College Recap: Conference Championships
The most honored seat on the bus this weekend doesn’t go to a person. (Photo: @RazorbackTF twitter)
A lot went on this weekend in conference championships. These are the meets when there is no “next time”, no “we’re peaking later in the season”. Trophies are on the line.
Arkansas won their third straight SEC indoor title, an impressive feat considering the amazing depth of the conference. The Hogs are #1 in the USTFCCCA’s computer rankings but had to down #2 Florida and #3 Texas A&M to win. It marks their ninth straight SEC title between indoor track, outdoor track, and cross country. And they did it without one of their stars, heptathlete Kevin Lazas, who missed the meet due to undisclosed “family issues”.
The Hogs won just three events (high jump, long jump, 5k) but showed off a quality that harkens back to the days of Bill Bowerman and high-powered west coast dual meets: “balance”. They scored in thirteen of the seventeen events, only missing in the sprints and throws, a remarkable accomplishment given the brutal competitive depth of this conference. They clinched the title with two events remaining, even while missing a defending NCAA champion.
“I’m really proud of my coaches and athletes,” coach Chris Bucknam told ArkansasRazorbacks.com. “This is the best track meet in the country and to fend off the number 2 and 3 ranked teams in the country for the win makes it that much sweeter. We dedicated this win to Kevin Lazas and his family. We were thinking about him all weekend and we look forward to having him back with us for the national championships.”
The Florida Gators finished a distant second, fifteen points behind Arkansas, but with the kind of big-meet firepower that suggests they have a chance at winning the NCAA Championships in two weeks. The Gators put up the year’s two fastest times in the 200 (Dedric Dukes and Arman Hall), the second-fastest in the 400 (Hall again), and tied the collegiate record in the 4×400. About that last race…they didn’t win it.
Texas A&M finished third in the meet but garnered the most headlines from international followers of track and field. Deon Lendore won the 400 meters in 45.03–which makes him not only the fastest in college track this year, but the 6th fastest ever indoors. He would be a prohibitive favorite to win gold for his native Trinidad and Tobago at next week’s World Indoor Championships if he were to compete, but the NCAAs take precedence right now.
He came back and anchored the Aggies’ 4×400 relay to a new collegiate record of 3:03.20. Only four other teams, all representing entire nations, have ever run faster indoors. Lendore’s anchor leg split of 44.66 is not the fastest ever indoors (and not even his own best) but it’s awfully close.
Other notable results included Florida’s Eddie Lovett winning his fourth straight hurdles title: Alabama freshman Jeremiah Green hitting a 15-inch PR to win the triple jump and move to #3 in the NCAA; defending NCAA outdoor pole vault champion Sam Kendricks (Ole Miss) winning his first SEC title; and Georgia’s Maicel Uibo winning the heptathlon by over 500 points and going to #4 on the collegiate list.
While the men’s championship wasn’t particularly close, the women’s was. It ended with some level of controversy.
Heading into the concluding 4×400 relay, the scores were Texas A&M 96½, Florida 92, Arkansas 87½. Long sprinter Kamaria Brown had been the hero of the day, winning the 200 and 400 in the best indoor one-day double in world history. Brown was sitting out the 4xe400 but the Aggies’ relay were still co-favorites to win the event and secure the team title.
On the anchor leg, Texas A&M’s Olivia Ekpone was running in the outside of lane one but closed it off when Florida’s Ebony Eutsey tried to pass on the inside, and contact ensued. Florida ended up first and Texas A&M second, which appeared to give the overall championship to the Aggies. But it was ruled that Ekpone impeded Eutsey, the Aggies were disqualified and got no points out of the event, and the title went to Florida.
All this might sound familiar. All the Aggies had to do to win last year’s NCAA men’s outdoor championship was not finish last in the 4×400. But they dropped the baton and it opened the door for Florida to take the event and tie for the win. If it sounds familiar to another recent high-profile disqualification, it’s not. Here the athlete who moved to cut off another got disqualified, and after the coach’s appeal was denied he accepted the decision of the jury of appeals as final.
“Especially on a call like that, it’s a tough one,” head coach Pat Henry told AggieAthletics.com. “We’ll stand up, we’ll come back another day, and we’ll be ready to go. You don’t like to lose big time meets like this on a call like that, but it happens.”
Florida still had to earn their way into the position to take advantage of an error, and the greatest credit goes to distance runner Cory McGee. She anchored the winning distance medley, won the 3000 and took second in the mile.
Behind third-place Arkansas was a newcomer to the top end of SEC track and field: the Kentucky Wildcats. To say that there’s not much of a track and field tradition at Kentucky is an understatement; the Wildcats have never won an SEC championship, men’s or women’s, indoors or out. This was the highest finish for the women’s team since 1989, and the men’s fifth-place finish was their best since 1996. New head coach Edrick Floreal, lured away from Stanford, has introduced a can-do attitude into the program, and the Wildcats came away with four men’s event titles and two women’s. Sprinter Dezerea Bryant and hurdler Kendra Harrison are odds-on favorites to win NCAA titles after winning here and putting up the year’s best times in the process. The turnaround has been remarkable and swift.
