Five things on our radar at USATF outdoor championships

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The USATF outdoor track and field championships open Thursday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, and there is plenty on the line for competitors.

Along with vying for a U.S. title, athletes who finish in the top three of an event can punch a ticket to Beijing for the world championships in August.

American track and field is the strongest it's been in years, and there are compelling stories across all distances. Here are a few that will be on our radar.

1. Blue-collar champs

Ben Blankenship and Boris Berian didn't take the normal path to the outdoor championships. Blankenship was working for an excavation company a few years back, while Boris Berian was an employee at McDonald's just last year; but now, both are ready to challenge for a title.

Blankenship has had a breakout year that has included two runner-up finishes at the indoor championships and a stellar anchor leg on the Americans' world-record-setting distance medley relay to kick off an outdoor campaign that established him as a gritty racer in the 1,500 meters. This came after he almost quit the sport due to injury in his senior year of college and had to be persuaded by coach Mark Rowland to give professional running a chance.

Berian has had an even more meteoric rise after nearly three years without any significant results. He ran the fastest American 800 time since 2013 and finished a close second to world-record holder David Rudisha at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York two weeks ago.

Berian has arrived from so far off the radar that he didn't even have a sponsor at that New York race, running in a singlet borrowed from the New Balance largesse of training group leader (and 800 stud) Brenda Martinez. When he competes in Eugene, however, Berian will have a new look -- he announced his new deal with Nike just a few hours before Thursday's 800 preliminary heats.

2. Galen Rupp responds

Earlier this month, a BBC/ProPublica investigation alleged that coach Alberto Salazar had encouraged Galen Rupp, the 2012 Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist, to circumvent doping regulations. Salazar released an 11,000-word rebuttal on Wednesday; Rupp released a short statement denying all allegations of doping and declined to speak to the media. After pulling out of the Portland Track Festival, Rupp is scheduled to compete Thursday in Eugene, his first race since the report.

Rupp is the most dominant U.S. distance runner of his generation and will be attempting to win his eighth straight 10,000 title, as well as his third 5,000 title Sunday. Although some track fans may have responded negatively to the allegations, Rupp will likely receive a decent reception from the hometown crowd (he was born and raised in Portland and competed for the University of Oregon).

3. NCAA athletes stepping up

NCAA competition officially ended three weeks ago, but some collegiate stars are hoping to extend their seasons through August. Particularly dangerous to the professionals are the male sprinters. NCAA athletes hold the second-best seeds in the men's 100, 200 and 400 fields. If the kids perform and punch their tickets to the world championships, they would be legitimate medal contenders.

LSU senior Vernon Norwood is the fifth-fastest 400 runner in the world this year, and Baylor's Trayvon Bromell is just a sophomore but is tied for the fourth-fastest 100 time. Florida senior Dedric Dukes' best 200 time on the year trails only Justin Gatlin's.

The U.S. championships can also serve as a kind of debut for recent grads. Many will finalize new sponsorship deals by swapping their collegiate jerseys for sponsored kits and enjoy their first opportunity to earn monetary bonuses for their results. NCAA 5,000 champion Emily Sisson of Providence will be debuting her New Balance kit in Thursday's 10,000, while NCAA 5,000 and 10,000 runner-up Eric Jenkins will be trading Oregon swooshes for Nike's professional garb when he races in the 5,000. Athletes have been known to reveal previously unannounced signings via their wardrobe at the championships, so pay close attention.

4. A new era of middle-distance dominance for U.S. women

In 2007, not one American woman was internationally ranked in the top 10 of the 800 or top 20 in the 1,500. This from the country that had produced stars like Mary Slaney and Kim Gallagher.

Two Olympic cycles later, however, the middle-distance performance lists have a lot more stars and stripes, with five U.S. women ranked in the top 10 of the 800 and seven in the top 25 of the 1,500. World gold and silver medalist Jenny Simpson leads the world in the 1,500 and, as the defending Diamond League champion, already has a spot in this year's worlds. That leaves one more spot to fight over.

Alexa Efraimson, 18, has the fourth-best qualifying time in the field and will try to outshine the accomplishments of fellow wunderkind Mary Cain, who at 19 has finished second in this meet each of the past two years and will be trying to rebound from a tough 2015 showing. But count on 21-year-old Ajee Wilson to lock up the trip to worlds; she was the fastest woman in the world last year over 800 meters and is ranked second in 2015. Wilson also hasn't lost to a U.S. woman since she fell and finished sixth in the 600 at the USATF indoor championships in February.

5. Pole-vault battle 2.0

One of the most compelling storylines of the NCAA championships three weeks ago was the battle between Stephen F. Austin's Demi Payne and Arkansas' Sandi Morris. Now the pair will go head-to-head again in Eugene.

Payne set the indoor NCAA record earlier in the season and won the USATF indoor championship, but Morris won the NCAA indoor title and held the collegiate outdoor record going into the NCAA outdoor meet. Payne took the NCAA outdoor title but fell one centimeter short of Morris' record.

Looking to spoil the reunion will be 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jenn Suhr. The current U.S. record holder, who holds 15 U.S. titles (indoor and outdoor), has dominated the pole-vault scene for the past decade, but she is still rebounding from a wrist injury she suffered when her pole unexpectedly snapped in training last summer. Suhr cleared a world-leading height in May but finished an uncharacteristic third at the Adidas Grand Prix two weeks ago.