It will be one of the featured attractions of this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Three of the five fastest steeplechasers in college history will go head to head, and BYU’s Kenneth Rooks will be in the thick of it.

A few weeks ago, Rooks broke a 46-year-old school record held by four-time Olympian Henry Marsh, running 8:17.62 in a professional race. That was the second-fastest time ever by a collegian and the fastest ever by an American collegian. It was also the fastest time in the world at the time. All that changed two weeks ago. Running in the second heat of the NCAA West regional, Montana’s Duncan Hamilton ran away from the field and finished with a time of 8:16.23 — some 19 seconds faster than his nearest rival.

Rooks ran in the third heat and finished first with a time of 8:25.05 to qualify for the NCAA championships along with Hamilton. Meanwhile, Georgetown’s Parker Stokes qualified for nationals in the East regional with a pedestrian time of 8:44.06. So the showdown is set.

Hamilton and Stokes finished second and third in last year’s NCAA championships in a photo finish (they were given the same time of 8:18.88, .18 behind Eastern Kentucky’s Ahmed Jaziri, who has since graduated). Rooks was sixth.

“It will be a very intense race,” says BYU coach Ed Eyestone of this week’s showdown. “On the one hand we have Rooks, who had the fastest time in the world. Then Duncan fired his shot in the regional meet and ran a second faster. And Stokes is back. He’s from the East so he hasn’t had to run as fast (the top steeplechasers are in the West). It will be interesting to see how it all sorts out.”

Utah schools have qualified athletes for 23 entries in individual events in these NCAA championships, 15 of them in the distance and middle-distance races. BYU has qualified athletes in 13 individual events, plus three sprint relays. Four Utahns — BYU’s Casey Clinger, Utah’s Simone Plourde and Emily Venters and Utah Valley’s Everlyn Kemboi — qualified in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs.

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The NCAA championships, with so many international athletes attending U.S. schools, is annually one of the best track meets in the world, trailing only the world championships (or the Olympics in an Olympic year) and the U.S. championships. This year’s meet promises to live up to that billing, but there is an X-factor: the Texas heat. The forecast is for temperatures in the upper 80s, with high humidity.

Many of the races are scheduled for the evening when it will be a little cooler. Eyestone knows all about it. As a BYU freshman some three decades ago, he collapsed to the track during the 10,000 because of the heat (three years later he returned to Austin and won the NCAA championships in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races).

The heat could be a factor in the distances races, especially for those who are doubling. Clinger will run the 10,000 on Wednesday and the 5,000 on Friday. Like Rooks, he is headed for a showdown with a close rival. Clinger finished a close second to Dylan Jacobs (now at Tennessee) in the 5,000 at the NCAA indoor championships last March, with about a half-second separating them. A day later Clinger finished fourth to Jacobs’ sixth in the 3,000. They met outdoors once this season in a 10,000 at the Bryan Clay Invitational, and Jacobs won the race, .14 of a second ahead of Clinger.

In the team race, the BYU men’s team, ranked 14th in the latest national polls, depends heavily on the performances of Rooks and Clinger in the distance races, Cam Bates in the javelin, Dallin Shurts in the discus and Caleb Witsken in the pole vault. The 6-foot-7 Shurts placed a surprising second in the 2022 U.S. championships.

“It’s quality over quantity for us,” says Eyestone. “We’ve had more (qualifiers) in the past, but we’ve got guys who can score well.”

On the women’s side, BYU coach Diljeet Taylor has a reputation for developing strong middle-distance runners, and Claire Seymour is her latest 800-meter star. Earlier this season Seymour broke a 36-year-old school record held by Olympian Julie Jenkins, clocking 2:00.04 and finishing behind LSU’s Michaela Rose (1:59.09) in the Bryan Clay Invitational. Those times rank first and second in the nation. Stanford’s Roisin Willis and Juliette Whittaker finished 1-2 in the NCAA indoor meet, but instead of running the 800 at the West regional Whittaker ran the 1,500 and failed to advance to the NCAA outdoor championships. 

Besides Seymour, the BYU women’s team, which ranks 19th in the national polls, is also depending heavily on a couple of field event athletes — high jumper Cierra Tidwell — ranked third nationally — and defending NCAA javelin champion Ashton Riner. The latter has been slowed by an injury this season, but threw a season-best 182-4 at the region meet to qualify. 

In April 2022 she threw a school-record 198 feet and went on to win the NCAA championships with a throw of 191 feet, 1 inch. BYU also has strong entries in Aubrey Frentheway in the 10,000 and Lexy Halladay in the steeplechase.

BYU’s Meghan Hunter, a junior from Provo, is a long shot to score in the 800, but her coaches consider it a victory that she qualified for this NCAA meet. She was one of the top high school recruits in the country in 2019, but that summer, shortly after signing with BYU, she broke her neck in a rollover car accident that left her with a broken neck. She has had to overcome physical damage and what she terms as PTSD since then.

“What a story,” says Eyestone. “Just the fact that she made it to the NCAA meet is a success story.”

