2014 College Track Awards
Jesse Squire | On 15, Jun 2014
The season is over and the stadiums are empty. Let’s take a look back at the best of the year in college track.
Most dominant performance
The Men of Oregon win this award for the track season as a whole. They won the NCAA Outdoor Championships with a record total score. They won the NCAA indoor title with ease. They held back at the Pac-12 Championships and still nearly doubled up on second place, scoring in 19 of the 21 events. Their distance runners had their way at the Penn Relays. Their lone dual meet saw them thrash Arizona, one of the better dual-meet teams in the NCAA. A case can be made that this is the best men’s team in the 12.6-scholarship limit era.
Best meet, national championship division
The women’s competition at the NCAA indoor championships was the best meet in several years. Both Oregon and Texas had ups and downs over the meet’s two days and it came down to the final leg of the final relay. Oregon pulled out the win by inches.
Best meet, conference championship division
I give the Big Ten a hard time because it’s not the major track and field conference that its members think it is–it hasn’t won an outdoor NCAA team title since before the Soviet Union joined the IOC–but it does have some great conference championship meets. The men’s competition at the Big Ten Indoor Championships was the most thrilling conference meet of the year. With four events to go, the Wisconsin Badgers trailed Nebraska by 21 points but they came storming back. Michael Lirhman won a showdown of the NCAA’s top four weight throwers, Collin Taylor upset the high jump formcharts to finish second, and Wisconsin’s deep distance corps stunned with a 1-2-3 finish in the 3000 meters. They took an 8½ point lead into the 4×400 and that was that.
Best meet, relay division
There are a lot of college meets that call themselves “relays” but only about ten of them have a broad enough array of college relay races to deserve the title. The Drake Relays has worked very hard to make itself into a great meet overall and it’s now probably the second-best pro meet in the USA (after the Pre Classic). But when it comes to college relay races, the Penn Relays is the best, period, this year or any other. In terms of purely college competition, I think the Texas Relays is #2 this year.
Best meet, dual division
Oregon’s Pepsi Team Invitational is usually in the running for this honor but that long-standing tradition was gutted this year (more on that later). Last month I named Washington vs Washington State as the dual meet of the year, given the closeness of both the men’s and women’s competition and it being the going-away dual meet for longtime WSU coach Rick Sloan.
Best race, individual division
The men’s 5000 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships, a showdown between Arizona’s Lawi Lalang and Oregon’s Edward Cheserek, was one of the great all-time battles in college distance running. It was fast; a new meet record and #7 on the all-time collegiate list. It was close; just hundredths of a second between first and second. It was back-and-forth; Ches made a hard move with 200 to go but couldn’t hold the lead. It was meaningful on many levels; the tie-breaking race between two men who have won 12 NCAA titles between them, and a pivotal race in the team competition. It’s everything you ever wanted in a distance race.
Best race, relay division
I’m of the opinion that, in most cases, relays are more exciting than individual races. Colleges and high schools have known this for a long time and the IAAF just figured it out this year. Thus the need for a separate division. Without a doubt, it was the women’s 4×400 at the NCAA Indoor Championships (see above).
Best field event competition
The men’s pole vault at the NCAA Indoor Championships had the best finish of any field event competition this year. Ole Miss’ Sam Kendricks, the reigning outdoor champion, had a clean sheet all the way through 5.60 meters (18′ 4½”), as did Akron’s Shawn Barber, his main rival. Barber missed his first attempt at 5.65 (18′ 6½”) and Kendricks made it to keep his clean sheet. Barber made his second attempt but was behind as the bar went to 5.70 (18′ 8¼”).
Barber missed his first attempt at 5.70 and Kendricks made it. Behind on all tiebreakers, Barber passed to 5.75, a height he had never made. He made it on his first attempt and watched Kendricks miss all three. Such are the vertical leaps; you can lead the whole time and have the win snatched away right at the end.
This is who I think should win the Bowerman Award. The three finalists won’t be announced for a while yet, so I don’t even know who to choose from. And unlike previous years, there is no obvious choice.
