Outdoor Track Hosts Conference Championships
ALBANY, N.Y. – After five weekends of competition encompassing a total of seven meets, the University of Albany track & field program has arrived at the 2015 America East Outdoor Championships, where the men are 10-time defending champions and the women are six-time defending champions. Making this particular year more special is the fact that for the first time, the Great Danes will host a track championship.
“Hosting the conference championship meet is extremely special,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “It is the first time that the team will have the opportunity to compete for the championships at home, in front of their peers, the university and surrounding community, alumni, and their families and friends. It’s a tremendous opportunity to highlight our program, our facilities, and our university.”
UAlbany wasn’t originally scheduled to host the outdoor championships, which rotate through the conference’s member institutions each year. Original hosting duties fell to New Hampshire, with UAlbany’s turn to host in the rotation coming in 2017. Instead, due to New Hampshire requiring construction at its facility, the Wildcats were rendered unable to host the championships this year. As a result, New Hampshire and UAlbany swapped hosting years, with UAlbany taking 2015 and New Hampshire bumping to 2017.
“We want to present an elite atmosphere, and put forth a championship effort in all aspects of the meet,” said Vives. “We’ve worked hard to put together a student-athlete experience that is second-to-none. That includes things like escorting the competitors to the events, providing baskets for their warmup gear to drop off at the start and pick up at the finish, performance boards, and a real-time awards ceremony, which hasn’t been done before. The America East is even stepping up with the live streaming, which will include interviews with athletes and coaches during the competition.”
“We haven’t had a meet of this magnitude in a long time,” said assistant coach and meet director Todd Wolin, “and we’ve never had an America East championship meet. We have for cross country, but never for track.”
Wolin’s duties include, among other things, ensuring that everything is in place for the meet to run smoothly. That includes overseeing things like equipment needs, officials, tents, banners, and signs.
“Ultimately, we want to put on a good show,” said Wolin. “Vermont really raised the bar when they hosted last year, and we want to try to raise it again a little bit. We want to make the best possible experience not just for the student-athletes, but for the coaches, the fans, the university, and the competing teams. It’s one way we can bring back to the university, to make the university look good.”
Competing at home also lends itself to some advantages for the host team. Most obviously, the Great Danes will have certain familiarity levels with the facility that will house the championship events, such as how the track runs, how the turns are, how fast the throwing circles are, and what the pits are like, but they also know how and where the wind affects the various areas of competition, and where the optimal warmup areas are located. And, of course, UAlbany will get a boost from the home crowd as they defend their turf.
“Competing at a meet of this caliber at home is a new experience,” said Vives. “The home crowd will be tremendous, and the student-athletes will really feed off of them, as well as the idea of being in our own house. They’ll appreciate the need to compete at a high level, and hopefully will have the mentality that our competitors can’t take our championships from us at our home. We know all eight schools in the conference are coming for us, and that we can’t be complacent. We will have to work for it if we want to win.”
Defending their championship runs on their home facility is a new opportunity for the UAlbany student-athletes, in terms of their collegiate careers, as they have always in the past had to travel on the road for championships. So while they may be familiar with the facility and will be able to enjoy yet another weekend without having to travel, the team hasn’t experienced this particular kind of pressure before.
“I tell the team to do what they are capable of, to compete to the best of their abilities,” Vives said. “If they do that, the results will take care of themselves. Take Penn Relays, for example. It is the only meet we run where we’re competing in front of a crowd of upwards of 50,000 spectators. It’s a remarkable experience, but if the athletes want to compete they need to be able to block out that noise, phase out the crowd, and focus on the task ahead of them. The same will be true this weekend, in a different context.”
A handful of UAlbany student-athletes made the trip to the Penn Relays last week, which is noteworthy for the prestige of the meet and its close proximity to conference championships. It would be expected to worry about a potential letdown after competing in an atmosphere like the one at Penn, but the coaching staff feels they have taken measures to address such concerns.
“As odd as it sounds, we tried to not put a lot of value on the Penn Relays this year,” said Vives. “It’s a big experience, certainly, but the weather was cold and damp, and not really conducive to performing at the highest level. And with the injuries we had, we decided to pull out of some of the relays we had originally entered, so it became somewhat of a sharpening meet for us to prepare for conference championships. I think we’re still really waiting for that first true spring meet, where the weather finally cooperates. And conference championships tend to bring out the best in everyone. It has its own unique, special flavor.”
“I think mentally we’re confident,” Vives continued. “But we stress that we cannot be overconfident. We’ve worked on everyone’s primary and secondary events. In some cases even a third event. It’s all been about developing to this point. And we’ve had challenging weather through the spring so far, so we’ve been able to prepare mentally for that. There’s the feeling that we’ve competed in all conditions, and that brings out a sense of toughness within the team. We’ll need a total team effort this weekend, and everyone needs to be totally on board and bought in to the plan."
