Track and field races past tough pack of opponents

By Kate Fratar

Though the temperature outside Henry Crown was barely above zero last Saturday, inside the old gym the men’s and women’s track teams found strong first-place finishes to warm their spirits.

On the men’s half of the competition, the Maroons racked up 167 points, leading a field of eight teams in the Phoenix Invitational. Coming in second with 151 points was Augustana, which wrapped up the 2007 indoor season ranked twelfth nationally. Olivet Nazarene took third with 96 points, while D-I Valparaiso wound up in fourth with 80 points.

Facing a seven-team field, the women’s team matched the men’s score to grab the top spot. Runner-up Illinois Wesleyan had 143 points, and Augustana ended up third with 107 points.

Making the victories even more impressive is the caliber of the competition the Maroons faced. The women’s team from Illinois Wesleyan has finished three of its last four indoor seasons ranked in the top ten nationally, and is expected to be equally competitive this year.

On the men’s half, Augustana might be as strong as any UAA competition the team will face in 2008.

“If Augustana was in our conference, then going into this season, they would’ve been the favorites to win,” said head coach Chris Hall.

Beginning the meet on the right foot proved to be important for Chicago, as both teams placed two sprinters in scoring position in the opening 55-meter dash.

For the women, first-years Steph Omueti and Margaret Bujarska placed fourth and fifth, and second-years Blake Obuchowski and Terrence Robinson nabbed second and fifth on the men’s half. Success in the early events helped fuel Chicago’s athletes throughout the day.

“We feed off each other. When we have good performances, it filters onto the others,” Hall said. “When our 55-meter runners competed well, and the team heard about it, that set a good tone for us.”

While the South Siders put up big points as a team, several Maroons also turned in impressive individual performances. In the women’s meet, fourth-year Appie Hirve won the high jump competition, first-year Liz Lawton cruised to victory in the 3000-meter run, and, in what has become a familiar sight for Chicago’s opponents, Claire Ray topped the weight throw. Ray, a 2007 All-American and a recent UAA Athlete of the Week, also won the weight throw in the Maroon’s season-opening dual meet at UW-Oshkosh.

Taking home individual honors in the men’s meet were fourth-year Ryan McCarl and first-year Jacob Solus. McCarl notched a first-place finish in the mile run, while Solus’s 13.91-meter effort won the triple jump competition. Fourth-year Zach Rodgers showed off his trademark versatility, placing second in the long jump as well as fifth in the 55-meter hurdles.

Looking beyond the first-place finishes, the teams’ success in the Phoenix Invitational showed off their depth and balance. To win meets, the teams need to put as many athletes as possible in scoring position, and judging by Saturday’s performances, it looks like the squads might have found their winning formulas.

“More than anything else, our kids just competed well across the board,” Hall said.

That bodes well for the teams as they look ahead to the UAA meet, where the Maroons hope to dethrone a Wash U program that has taken eight straight conference titles in women’s indoor track and three straight in men’s.

Equally important could be the boost of confidence that comes with beating the sort of stiff competition Chicago saw on Saturday. After the drubbing that powerhouse UW–Oshkosh put on both teams January 12, there was some uncertainty about the attitude of the Maroons.

“Two weeks ago, people didn’t have a competitive mindset,” Hall said. “But this week, we went out to do our best, to score as many points as we could and compete.”

That competitive mindset needs to keep up, because the Maroon’s opposition won’t be backing down as the team heads into its next meet, the Chicago Duals, to be held at Henry Crown on February 2.

Including Chicago, eight teams will be represented at the meet, three of them from DI. As the Maroon’s performance against Valparaiso in the Phoenix Inivitational showed, teams in the upper divisions are not necessarily any stronger than those in DIII.

But D-I DePaul, which will make the short trip to Hyde Park for the Chicago Duals, should provide a tougher test than Valpo’s Crusaders.

“I think we can match up pretty well against these D-I squads,” Hall said. “It’ll be fun to see.”

Among the DIII teams in the mix will be North Central College, whose women’s team wrapped up the last indoor season ranked fifth nationally while their men came in eighth in the nation.

Sharing the track with such proven programs should not be an issue for the balanced Maroons, whose depth and breadth of talent are reflected in their expectations for the upcoming meet.

“I think the top three teams are likely to be North Central, DePaul, and ourselves,” Hall said.