June 4, 2013
EUGENE, Ore. -- In one respect, two-thirds of the work is done. On the other hand, the biggest challenge may still lie ahead.
In both cross country and indoor track and field, Wisconsin took a place on the podium to hoist trophies at this year's NCAA championships. That makes another piece of hardware available for the taking this week for the Badgers at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
The No. 13-ranked UW men's track and field team has its sights on leaving Eugene, Ore., with the title of Program of the Year.
For the Badgers, that simply means following a familiar script in which the seven athletes they've brought along come through individually to power a strong team effort. In cross country, seven combined to make the Badgers the NCAA runner-up. In indoor track, another seven joined forces to take third and put UW on the podium for the third time in eight years.
Now, a different group of seven can secure for UW the title of the nation's best all-around program at the outdoor championships, which run Wednesday through Saturday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
Of course, the Badgers are attempting to complete their quest without some of the key pieces that have contributed along the way. Junior Mohammed Ahmed (redshirting), junior Japheth Cato (injured) and senior Elliot Krause (injured) were all part of UW's podium finish at the NCAA indoor meet.
That's not to say the Badgers are lacking strength in some of their key event areas. UW boasts multiple qualifiers in the 1500 meters and 5000 meters, with all four of those athletes capable of strong point-scoring finishes.
The challenge will be keeping pace with No. 2-ranked Arkansas, which is tied with Texas A&M for the most entries (and scoring opportunities) for the national meet with 20. The Razorbacks won the NCAA indoor title when UW finished third in March and, combined with their 10th-place finish in cross country, own a combined Program of the Year score of 11 points.
The objective with the John McDonnell Program of the Year award -- which is named for the legendary coach that led Arkansas to 40 national titles and presented by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association -- is to amass the lowest cumulative score between the NCAA cross country and indoor and outdoor track meets. Scoring is based on a team's finishes, with a championship worth one point, a second-place finish worth two points and so on.
Based on their score of five points entering the meet, the Badgers must finish within five places of Arkansas in order to win the Program of the Year title. If the Razorbacks win the outdoor championship -- which they are capable of doing -- UW can be no worse than sixth. Wisconsin must also stay within three places of No. 17 Oklahoma State in order to finish ahead of the Cowboys, who won the cross country title in the fall and were eighth indoors for a cumulative score of nine points.
The Badgers were eighth in the Program of the Year standings in 2011-12 and 2009-10, with Indiana's runner-up finish last year the highest-ever finish by a Big Ten program.
So, how will the Badgers answer the challenge? With these seven qualifiers for the NCAA championships:
Few events are more difficult to predict in a championship setting than the men's 1500 meters, which can play out anywhere along the gamut from plodding, tactical affair to blazing, last-man-standing sprint.
The Badgers' Alex Hatz has shown the ability to run fast -- his lifetime-best 3:39.87 from April's Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational ranks No. 2 among the 24-man NCAA championships field -- while teammate Austin Mudd has quickly developed a reputation as a savvy racer.
Mudd, who put on a show with his gutsy third-place finish in the NCAA indoor mile by running a school-record 3:57.93, did not advance out of the semifinals in the 800 meters in his NCAA outdoor debut last year. Hatz is making his first appearance in an NCAA outdoor meet.
In Thursday's semifinal round, the pair will be looking to finish in the top five of their respective heats to automatically advance to Saturday's final. After the top five in each section, the next two fastest overall times will fill out the 12-man field for the final.
That Mudd, who is capable of contending for the win, ranks 23rd in the 24-man semifinal field based on seasonal times shows the depth of the event.
The favorite's role likely falls on the shoulders of Indiana's Andy Bayer, who won the title in dramatic fashion last year by diving across the line to nip BYU's Miles Batty by one hundredth of a second. Bayer is coming off an impressive double at the Big Ten championships in which he claimed the 1500 and then narrowly outlasted UW's Reed Connor to take the 5000 meters title.
The Badgers' entries in the 5000 meters are happy to be back at the NCAA championships, but neither will be happy simply to be there. Both junior Reed Connor and senior Maverick Darling return to the NCAA outdoor meet for the first time since 2011, and both have eyes on piling up some points for the Badgers' efforts.
A year has made all the difference for Darling, who was robbed of most of his outdoor season by an injury in 2012 and failed to qualify for the national meet. Since then, it's been nothing but up for the senior, who has made the most of his final collegiate season.
Darling won the Big Ten indoor 3000 meters and went on to score a fourth-place finish in the 5000 to pick up All-America honors at the NCAA championships in March. He followed that with another Big Ten title outdoors in the 10,000 meters and then raced his way into the national meet with a strong showing in the 5000 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round. He's ranked No. 4 in the NCAA field based on his personal-best time of 13:30.40 from April.
Darling's other appearance at the NCAA outdoor championships was a 14th-place finish in the 10,000 meters in 2011.
