[img id="80662" align="alignleft"] After sending its largest contingent of athletes to compete at NCAAs, Chicago track and field pulled away from the tournament last weekend with nearly half of them as All-Americans, the women's highest national finish, and a sense that the best is yet to come.
Of the 12 Maroons traveling to UW-Oshkosh, five members of the women's team closed the books on 2008 as outdoor All-Americans. The 21 points collected by the group placed the squad in a three-way tie for 10th place with Messiah College and Texas Lutheran University.
"We didn't talk a whole lot about specific teams' goals going into this meet," head coach Chris Hall said. "I think behind close[d] doors we were thinking that we had an opportunity to be in the top 10.... We had to have some really good performances for that to happen."
Representatives from the men's side didn't have the same fortune, with fourth-year Zach Rodgers missing the finals for the triple jump and a poor call by an official disqualifying the 400-meter relay in the preliminaries.
Despite these disappointments for the men and a few for the women, the Maroons have very little to regret about the weekend that capped off two long and successful seasons for the teams.
Leading Chicago in the final standings, second-year throwers Claire Ray and Nicole Murphy both finished as runners-up in respective events. Murphy distinguished herself in her first NCAA appearance with a toss of 14.22 meters in the shot put while Ray backed up her All-American status in the discus.
Last spring Ray took sixth with a mark of 42.37 meters. This year she improved on her effort by over five meters, nailing a distance of 47.82 meters. She and Murphy shared the UAA's final Athlete of the Week recognition for their performances.
"They certainly didn't go in seeded that highly, and if somebody had told me that they would be second, I would have said, 'No they can't be second,'" Hall said. "I believed that they could, but they really had to rise up to the moment, and they definitely did that."
Among the young Maroons setting a new pace for Chicago, first-year Stephanie Omueti edged into All-American territory in the 200-meter dash. She clocked a lifetime best of 25.20 to finish eighth, taking the last spot for the division's highest honor.
"She really showed some great stability out there," Hall said of Omueti. "I think it's harder for a freshman to go into a meet like that and to feel like, 'I'm going to rise up to this level of competition.' And she definitely did. To have your lifetime best performance in that field and not be intimidated, I thought was a really impressive performance by her."
The strong performances by rookie Omueti as well as Ray and Murphy indicate that the team has nowhere to go but up next season. Their success as underclassmen underscores the talent and the ability to handle the pressure of tough competition on Chicago's roster going forward the next few years.
Rounding out the South Siders top finishers was a pair of veteran jumpers, fourth-years Myra Collins and Appie Hirve, who have played important roles in building the Maroons up to this moment. Collins recorded a leap of 5.46 meters in the long jump to take eighth, while Maroon photo staffer Hirve claimed sixth in the triple jump.
Hirve's mark of 11.73 meters ended her collegiate career in style. She not only secured back-to-back All-American honors in the event for the outdoor and indoor season but also landed her personal best by a significant margin in her final jump as a Maroon.
On the cusp of eighth place before her last attempt, Hirve mustered up a little something extra and leapt three spots to hold fifth briefly. McMurry University first-year Breana Anderson eventually passed her.
"I think you can really feel good about that as you walk away," Hall said of the soon graduating Hirve. "She didn't leave anything out there."
Three of Hirve's classmates didn't get to join her in individual celebrations. Rachel Venezia, Cynthia Lin, and Zach Rodgers missed on making All-American in their final national championship.
All three had competed at NCAAs before, making this weekend a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Rodgers placed 11th (14.08 meters) out of 19 in the triple jump preliminaries and didn't reach the finals. Competing in the third heat of the 400-meter dash Lin (58.89) also missed the cut for finals.
Venezia came the closest to achieving All-American with her 10:46.42 in the steeplechase. After powering through her last lap to position herself among the top eight and head for the finish line in the thick of the competition, Venezia got edged out of eighth by 0.13 seconds.
"It's not like Rachel let up," Hall said. "The other person was coming home hard too and just out-leaned her."
Although seeing three of its seniors come up short in their final bids for All-American was tough, the most frustrating part of the tournament for Chicago was the disqualification of the men's 4x100-meter relay.
Ran by second-year Blake Obuchowski, third-year Herman Reeves, second-year Patrick Offner, and first-year Keith Newhouse, officials ruled that the Maroons left their zone on the first exchange. Smooth handoffs have been a weak point of the squad, but video evidence showed that Chicago runners had stayed in their lane.
"Unfortunately, there's no appeal," Hall said. "You can try to fight the system, but there's only one corner judge and that's the only person who gets a say."
The four Maroons on the relay can take comfort in the fact that their team is looking to use this year as the first building block of a dominant track and field program in Chicago.
This time next year, the men hope to be at the level shown by their female teammates this season. They have a host of young provisional qualifiers who missed the cut this year but given more training could make an impact in 2009. On the women's side, the squad is looking to advance from its 10th-place finish to the top four in DIII and bring a new trophy to showcase at Ratner.