By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2017 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

EUGENE, Ore., USA (08-Jun) — It’s been just about eleven months since Craig Engels had a meet for the ages at the U.S. Olympic Trials here at Hayward Field, finishing fourth in the 800m and fifth in the 1500m as a collegiate junior. Now a year older, a year wiser, and a year hungrier, the 23-year-old Ole Miss standout is keen to earn his first NCAA individual title in the 1500m on Friday.

PHOTO: Craig Engels winning his preliminary 1500m heat at the 2017 NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

Engels gets giddy at the thought of recreating some Hayward magic, but doesn’t want to get carried away. “Every time I warm up here, every time I go for a shakeout or stay at the same hotel, it’s just eerily reminiscent of the Trials cause everything is the exact same,” he told Race Results Weekly after a 3:40.07 win in the preliminary round. “It’s kind of cool, but I don’t want to get in the same exact routine and go mental if I don’t go to the same point in my shakeout or something. I don’t want to get [complacent].”

What is the same as last year are Engels’s signature features: his mustache is on-point, all business and finely groomed, while his long, curly mullet dangles down behind his head, touching the top of his Ole Miss kit. He hopes the only thing competitors will be seeing is the mullet flying in the wind.

It’s hard for Engels to say three straight sentences without letting out a giggle: he’s a fun-loving southerner (originally from North Carolina) that’s enjoying the ride through his senior season. After the Trials breakthrough last year, Engels helped Ole Miss finish fourth as a team in cross country, then led off the school’s distance medley relay win at the NCAA Indoor Championships, despite breaking his left clavicle snowboarding. Now, with the 1500m final nearly 24 hours away, he’s poised for more. He’s not overly nervous or anxious, though, thanks to the confidence gained from his Rebel teammates.

“Goodness, it’s insane. We honestly have one of the best training groups in the country, and that’s including the Oregon Project and everything,” he said, gushing. “One of our guys just ran 3:54 up in Boston [Robert Domanic at the Adrian Martinez Classic mile], Ryan Manahan has run 1:46 this season, Sean Tobin is coming to Portland this weekend to hopefully run 3:37. It’s incredible, and to top it all off we have one of the best coaches [Ryan Vanhoy]. He’s close enough to our age that he understands running is not our entire lives. We get to enjoy ourselves, have fun and enjoy each other. I think with coach’s mentality being so similar to ours, that’s how we thrive. We aren’t stuck on one thing in running and everything.”

Engels and his teammates are known to let off steam and get away from the stresses of running, making the most of living in a top college town like Oxford, Miss.

“A couple weekends ago we went camping and slept in the bed of our trucks. It’s Mississippi so everyone has trucks out there. We go on canoeing trips every once in a while. [We’ll] probably play paintball sometime this summer. Literally anything, Mississippi is boundary-less. I don’t know if that’s even a word, but it’s amazing,” he said.

Engels’s biggest challenge may come from NCAA Indoor mile champion Josh Kerr of New Mexico. Kerr owns the fastest time of the year thus far, from when he and Engels dueled at the Bryan Clay Invite (3:35.99 to 3:37.75, finishing first and second). They started the season together battling, and will do so again to close out the season. Both won their preliminary heats with ease, each closing in 55-second quarters that looked effortless.

“I think it’s pretty cool that both of our first meets of the season were against each other and the last ones of the season are going to be together. It’s setting up for a pretty cool battle between me and him. Obviously there’s other guys in there as well that are totally capable of winning. We’ll see on Friday. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one,” he said. When asked about the rest of the field, Engels let his sense of humor shine bright. “Kerr looked good. [Justine] Kiprotich brought his jersey, so that’s good for him [laughs]. Kerr looked really good and all the guys looked pretty good finishing in the pack.”  Of course, Engels was referencing the regional meet where Kiprotich wasn’t allowed to compete in his first-round race because he forgot his Michigan State jersey.

The ability to sprinkle in humor on the biggest and most stressful stage of the season is admirable. It’s indicative of Engels’s calm demeanor and confidence.

“I came in here last year thinking I was going to win as well, but I don’t know what happened last year. This year, training’s there, confidence is there, everything is there, and it’s a perfect set up to win nationals. Obviously, it’s going to be a tough one.”

Kerr, aiming for the indoor/outdoor double, knows Engels will be there to compete. Unprompted, he praised Engels’s track record.

“Engels can go quicker than he ran [in the prelim],” Kerr began. “He’s a class act and I think he can run faster than 3:37 which he has this year. I see myself as number-two to be honest. After his efforts at the Olympic Trials, you know, he’s really good. I have to respect that and am coming in for myself as the underdog because I know how good he is. I’m not levels above anyone; I’m on the same level or below so I’m just working my ass off to be number one again.”

Engels hinted at wanting the pace to be at or under the IAAF World Championships standard of 3:36.00. If it does go out slow, then a 49 or 50-second final lap is within his wheelhouse.

When asked what it’d be like to bring a national title home to Oxford and celebrate with his close teammates and coaches, Engels took a step back. He fiddled with his spikes and looked straight into the distance, outside the mixed zone and back towards the famed track.

“I’ve thought about it so much, what I would say. There’s nothing that can compare to it. I want that title more than anyone else can feel. We’ll see on Friday. [Pause] We’ll see on Friday.”

PHOTO: Craig Engels winning his preliminary 1500m heat at the 2017 NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)