There were collegiate records set this year in the women’s indoor and outdoor 400 meters. But they were different athletes, Phyllis Francis indoors and Courtney Okolo outdoors. Given that I’m looking for someone with sustained excellence over the whole season and these two split the NCAA indoor and outdoor titles in the event, I don’t think I’d go with either one.
For the women, I think my choice is Oregon middle-distance runner Laura Roesler. She didn’t break the collegiate record in the 800 meters mostly because she didn’t get in the right race. For example, had the Prefontaine Classic fit her schedule she might have been able to get under 2:00.00. But the most important this is that she was untouchable in her event for the whole season. She earns bonus points for running some tremendous 4×400 relay legs at the NCAA Championships, both indoors and out.
My choice on the men’s side is Texas thrower Ryan Crouser. He was undefeated in his event on the season and never seriously challenged, and his distances would be competitive on the Diamond League circuit. He gets bonus points for being a pretty darned good discus thrower too, and might have been able to challenge for the NCAA title in that event had he not injured his foot on his final attempt in the shot.
This is an award I first contemplated three years ago. That year I went to both the Penn Relays and the NCAA Championships and Texas A&M’s Tabarie Henry stuck out as the guy who did whatever the team needed him to do and he did it well.
This award winner cannot be an individual star (although they probably would be considered so on 97% of the teams in the NCAA). This person has to be versatile enough to fill holes for the team and do it well.
This year’s winner is Texas A&M’s Ashton Purvis. She was this close to scoring in the 100 and 200 at the NCAAs, finishing as the fastest non-qualifier in the semis in both races. She led off their NCAA champion 4×100 team. She scored at the SEC Championships. She ran on three different relays at the Penn Relays and two at the Texas Relays. She scored points at the NCAA and SEC Indoor Championships and at every one of the Aggies’ many indoor and outdoor scored meets. She is what basketball coaches call a “glue guy”, the athletes who do the unglamorous but necessary work that makes for a winning team.
The best new athlete on the scene first made his presence widely known in the icebox that was the NCAA Cross Country Championships when he appeared to pull off a stunning upset. Now we know he’s just that good. Oregon’s Edward Cheserek won the first four NCAA championship races he entered: cross country, indoor 5000 and 3000, and outdoor 10,000. He destroyed the fields in the distance medley and 4xmile at the Penn Relays. His only significant losses, the Pac-12 1500 meters and NCAA outdoor 5000 meters, were narrow and to an eight-time NCAA champion named Lawi Lalang (who sports PRs of 3:52 and 13:00). He’s been described as the most electrifying Oregon freshman since Steve Prefontaine.
Oregon freshman Devon Allen was not expected to even make the NCAA Championships until a breakthrough race at the Pac-12 Championships. He’d missed some training time for spring football and was starting to get things together, and only when he ran even faster at the West Preliminaries was he considered a serious NCAA scoring threat. Once at the nationals he ran unexpectedly well in the NCAA semifinals, winning his heat.
But in the final, Allen faced defending champion Wayne Davis II and new star Aleec Harris, both of whom had run as fast as the winning time in the first two Diamond League meets of the year. He faced Eddie Lovett and Omar McLeod, the last two NCAA indoor champions. He was up against probably the deepest field in the entire NCAA Championships.
And he won. Not because the others left the door open–most ran PRs or close to them–but because he ran a stunning time of 13.16. It was a meet record, breaking the one held by Aries Merritt…you know, the guy who now holds the world record. It’s the fastest any US teenager has ever run. In fact the only teenagers who have run faster are Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang, the guys who held the world record right before Merritt broke it. Stunningly fast, and for a guy who wasn’t even in the picture until a month ago.
Athlete most likely to be a future star
No doubt some future Olympic champion competed in college track this year. Figuring out who that might be is no easy task. I mean, when you look back at the most recent Olympic Games and World Championships, the gold medalists who were NCAA products weren’t always the ones who were the “best” athletes in college track.
Two athletes jump out at me as being world-class right now: Courtney Okolo and Devon Allen. The latter is explained above (Allen’s NCAA winning time would have been second at the Pre Classic). Okolo broke the collegiate record in the 400 meters, albeit aided by a bit of altitude in Lubbock, Texas, but if you take her winning time from Friday and drop it into the Prefontaine Classic she finishes just behind Amantle Montsho, the 2011 World Champion, and just ahead of Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic champion.
