The NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships saw nothing short of impressive performances from Stanford’s men’s and women’s track and field teams. Harrison Williams claimed the NCAA heptathlon title, becoming the first Cardinal male to win an NCAA multi-event title in program history, while Fiona O’Keeffe, Grant Fisher and Lena Giger all finished runner-up in their respective events.
The Cardinal also secured second in the men’s distance medley relay (DMR). In all five events with Stanford representation, the Cardinal captured top three finishes.
At the conclusion of the meet, the Stanford men tied Wisconsin for fourth with 30 points, recording the team’s highest finish since 2007. The women placed 12th with 14 points, securing their sixth consecutive top-20 finish at the national championships.
“NCAA’s was another big step in the growth of our entire program,” said head coach Chris Miltenberg. “Winning an NCAA trophy on the men’s side for the first time in over 12 years is a testament to our seniors who bought into a vision years ago and kept working and believing.”
Seeded second in the heptathlon coming into this weekend, fifth-year Harrison Williams won his first NCAA title, shattering his own school record in the process. He boasted 6,042 points by the end of the competition to overcome Arkansas’ Gabe Moore (5,975), who led after day one.
The heptathlon is comprised of four events on day one and three events on day two. Williams, who sat in sixth after the first day competition on Friday, had one of his best two-day performances of his career.
Williams used his fourth place finish in the 60-meter hurdles (949) and first place performance in the pole vault (960) to leap into first place with one event remaining on Saturday.
The title was not quite secured, though. Five laps around the indoor Birmingham Complex indoor track stood between Williams and his first NCAA title.
With only a 28 point lead over Moore and 48 point lead on Michigan State’s Nick Guerrant, Williams had to finish ahead of both of them to secure the title.
“The plan at the start was just to stick behind Gabe Moore and make sure that no matter what happened, I was no more than three seconds behind him at the finish line,” Williams said. “About two laps in, I realized the pace was a bit slow so I decided to pass him and start trying to push a little harder.”
The fifth-year exceeded expectations, beating Moore by four seconds to extend his lead to 67 points and claim a well-deserved NCAA title.
At the 2017 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, Williams set the school record in the heptathlon after scoring 5,970 points for the highest sixth-place finish in NCAA history. This weekend marked the seventh time the veteran broke a Stanford multis school record and third time in the heptathlon.
“Harrison did such a great job of staying composed and in the moment at all times,” said multi-event coach Michael Eskind, who works with Williams. “To be the first Stanford male multi-event champion at an NCAA meet is just a testament to all of his hard work and the total team effort that the past five years have been for Harrison at Stanford.”
Williams earned Stanford’s first NCAA indoor title since the men’s DMR in 2014. He is also the first NCAA indoor individual champion since Elliot Health claimed the men’s 3,000 meters title in 2011.
“We knew there were some really talented athletes in the field,” Eskind said. “We knew it would take seven solid events to be in the mix at the end, and that’s absolutely what we got.”
At the outdoor national championships last spring, Williams was again on record setting pace in the first day of competition, but a fall in the hurdles event would cut his chances short. He was unable to complete the competition.
“Last year’s fall in the hurdles was really a gut punch, but it was that failure that made me realize how much I wanted a national title, and we made sure we did everything we could to put me in position to win one this time,” Williams said.
The upcoming outdoor season will be his last season in a Cardinal uniform as his collegiate eligibility comes to an end.
“[The team] came in not even ranked in the top 10 but ended up with a fourth place team finish,” Williams said. “I’m really looking forward to finishing even higher at outdoor NCAAs.”
The NCAA title in the shot put came down to the wire on Friday afternoon. Fifth-year Lena Giger, the bronze medalist in the outdoor shot put event last spring, sat in second place behind Arizona State’s Samantha Noenning after five of six rounds.
In her final throw of her collegiate career, emotions were palpable as the veteran entered the ring for a final time in a Stanford uniform.
Giger said, “The last thing I heard before entering the ring was my coach yelling ‘Let’s go! Close it out!’ I knew he had 100 percent confidence that I could execute the throw, and I just went for it!”
Giger unleashed a season-best 17.89 meter throw to leap into first place by nearly a foot. Noenning responded with the best throw of her life, a 17.91 meter toss that would return her to the lead and send Giger into second.
“Of course it’d be much nicer to say that I was able to win off my last throw, but to be able to compete in such a high pressure situation, I’m very proud of my efforts,” Giger said. “I think actually being able to battle back and take the lead on my last throw reminds me that I put everything I had into it.”
Prior to Friday’s competition, the duo had faced each other three times this season. Giger got her first taste of the Arizona State sophomore on February first at the Mountain T’s Invitational, where Noenning launched the shot 17.51 meters for the meet title. Giger followed in second (17.30), beginning a season-long dual.
The duo returned to the pit the following week at the Don Kirby Invitational in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This time, however, Giger and Noenning walked away in a stalemate for first place among collegians after they both threw a distance of 17.05 meters on their final attempts.
The two specialists clashed for the third time at the MPSF Championships on February 23 in Seattle, Washington. Noenning snagged the conference title after throwing for 17.40 meters. Giger came up short, throwing 17.22 meters for second place.
In all three meetings between the two heavyweights, Giger and Noenning each finished either first or second. Friday’s showdown at the NCAA Championships followed in similar fashion with Giger and Noenning atop the field at the end of competition.
Giger’s runner-up finish marked her best NCAA appearance, improving her third place performance at the outdoor national championships last year. Her throw on Friday bested her own indoor school record as the fifth-year capped off her final season of collegiate eligibility.
Giger said, “I’m quite happy that that will be the way I ended my time in a Stanford uniform.”
