Fight to the finish: Badgers battle way to Big Ten title


Feb. 23, 2013

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GENEVA, Ohio -- When a remarkable sequence of events ended with Ed Nuttycombe's Badgers hoisting a Big Ten championship trophy last May -- the 25th under their longtime coach -- he said it might take another 25 titles to see another play out as dramatically.

Turns out Nuttycombe and his team didn't have to wait nearly that long.

The final day of the 2013 Big Ten Indoor Championships played out a little differently, but the result was the same -- Wisconsin walking off the track with yet another piece of hardware.

The 10th-ranked Badgers carried a slim lead into the final event of the meet and managed to come out on top of a wild finish that saw the league's top five teams separated by only four points.

The Badgers finished with 90 points, enough to hold off an unexpected and remarkable second-day charge from Illinois, which took second with 87.5 points, and projected favorites Penn State (87 points), Nebraska (86.667) and Minnesota (86).

As it did for the Badgers last May, the chance at a championship came down to the meet's final event, the 4x400 relay. While last year's run to the outdoor title hinged on a tremendous come-from-behind effort, the Badgers found themselves defending a lead Saturday and needed simply to finish ahead of hard-charging Illinois.

Mathematically, it was down to the Illini and the Badgers for the title, and Illinois boasted the league's No. 2 seed time in the relay -- well ahead of the Badgers' season-best time.

The race looked to follow those seed times over the course of the first three legs, but when the Illini's Stephon Pamilton stumbled and went down with 250 meters to go, Wisconsin anchor Drew Simmons' job became clear -- get to the finish line.

He got there, allowing the Badgers' entry, which also included Garret Payne, Tyler Woloszyk and Babatunde Awosika, to score the point it needed and outlast the Illini in the race for the team title.

"The thing was that it came down to the last event; déjà vu all over again," Nuttycombe said. "The results were the same as far as us winning, but the way it went down was a little different.

"I feel bad for Illinois having some adversity in the relay, but you have to seize the moment, and we did."

The Badgers also seized the Big Ten trophy, their 17th crown on the track since 2000 and the 26th under their 30th-year head coach, the winningest in Big Ten history.

"I was stunned," Nuttycombe said. "I honestly did not know what to say the first few minutes after the race.

"We're going to enjoy this one for right now."

The Badgers carried a lead into the relay only because a quartet of runners came through with a big point-scoring performance in the 5000 meters.

Junior Mohammed Ahmed, senior Maverick Darling, senior Elliot Krause and senior Brian Leung combined to rack up 19 points in the fastest 5000 meters race in Big Ten history.

Ahmed led the charge with a runner-up finish in 13 minutes, 46.56 seconds, with Darling third in 13:47.67. The duo doubled back to score podium finishes after racing in the 3000 meters late Friday - an event Darling won in a Big Ten meet-record time of 7:50.97 to help stake UW to a first-day lead in the team standings.

Krause took sixth in 13:53.90, with Leung seventh in 13:58.18.

Along with a vital point tallied by senior Paul Annear with his eighth-place finish in the high jump, the Badgers owned a 1 1/2-point lead heading into the 4x400.

"We needed at least 17 points out of the 5K and they got us 19," senior captain Grant Bughman said. "Guys stepped up when they needed to and, at the end of the day, all that mattered was getting that stick around the track. Sometimes that's all it takes."

It also took a 1-2 finish for the Badgers in the heptathlon.

Senior Japheth Cato became just the second athlete in Big Ten history to win three conference titles in the heptathlon and - as usual - did so in record-setting fashion. He topped his own Big Ten record with a score of 6,090 points, a mark that ranks second among Americans and No. 4 in the world this year.

Cato became the second collegian to top 6,000 points three times, joining 2012 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton, who achieved the feat at Oregon.

"I came here with the determination of just simply coming here to win," Cato said. "Halfway through it, right after high jump, I thought `Man, I just might go for it.' I only have a couple of these (heptathlons) my whole entire life so it's all or nothing. Go big or go home."

He held off sophomore teammate Zach Ziemek, who demolished his previous personal-best score by racking up 5,846 points. The effort rocketed Ziemek to No. 5 in the NCAA this season, securing a bid to the NCAA indoor championships, and made him the No. 2 performer in UW history.
 
"I really wanted to take second place because Cato is amazing and I know I couldn't take first," Ziemek said, "but I really wanted to help the team out this year."

Cato started the day with a bang, winning the 60 hurdles in 7.83 seconds to break his own school record for the heptathlon version of the event and score the fourth-fastest time in school history overall.

He followed up that performance by tying for first in the pole vault with Ziemek, with both clearing 16 feet, 10 3/4 inches.

With only the 1000 meters left to go and the title in sight, Cato ran a career-best time of 2:45.42, almost four seconds faster than his previous best.

For Cato, the thrill of winning hasn't faded after standing atop the podium for three straight years.

"It is still exciting," he said. "With a crowd like this, it doesn't get any less interesting."

Sophomore Austin Mudd finished second in the 800 meters in 1:49, 86, finishing just short of Penn State's Brannon Kidder, who finished in 1:49.73.

Fellow sophomore Alex Hatz finished sixth in the mile in 4:04.69, and Woloszyk placed eighth in the 600 meters, crossing the finish line in a personal-best 1:17.96.

UW finished with three event titles and five runner-up finishes for the meet.

"Ziemek and Cato were awesome, Mudd was great and, the 5000, we hang our program and our success in that area," Nuttycombe said. "But you can't ever forget the Tyler Woloszyks and the Paul Annears. Those one, two, three points are the ones that made a difference.

"Although the big guys up front did a great job, and those were all-important points, especially when the meet's this close."

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