Oshkosh poses early hurdle for squad

A young women’s track and field squad will take on perennial power Oshkosh this weekend but has its sights set on the UAA indoor championships.

By Kate Fratar

Players come and players go, but the team goal remains the same for women’s track and field: Win the conference championship.

Last year the Maroons took home their first UAA banner after nipping league powerhouse Wash U 151–148 for the indoor season title. The squad is gunning for nothing short of a repeat this March, and it begins the long road to UAAs by hosting UW–Oshkosh this Saturday.

Earning three straight national indoor championships from 2004 to 2006, the suitably named Titans may be the toughest opponents Chicago will face this season. Young in age but not lacking in experience, the Maroons certainly have the talent in place to compete with the best in the division at this weekend’s dual meet and beyond.

Veterans for 2009 include third-year All-American throwers Claire Ray and Nicole Murphy, along with second-year All-American sprinter Stephanie Omueti and fourth-year national qualifier in the steeplechase Rachel Venezia.

“They achieved really at the highest possible level in our sport,” head coach Chris Hall said of his team leaders.

Omueti, a Chicago native, punctuated her rookie year with a lifetime best performance at Nationals last spring. She earned her All-American status with a new personal record of 25.20 in the 200-meter dash.

Returning to the blocks this winter, Omueti will be a key component of a core group of young sprinters, one of Chicago’s strong suits this season.

“We’ve got some really fine sprinters. I’m looking forward to seeing that group develop,” Hall said. “You always miss the players that move on, but I like our young athletes.”

Along with the fleet-footed Maroons, Hall said he expects that throws and high jumps will be critical areas as well. In those events as well, up-and-coming players will follow the lead of a few proven competitors to set the standard.

Throwers Ray and Murphy have three NCAA appearances between them, and second-year Kristin Constantine may be joining their ranks soon. The trio swept the shot put at the 2008 indoor UAAs, with Constantine notching second-place in the event.

But these seasoned athletes are just the tip of the iceberg for the Maroons. Assessing his roster for the 2009 campaign, Hall noted that Chicago is more than a collection of a few superstars.

“We want to be a team, not just counting on an individual or two,” Hall explained. “Our teams evolve pretty well.”

The past few years, Chicago has focused on building a roster capable of tallying points across the leaders boards. The importance of the depth was particularly evident last winter, when Chicago’s wealth of talent put them past Wash U in the battle for UAA gold.

If anything, the South Siders look to be an even stronger, more balanced squad when they head to conferences this year. But after breaking the league status quo and stopping the Bears’ streak of titles, the Maroons won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time.

A perennial powerhouse, Wash U has repeatedly doubled up on UAA championships, and 9 of the past 10 UAA banners in indoor and outdoor track now hang in St. Louis. The Bears should remain Chicago’s toughest competition for top honors, though several other teams could be in the mix.

“I think it comes down to who’s the most prepared,” Hall said.

In particular, the Maroons have to look out for Emory. The Eagles have a solid chance of placing well and making the tournament more than a dual meet between Chicago and Wash U.

Indoor UAAs may be two months away, but the work and training for attaining a season goal starts now.

“We want to do something as a team, and that’s definitely our conference meet,” Hall said. “That’s when we shop up in team force.”