June 4, 2013
EUGENE, Ore. -- Wisconsin's roster for the NCAA championships is full of familiar faces when it comes to competing on the national stage.
But that's not to say there haven't been some surprises for the Badgers. Pleasant ones, that is.
Seniors Dorcas Akinniyi, Caitlin Comfort and Taylor Smith have become fixtures atop the Badgers' performance lists over the last five years, while junior Deanna Latham and sophomore Kelsey Card have already proven their ability to compete on a national level.
No surprises there.
But senior Ashley Beutler in the 3000 steeplechase? And Latham in the open 100 hurdles? The Badgers are happy to be taking them the meet this week in Eugene, Ore., too.
A pair of school-record runs at the NCAA West Preliminary Round two weeks ago powered the hurdle-hopping pair to the national meet for the first time in their respective events.
It's the first NCAA bid of any kind for Beutler, while Latham qualified in an open event for the first time after competing in the heptathlon last year and the pentathlon at this year's NCAA indoor championships.
Together, the six athletes combined for eight entries for the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships, which takes place this Wednesday through Saturday at Hayward Field.
After winning Big Ten championships indoors and outdoors in her final season, Caitlin Comfort has just one major goal remaining as she prepares for a return appearance at the NCAA outdoor championships -- grabbing an All-America finish and the team points that come along with it.
She came oh-so-close at last year's NCAA meet by finishing ninth in the 10,000 meters. This time around, a top-eight finish is her focus, and it's certainly something Comfort can realize if she continues her late-season surge.
Comfort ran an intelligent -- and fast -- race to grab her first Big Ten outdoor title last month, clocking in at 33:30.16 to claim the 10,000 meters. That came on the heels of her first-ever conference crown in the indoor 5000 in February.
Two weeks after taking the 10,000 title in Columbus, Ohio, Comfort battled her way to an eighth-place finish at the NCAA West Preliminary Round to secure a return trip to the national meet.
She is the third-highest returning finisher in the field behind 2012 runner-up Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton of Wichita State and fourth-place finisher Meaghan Nelson of Iowa State.
While Comfort's season-best time of 33:30.16 from her Big Ten championship run ranks her 13th in the field based on seasonal efforts, only six of her competitors own a faster lifetime best than the 33:19.54 Comfort recorded last year.
Barring disaster for the favorites, the race for the national title will come down to a battle between Kenyans Tuliamuk-Bolton and Betsy Saina of Iowa State.
While Tuliamuk-Bolton was the runner-up last year, Saina enters the championships ranked No. 1 with her personal-best time of 31:37.22, which ranks No. 3 all-time by a collegian. It was in the same Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational race on April 28 that Tuliamuk-Bolton ran the sixth-fastest time in NCAA history, the 32:07.20 that has her ranked No. 2 heading into Wednesday's race.
The hurdles have always been a strength for Deanna Latham in the combined events -- the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon -- but the junior's late-season surge has taken her to a new level in the event.
While it's difficult for multi-event athletes to focus on a single specialty out of the seven-discipline heptathlon, Latham has honed her skills over the hurdles to the extent that she smashed the Badgers' school record in the event with a run of 13.39 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round.
The effort gave Latham control of both the Badgers' all-time bests in the indoor (60-meter) and outdoor (100-meter) hurdles events.
Her effort at the preliminary round was foreshadowed by the performance she put on at the Big Ten championships last month, when Latham clocked a wind-aided time of 13.15 to grab a runner-up finish in the 100 hurdles behind Penn State's Evonne Britton (13.13). Latham's mark is the best all-conditions time in school history.
She enters the NCAA meet ranked 17th among the 24 qualifiers based on seasonal times.
The field will be chasing Clemson junior Brianna Rollins, who owns the nation's top wind-legal time this year at 12.68. She also ran a 12.54 that was just over the wind allowance threshold in late March. Stanford junior Kori Carter ranks No. 2 in the field at 12.76, with UCLA's Brea Buchanan on her heels at 12.77.
Ashley Beutler is indeed saving some of her best racing for last, and the senior looks to go out on a high note in her first NCAA championships appearance. Disappointed after fading late and settling for fifth at the Big Ten championships, Beutler came out swinging at the NCAA West Preliminary Round and put together a complete race.
She finished second in her heat to automatically advance to Eugene and, in the process, chopped eight seconds of her lifetime best to topple the Badgers' school record -- despite stumbling slightly over the final water jump.
Beutler's school-record run of 10:04.51 in the preliminary round has her ranked 13th among the 24 qualifiers based on season-best times. Only eight competitors have cracked the 10-minute barrier this season, leaving the door open for Beutler to score if she can keep building on the momentum of the past month.
