Since 2001, men’s track has seen the emergence of two NCAA individual champions, 19 All-Americans, and 34 conference champions, to go with four team finishes among the nation’s top 25 and a league title for the indoor season in 2002. Yet in this almost overnight transition into one of the top programs in DIII, the squad’s sprinters have lagged behind the considerable progress made in other events.
The arrival of fleet-footed first-years Bill Cheng and Blake Obuchowski on campus quickly changed all of that, as the pair helped bring Chicago’s short distance runners up to speed with the rest of the team and push them to the front of the pack in the league. Dominating in the 55-meter dash at the indoor conferences, Cheng bagged the Maroons’ sole first-place finish when he crossed the line in a swift 6.53. Obuchowski didn’t leave much breathing room for his teammate, or much of an opportunity for opponents to sneak in, when he crossed the line for second at 6.54.
“The short sprints have not been a strong aspect of our program the six years that I’ve been here,” head coach Chris Hall said. “We’ve had individuals that have done some neat things, but those two going one-two in their conference indoors as freshmen immediately adds a level of excitement in the entire program. Not only are we covering an event that hasn’t been very strong for us in the past, but now we’re the best within our conference competition.”
Besides the boost it gives the program’s prestige, the new addition of pure sprinters to a team stacked with budding talent has made the whole roster a lot tougher to beat. Writing in Cheng and Obuchowski along with classmates Patrick Offner and Terrence Roberston in events like the 4×100-meter relay has freed up teammates to devote more energy and training for the races that play to their strengths. In the past, the Maroons have been pressured into using athletes like third-year Zach Rodgers (decathlon) and middle-distance runners like second-year John Eric Humphries (400 meters) in the 4×100, detracting from their focus in their prime events.
“After our first few meets, we started to realize that we’re all really committed to the track team and that we could make a big difference,” Obuchowski said. “I think that the freshmen guys [on the 4x100] do a good job of pushing each other and that gets reflected in our times. We still have a lot of work left, but in the next four years we should do some great things at the University.”
“Hall recruited some of the guys, but me and Blake and some of the other guys were more walk-ons,” Cheng said. “We kind of got lucky and came together this year. I think we have the highest chance of going to nationals and doing something there.”
While the clock shows a miniscule .01-second difference between the two runners lighting a spark for Chicago sprints, the promising newcomers are quite distinct in their builds, techniques, and transitions into collegiate track.
A football player in high school, Cheng carried a bulked-up frame into the high school track season that slowed down his times and curtailed expectations of what he could do his first year in Chicago. Coming to Hyde Park with more of a track body, however, the Island Lake, IL native immediately started contributing with his fast and furious starts off the blocks in the 55-meter dash this winter, giving him a valuable jumpstart on the competition for the first 20 to 30 meters. That same explosiveness shows up when he takes off in the long jump.
“Bill is a really wonderful surprise and success story relative to what he had accomplished in high school,” Hall said. “He made unbelievable strides this fall.”
Obuchowski, on the other hand, had been a track star in high school and tabbed to make an early impact on the Maroons. Able to compete through the end of his senior year with plantar fascia with little damage to his performance, the injury finally caught up with him this fall and interfered with his conditioning early on. Now getting back to form, Obuchowski is closer to reaching his full potential, adding the longer 200-meter and possibly the 4×400 to his schedule with his ability to maintain speed.
“These are not identical kids at all,” Hall said. “They look completely different when they run, they have different builds, but it’s about getting from point A to point B.”
For now, the other thought foremost in these rookies’ minds is getting ready to defend their gold and silver statuses at the upcoming outdoor UAA championships. A lot of that will depend on catching a break in the weather for the next two meets, with the dropping temperatures especially hard on sprinters and often taking competitors out of the race.
“They were not at all pleased with their performances last week relative to time,” Hall said. “For a sprinter to go out and try to be really fast in a 100-meter dash when it’s 35, 40 degrees is really counterproductive. I think that they stay positive and keep working hard and feed off of one another, and when we get the right race conditions and the right weather, I think that they’ll be really difficult to contend with at the conference meet.”
“The transition to outdoor is always difficult, but hopefully in two weeks I’ll be ready to go deep in the 100,” Cheng said.
The Chicagoland Championships this weekend will be Cheng and Obuchowski’s next big tune-up for conferences coming up April 21–22 in Atlanta. In the past, poor weather has intervened and left half of the lanes empty. If blue skies stick around, the two should be toeing the line against strong opponents.