Wisconsin's talented runners face a tough task this weekend at NCAA indoor nationals

Wisconsin Senior Morgan McDonald could win the triple title this weekend at the indoor NCAA nationals, something only two NCAA runners have ever accomplished before.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

To win a single event at the NCAA national championships is a tough task for any athlete up against most of the world’s top college-age competition.

To achieve its goals this weekend, Wisconsin might call on a small handful of athletes to win as many as four.

The Badgers enter Friday and Saturday’s indoor national championship with the highest team projected team score from FloTrack.com. But to get there, they’ll have to rely on exceptional performances from redshirt senior Morgan McDonald and junior Oliver Hoare.

FloTrack projects Wisconsin for 48 points, counting on 18 from McDonald, 16 from Hoare, four from pentathlete Trent Nytes and an additional 10 from the distance medley relay team. 

“On the men's side we certainly have generated a lot of conversation in the last week or two. Our distance runners versus some of the traditional powerhouse schools,” head coach Mick Byrne said. “We've got three or four kids who are going to be asked to do a lot of work this weekend.”

McDonald, the reigning NCAA champion in cross country, is entered in Friday’s 5000 meters and Saturday’s 3000 meters, and he might be called upon to run a leg of Friday’s distance medley relay as well.

McDonald will be the heavy favorite in the 5000 meters, matched up against many of the same athletes he beat in Novembers cross country championships.

The 3000 meters could be a tougher ask, with the possibility of multiple races in his legs. The competition won’t be easy either, as McDonald will face off against Stanford senior Grant Fisher. Wisconsin’s senior from Australia narrowly edged Fisher in cross country, but the Cardinal runner paid him back in January’s Millrose Games with a narrow win over 3000 meters.

“Both guys, they're incredible athletes and they're going to have a great future, maybe they'll be training partners down the road.” Byrne said. “That was a different Grant Fisher that showed up at Millrose Games. He was ready for that race, there's no doubt about it and he'll be ready this coming weekend.”

McDonald is the most credentialed distance runner in the NCAA, with a sterling 13 minute and 15 second 5000 meter personal best from 2017, a World Championships appearance and several wins over elite professional runners. 

But even with those credentials, McDonald might face a workload that only two runners in NCAA history have pulled off. 

In 2009, Oregon senior Galen Rupp pulled off the triple title to give the Ducks the team crown. In 2016, Oregon junior Edward Cheserek did the same with only 35 minutes rest between the 5000 meters and the distance medley — the same schedule McDonald would have if he attempts the triple.

McDonald might be the most talented runner in the country, but he’s captured just one national title in his career. When Cheserek attempted the same feat, he was gunning for titles 11, 12 and 13, and had experience doubling and tripling at nationals.

Oliver Hoare is another question mark in Wisconsin’s plans.

The junior won a national title of his own last June in the 1500 meters and holds the fastest mile time in the NCAA this year, but, like McDonald, is inexperienced in running multiple races in in a championship setting. Only two hours separate the mile and 3000 meter finals on Saturday, and it would be tough for the Badgers to ask Hoare to double back so quickly.

Junior Olin Hacker is the only other distance runner listed on Wisconsin’s nationals roster, meaning at least one of Hoare and McDonald will toe the line in the four-man distance medley. With both of them in the lineup, the Badgers clocked the third-fastest time in NCAA history, and they’d be favorites to capture the title in Birmingham.

“Morgan got very excited about the opportunity on the DMR. His two minute and 53 second leg in Notre Dame showed that, he embraced that opportunity,” Byrne said. “We'll make a decision after some prelims on Friday what our exact lineup is going to be.”

Assisting Hoare and McDonald’s attempt at the team title are a pair of heptathletes, senior Trent Nytes and junior Zach Lorbek. Nytes was the Big Ten champion in 2018 and is a two-time All-American, while Lorbek just barely snuck into the field of 16 after another athlete withdrew. 

“[Lorbek’s] got an opportunity to show everyone that he belongs in that field,” Byrne said. “In order for us to in that picture on day two for a trophy, we're going to need those guys to score some points.”

Wisconsin’s star distance runners have the talent to carry the team to 40-plus points and a national title on their best day. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but for now the Badgers are enjoying just being in the championship picture.

“We're in that national conversation, it's been a while,” Byrne said. They know about this, they got excited about it once the distance guys started talking national championships, started talking about trophies going back over the last couple of weeks. They've embraced that.”

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