Other notable results included Leontia Kallenou’s (Georgia) upset win in the high jump with a PR and a collegiate leader, Morgan Leleux’s (Georgia) pole vault win with her best height since suffering an eye injury and surgery last year; Ciara Brewer (Florida) winning the triple jump with the year’s #2 collegiate mark; Kearsten Peoples (Missouri) winning the shot with a collegiate leader; and Erica Bougard (Mississippi State) winning the pentathlon with the year’s second-best score.
A number of years ago, Oklahoma State de-emphasized its men’s track program and made it basically a distance-only program. Virtually the entire team was distance runners–and it led to some great success in cross country. But to call the Cowboys a “track and field team” didn’t seem right and they were never really competitive at the Big XII Championships. Even a year ago, the official roster listed 28 athletes as “distance” or “middle distance”, two as “jumps”, and one as “throws”.
This year’s team is still highly distance-oriented but not completely. There are now ten athletes who do sprints, jumps or throws. Four are borrowed from the football program, including Tyreek Hill, one of the fastest high school sprinters of all time. It’s a bit more like an actual track and field team now.
How much like one? At this weekend’s Big XII Championships, the Cowboys scored 21½ points in the sprints and 11 in the throws. Of course they still have their extraordinarily deep distance crew and they piled up the points too.
After Hill’s win in the 200 meters, his first race at that distance since high school, the Cowboys found themselves in first place over favored Texas by the score of 101½ to 93½. With no 4×400 relay team, the Cowboys were going to need to have it won by the end of the 3000 meters, and that meant one more big effort by Kirubel Erassa. He’d already won the 5000 and the mile, but he went out and made it a no-contest. He won by more than 100 meters. That, plus an eighth place by Shane Moskowitz, put them ahead of the Longhorns by fourteen points and the championship was theirs.
Oklahoma State had never won an indoor conference in the Big XII and never in the Big Eight. Their last indoor conference championship was in 1957, their final year in the Missouri Valley Conference. A sixty-seven year drought broken.
No such upset took place in the women’s competition. #5 Texas was the top-ranked team in the meet and they won by 45 points. If there was an upset, it was that unranked Baylor prevailed over two ranked teams for the runner-up rtiphy. For all the hubbub surrounding the firing of former women’s head coach Bev Kearney, it’s worth noting that this was the Longhorn’s first women’s indoor conference title in eight years, and just the second overall. How many head football coaches at Texas could survive a one-for-twelve conference championship streak? Yet that’s exactly what Kearney had at the end of her career.
Wisconsin came into this meet as the #4 ranked men’s team in the nation and one of only three ranked teams in the conference. That should have made it an easy win, right? Not quite. In any sport, track or otherwise, say what you want about the Big Ten and its ability to keep up with conferences like the SEC, but never, ever say that winning a Big Ten title is easy. The depth of the conference is like none other.
If you want the Big Ten in a nutshell, look no further than the results of the women’s long jump. Michigan’s Erin Busbee won, Ohio State’s Abieyuwa Ehimwenman was second, followed by Iowa’s Zinnia Miller. All three jumped identical seasonal bests of 6.20 meters (20′ 6¼”), and the tie was broken by second-best marks–of 6.17, 6.16 and 6.15 meters. Even after a tiebreaker, just two centimeters separated first and third.
So no one should have been surprised that the Badgers were 21 points out of first place with four events to go. One of those four events remaining was the weight throw, the event in which Wisconsin’s Michael Lihrman set a D-I national record a week ago, but the meet brought together the four top throwers in the nation. He had to earn his ten points, and he did with the third-best throw in Big Ten history. Collin Taylor contributed clutch points in the high jump, winning a four-way tie for second place on the countback. That set the table for the 5000 meters.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Wisconsin bury the competition in the 5000 to put themselves in a position to win the Big Ten title, but all those other teams had already shown distance depth by winning the Big Ten cross country championship. This year’s team was just third in cross, exposing depth issues, and some of this team’s XC stars are middle-distance specialists. Canadian Olympian Mo Ahmed won as expected but more was needed. Reed Connor came up for second, and freshman Malachy Schrobilgen finished third. It put the team 8½ ahead of Nebraska and all but clinched the title. A fifth-place finish in the 4×400 sealed the deal.
“What an incredible performance by Malachy Schrobilgen [to get third and nearly clinch the win],” Wisconsin head coach Mick Byrne told UWBadgers.com. “A redshirt freshman running 13:51 in a conference championship? I bet if you look around the country at results over the last 24 hours, there is no conference championship that went that fast.” Ahmed said, “I was like, “Oh my God, he’s [Schrobilgen] in third, he’s in third!’ He is amazing. I trusted in him, but to come in third, to go 1-2-3 was beautiful.”
