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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Jager finds many positives in strong third-place showing in the steeplechase at Hayward Field

COURTESY: ANDY NELSON/THE REGISTER-GUARD - Ryan Crouser yells as he watches his throw of 73 feet, 11 inches land during the shot put competition of the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.EUGENE — Ryan Crouser was hoping for a personal record. Instead, he got a Most Outstanding Performer Award.

Evan Jager was hoping for victory, but had to settle for third place after a photo finish with a nemesis.

Defending Olympic champion Crouser ruled a stiff shot put competition with a best of 73 feet, 11 inches on Saturday, good enough for the Gresham native to claim the MOP trophy in the 44th annual Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.

It was a meet and field record for the Barlow High grad on a day when four throwers bettered 72 feet.

Jager, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist who has lived in Portland and trained with Nike's Bowerman Track Club since 2008, gained confidence while losing a duel with Consesius Kipruto of Kenya down the stretch of the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Kipruto nosed out Jager for second place, with both runners timed in 8 minutes, 11.71 seconds. Fellow Kenyan Benjamin Kigen won in a PR 8:09.07.

Crouser, 25, wanted not only to better his PR (74-3 1/4 in winning the U.S. title a year ago) but to challenge Randy Barnes' world record of 75-10 1/4 set in 1990. Saturday wasn't the occasion for either — but it may be coming.

"There's a lot potential there to build on," Crouser said after having four throws exceeding 71-11 3/4 in the competition. "(The winning mark) is my third-farthest throw ever. I'm happy with that and with my series. If I can be more consistent in the 72-, 73-foot range, that will lead me to the 75-, 76-foot level."

Crouser comes from U.S. throwing's first family, including uncles Dean and Brian, father Mitch and cousins Sam and Haley, the latter a Texas senior fresh off of winning the Big 12 women's javelin championship at 182-7. All have competed multiple times at Hayward Field, which is scheduled for demolition this summer as a new structure is put into place.

"It's truly an honor to win (the MOP) award," Ryan Crouser said. "It's really special for me to get it at the last Prefontaine (Classic) we're going to have at 'historic' Hayward Field. This place is like a family tradition. They were all able to make it today. To compete in front of friends and family and being able to move that record out there is so much fun."

Crouser got a push from Poland's Michal Haratyk (72-1) and Brazil's Darian Romani (72-0 1/4), who both established PRs. New Zealand's Tom Walsh, who came in with a world-best of 74-4 1/4, finished fourth at 71-8.

But Crouser said he never worries about the other guys.

"I just try to focus on myself," he said. "That's all I control. I try to get one out there early and build on that. It doesn't matter who I'm competing against so much. I'm usually just out there competing against myself, trying to throw a PR."

Crouser will have plenty of chances to move up the ladder this summer. He'll first compete in a Diamond League event at Oslo on June 7. Then he'll defend his U.S. title June 21-24 at Des Moines, Iowa, before returning to Europe for a series of meets.

Jager and Kipruto — the latter the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships gold medalist — were the favorites in a loaded steeplechase field. But Kigen, 24, jumped them at the bell lap and sprinted to the biggest victory of his career.

Kigen, though ranked No. 6 in the world last year, is in only his second season running the steeple.

"I was surprised," said Jager, who won bronze at the 2017 World Championships. "I assumed Consesius was going to be the guy to push. It's nice having a new face in the crowd. Maybe it changes the dynamics of the races we're going to have the rest of the year, and the championship races the next couple of years."

After Kigen opened a 10-meter lead over Kipruto in the final lap, Jager hung close enough to make it a race for second. It appeared he may have nipped Kipruto with a lean at the finish line.

"I thought I got him," Jager said. "I was happy to be able to close with him the last 100 meters. One of his biggest strengths is his finishing speed. Usually I get my doors blown off by him the last 100 meters. It was fun being able to push him to the line and feel fast and strong as opposed to just hanging on and dying."

Jager went into the race determined not to be the pace-setter after the rabbit dropped out early in the race.

"I knew it wasn't going to be a super-fast race," he said. "The goal was to shut my brain off and not worry about pushing the pace and when I was going to make a move. And if I did make a move, just let it happen naturally.

"I wanted to conserve as much mental energy as possible, because the last couple of years, especially in the championships, I've had to be the guy to push the pace from far out. I get to the last lap and I've already used all my mental energy, and that affects your physical energy. I wanted to let the race happen and try to have a really strong last 200 meters."

The six-time defending national champion has been ranked among the top 10 in the world every year since 2012. He was No. 3 last year behind Kipruto and Morrocco's Soufiane El Bakkali, who beat Jager for silver at the World Championships. Jager, whose American record of 8:00.45 was set in 2015, ran 8:01.29 at Monaco last July.

"I missed an opportunity to run a really fast time," he said. "I felt really good that day. We were pretty slow through the first 2K and I still ran 8:01. It would have been nice to have had a better pacing job and really take a crack at the 8-minute barrier."

Jager took bronze in the World Championships at London two weeks later in 8:15.53 after straining a glute muscle.

"It wasn't major, and I didn't miss any training, but it was bothering me," he said. "I pushed the pace pretty far out and took the last mile by myself. In doing that, I felt like I secured myself a medal, but it's not the easiest way to win. I used a lot of mental energy. It makes it harder to have a big last lap. I'm happy I medaled, but I was a little disappointed in getting bronze."

The 6-2, 140-pound Jager will go for his seventh straight U.S. title at Des Moines, then head to Europe for meets at Monaco and Brussels and "hopefully" the Continental Cup in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

"If there's anything else, we'll play it by ear and see how fitness and workouts are going and what makes sense to do," he said.

Time could be running out for Jager to lower his U.S. standard and break the eight-minute barrier.

"I've always known 26 to 30 are your peak years, that perfect balance between fast twitch and slow twitch, between endurance and speed," he said. "I'm aware I'm in that age range. That's why I'm trying to make the most out of these years and be prepared for any opportunity that comes my way.

"I still think you can get faster in the steeple as you age. There's something about learning tactics and the intricacies of the steeple. Also, the pace of the race isn't insanely fast to where you need that raw speed to be able to run a sub-eight.

"I feel really good right now. We've bumped up the mileage, so my body feels a little older this year. I just have to make sure I'm staying on top of flexibility, stretching, all the activation drills. I've been trying to combat old age in the sport."

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