Connor is also back at the NCAA meet for the first time since 2011, when he took 16th in the 5000 meters as a redshirt freshman after winning the Big Ten title in the event. This year, he finished second in the Big Ten 5000, but Connor looked strong two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, en route to advancing on to the NCAA championships.
Mohammed Ahmed, who is redshirting the outdoor campaign, was seventh in the event last year for UW and then finished fifth in the indoor 5000 at the NCAA championships in March to earn a pair of All-America honors.
Northern Arizona's Diego Estrada is the seasonal leader at 13:15.33 and was runner-up in the NCAA indoor 5000 meters this year, but Arizona junior Lawi Lalang will have something to say about the outcome in Saturday's final. Also contending are indoor 3000 meters runner-up Kemoy Campbell of Arkansas and Texas A&M's Henry Lelei.
Alex Brill is back at the NCAA championships for the first time in two years, as well, and plans on improving on the 22nd-place showing he posted as a freshman in 2011.
Last year, Brill finished fifth at the Big Ten championships but then struggled as the top seed at the 2012 NCAA West Preliminary Round and was unable to book another trip to the national meet.
Momentum is on his side this year, however, following a pair of outstanding performances. Brill won the Big Ten title in convincing fashion last month and then put together a great race at the NCAA West Preliminary Round two weeks ago, running the second-fastest time of his career with a finish in 8:39.52.
Brill owns the seventh-best time among the 24 competing in Wednesday's semifinal round, but will have his work cut out for him. The top five in each of the two semifinal heats advance automatically to Friday's championship race, with the next two fastest overall times rounding out the 12-man field for the final. Running in the first semifinal section, Brill won't have the luxury of knowing what is needed to qualify on time and will aim for a top-five finish to assure himself of a spot in the final.
Four of the top five runners in the field (based on seasonal times) are in Brill's heat, making his challenge that much more difficult. The title favorite, Texas A&M's Henry Lelei, runs in the second section.
If Danny Block can bottle the energy that carried him to an All-America finish indoors, the junior will be just fine when he competes Wednesday. Block erupted with emotion after heaving a lifetime-best and school-record throw of 65 feet, 7 1/2 inches to secure his third-place finish at the NCAA indoor championships in March.
He's already thrown 63-4 1/4 outdoors this year, an effort that gave Block the silver at the Big Ten championships after Nebraska's Chad Wright nipped him for the title on his final throw. That mark has Block ranked seventh among the 24 men in the meet, with the top eight all topping 63 feet this season.
Block makes his second-consecutive NCAA outdoor championships appearance after qualifying in the discus last year -- on the heels of his Big Ten title in the event -- and finishing 12th.
Along with national leader Ryan Crouser of Texas, who has thrown 69-2 1/2 this outdoor season, Block joins Arizona State's Jordan Clarke, Kole Weldon of Texas Tech and Bozidar Antunovic of Texas-Arlington as the only competitors in the field to top the 20-meter (65-7 1/2) plateau this year. Clarke, Weldon and Block did so while finishing 1-2-3 at the NCAA indoor championships.
In light of Zach Ziemek's rapid rise through the ranks of the collegiate combined events world, it would take a lot for the UW sophomore to surprise in the decathlon in Eugene.
The Big Ten decathlon champion, Ziemek is also riding the momentum of a fifth-place finish in the heptathlon at the NCAA indoor championships, but the rising star faces a legion of established competitors when competition opens Wednesday afternoon.
Five of the men in the field have topped the 8,000-point plateau in their careers, including four 8,000-plus scores this year (plus the score of 7,998 by Washington's Jeremy Taiwo). The top 18 competitors have all topped 7500 points this year, with Ziemek's lifetime-best score of 7,640 points ranking 12th among the qualifiers.
Texas freshman Johannes Hock leads the way with the 8,293 points he scored to win the Big 12 title, with Georgia freshman Maicel Uibo the No. 2 seed at 8,223. Duke's Curtis Beach -- who held off UW's Japheth Cato to win the indoor heptathlon crown in 2012 -- is back after redshirting this year's indoor season and ranks No. 3 at 8,011 points. Homestanding Oregon sophomore Dakotah Keys is the fourth seed at 8,001, followed by Taiwo at No. 5.
Ziemek matches Arkansas' Kevin Lazas and Northern Iowa's Daniel Gooris for the top lifetime-best pole vault effort in the field at 17-8 1/2, with all three achieving the mark indoors this year. Lazas and Ziemek waged a battle for the ages at the NCAA indoor championships in March, with both matching the collegiate record at 17-8 1/2 a week after Gooris (competing unattached) also accomplished the feat at the U.S. indoor championships.
Ziemek seeks to become UW's first All-American in the decathlon since Joe Detmer was the NCAA runner-up in 2007.