Now that the NCAA indoor season has come to a close and TrackTown USA will now be called TitleTown USA – with both the men’s and women’s teams winning the team title after coming into the meets as underdogs – let’s look back at what transpired over those two days in Albuquerque.
- Distance triple derailed
There were many great story lines coming into the weekend in Albuquerque but none were more talked about than the potential for a distance three-peat by the seemingly invincible Lawi Lalang. A feat that had never been accomplished before seemed like a very real possibility for the distance phenom from Arizona. The NCAA leader in the mile, 3k, and the collegiate record holder in the indoor 5K started off the meet with a visually easy mile prelim, qualifying him for Saturday’s final. Then the much anticipated matchup between Lawi and Oregon freshman sensation Edward Cheserak – the 2013 NCAA cross country champion (a race in which he did not get to face Lawi in) in the men’s 5000m. This much anticipated matchup lived up to the hype with the two Kenyan athletes (Edward was Kenyan born and American raised) duking it out over the 25-lap race. What most people were not prepared for (especially Lawi) was the ferocious kick that Edward unleashed with 300 meters to go. The final kick over the last 300 meters looked comparable to a young Bernard Lagat (at 39yo, Bernard still has one of the most deadly kicks in the business). The magical distance 3-peat was nixed before it even started and a chance at history blew right past Lawi during that last 300 meters. To Lawi’s credit, he fought back in the mile final on Saturday but was unable to out-kick UTEP’s Anthony Rotich over the last 50 meters and ended up with his second runner-up finish of the weekend. Not surprisingly, Lawi decided to scratch the 3000 meter final – most likely cutting his “losses” and refocusing for outdoors. In support of Lawi, going for the distance triple was a huge task to accomplish in itself, but to go for the triple at altitude was like asking someone to climb Mt. Everest. This weekend takes away nothing from Lawi’s talent or his previous accomplishments but just shows how difficult a task running the distance triple can be.
- Women’s team title was a battle for the ages
Coming into the weekend, the Florida women were the newly appointed #1 team in the nation by the USTFCCCA rankings, winners of the SEC team title just a week before, and the favorites for the team title in Albuquerque. With tremendous depth in the sprints and a well-rounded team that included point scorers in the jumps, throws, distance, and multi-events, the Florida women were almost a shoe-in for the team title assuming everything went according to plan!! The Texas and Oregon women both had outside shots to take home the trophy but they had to have everything go right and get a little bit of help from other teams to place ahead of Florida in events that Texas and/or Oregon were not contesting in. Sure enough, nothing goes as planned in track and field and you can always throw the form charts out the window in championship meets. All three teams had their elite athletes perform up to their standards: Laura Roesler won the 800m, and Florida and Texas women qualified multiple athletes in the sprint events. As with any scored meet, it’s not about the top tier athletes scoring big points but about those athletes that score those “scrap” points in 6th, 7th, and 8th place. Athletes like Jenna Prandini and Taylor Burke helped put their teams in position to be in contention once the 4×400 started. The roads were not all smooth sailing for each team. Each of the three teams had major points left on the board due to an athlete that expected to score and failed to reach the podium. Oregon’s Sasha Wallace, American junior record holder in the 60H, fell on the 4th hurdle and DNF. Florida’s Cierra Brewer, projected to contend for the triple jump title, failed to even make the finals, and Texas women didn’t capitalize on their sprinting depth. To Texas’ credit though, they made the most out of their entries in the meet. The end of the meet for the team title came down to a movie-scripted ending. Going into the 4×400 meter relay Texas, Oregon, and Florida all had a shot to win the team title – the winner of the relay would be the winner of the team title. Coincidently, those three teams had the top three times in the NCAA. You could not have scripted the plot any better. During the 4×400, Florida had some struggles early on and were out of the picture by the third leg; another reason why you always throw out the form charts once the race begins. Texas had taken the lead from the gun with a great lead off with the experienced senior Brianna Nelson – a 2010 World Junior team member. As the race went on, Oregon and Texas maintained approximately 5 meters difference until the final leg. Any track fan knew that a battle between Ashley Spencer, a 2013 NCAA outdoor champion and World Championship member, verses Phyllis Francis, a national champion on previous 4x400m relays and newly crowned American Record holder in the indoor 400m, would be a relay finish for the ages. Through 350m of the race, it looked like Ashley Spencer had channeled that disappointing second-place finish in the open 400m into a rage-infested anchor leg that Phyllis Francis would not be able to overcome. Coming off the final turn, Phyllis validated why she was the national champion in the 400m by making up the difference and nipping Spencer at the tape by two one-hundredths of a second. Not only did the lady Ducks break the Collegiate record and come within two tenths of a second of the American record, they also clinched the team title for the Ducks for the 5th consecutive year.
- Multi-events stealing the show
In the world of multi-events, the competition and performances usually fly under the radar. The unsung heroes of any team are the heptathletes and decathletes, and the athletes that competed in Albuquerque put up scores that were the most competitive in recent memory. In the men’s heptathlon, the competition between Curtis Beach, Kevin Lazas, and Jay Cato was set up to be the most unreal heptathlon ever with all three athletes having extra incentive to perform at their best. Curtis Beach was competing in his hometown where he set the national record books ablaze while attending Albuquerque. Kevin was competing with a heavy heart after losing his brother in an accident, and Jay was on the recovery mend after rupturing his achilles 9 months ago & losing a national title last year to Lazas by the slimmest of margins. The duel between the 3 athletes never materialized in the end. Jay Cato had a heel problem and was unable to make a bar in the high jump. Kevin had a great meet but was unable to put enough distance between himself and Curtis before the 1000m run – Curtis’ ace-in-the-hole being that Curtis is the “world record” holder in the heptathlon 1000m. Curtis finished with 6190pts, a personal best, and closed out his collegiate career indoors with a national championship in the town where he grew up.
In the women’s pentathlon, there was some controversy going into the pentathlon before the event even started. Sami Spencer, Nebraska Omaha, was the national leader in the pentathlon going into the meet but was unable to compete due to NCAA restrictions on Nebraska Omaha as they transition from division II to division I. The two other athletes that had the spotlight on them were Georgia freshman Kendell Williams (high school national record holder in the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon, as well as the American Junior Record holder in the pentathlon) and junior Erica Bouggard from Mississippi St (the defending NCAA indoor champion and 2013 World heptathlon competitor in Moscow). Those two athletes were far above the rest of the field in terms of their talent and credentials and they did not disappoint. Erica Bouggard was coming off an All-American performance from the previous day in the open long jump competition, and did her best to stay as close to Kendell as possible, but the day belonged to Kendell in every fashion. The freshman opened up the day with a personal best in the hurdles. She jumped a massive PR with a height of 6’2, a height that would have won the open high jump, and a slew of PR’s in the remaining three events would leave Kendell standing atop the podium as the NCAA national champion with a new American Junior record but more importantly a new NCAA national record and World Junior record. This was a feat that most believed she would eventually reach before she was graduated but certainly not this early in her career. One thing is for certain — the future looks very bright for Kendell Williams, and she will help bring the USA back to the days of Jackie Joyner Kearse.