Coming Up Big in His Final Race for PU Men’s Track, Ellis Takes 3rd in 1,500 at NCAAs, Tigers Finish 7th Overall
SUDDEN SAM: Princeton University men’s track star Sam Ellis working on his form last week at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Senior Ellis ended his Princeton career on a high note, taking third in the 1,500 meters. In the team standings, the Tigers placed seventh, the best finish at the meet in program history and the highest for an Ivy League team since Yale took third in 1950. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Justin Feil
Sam Ellis was looking to make up for lost opportunities this year.
After the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and taking a gap year because of the uncertainties of the 2021 spring season, the Princeton University senior did so last week in his first appearance at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Ellis came on strong in the home stretch to finish third in the men’s 1,500 meters in 3:45.82 Friday at the University of Oregon.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Ellis, who earned All-America honors. “I think if you had told me I was going to get third the day before or any day in the last year leading up to this meet, I would have been pretty thrilled and satisfied with that. But I think just the nature of track and field, and how our sport works, as soon as you cross the finish line, you’re thinking about all the little things and the minutiae of the race and how you could have been just a little bit better.”
Ellis scored big points for the Tigers as the highest finisher on the track, with senior Ed Trippas (fifth in steeplechase) and freshman Sam Rodman (seventh in 800 meters) also scoring. In the field events, junior Sondre Guttormsen won the men’s pole vault, just as he had won the indoor NCAA title this year. Guttormsen soared over 5.75 meters to win. His brother, junior Simen Guttormsen, took fourth in the pole vault when he tied his personal record of 5.65 meters. The 27 points scored landed Princeton in seventh place, the best finish in program history and the highest for an Ivy League team since Yale took third in 1950.
“Without a doubt, we’re the best Ivy team in history,” said Ellis, a native of Decatur, Ga. “It’s not close. Just the fact that track is pretty much at its pinnacle, it’s so competitive now. There are kids from all over the world in NCAA. Four of the favorites in the 1,500 were a Belgium guy, a Spanish guy, a Kenyan guy and a Moroccan guy. I would call it almost on par with the U.S. national championships. I think my rank in the U.S. in terms of time, was higher than it was in the NCAA. There’s always going to be some top guys in the U.S. that are going to vie for that Olympic spot, but I think the NCAA is just as deep as any country is to make the Olympic team.”
Consider how competitive Ellis’ preliminary race was. He set a new program record 3:37.60, and finished third in his semifinal, good enough to advance to the finals. In the finals, Ellis was boxed inside a tight pack for much of the race.
“I was queuing off the Old Miss guy since he was the favorite,” said Ellis. “I was following and covering every move, but he got pretty boxed in himself. It’s such a tactical race, it was pretty slow in the final and it was pretty hard to get free until the last 50 meters. We were both making up ground the last 50. The Washington kid (winner Joe Waskom) made the best move in the race. Overall, I was very, very happy with the result, but you can always be a little hungry for more.”
Ellis had to use his hands to keep competitors from cutting him off and tripping him before he finally got free down the inside lane in the last stretch. He shot through the traffic to earn the bronze medal.
“I could have even been more aggressive,” said Ellis. “I didn’t want to get disqualified. There was a point I could have just barreled through if I really wanted to get to the front. I wasn’t sure if I was going to waste too much energy. I wanted my last 50 meters, I wasn’t going to get passed by anybody. I was going to do the passing.”
Ellis relied on his experience in the final. He had gone out too hard in the distance medley relay at the indoor NCAAs and felt he paid the price later in the race. He wanted to finish stronger at the outdoor NCAAs.
“Going into the race, I was really, really focused on just scoring points for the team,” said Ellis. “We had a big chance to do something really special because we had 16 guys there. Half those guys had a really good chance of scoring points and getting All-American. If you look at the team scores, we were seventh overall. If a couple guys get a few places better, all of a sudden we’re fourth and on the podium.”
Ellis was part of a senior class that returned with a high standard for the program. Many of them had taken gap years and wanted to make the most of their final season for Princeton. Ellis, who trained in Phoenix, Ariz., for part of 2021 with Trippas and some others, were thrilled to be back to represent the Tigers this year.
