UW Health Sports Medicine 

Race to the top: Men's track looks to return to Big Ten peak

<b>Redshirt freshman Japheth Cato heads into his first Big Ten championships as the conference leader in the heptathlon.</b>

Redshirt freshman Japheth Cato heads into his first Big Ten championships as the conference leader in the heptathlon.

Feb. 25, 2011

MADISON, Wis. -- Having won eight of the last 10 Big Ten indoor men’s track titles, UW coach Ed Nuttycombe has a pulse on what it takes to be a team champion. Based on his experience, he has put together his own short list of potential contenders for the 2011 crown. Only the list isn’t short.

“I’ve truly never seen as much parity as I see this year,” Nuttycombe said. “It might go as deep as five or six teams. I’m not sure every one of those five or six can win it. But they can definitely beat any of the other teams in that group on any given day.

“We’re fortunate we’re in the group.”

Among the favorites will be the Minnesota Gophers, who will be seeking an indoor three-peat at the Big Ten meet this weekend in Champaign, Ill. The Gophers won in 2009 and 2010. Also on Nuttycombe’s list of contenders are Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa and Penn State.

“The difference between winning it all and finishing in third or fourth place could be the swing of an event or two,” said Nuttycombe, whose Badgers won eight straight indoor titles between 2000 and 2008. The UW finished fifth in 2009 and third last season behind Minnesota and Ohio State.

Mike Lucas
UWBadgers.com Insider

“Last year the team that won was probably the team that looked best going in, and that was Minnesota. That was a team that kind of stood out in the group. This year I don’t see that. I see all of these teams being reasonably equitable.”

Why is there so much parity?

And why aren’t the Badgers as dominant as they have been in the past?

“There are just more teams that are doing it better – recruiting and coaching better – recruiting has definitely gotten tougher and more competitive,” said Nuttycombe, who has been recognized as the “Coach of the Year’’ 30 times during his 28 seasons at Wisconsin (dating to 1984).

“There are more teams that are playing the game more effectively. We’re certainly not as dominant as we have been for a number of years. But I don’t think we’re a bad team by any means. We have a lot of good individuals. In many ways, the others have kind of caught up.

With seemingly so much balance among the contenders this season, coaching strategy might be a bigger factor than normal as far as maximizing personnel in certain events and various matchups. “You’re trying to anticipate their moves and they’re trying to anticipate yours,” Nuttycombe said.

To this extent, he added, “It’s going to be a situation on how you place your athletes in relation to others, and how they place theirs, and then who goes out and competes the best on that day. There will be a lot of decisions made before you go to the meet that could affect the outcome of the meet.”

The distance events should be particularly intriguing, Nuttycombe pointed out.

“Obviously, a shot putter is going to shot put and a high jumper is going to high jump,” he said. “But in track events, these athletes in many cases have the ability to move around and run very effectively over a wide variety of events, which should make for some interesting decision-making.

“There’s a large contingency of Big Ten athletes on the national list in the distances. Do you run somebody in the mile? Does he run the 3,000? Does he run the 5,000? Or does he run some combination of the two? Or do you go after the distance medley relay?”

Nuttycombe will have to make those line-up choices by Thursday. “For example, a pure sprinter is probably going to run the 60 and 200,” he said. “A little longer sprinter may run the 200, 400 and one or both relays. An 800 meter runner may drop down and run the 600. Or move up and run the mile.”

But you have to proceed with some caution. “You have to make sure you don’t spread an athlete too thin and come up with a lot of nothing,” he said. “What you may ask him to do may seem like he can do on paper but when you actually get to the final races, their tank is dry, they’re spent.”

 Kyle Jefferson just ran a personal-best 21.73 in the 200 meters. What does Nuttycombe do with Jefferson? Especially since there are a couple of runners who have better times than he does in the 200. There’s another consideration with Jefferson, too. “He’s all legs,” Nuttycombe said.

That’s a factor on an indoor track because of the turns. If the 6-foot-4 Jefferson draws an inside lane for his race, he would face a far greater challenge than if he was running from an outside lane. “So it could come down to almost the luck or the unluck of the draw,” Nuttycombe said.

Jefferson recently completed his four-year football career. He has one more year of eligibility in track. “And he’s only going to get better now that he can zero in on track,” Nuttycombe said. “I’m sure he’s going to miss football. But I think he’s looking forward to spreading his wings on the track.”

The Badgers will have the No. 1 seed in a few events, including Japheth Cato in the heptathlon. “He’s one of those athletes who can learn and adapt real quickly,” Nuttycombe said, “which makes him more effective in multi-event competitions because you have so many things you have to accomplish.”

Although Cato is only a redshirt freshman, Nuttycombe said, “He’s very gifted – he’s fast, he can jump – and he’s an exceptional athlete, which is a pretty darn good starting point.”

Maverick Darling is also a No. 1 seed in the 5,000 meters, while Mohammed Ahmed is a No. 2 seed in the same event. “You’d like to think they’d have a chance,” Nuttycombe said.

That goes for the Badgers – as a whole – in the Big Ten indoors.

“We’re in that group of hopeful and can be,” Nuttycombe said.

Hopeful about their chances.

Can be a champion.

Mike Lucas

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