This week’s championships will feature a pair of sensational female runners — North Carolina State’s Katelyn Tuohy and Arkansas’ Britton Wilson.

Tuohy, a junior, is living up to the promise she showed as a high school phenom when she won three national high school cross-country championships and set national high school records for the 5,000-meter cross-country race and the mile and 3,200 on the track.

In the college ranks, she set the national collegiate record for 5,000 meters earlier this year and has claimed three NCAA track championships and one cross-country championship. She also has the nation’s fastest 1,500-meter time. Tuohy will double in steamy Austin. She will have about 90 minutes to recover from the 1,500-meter final before she runs the 5,000.

Tuohy will face, among others, a strong group of runners from Utah schools. Utah Valley’s Everlyn Kemboi, a senior from Kenya, has the nation’s second-fastest time, but she’s some 17 seconds behind Tuohy. Utah’s distance duo of Simone Plourde and Emily Venters have the third- and sixth-fastest times, respectively. Plourde will also race Tuohy in the 1,500, a race in which she owns the nation’s third-fastest time.

Fortunately for the Utahns, they will not have to face Tuohy in the 10,000-meter run. Utah’s Emily Venters has the fastest time in the nation at that distance — 31:48.35, which also is the sixth fastest on the college all-time list — and Kemboi has the third fastest.

University of Utah runner Emily Venters has the fastest time in the nation this season in the 10,000-meter run at 31:48.35. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Venters finished third behind Kemboi and Baylor’s Annamaria Kostarellis in the West region semifinal. BYU’s Frentheway, who was fourth in that race, is another challenger, having run a school-record 32:34.08 this season.

In the NCAA 10,000 final, Kemboi will also compete against her friend, defending NCAA champion Mercy Chelangat of Alabama. They both come from Kenya but didn’t meet until they came to the U.S. Chelangat and Kemboi finished first and 12th, respectively, in last year’s 10,000, but Kemboi has improved dramatically this season.

Besides Tuohy, the meet’s other prodigy is Arkansas’ Britton Wilson, a 400-meter hurdler who has added the 400-meter dash to her repertoire. She smashed the collegiate record in the latter by running 49.13 early this season and owns the four fastest times in NCAA history (she is the third fastest collegian ever in the hurdles). Like Tuohy, she will double in Austin. She will have less than an hour to recover between the two races in Thursday’s semifinals and a little more than a half-hour on Saturday. She is a whopping two seconds faster than anyone in the hurdles; the 400 dash is tighter.

Hot, humid conditions notwithstanding, the meet promises to produce memorable performances.

Utah collegians who have qualified for the 2023 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which will be held June 7-10 in Austin, Texas. The men will compete Wednesday and Friday, the women Thursday and Saturday.


Women

Athlete/school — Mark — National rank

800 meters

Claire Seymour (BYU) — 2:00.04 — #2.

Meghan Hunter (BYU) — 2:05.35 — #89.

1,500 meters

Simone Plourde (UU) — 4:08.70 — #3.

5,000 meters

Everlyn Kemboi (UVU) — 15:20.67 — #2.

Simone Plourde (UU) — 15:21.19 — #3.

Emily Venters (UU) — 15:26.30 — #6.

10,000 meters

Emily Venters (UU) — 31:48.35 — #1.

Everlyn Kemboi (UVU) — 32:03.50 — #3.

Aubrey Frentheway (BYU) — 32:34.08 — #13.

3,000-meter steeplechase

Lexy Halladay (BYU) — 9:46.02 — #9.

400-meter hurdles

Dinedye Denis (UU) — 57.12 — #33.

4x100 meters relay

Adaobi Tabugbo-Marianne Barber-

-Dolita Shaw-Jaslyn Gardner (BYU) — 43.84 — #26.

4x400 meters relay

Claire Seymour-Meghan Hunter-

-Marianne Barber-Brilee Pontius (BYU) — 3:32.88 — #39.

Javelin

Ashton Riner (BYU) — 182-3 — #13.

High jump

Cierra Tidwell (BYU) — 6-2 — #3.  

Men

Athlete/school — Mark — National rank

5,000 meters

Casey Clinger (BYU) — 13:36.27 — #27.

10,000 meters

Casey Clinger (BYU) — 28:01.67 — #8.

Brandon Garnica (BYU) — 28:04.62 — #11.

3,000-meter steeplechase

Kenneth Rooks (BYU) — 8:17.62 — #2.

Bronson Winter (WSU) — 8:38.92 — #15.

4x400 meters relay

Eli Hazlett-Jace Jensen-

-Landon Maxfield-Josh Taylor (BYU) — 3:03.19   #23.

Pole vault

Caleb Witsken (BYU) — 18-1 — #15.

Long jump

Cedar English (SUU) — 25-4 ½ — #43.

Triple jump

Astley Davis (SUU) — 52-10 ¾ — #18.

Discus

Dallin Shurts (BYU) — 204-1 — #8.

Javelin

Cameron Bates (BYU) — 249-7 — #7.