Track sending 12 to Nationals

By Chris Boots

[img id=”80640″ align=”alignleft”] The breakout year isn’t over yet for track and field. After winning indoor UAAs, claiming an indoor All-American, and setting records all season long, Chicago qualified a program-record 12 athletes for outdoor NCAAs and will get a chance to go out in style when the meet kicks off Thursday at UW-Oshkosh.

“It’s the largest contingent that we’ve taken to the national meet for Chicago in total numbers,” head coach Chris Hall said.

Spearheading the men’s group, fourth-year Zach Rodgers will compete in the triple jump a year after finishing 11th in the decathlon. Sending four athletes to Wisconsin for the price of one, Chicago’s young 4×100 relay team, which consists of third-year Herman Reeves, second-years Blake Obuchowski and Patrick Offner, and first-year Keith Newhouse, also made the cut.

The women have two outdoor veterans on their side, as second-year Claire Ray and third-year Rachel Venezia return to NCAAs for the second year in a row in the discus and steeplechase, respectively. Joining Ray in the throwing events is second-year year Nicole Murphy. Fourth-year Myra Collins will compete in the long jump, and fellow senior Appie Hirve, who went to indoor NCAAs earlier this season for the triple jump, has qualified again in the same event.

Rounding out the record contingent, fourth-year Cynthia Lin will sprint in the 400-meter dash, while rookie Stephanie Omueti will represent Chicago in the 200 meter.

Among the Nationals-bound athletes, some Maroons, such as Ray and Murphy, have been expected to make trips to NCAAs all season long. Some, however, have come as more of a surprise. The men’s 4×100 relay sneaked in with a last-minute qualifying time at last weekend’s North Central Last Chance, as did Omueti.

“Looking at the group that’s going, I can tell you that from going into the outdoor season I don’t think we have any real surprises,” Hall said. “Maybe Cynthia. I think Cynthia was probably chasing different events before she adapted to the quarter mile. We would have predicted Rodgers to qualify in the decathlon, not the triple jump.”

“We have some freshmen in the national meet,” Hall continued, “and I don’t think you ever expect to have freshmen make it, just because of the adjustments they have to go through during the season.”

Just like indoor NCAAs, the outdoor championships are based entirely on individual qualification, and teams are not sent altogether. The top eight finishers in each event score points, and so having contenders in as many events as possible, or several contenders in one, is the key to team placement.

With a wide distribution of qualifiers, Chicago’s women are well-positioned to pick up points across the board. It won’t be easy, though; with just three athletes ranked in the top eight of their events, the Maroons would only pick up eight points if they finish according to seed.

At last year’s women’s championship, UW-Oshkosh won with 57 points, and 25 points was good enough to place in the top 10. With Chicago’s athletes all ranked sixth or worse, they’ll likely need to meet or beat their placements if the Maroons want to get a high national placement.

With six athletes qualified in four events, including two first-place seeds, the hosting Titans are likely to be among the top finishers this year as well. Calvin College, last year’s runner-up, placed team members in 10 events this time around and is also poised to come in at the front of the pack.

“I think that Chicago is going to be a national trophy team; I’m just not so sure that it’s going to be this year,” Hall said. “I’d like to see our women be perhaps a top-15 national team. I don’t think top 10 is out of the question, but in order to do that we’d need to have some really big performances.”

Sending athletes for only two events with neither seeded in the top 10, the Maroon men have a tougher road ahead if they want to get team recognition. Defending champion UW-La Crosse, which blew away the field with 99 points last spring, will compete in six events. The Eagles have established themselves as a D-III dynasty, with four titles in the past five years and 11 championships overall.

Yet, despite the inherent team focus on each side, Chicago’s athletes will also have a distinctly individual goal in mind. Out of the 20 or so qualifiers in each event, the top eight are named All-Americans. Ray was the only Maroon to earn the honor last spring, placing sixth in the discus.

“Everybody that’s going to the national meet has expectations of being an All-American, I’ll put it like that,” Hall said. “I don’t think we have anyone going who says, ̒’My goal is to be 10th or 12th.’ We feel if we match our performances that got us into the national meet we’ll have All-American finishers. I expect all of them to have those goals.”

With only two full days in between Sunday’s NCAA selection and Wednesday’s departure for Wisconsin, the Maroons have little time to work on conditioning or technical finishing touches. The next few days will instead be a time for Chicago’s athletes to collect themselves before stepping onto the National stage.

“Everything’s been done at this point,” Hall said. “There’s nothing we can do to increase fitness levels or sharpen technique. Right now, it’s just about feeling good and knowing the competition best we can. Right now, it’s probably more of a mental thing than a physical one.”