Lucas: Buying into 'Badger Tough' brings Big Ten title home


Big Ten champions

May 20, 2014

BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin’s Mick Byrne had words with his men’s track and field athletes during the Big Ten outdoor championships at Purdue. And he kept coming back to a couple of words.

Badger Tough.

“Everybody knows what that means,” Byrne said.

In case anyone had forgotten …

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“What it really means,” said Byrne, UW’s Director of Cross Country and Track & Field, “is that when you’re up against it, when you’re backed into a corner, you come out fighting.

“We challenged our guys to be ‘Badger Tough’ on Saturday night. We knew we had lost some points in areas where we expected to get some. That’s life. It doesn’t always go the way you planned.”

Although Wisconsin was still leading the conference meet with 64 points -- 22 ahead of second-place Michigan -- Byrne had some concerns about how the final day might potentially play out.

“We knew Illinois was going to make a huge charge,” Byrne said, “when you looked at the number of kids that they had in the finals, especially in the sprinting group.

“And when you saw the number of kids that Nebraska had in the finals -- they were all over the place and had four in the 400-meter hurdles -- we knew that we were really up against it.

“So we asked the guys to step up and compete on Sunday.”

Was Byrne confident that they would be receptive to the challenge?

“The results showed that,” he said. “We came out and fought for every single point out there.”

It all added up to another Big Ten title for the Badgers, marking the 12th time in program history – and first since 2007 -- they captured the indoor and outdoor championships in the same season.

“The way the kids rallied Sunday,” Byrne said. “It showed we had the same Badger Tough.”

•  •  •  •

Byrne felt that Wisconsin got a huge psychological boost from the finals of the 4x100 relay when Nebraska had some trouble with exchanges and dropped all the way to a ninth-place finish.

“That kind of got the kids excited,” he said.

UW’s 4x100 relay team -- James Stecker, Garret Payne, Babatunde Awosika and Zach Ziemek -- took sixth in the event. But it had more to do with the Cornhuskers struggling from the onset.

“They were having the same type of day Sunday that we had on Saturday,” Byrne said. “It kind of showed our kids, ‘Hey, they can make mistakes, too. They’re human.”’

Byrne was not sandbagging when he conceded, “It was a little overwhelming Saturday night when you looked at the number of kids they (the Huskers) had on the board in races on Sunday.”

But he also kept reminding everybody of the same thing -- “We’re still in it” -- so when Nebraska stumbled and “they actually see it happening, it was, ‘Coach is right, we’ve got a shot here,”’ he said.

Along with setting the early tone for Sunday’s competition -- “They (the Cornhuskers) opened the door and we took advantage of that” -- Byrne also had something else up his sleeve.

“Our ace card was always having the 5K guys,” Byrne said. “You back those guys into a corner and they’re always going to come out fighting; they’re never going to go down without a fight.”

Connor, Ahmed, Byrne, Van Voorhis, Schrobilgen
“Our ace card was having the 5K guys,” Byrne said of Connor, Ahmed, Van Voorhis and Schrobilgen. “You back those guys into a corner and they’re always going to come out fighting; they’re never going to go down without a fight.”

Before the race, Byrne huddled with Mohammed Ahmed, Reed Connor, Malachy Schrobilgen and Michael Van Voorhis. His message was short and to the point; nothing had to be interpreted.

“I was keeping tally of the team score the whole time,” Byrne recounted. “And I said to them, ‘We’ve got to score big points in the 5K. We’ve been in this same spot before. It’s what we do.”’

They had been in the same spot, at the Big Ten indoor meet in February when Connor, Ahmed and Schrobilgen went 1-2-3 in the 5000 to boost the Badgers to the team title.

The reaction Sunday was predictable; personifying the toughness element, especially mentally.

“Both Mo and Reed looked at me, and said, ‘OK, Coach, we got it,”’ recalled Byrne. “Those two guys know how to handle themselves under pressure in a competitive situation like that.”

The Badgers landed a 25-point haymaker on the Big Ten field by sweeping the top three spots in the 5K with Ahmed, Connor and Schrobilgen. Van Voorhis was eighth.

“That was our ace card,” Byrne reiterated happily.

Not that anyone should have been surprised.

On Friday night, the Badgers trumped everyone in the 10K when Connor, Ahmed and Van Voorhis placed one-two-three. Byrne rested Schrobilgen because he wanted him fresh for the 5K.

“It was probably one of the most competitive 10K’s in the history of the meet in terms of depth,” Byrne said. “And that race was in awful conditions. It was raining and cold.

“When you look at the big names -- Mo and Reed -- they did what we expected them to do. But Michael getting third in his first-ever 10K on the track really got the kids pumped up.”

So did Ziemek winning his second-straight Big Ten decathlon.

“What Zach Ziemek brings to the table is just incredible with his intensity,” said Byrne. “He gets excited about performing and loves to be in the spotlight. He just gets excited for the team.

“Again, the weather was atrocious, but it never fazed him. He just said, ‘Hey Coach, we train in Wisconsin, it’s not going to affect us.’ A lot of the kids in that event could have made excuses.

“Not Ziemek, not Charlie Foss, who did an incredible job getting fourth. Double Z keeps Charlie focused and Charlie keeps Double Z at ease. They both play off each other and the team appreciated it.”

There was no shortage of appreciation for Danny Block, who earned three valuable team points in the shot put even though he was severely limited physically because of a foot injury.

“He was basically throwing off one leg,” Byrne said. “Danny is a national caliber athlete. When he’s competing, he’s giving his very best and our kids know that, they know he’s hurt.

“They know he’s trying to work through it (the injury) just to grab a couple of points.”

Badger Tough.

Another Big Ten championship illustrated it.

“We’re going to give the guys some time off the next couple of days to enjoy this,” Byrne said.

The Badgers won’t return to competition until the final weekend of May.

“They’ve created this monster in the NCAA regional meet,” Byrne said of the West Preliminary Round in Fayetteville, Arkansas, “and we have to get through that and see who we can get to the finals.”

He was already gearing himself up for the next challenge.

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