“It was very different to be back on campus,” said Ellis. “You’re able to hold each other accountable a lot better because you’re living with each other and seeing each other every single day in the locker room. We were all very hungry to get back and run fast because we hadn’t had a season in so long. As soon as we got back, we were very determined to be the best we could be. In a way, COVID helped us be the best team this year we could be. We all got a year off, we all got a little older. This season was bound to be really good because we wanted it to be so good. We had the opportunity taken from us before.”
In one of the most competitive meets in the world, the Tigers represented themselves well at NCAAs. Senior C.J. Licata earned second-team All-America honors when he placed 13th in the men’s shot put with a top personal throw of 19.31 meters. Senior Robbie Otal was also second-team All-America with a 16th place finish in the discus of 55.92 meters.
Senior Michael Phillippy was 21st in the 400 meters in at 46.37 seconds. Senior Simang’aliso Ndhlovu, freshman Kaden Reynolds, sophomore Daniel Duncan, and senior Greg Sholars finished 23rd in the 4×100 in 39.98. Sophomore Ladislav Töpfer, sophomore William Doyle, sophomore Andersen Dimon, and Phillippy placed 23rd in the 4×400 in 3:09.26.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had this good of a team culture,” said Ellis. “We had so many seniors and all of them were very driven to be good at track. I think at Ivy League schools, you get most of the team that wants to be good at track but there are definitely kids that are focused on school or other things. This year we’re all in on being really good at track and I think that makes a big difference.”
A few minutes after Ellis raced, he was back out at the track to cheer on Trippas, who competed last summer for Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Trippas was a pre-race favorite and was in position early before finishing fifth in 8:20.29, the fastest time he’s ever run in college and the second best in Princeton history.
“Vig (PU distance coach Jason Vigilante) and Ed and I and most of the guys on the team, it’s pretty hard for us to be totally satisfied at the end of a race,” said Ellis. “I think I would have had to either win or get a huge PR to be like, there’s nothing I would have changed. You can be happy with it, but there’s always something you’d want to do something a little differently.”
Rodman left with plenty to build on in his first outdoor NCAAs. The freshman clocked 1:46.96, a new Princeton record, to close his first year of college running. His maturity and confidence impressed Ellis back in November in a 1,000-meter trial when he boldly tried to pass Ellis in the final 250 meters.
“Now the way the NCAA is, Ed and I aren’t even the oldest guys in NCAAs, and Sam’s having to race 23-, 24-, 25-year-olds,” said Ellis.
“And he’s 19. We obviously knew how talented he was. But as a freshman, you never know when the experience is going to catch up with you and in a race you’re just not going to have it. He just kept bringing it. I don’t think he had an off race all year. He was either PRing or competing for the win every single time.”
Although he’s a senior, Ellis isn’t done running. He could be racing an 800 in Canada this week, and his preliminary heat time in the 1,500 qualified him for the USA Track & Field (USATF) Outdoor Championships that begin on June 23 in Eugene.
“I still feel like I’m coming up in my training,” said Ellis. “I’m excited to race a little more.” Running in the championships in June will force Ellis to miss his first days of graduate classes at the University of Washington, for whom he will compete next year while using a remaining year of eligibility (Trippas also will compete for Washington next year). The Huskies had a strong presence in the 1,500 race with Ellis’s future teammates. They will be even stronger with Ellis, who will be working toward a Master of Education and Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership.
“I’m still very much a devout Princeton Tiger right now,” said Ellis. “If you would count me in that race as a Washington guy, we would have got first, third, fifth and seventh. That’s like 22 points in one event. That’s pretty unheard of. And we’re all coming back.”
Ellis enjoyed seeing the success of the Tigers in his last year with them, and he is gearing up to continue to thrive on the track as he looks ahead. His third-place finish was the highest of any Princeton runner at NCAAs, and it sets the stage for his future goals.
“I’m very happy with it,” said Ellis. “It’s really nice that I have another year so I feel like it’s a realistic goal to try to win the national championship.”