Best of Boston: NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships

By Kyle Merber

March 13, 2024

Look no further than the medal table at any World Championships to understand why the NCAA is the ultimate pipeline into the pro ranks as 36% of all medalists in Glasgow used eligibility. It’s our minor league system, except if the Long Island Ducks could occasionally beat the Yankees. To qualify indoors, athletes really only have to be good at one thing: time trials. To win indoors athletes need to be good at another: winning.

Here are my big 7 winners of the NCAA Indoor Championships:

The Queen of the Boards but not Hydration

The greatest cross country champion of all time might be open for debate, but if you’re talking about the indoor 5000m, there’s only one answer and that’s Parker Valby. She enjoyed some pacing assistance when setting the NCAA record of 14:56.11 at BU in December. That was no longer necessary this past weekend. Closing her last 1600m in 4:37, Valby put on a clinic, going as far as lapping women about to be named to the same All-American team. Her winning time of 14:52.79 narrowly missed the Olympic standard, which seems like the next box left to tick.

It was the same story in the 3000m, except with a bit more patience, as Valby allowed others to stay close for a while before running away to finish in 8:41.50. Great performances, but they pale in comparison to her off-track antics. Parker continues to have fun handling the onslaught of questions. Praising the hydrating power of kombucha and revealing that she doesn’t really drink water (while holding a water bottle), Valby said the greatest 5000m performance in collegiate history was a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the effort scale for her. 

4000m of Anarchy

We love the relays for their chaos. And aside from the high school 4 x 200m, which is much too dangerous to be contested by professionals, the distance medley is most full of surprises. The women’s race was uprooted by a fall that took out 75% of the field, and as much as that sucks for basically everyone, it definitely made things interesting. But in classic 1600m form, the leaders let the whole race back in it anyway. Kudos to BYU anchor Riley Chamberlain for the timely kick closing in 4:27.

As far as most made-up events in track, the ranking probably goes something like: 5) One Hour Run 4) DMR 3) Steeplechase 2) Mixed 4x400 1) Shuttle Hurdle Relay.

A Two-Lap Tango to Remember

This was the deepest 800m field in collegiate history, so anyone could have won this and be considered a big winner of the week. Michaela Rose put the hurt on for 750 meters and dared anyone to come with her, but Juliette Whittaker is the truth – she made the late pass to take it in 1:59.53.

Not the Same Old Young

As the founding patriarch of the most dominant high school program in history, there was nothing that Nico Young could not win. But with historic performances come heaps of expectations, and NAU is not the type of program where one would be able to hide from the limelight. Almost immediately, it seemed like the transition to the big boy races would be seamless as his talent shined through to finish 4th in XC as a freshman. Since then however, despite collecting nine All-American certificates, the NCAA title which had seemed inevitable had not yet come. The unfair narrative pushed by Instagram comment sections was that Nico could not win. Well, setting the collegiate record of 12:57.14 earlier this season only seemed to up the ante. 

Mind you, nothing Nico or Coach Mike Smith ever said would hint they’d felt any sort of pressure. And after closing his final 1600m in 3:59 to win the 5000m in 13:25.29 with a comfortable two second victory, there were no tears of happiness or indication that this was some huge monkey off his back. Then again the next day, when the big move was made to close his last 600m of the 3000m in 1:24.1 to break the proverbial tape in 7:41.01, it was all business. Whether it’s after the highest high or the lowest low, Smith and his disciples remain like water. If there was an expectation for tears of joy and a public display of relief now that Nico Young was an NCAA champ, we never saw it. Ultimately, “we” projected this pressure onto him. But now Nico Young will let us rest. 

Texas Technically Speaking, He’s Good

Do you know what’s better than winning one NCAA title? Two! Well, three, if you count Texas Tech’s team title. Terrence Jones repeated his 60m title running 6.54, but it was adding the 200m to his repertoire that doubled his value. His winning time of 20.23 was not bad for a guy whose first official indoor full lap was this year, and mastering the turns was something we watched in real-time as I imagine there aren’t too many banked tracks in his native Bahamas.

Luke At Me Now!

If I could go back in time a couple of years to write a book about the Washington milers, then I’d welcome the accusations of copying Chris Lear’s ideas for how good it’d have been. As a group, they have certainly made a collective name for themselves, but now scouts are going to start appreciating Luke Houser for the individual that he is. Sometimes it takes two NCAA titles for the world to wake up!

The differentiator is that he has now proven that he can run fast (3:51) and win when it’s slow. On paper, Houser is a better cross country runner than he is 800m guy, but in winning his NCAA titles going 4:03 and 4:01, he has a proven ability to control a race from the front. (Mac Fleet won’t stop talking about how clean of a race he ran.) Though the thing that impressed me most was that less than an hour later he was on the line for the 3000m and at the front of the race. He stayed with the pack for 2200m before falling off. Can’t teach that sort of grit! #GetThatValueUp

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.