May 22, 2007

Track sets sights on nation’s best

Last season’s NCAA outdoor championships served as a swan song of sorts for a crop of Maroons distance runners. Then fourth-years Teage O’Connor and Jessica Winter both raced for the final time in their careers, and Emil Bojanov, now a senior, made his nationals debut in a race spoiled by a freak accident in the final stretch.

This season, things are a bit different for the track team. The distance-heavy representation of years past is gone, and a versatile cast of runners, jumpers, and throwers has stepped forward to fill the void. With All-American spots on the line, five Maroons will look to step up their games against the nation’s best in the three-day NCAA meet getting underway Thursday in Oshkosh, WI. Tradition is on their side when it comes to notching top honors, with an athlete earning national recognition in three of the last four seasons under head coach Chris Hall.

On the men’s side, Bojanov returns for a shot at redemption in the 1,500-meter and will be joined by third-year decathlete Zach Rodgers. Fourth-year 10k runner Abby Sheldon, first-year discus thrower Claire Ray, and second-year steeplechase runner Rachel Venezia will all compete on the women’s side.

“I feel like everyone has a shot at being an All-American,” Hall said. “I feel good about where they are health-wise and mentally. They’re gonna have to compete really well, and I have no reason to think that they won’t.”

Bojanov, the only Chicago athlete to earn an automatic bid—by virtue of his 3:50.25 split in the 1,500 at the Dr. Keeler Invite May 11—has battled injury this year but has come on strong during the home stretch of the spring campaign, taking third in the event at the UAA championships in April. When healthy, the Sofia, Bulgaria native runs with a confidence that can be just as important as his undeniable talent, and the experience of last year’s race in Lisle, IL could help put him over the edge in his quest for the elusive All----American title.

“He’s finally caught up to where he wanted to be,” Hall said. “A switch went off going into the conference championships. I don’t think he’s ever run better than he is now.”

The squad’s most versatile athlete, Rodgers’s appearance at Nationals is a long time coming. He submitted his best mark of the year in the 10-event competition at the squad’s final meet, last week’s North Central Invitational, and his top mark of 6,344 points is good for 16th going into NCAAs. After missing out on the event last season due to a groin injury and battling other setbacks during the winter campaign this year, he is finally pain-free and poised to make his mark on the national stage.

“It’s been a lot of hard, consistent work, and now he’s healthy,” Hall said. “He competes well in all 10 events—he’s a true decathlete. I don’t really see a weakness. I think his greatest strength is his consistency.”

Looking to become the women’s first All--Americans since last winter’s distance medley relay squad took seventh, the Maroons’ three representatives each bring unique skill sets to the competition—none more so than the unsung freshman Ray. Limited in her training during high school, Ray arrived in Hyde Park looking to improve on her form, technique, and conditioning. With the help of new assistant coach Anna Swisher, she did all three.

“Before outdoors began I was definitely not thinking that Nationals was in my future,” Ray said. “I wasn’t the best thrower in high school, but as soon as we were able to throw outside I knew that improvements were going to happen. Coach Swisher had high hopes for me to qualify, but I had my doubts.”

“We thought that Claire was gonna make a big impact on the UAA. I didn’t expect her to make as big of an impact as she did. That would’ve never been an expectation before the season,” Hall said. “She was very coachable. I don’t think she was very far along as a high school thrower. I don’t really think that she was truly exposed to the weight room. She basically was learning on her own in high school.”

Venezia, meanwhile, was able to hit the ground running as she entered her second season with the Maroons. Proof of her solid start has come up time and again as she smashed her school record in the steeplechase multiple times this season. Most recently, she lowered the mark to 10:49.31 at the North Central Invite last week, good for 12th-best in DIII, and just missed out on a coveted automatic bid to Oshkosh.

“From the beginning of last summer on, she really committed herself to be a runner,” Hall said. “I think there’s one reason she qualified: It’s her. It’s her heart, her desire, and her commitment to the team.”

Rounding out the competitors on the women’s side, Sheldon is a relative newcomer to the sport despite her status as a fourth-year. She has made the most of her two years on the squad and made the switch over to the 10k with relative ease this spring.

“I think that I felt that she could probably hit a provisional standard before the season started,” Hall said. “She’s still young to the sport. She’s only run two years in college. I’m impressed with what she’s accomplished this year. I didn’t expect this from her.

Sheldon will toe the line late Thursday night with Ray and Rodgers kicking off their events earlier in the day. Venezia will follow with the Steeplechase Friday, and Bojanov will wrap things up running the 1,500 Saturday.