She's not the only one surging, however. Of the 24 athletes in the field, 17 set their season-best marks in preliminary-round competition two weeks ago.
Still, based on seasonal times, only two of the nation's top five reside in Beutler's semifinal heat, collegiate leader Emma Coburn of Colorado and Cornell's Rachel Sorna. In fact, of the 12 athletes that have a better seasonal time than Beutler, only five are in her heat.
That makes Beutler's job a little easier, since the top five in each heat automatically advance to Saturday's final. The next two fastest overall times fill out the 12-woman field.
Coburn is the odds-on favorite to win her second NCAA title after collecting the crown in 2011. She redshirted last year to train for London and advanced to the Olympic final. Now, the Pac-12 champion owns the nation's best time by more than 20 seconds at 9:28.26.
Taylor Smith is back at the NCAA outdoor championships for the second-consecutive year, but the senior has bigger plans than the 22nd-place finish she posted last season. Her last national meet appearance was a breakthrough, with Smith scoring All-America honors at the 2013 NCAA Indoor Championships behind a seventh-place showing in the weight throw.
It was the first scoring finish for Smith in four NCAA championships appearances and something she looks to repeat outdoors in Eugene.
Coming off a runner-up finish in the shot put at the Big Ten championships in which she threw 55-7 3/4, Smith tossed a mark of 54-6 to advance through the NCAA West Preliminary Round. Her best mark of the year -- a personal-best 56-11 1/2 -- has her ranked eighth among the 24 athletes in the field.
With a best mark of 62-2 1/2 -- No. 2 in collegiate history -- Oklahoma senior Tia Brooks will be tough for anyone to catch. The defending national champion also claimed the NCAA indoor title in March behind a throw of 63-0 3/4 and then won the Big 12 championship by topping 60 feet again at 60-8 3/4. Indiana State senior Felisha Johnson is the best threat to unseat Brooks and owns a season-best mark of 59-11 1/4.
Earning a berth in the discus kept sophomore Kelsey Card's perfect record intact, as she qualified for her fourth NCAA championships in as many chances during her short UW career. Card has made appearances at both the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships in her first two seasons with the Badgers and is looking to improve upon her outdoor debut from 2012.
Card was 16th last year, but her season-best throw of 178-7 has her ranked 11th among the 24 qualifiers for Thursday's competition in Eugene. She had a strong effort of 177-4 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round to secure her spot after a disappointing eighth-place showing at the Big Ten championships (156-3).
This time around, Card has company in the discus in senior Taylor Smith. A double qualifier after also securing a spot in the shot put, Smith enters the competition ranked 13th among the qualifiers based on seasonal marks. Her best of 177-5 came back in late March, with Smith more recently throwing 168-0 to take fifth at the Big Ten championships and 173-1 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round to work her way into the championships field.
Arizona State's Anna Jelmini is the prohibitive favorite to take home the national title after finishing runner-up last year. She's thrown 198-10 this season, giving her a gap of more than 10 feet on the rest of the field.
For the third-consecutive season, the Badgers have multiple athletes competing in the NCAA heptathlon. UW is the only program in NCAA history to qualify multiple athletes to the NCAA championships in the heptathlon in three straight seasons.
It will be hard to duplicate the Badgers' success from 2012, when UW put three athletes in the top 10 of the heptathlon. That marked just the third time in NCAA history a trio of teammates had scored top-10 finishes, and the first instance since 1991.
Still, senior Dorcas Akinniyi and junior Deanna Latham will do their best to help the Badgers make an impact. Akinniyi seeks a fourth-consecutive All-America performance in the heptathlon, while Latham looks to improve upon the 10th-place finish she recorded in her NCAA outdoor debut last year.
Akinniyi, who was fifth as a freshman in 2010 and sixth as a sophomore in 2011, finished eighth last year despite posting a personal-best score of 5,733 points that ranks No. 2 all-time at UW. Latham tallied 5,606 points last year.
While Akinniyi claimed her second Big Ten title last month, Latham instead focused on open events and raced to an impressive runner-up finish in the 100 hurdles -- an event in which she has also qualified to compete in this week.
An illustration of how the combined events continue to improve at the collegiate level is the fact that Akinniyi's Big Ten-winning tally of 5,411 points has her ranked No. 21 in the 24-woman field. Latham enters the competition ranked No. 14 with her season-best score of 5,493 points.
Among the favorites are Arkansas senior Makeba Alcide, the SEC champion who owns the nation's top score this year at 5,968, and Keia Pinnick of Arizona State, who took fifth last year and is the top returning finisher. Her season-best total of 5,801 won the Pac-12 title.