Women’s 5,000 meters
Junior Fiona O’Keeffe had herself a Friday night. She claimed the bronze in the 3,000 meters against a competitive field. Now the fastest runner in Stanford history in the event at the NCAA Indoor Championships, O’Keeffe (15:37.61) recorded the fastest time on a 200-meter track in program history.
Arianna Lambie previously held both records after her NCAA runner-up performance (15:37.97) in 2007.
O’Keeffe was seeded 13th in Friday’s race, but exceeded expectations. With 1,000 meters left to go in the race, she sat in ninth. Her consistency and experience were on display throughout the race. The now five-time All-American closed in 34.58 over the final 200 meters to reach the tape third, passing two runners in the process.
Although race-winner Alicia Monson (15:31.26) from Wisconsin and runner-up Weini Kelati (15:32.95) from New Mexico had both broken away from O’Keeffe and the rest of the field earlier in the race, the Stanford junior beat several previous NCAA individual champions in one of the most competitive fields of the night.
Fifth-year Abbie McNulty (16:29.56) earned her first All-American after finishing 15th in the same race.
In the team’s 10th consecutive showing at NCAAs, the DMR team — composed of seniors Grant Fisher and Alex Ostberg, graduate student Isaiah Brandt-Sims and junior Isaac Cortes — entered Friday’s competition seeded 12th out of 12 teams. The low seeding did not deter the Cardinal, however, as the men finished runner-up to Notre Dame with an exciting finish.
Ostberg led off the relay with a 2:55.95 split for the 1200 before handing off to Brandt-Sims, who has multiple school records to his name. The veteran sprinter clocked 48.93 for the 400 meters before passing off to Cortes, who recorded 1:52.59 in the 800 meters.
Fisher grabbed the baton with nine runners ahead of him and nine seconds behind the leader, Iowa. Six laps later, the senior moved into second ahead of Indiana before taking the lead from Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse.
With the might of the Fighting Irish on Fisher’s rear as the leaders headed into the final lap, the crowd erupted in Birmingham. Fisher maintained the advantage over Nuguse through the final curve, but it was a last second surge from Nuguse in the final strides on the home stretch that returned the lead to the lucky Irish.
Notre Dame claimed their fourth NCAA indoor title and first since winning the DMR in 2012. Fisher settled for second, just 0.15 seconds behind Nuguse as Stanford finished with a runner-up team time of 9:31.70. Fisher clocked the fastest 1600 meter split (3:54.24) of the night, crossing the tape in well under four minutes.
Men’s 3,000 meters
Saturday afternoon’s 3,000 meter race hosted a highly anticipated rematch between Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald and Fisher, and the race proved nothing short of exciting from start to finish.
Last November, McDonald outkicked Fisher in a duel to the finish line, claiming the 2018 NCAA cross country title. Seeking revenge, Fisher took down the Australian in the 3,000 meters at the Millrose Games earlier this season, setting an American collegiate record in the process.
The two distance elites returned to the track on Saturday for their second race of the weekend. On Friday, McDonald won the 5,000 meters, while Fisher anchored the DMR team to second.
At indoor NCAAs last year, Fisher finished fourth in the 3,000 meters, but left with some regrets he hoped to reconcile with on Saturday.
“Last year I came away from this meet with some regrets,” Fisher said in an interview with ESPN before the race. “I was a little tentative last year, and I think that came to haunt me in the final 200 meters.”
After a seamless start that saw no one fall, McDonald settled into third for the first half of the 15-lap race around the 200-meter oval. Fisher followed his usual patient racing strategy, running a few strides behind the leaders.
Campbell’s Amon Kemboi, who was third at the Millrose Games behind Fisher and McDonald, entered the race as another top contender but stumbled to the ground four minutes into the race, effectively taking him out of the mix. Kemboi would finish 13th ahead of Texas’ Alex Rogers, who tripped as a result of Kemboi’s fall.
The race heated up with three laps to go as McDonald made his first move, surging to the lead ahead of UCLA’s Robert Brandt. Fisher and Colorado’s Joe Klecker followed in pursuit.
Klecker and McDonald led 1-2 going into the final two laps with Fisher tucked in behind them. By the start of the bell lap, the trio had separated from the rest of the field. Klecker would only hold on for a few more strides before McDonald entered a new gear down the back stretch. Fisher responded and the speed demons flew around the final curve and turned towards home.
Fisher said, “I wanted to conserve energy over the first half of the race and then work my way up so that I was in a good position with a few laps to go in the race.”
Fisher chased the Wisconsin senior, but it was McDonald who ultimately crossed first in 7:52.85 for the NCAA title. Fisher (7:53.15) finished second with Klecker (7:54.34) in third.
“I thought I did a good job of getting to where I wanted to be and tried my best to wind things up over the final lap but Morgan was accelerating hard,” Fisher said.
“Every time we race it’s a dog fight,” said McDonald in a post-race interview. “It’s a tactical match every time.”
The Australian won the 5,000 and 3,000 meters, accumulating 20 points for Wisconsin. Ostberg (7:55.62) finished fifth, combining with Fisher to bring the men’s team total to 30 points.
A 55-point performance from the Florida Gators crowned them the men’s team champions, while Arkansas took the women’s title with 62 points.
“I’m extremely proud of how tough we competed across the board,” Miltenberg said. “This is a big momentum builder!”
With the doors closed to the indoor track and field scene, track competition heads outdoors for the spring season.
“I’m hoping to keep up the momentum that we’ve built during this season and translate it into outdoor,” Fisher said.
The Cardinal return to the oval Friday, March 15, for the Hornet Invitational in Sacramento.
Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.