The real key to being a legitimate worldwide star is not only being really good while a college-aged athlete but improving a whole lot after that. Who seems to have that ability?
One candidate is Ryan Crouser. I think this because he’s already close to throwing world-class distances, he’s got time to grow into the size of the true world-class shot putters, and that he appears to love throwing more than anything. Most high school throwing stars don’t pan out at the next level but he already has.
The other is Kendell Williams. The Georgia freshman won the NCAA heptathlon despite tripping and falling in the 800 meters. She’s a great hurdler and jumper–she probably could have scored at the NCAAs in three individual events–and has plenty of time to get better at the throws and 800 meters.
This was like watching Best in Show with two Fred Willards.
TFN message board user “booond” on the horrible announcing duo working the NCAA Championships broadcast.
Vin Lananna is never one to shy away from a challenge. The Oregon assistant AD for track & field operations and former Duck men’s head coach once took a cross country team with no scholarships and little tradition, Dartmouth, to runner-up at the NCAA Championships. He turned around a moribund Stanford program and stopped Arkansas’ national championship streak. He did another turnaround job at Oregon both in terms of creating a nationally-competitive program and in reigniting fan enthusiasm that had fallen through the 1990s and early 2000s to very low levels, even for Eugene. He tried to land the 2001 IAAF World Championships in the USA and failed, then tried and succeeded in landing the 2014 World Juniors and 2016 World Indoors in the USA. Right now he seems to be tilting at a windmill by trying to bring the 2019 IAAF World Championships to Oregon, but he’s a smart and wily man and must have a plan that could work.
Interviewed on Saturday’s NCAA Championships broadcast, Lananna said he wants to grow the attendance at the NCAAs to a final-day turnout of 20,000 fans. That’s a much bigger challenge than most people realize. For one, it’s probably never before been accomplished, even when track and field held a much higher position in the public’s consciousness. The best official Saturday attendance is 19,562 at Provo, Utah, in 1967, and the general consensus then was that a significant portion of those in the stands weren’t sports fans so much as Mormons fulfilling the duty of supporting BYU. The high-water mark at Oregon is 14,135 in 1978 (the Eugene Register-Guard reported an estimate of 21,000 in 1964 but I find that hard to believe).
Despite the fact that both of Oregon’s teams were in the hunt for their first outdoor national titles in three decades, this year’s attendance was basically the same as last year’s and down from 2010. This is the normal situation when a university hosts the NCAAs on multiple occasions in a short period of time. For example, Drake set a new attendance record in 2008 (despite half of Des Moines being underwater) but the numbers fell off in 2011 and 2012. The same goes for Sacramento State in 2003, ’05, ’06 and ’07, Boise State in 1994 and ’99, Duke in 1990 and 2000, and BYU in 1967, ’75, ’82 and ’89. The NCAAs are a big deal the first time a city hosts and then not so much in subsequent years.
But there’s another issue that may be at play. Oregon may have the best track fans in the nation but they’re a demanding bunch, and many were dissatisfied with this year’s regular-season offering. The Pepsi Team Invitational, the most popular regular-season meet in any given year, was gutted and replaced with a dual meet against Arizona, a mostly lopsided and boring affair. Many stars were either held out or sent to away meets on home meet weekends. And many fans weren’t happy about it.
But maybe this doesn’t matter. Maybe getting 20,000 in the seats at the NCAAs is like a church filling the pews on Christmas or Easter, which is quite a different thing from filling them on a week-in and week-out basis. Maybe creating new Oregon track fans isn’t the key to putting 20,000 in the seats for the NCAAs so much as getting existing Oregon sports fans to come to one track meet a year. I mean, they have no trouble getting 50,000 to come see football games, so the fan base is more than big enough.
Lananna is a smart man and he learns from not only his own mistakes but others’ mistakes as well. The last time the Oregon track program de-emphasized regular season home meets, the early 2000s, it ended up costing then-head coach Martin Smith his job. Fan turnout in general was abysmal and the 2001 NCAAs had less than half the attendance of this week’s championships. Even in Eugene, track fans aren’t born but made.