Wisconsin can claim to be the dominant team in the Big Ten. The Badgers have won two straight indoor titles and ten of the last fifteen. They have the only NCAA indoor top-four finishes by a men’s Big Ten team in this century (2005, 2007, 2013) and the only NCAA championship, men’s or women’s, indoor or outdoor, since 1948 (in 2007).
In the women’s competition it was a similar but different story. Michigan freshman Erin Finn won the 5000 to pull the Wolverines within a half a point of favored Penn State, but that meant Michigan was going to have to beat the Nittany Lions in the concluding 4×400 to win the title. That was a tall order since it was Penn State’s strength and Michigan’s weakness. The Nittany Lions won the relay and the championship.
“The women were outstanding today,” head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan told GoPSUSports.com. “Michigan pressed us hard throughout the weekend, but we kept our composure and competed great. This is a championship win to remember.”
Time for awards.
The first star: Deon Lendore, Texas A&M
Lendore ran the greatest single-day double in indoor quarter-mile history: the seventh-fastest individual 400 ever (45.04) and the seventh-fastest relay split ever (44.63).
The second Star: Corey Crawford, Rutgers
Crawford won the long jump at the Big East Championships with a leap of 8.22 meters (26′ 11¾”). It puts him #3 on the 2014 world indoor list and just outside the all-time collegiate top ten. The redshirt junior started out at Rutgers as an all-around sprinter and jumper but has really found his niche now, adding two feet to his PR in the last year. 27-foot jumpers aren’t easy to come by these days and he could be an international-level jumper by this summer. He added a runner-up finish in the high jump to score 18 points for the Scarlet Knights.
The third star: Rich Peters, Boston University
Running in a “last chance” meet at his home track, Peters broke the collegiate record in the 1000 meters with 2:18.55. He was dead last in a three-man race; David Torrance won with an American record, Nate Brannen was second in a Canadian record.
Honorable mention: Curtis Beach, Duke
Remember when Beach was supposed to be the next breakout star in the decathlon? That seems so long ago now, but Beach is back atop the collegiate list with his 5987 point win in the ACC heptathlon, one that included a long jump PR. It’s his best heptathlon score in two years.
D-II athlete of the week: Drew Windle, Ashland
Windle’s winning time in the GLIAC 800 meters, 1:48.05, was the fastest collegiate 800 of the weekend, regardless of division.
D-III athlete of the week: Coby Horowitz, Bowdoin
Horowitz ran the mile in 4:00.41 at the NEIC4A champs, a new D-III indoor record. It’s intrinsically “better” than all but the top four on the outdoor all-time DIII 1500 list–and two of those four are owned by US World Indoor Championships team members Will Leer and Nick Symmonds.
Team Player: Kirubel Erassa, Oklahoma State
Erassa won three distance races for his Cowboys–the mile, 3000 and 5000–to help them narrowly win their first indoor conference title in 57 years.
First Star: Kamaria Brown, Texas A&M
Brown ran the greatest single-day indoor 200/400 double in history at the SEC Championships, 22.50 (#5 on the all-time collegiate list) and 50.94 (#8 on the all-time collegiate list).
The second star: Kendra Harrison, Kentucky
Harrison’s 7.94 win in the SEC hurdles ties her for #7 on the all-time collegiate list with Tiffany Porter & Queen Harrison. That’s some rare company.
The third Star: Kearsten Peoples, Missouri
Peoples set a new shot put PR at the SEC Championships, 17.81 meters (58′ 5¼”), which is a foot further than any other collegian has thrown this year.
D-II athlete of the week: Barbara Szabo, Western State
Szabo won the high jump at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championships with 1.91 meters (6′ 3¼”), the best height among any collegian this year regardless of division.
D-III athlete of the week: Lexie Sondgeroth, Wisconsin-Whitewater
Sondgeroth won the long jump at the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with a distance of 6.05 meters (19′ 10¼”) the fourth-best in DIII indoor history. She also won the 200 meters in a DIII leading time and finished runner-up in the 60 meters.
Team Player: Sammi Spenner, Nebraska-Omaha
The hard-luck Spenner, who is ineligible for the NCAA Championships because UNO is in a transition period between D-II and D-I, scored sixty points for her team at the Summit League Championships: second in the 60, third in the 200, won the 60 hurdles, third in the high jump, won the long jump, won the triple jump, and won the pentathlon. All together she ran eight races and competed in six field events.
Honorable mention goes to Eastern Michgian’s Victoria Voronko, who ran four distance races in two days at the Mid-American Conference Championships and won three of them. Friday’s efforts were extraordinary, a 5k win in 16:33.49 and then coming back half an hour later to outduel Toledo’s Megan Wright, a 4:39 runner, on the anchor leg of the distance medley relay.