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NCAA 5,000-meter final could be NAU-ASU duel

NCAA 5,000-meter final could be NAU-ASU duel

3 comments by Jeff Metcalfe - Jun. 4, 2010 04:49 PM
The Arizona Republic

The final individual event at the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships could become a duel between Northern Arizona's David McNeill and Arizona State's Brandon Bethke.

Certainly there will be other legitimate contenders Saturday, June 12 in Eugene, Ore. Still, McNeill and Bethke, 23-year-olds seniors, are capable of carrying their season-long 1-2 national ranking to the finish line at legendary Hayward Field, where Oregon's Steve Prefontaine won the third of his four NCAA 3-mile titles in 1972.

McNeill almost won last year, finishing fewer than two seconds behind Oregon's Galen Rupp, now a professional runner. Bethke was fourth in much different conditions in Fayetteville, Ark., than when he ran a 2009 collegiate best and school record 13:27.79 at the Mt. Sac Relays.

Bethke nearly duplicated his time (13:27.83) in his return to Mt. Sac on April 15. McNeill was even faster (13:25.63) early in the outdoor season coming off an impressive double - first 5,000; second 3,000 - at the NCAA Indoor Championships.

McNeill twisted an ankle stepping in a pothole during an evening run, setting his training back several weeks. But he and Bethke were first and fourth May 29 in West region qualifying for nationals, where they will try to become the first from ASU or NAU to win a 5,000 outdoor title that four from the University of Arizona have captured.

The Australian McNeill and Bethke, whose college career began at Wisconsin, are at an unlikely career intersection.

Following Lomong

Former NAU track coach John Hayes, now an assistant at Texas, "somehow found out about me from a friend of a friend," said McNeill, who was at La Trobe University in Melbourne for 1 ½ years before coming to Flagstaff in 2007.

Lopez Lomong, now best known as the U.S. flag bearer at the 2008 Olympics, still was at NAU that fall. He and McNeill were third and 10th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships for the fourth-place Lumberjacks.

"He (Lomong) was a big influence in me coming over here," McNeill said. "I'd seen what Lopez had done. It was in the best interest of my running to be pushing myself and a good opportunity to be around people like Lopez."

McNeill now is an eight-time All-America and NAU's first track national champion since Lomong, a Sudanese native turned American, won the 3,000 indoor and 1,500 outdoor in 2007.

At first intending only to run the 3,000 at NCAA Indoor Championships, McNeill turned a "sudden moment of belief" in February into a 5,000 qualifying time and then a national title in March.

He is the school indoor 3,000 record holder, eclipsing Lomong, and lowered his outdoor 5,000 school record in qualifying to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games in India in October.

Overcoming injury

Bethke's career almost derailed near the end of his freshman year at El Toro (Calif.) High School when he was kicked in the back of his left leg during a soccer tryout.

"They had to screw it back in place," said Bethke, who later suffered from stress fractures higher up in the same leg that perhaps stemmed from not doing the correct physical therapy after his broken leg.

Still Wisconsin, with a history of distance running success, was interested, and Bethke couldn't pass on the chance to train with the likes of Chris Solinsky, NCAA 5,000 champion in 2006 and '07, and Simon Bairu. But the competition also forced Bethke into steeplechase, which he won at the 2007 Big Ten Championships but is not his best event.

When Jerry Schumacher left Wisconsin to join Alberto Salazar as an Oregon Track Club Elite coach, Bethke decided to finish his career at ASU because of distance coach Louie Quintana and his success with Kyle Alcorn (two-time NCAA champion) and Aaron Aguayo.

"There was a sense of relief when I told him I didn't see him in the steeplechase and that you'd be better at flat (running)," said Quintana, who believes that Bethke and McNeill could push 13:25 if conditions are right at nationals. The NCAA Outdoor record is Sydney Maree's 13:20.63 in 1979, but the only other winner anywhere near that fast was Ryan Hall (13:22.32) in 2005.

Thinking 2012

Bethke, whose father and uncle played baseball when it was a varsity sport at Northern Arizona, welcomes the competition from his dad's alma mater.

"I love David," he said. "I've had a chance to do a few (training) runs with him. He's obviously a very talented guy. He's training at altitude, I'm training down here yet we're pretty comparable. I'm just excited for it (nationals)."

McNeill said of the spiritually driven Bethke: "He's a sincere and genuine guy, and one of those guys you look up to and get motivated by. That's what makes this sport great. It doesn't matter where you come from. Running is a universal sport and universal language."

No matter how the 5,000 unfolds in Eugene, it likely won't be their last meeting. Both plan to remain in Arizona to train toward the 2012 London Olympics, a path that for McNeill includes one more collegiate cross country season. Bethke's future training likely will include some altitude work in Flagstaff.

NAU track coach Eric Heins envisions a race at nationals similar to last year when McNeill finished less than two seconds behind champion Galen Rupp of Oregon.

"The only person I have control over is me," Bethke said. "You size each other up going in, and you know when a guy's going to have good finishing speed. Most of the time you kind of set all that aside and when you decide you've got to go just compete."

Running showdown

Brandon Bethke and David McNeill take their rivalry to the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. A look at their resumes:

Brandon Bethke

Arizona State seniorAge: 23.

2009 NCAA Outdoor 5,000-meter: Fourth.

2009 NCAA Cross Country: Seventh.

2010 NCAA Indoor 3,000: Fourth.

2010 NCAA Outdoor 5,000: Ranked No. 2 (13:27.83).

David McNeill

Northern Arizona senior

Age: 23.

2009 NCAA Outdoor 5,000: Second.

2009 NCAA Cross Country: Second.

2010 NCAA Indoor 5,000: First.

2010 NCAA Indoor 3,000: Second.

2010 NCAA Outdoor 5,000: Ranked No. 1 (13:25.63).