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5 must-see races (and why) at the 2018 U Sports Championships

These races promise to be the most hotly-contested on the national varsity stage

U Sports Track and Field Championships

We’re hours away from the 2018 U Sports track and field championship, hosted by the Windsor Lancers at the Dennis Fairall Fieldhouse. On March 8-10, the country’s best varsity runners will be putting on a show while battling for both individual accolades and points for their team. Here, we list five races within these championships that you don’t want to miss.

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Women’s 600m – Saturday @ 1:15 p.m. EST

The 600m at U Sports is perhaps the most gruelling race of all. Why? Heats and finals. Runners are slated to compete on Thursday for their spot on the start line on Saturday. A day separates both races, but Friday rarely means rest for the top middle-distance runners in the country. Many of these athletes double as 300m, 1,000m or even 4x800m specialists.

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What makes this particular race interesting is a clash between equally-matched conference champions. While Windsor’s Kelsey Balkwill enters the race a favourite after her commanding tape-to-tape win at the OUA (Ontario) Championship, she has yet to toe the line next to Canada West champion, Julianne Labach. The Saskatchewan Husky has run the 600m on four occasions this year, and she has yet to lose. Both competitors will have more to worry about than each other, as the reigning U Sports champ, Maité Bouchard of Sherbrooke, seems to be in great form after comfortably snagging gold at the RSEQ (Quebec) Championship.

Assuming these three women breeze through Thursday’s heats, Saturday’s matchup could get fierce. It is worth mentioning that Lucia Stafford, who currently holds the second-fastest 600m time in the country, is sitting out.

Prediction:
1. Kelsey Balkwill (Windsor)
2. Maité Bouchard (Sherbrooke)
3. Julianne Labach (Saskatchewan)

Men’s 1,500m – Saturday @ 3 p.m. EST

The Canadian varsity circuit, to fans’ chagrin, lost middle-distance studs Antoine Thibeault, Cole Peterson, and Corey Bellemore to graduation last year, and the new crop of front runners are licking their chops while waving them bittersweet goodbyes. Jack Sheffar enters the race with the fastest seed time, but that means little in a championship race. With many runners seeded between 3:46 and 3:49, the seeds call for a tactical affair.

Sheffar will be challenged from all angles. The Guelph Gryphons have three men on the start list who will be looking for their first individual 1,500m medal. Nicolas Morin of Laval will be running in his fourth U Sports championship, and is coming off a double-gold performance at the RSEQ championship which earned him the Performer of the Meet award. Then, there is Royden Radowitz, the Canada West 1,500m and 3,000m champion. It would be foolish to overlook him again.

Expect a race of many horses and fast closing laps.

Prediction:
1. Nicolas Morin (Laval)
2. Jack Sheffar (Western)
3. Royden Radowitz (Alberta)

Women’s 1,500m – Saturday @ 2:45 p.m. EST

U Sports Track and Field Championships
Women’s 4x800m relay final. Photo: U Sports.

This field might be the deepest women’s 1,500m field in U Sports (and CIS) history. Its competitiveness, however, is still up for debate. We risk seeing a class of talented women get separated into two groups early on. Lucia Stafford of Toronto and Regan Yee of Trinity Western University might burn the rest of the field and separate early and simply race themselves. A few dark horses, however, might complicate things for the two favourites.

It sounds ridiculous to call Stafford’s teammate, Sasha Gollish a dark horse, or even an underdog, but the OUA 3,000m gold medallist and U Sports 2017 XC champion has run only one 1,500m this year, not even at her conference final. She has not yet proved herself over the metric mile in 2018, and so calling her for the win sounds foolish. Leaving her off the podium in our predictions? Equally foolish.

While Gollish poses a threat based on a history of success at championship races, Laval’s Jessy Lacourse’s triple-individual gold performance at the RSEQ championship might have been enough to instill fear in her competitors’ psyche. While the 1,500m happens at the end of the meet, durability will reign supreme, and Lacourse is poised to wreak havoc.

Prediction:
1. Lucia Stafford (Toronto)
2. Regan Yee (Trinity Western)
3. Sasha Gollish (Toronto)

Men’s 3,000m – Friday @ 6:50 p.m. EST

Here is the thing about 3,000m seed times: they are highly influenced by circumstance. Because the race is so long, pacers, good fields and fast tracks matter more than in other races. So, do not be fooled by Sheffar’s seed time of 8:03, or Angus Rawling’s 8:08 – this is going to be a race. The U Sports XC runner up, Connor Black, peaks when it matters, and after last year’s snafu, one has to think he is hungry for gold. Jean-Simon Desgagnés is 1-0 against Rawling this year, and the Laval rookie’s international experience will make him race ready. Radowitz is coming off a Canada West championship in which he bested a group of 8:12-8:17 runners. He should be in the mix.

We are not telling you to expect Sheffar and Rawling to get upset (as a matter of fact, we predict them to finish 1-2), but rather, we tell you that the 3,000m is worth watching (without any commercial breaks). There are many plot lines to follow in this race. Even the pace from the gun is totally unpredictable. Will the two top dogs try and break the train of Gryphons and Canada West athletes early on, or will they settle for a sit-and-kick strategy? One thing is for sure: if the first kilometre is not fast, the last one sure will be.

Prediction:
1. Jack Sheffar (Western)
2. Angus Rawling (St. FX)
3. Jean-Simon Desgagnés (Laval)

Women’s 4x800m relay – Friday @ 8:15 p.m. EST

Ah, the relays: a predictor’s nightmare. A lot of strategy comes into play. Does a team stack their relay team with their four fastest runners? Or do they spare their superstars to save them for other events? In this case, it is obvious that if Toronto invests its firepower in the 4x800m, they will be untouchable. Gollish, Stafford, Jazz Shukla and Madeleine Kelly form a can’t-miss quartet. It is highly unlikely that they all race but, even if they don’t, they have another 3-4 women who can dip under 2:50 in the 1,000m, and that is scary. They will be tough to beat.

Laval’s group of Lacourse, Aurélie Dubé-Lavoie, Catherine Gagné and Emma Galbraith could give a Varsity Blue B squad a run for their money. If Gollish and Stafford sit out, this race will be riveting from start to finish.

Elsewhere, the Gryphons are never to be counted out. But, without Sophie Watts and Kate Ayers, they might be lacking a bit of firepower.

Prediction:
1. Toronto
2. Laval
3. Guelph