May 14, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
• Reaction: Nuttycombe | 4x400 | Steinbach | Guthrie
MADISON, Wis. -- An inquisitive Mohammed Ahmed couldn’t help but search for some telltale signs leading up to the Big Ten outdoor track and field meet; a probe “for answers” that consumed “the whole week’’ he said.
By Saturday, as some of his UW teammates began to peak, Ahmed’s curiosity was piqued. “I was cheering on the guys,’’ he said, “and after every event, I’d ask, ‘How are we doing? Are we still in it?’’’
Ahmed heard what he wanted to hear, and saw what he wanted to see on the scoreboard. The Badgers were doing what they had to do to stay atop the team standings ahead of Indiana and Nebraska -- whether it was Dan Block winning the discus; David Grzesiak, Derek Steinbach and Ian Jansen finishing 3-4-8 in the decathlon; or Japheth Cato collecting valuable points in the pole vault and long jump.
Then there was Alex Brill, whose contribution Saturday was generally overshadowed by the others. He took a fifth place in the steeplechase, running the No. 5 time in the nation this season. “That was unbelievable,’’ Ahmed said. UW assistant coach Mick Byrne agreed. “His previous best time coming into this meet was 8:52 and he runs an 8:37,’’ said an almost incredulous Byrne. “All weekend we had kids stepping up like that. It was incredible.’’
Block felt like something special was about to happen early Sunday afternoon. Although he was disappointed that he hadn’t competed better in the shot put -- an eighth-place finish due in part to some problems gripping the shot because of previous tendon damage to his fingers -- he pointed out, “The adrenaline is flowing for the whole team. It’s just electric here. That’s the best way I can put it.’’
Actually, Block had learned a painful lesson the year before in the Big Ten meet when he fell short of personal expectations. “What I learned was … on any given day … whoever is competing well that day will win,’’ he said, citing a familiar sports cliché. Reapplying it to his discus win, he said, “I realized that I wasn’t the top seed going in, but I also realized that it could be my day.’’
That’s how Sunday was shaping up for the Badgers, though every time Ahmed asked for a scoring update, he got the same answer. “They said we need points,’’ he recounted. Such was the ebb and flow of the competition from event to event.
“It’s just like any track meet,’’ insisted UW assistant coach Mark Guthrie. “You’ve got ups and you’ve got downs and you have to overcome stuff.’’
Shortly after Steinbach was recognized for his second-place finish in the javelin, he opened the door to the mindset that he shared with teammates. “Our expectation was to win the meet,’’ he said, “and my expectation was to do everything I could to help the team win. That means scratch, claw -- whatever I had to do. I wanted to throw it as far as I could and score as many points as possible.’’
Wisconsin head coach Ed Nuttycombe couldn’t have been prouder of Steinbach’s PR in the javelin. How big were those eight points that he earned? Especially in context with Nebraska’s Austin Braman falling to fourth?
“Oh, gosh, huge,’’ Nuttycombe said. “He’s seeded third. Nebraska is seeded second in the event. That’s a two-point minus and plus. That’s four points right there.’’
The meet was going to be determined by the smallest of margins, he added hesitantly. Earlier in the week, the decision had been made to run Ahmed in the 5000 meters instead of the 10,000 meters. “I was still real tired from the 10K that I did two weeks ago,’’ Ahmed admitted of his run that ranks No. 6 in the world this year. “What I said was, ‘Mick (Byrne), I’m real excited for the 5K. I don’t mentally know about getting around 25 laps for a 10K.’’’
As it turned out, Ahmed was brilliant in the 5000 -- outdistancing Minnesota’s Hassan Mead, a close friend. “We talked before the race,’’ Ahmed recalled of his conversation with Mead. “We said, ‘These Indiana guys are real fast kickers so let’s work together and share the lead.’ And we did that. (Minnesota’s) Bobby Nicolls took us out for the first four laps and that helped.’’
Ahmed stayed motivated by thinking, “This is my track. I’ve got to go out there and put on a little bit of a show.’’
While competing, he said, “I kind of zoned out’’ focusing on “one lap’’ at a time. This was only his third race of the year and he noted. “I’ve been putting in a lot of miles, and I wanted it (a Big Ten title).’’ Plus, there was additional motivation. “I’ve got to get this for my team,’’ he said.
Going into the final event, the 4x400 relay, the Badgers trailed Nebraska by 1 1/2 points.
“I knew they would run well, I really did,’’ Nuttycombe said of Garret Payne, Brady Hammon, Kyle Jefferson and Drew Simmons. “When you get to this point, you’re thinking, ‘Man, these guys are on fumes. They’re tired.’ Then you look around, and everybody else is tired, too.
“What it really boils down to in that race is heart.
“You just have to want it more than the other teams.’’
Nobody was quite sure what Jefferson had left after a grueling 48 hours. Guthrie was ready to replace Jefferson.
“This was our last shot and I didn’t want to be the guy to not run and we’d lose. I’m a senior; I wanted everyone in our class to go out with a ring. I wanted us to go out as champions, and that’s what we did.’’
- Kyle Jefferson on his 4x400 relay performance
“I called (Grant) Bughman out of the stands -- we ran him over here (from the infield to the track); I was bringing the lefty in,” teased Guthrie, using a baseball metaphor. “But the doctors said Kyle was good to go if we wanted to let him run, so we let him run.’’
Jefferson ran the race of his life --at least his UW life -- collapsing from sheer exhaustion on the track after completing his leg.
“I didn’t want to let my team down,’’ Jefferson said. “This was our last shot and I didn’t want to be the guy to not run and we’d lose. I had to put my ego and everything else aside and run with everything I had. I’m a senior; I wanted everyone in our class to go out with a ring.
“I wanted us to go out as champions, and that’s what we did.’’
The Badgers needed to keep Nebraska in their rearview mirror, and they did. Jefferson’s teammates wanted him to carry the banner on a victory lap, but he collapsed again. Rushing to his side was his dad, Ken, who has been in Madison for the past week.
“He was gassed and I didn’t think he had it in him,’’ Ken Jefferson said of his son. “But he wanted to win so bad. He knew his team needed him.’’
Kyle Jefferson conducted his post-race interview on the track seated on a folding chair. He said his finishing kick was partly out of loyalty and commitment to his parents and his teammates. “Happy Mother’s Day, mom,’’ said Jefferson, knowing the word would get back to Tina in Cleveland. “I thought about my mom and what she would want me to do.’’
Nuttycombe said that he didn’t have a stopwatch in his hand for the climatic relay. The splits meant nothing to him. “It was all about racing,’’ he stressed. “That’s the heart and soul of the sport.’’
Nobody showed more heart in this Big Ten outdoor meet than the Badgers. Several conference head coaches came up to Nuttycombe and congratulated him for the “team championship.’’
Walking away from the track, Nuttycombe smiled contently and said, “We’re back.’’
He was talking to no one in particular -- and everyone.