Late Saturday night, runners Tarn Leach and Sean Moore seemed anxious and hopeful as they waited to hear the results of the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships in Sacramento, Calif. Leach and Moore’s season ended a few weeks ago, but teammates Nate Brannen and Nick Willis advanced to the national meet. They had good reason to anticipate favorable results, as Brannen and Willis each took first in the preliminary rounds of their events earlier this week – the 800-meter and 1,500-meter runs, respectively. Leach and Moore expected at least one phone call from a national champion.

But when the phone rang back in Ann Arbor and Moore answered, he bowed his head to some disheartening information.

“It’s not good,” said Moore, answering Leach’s curious face.

A weekend that began with promise had ended in disappointment.

The news that caused Moore’s face to fall was that neither teammate would return a champion. In fact, one didn’t even have a fighting chance.

Willis was the first to race Saturday, participating in the 1,500 meter run.

“Nick got out in third or fourth position right outside where he was supposed to be,” Michigan coach Ron Warhurst said. “And then somebody stepped on him from behind. He tripped and his shoe was half off so he couldn’t run. He had to stop, put his shoe back on and then finish up – he was last.”

The freshman was on a roll heading into this final test of speed. He took first in the NCAA preliminaries on Wednesday, beating the pack by 20 meters. And just two weeks ago at the NCAA Mideast Regionals, Willis won in similar fashion.

“It was really unfortunate because Willis was so strong this year,” teammate Alex L’Heureux said. “I don’t think he’s beatable in the nation – and then to have such bad luck.”

Brannen was fortunate enough not to get tripped up, but he crossed the finish line fifth in the 800-meter run.

“I got out pretty fast, but there were two groups and I was in the (second group),” Brannen said. “The other group pulled away in front and by the time I noticed, they had 10 meters on me. In the backstretch I tried to make that up, but I just had nothing left.”

Warhurst said that Brannen didn’t move when he should have, and this caused the gap between him and the winning pack to become too great to catch.

“He had a lot of pressure going into the race,” L’Heureux said. “Coming out as the indoor 800-meter champion and being top dog, he was expected to win the outdoor. I don’t know how he dealt with (the pressure), but coming in fifth in nationals – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Having just watched Willis race, Brannen may have been thrown by his teammate’s falter.

“That can play some mind tricks on you,” L’Heureux said. “(Nate and Nick) are so connected to each other. When one does well, the other one seems to do well.”

Although Brannen didn’t claim first, his time of 1:47.45 was fast enough to earn him All-American status.

Brannen and Willis leave for Europe next week, and will attempt to achieve Olympic qualifying times for their respective countries, Canada and New Zealand. Brannen will run the 800-meter and Willis the 1,500-meter run. The runners could attain these times in the U.S., but the competition is much steeper in Europe. Participating in races with other highly competitive runners will make it easier for Brannen and Willis to reach the Olympic qualifying times, and it will provide them with a different track experience than they are normally accustomed to.

Having just three combined years of college running experience, the pair still has lots of time to become NCAA champions. Olympic gold medals may even be on the distant horizon.

“To have them compete and be this good in the nation at this point in time – it’s unbelievable,” L’Heureux said.

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