you see a coming out party.
Girls sprint relays: Open the door for new powers When you think of schools that have been all-around sprint and sprint relay powers at the nationals in the past several years, you think of Long Beach Poly, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Cardozo and Medgar Evers. But it may be time in 2012 to open the door to some new names, like Wakefield (N.C.) and Martin Luther King (Ga.). Wakefield isn’t new on the scene, but they’ve never run like they have this year, led by senior Ariah Graham and with US#1 marks of 1:38.35 4x200 and 3:45.64 4x400. Meanwhile, MLK – with athletes trained by Sprint Athletics – has developed stars like Felicia Brown (US#2 53.53 400) and Jada Martin (US#3 24.00 200). Perhaps the sprint relay race of the meet for either gender will be the 4x200, where both schools, plus Poly, will lock up.