This year, entering championships, the men lead the conference in six events. Robert Harris III leads the 100 in 10.53. Taariq Jones leads the 400 in 47.32. Matthew Campbell leads the high jump with a 7’-0.5” mark from the indoor season. His outdoor mark of 6’-11.75” would also lead the conference. Devon Willis leads the triple jump with a 50’-8” mark from indoors. The men also lead the conference in the 4x100 and the 4x400 relays.
The women also lead the conference in six events. Grace Claxton leads the 400 with her indoor time of 53.49, and her outdoor season-best of 54.05 would also lead the conference. Claxton also leads the conference in the 400 hurdles, after her school-record setting effort last week at Penn Relays of 58.52. Michelle Anthony leads in the 100 hurdles in 13.95. Veleisha Walker leads in the javelin in 143’-8”. Additionally, the women lead the conference in the 4x400 and the 4x800 relay. The 4x400 time is from the indoor season, and the women’s outdoor best would rank second behind UMBC.
Beyond the conference leaders, the Great Danes hold top-eight performance rankings in the conference, which is significant because championships score the top eight finishers. In the sprints, the men rank fourth, fifth, and eighth in the 100, second, third, fifth, and seventh in the 200, and second and fourth in the 400. The women ranks second, sixth, and eighth in the 100, fourth, and fifth in the 200, and fourth, fifth, and eighth in the 400.
The men rank fifth in the 800, as well as eighth, however the eighth ranked performer is injured and will not be competing. That same injured athlete is ranked sixth in the men’s 1,500. The men currently do not have anyone ranked in the top-eight in either the 5,000 or the 10,000. The women rank second in the 800, and second, fifth, and sixth in the 10,000. The women do not rank in the top eight in the conference in either the 1,500 or the 5,000.
In the 110 hurdles, the men have the eighth-ranked performance. The men further rank fifth and sixth in the 400 hurdles, though the fifth-ranked performer is injured. The men have the second-ranked performer in the 3,000 steeplechase. Though the women have the conference leaders in both hurdles events, they have no other top-eight performances, and do not have anyone ranked in the top-eight in the steeplechase.
The men have the third-ranked active performer in the high jump, and rank third in the pole vault, second and third in the long jump, and second and third in the triple jump. The women rank second and third in the high jump, fifth and sixth in the pole vault, second and fifth in the long jump, and second and third in the triple jump.
The men have the third-ranked performer in the shot put, the second-ranked performer in the discus, the sixth-ranked performer in the hammer, and the second-ranked performer in the javelin. The women rank second and eighth in the shot put, and third, fourth, and fifth in the discus, second, fourth, and fifth in the hammer. Behind conference-leader Walker, the women do not rank in the top-eight in the javelin.
The men have the fourth-ranked performer in the decathlon, but he will not compete in the event due to an injury. And the women have the second and sixth-ranked performers in the heptathlon. Finally, the men rank fifth in the 4x800 and the women rank second in the 4x100 relays.
Last year, both the men and the women won the America East Outdoor Championships. The men scored 208 points in first, followed by UMBC in second with 165 points, and Main in third with 124 points. The women scored 196 points in first, followed by Vermont in second with 142.5 points, and Binghamton in third with 130.5 points.
Last year’s victory was the 10th consecutive for the men, and the women won their sixth consecutive. Returning from those championship teams are defending champions Jones in the men’s 400 and Nathan Hiett in the men’s pole vault, as well as two members of the champion 4x100 and three members of the champion 4x400 relays. Returning for the women is defending champion Anthony in the 100 hurdles, as well as two of four members of the champion 4x800 relay team. Additionally, transfer Alexx Baum is the defending champion in the triple jump from last year, when she competed for Binghamton.
The Great Danes will take a hit, as any team will, with departures from the previous year. From last year’s team, the UAlbany men will compete without high jump champion Alex Bowen, long jump champion Kareem Morris, and decathlon champion Matthew Catera. The women will compete without 5,000 champion Silvia Del Fava, and 400 hurdles champion Tynelle Taylor-Chase.
The men and women also both won the America East Indoor Championships in February. The men scored 191 points in first place, followed by Binghamton in second with 133.33 points, and New Hampshire in third with 115.33 points. The women scored 197.66 points in first, followed by UMBC in second with 153 points, and Binghamton in third with 118 points.
Indoors, the men won their 10th consecutive indoor championship, and the women won their third straight title and fifth in six years. Men’s champions included Jones in the 400, Jason Tomlinson in the 500, DeLallo in the 1,000, Bowen in the high jump and the triple jump, and Hiett in the pole vault. Women’s champions included Claxton in the 400, Anthony in the 60 hurdles, Baum in the triple jump, and Briana Cherry-Bronson in the weight throw. Additionally, the women won the 4x400 and 4x800 relays.
The margins of victory the Great Danes have seen in the two most recent conference championship events is not indicative of the quality of the America East conference as a whole. There are usually about four or five teams in contention for the title each year. UAlbany may face the stiffest competition from UMBC, Binghamton, New Hampshire, and Vermont on the women’s side, and from Binghamton and New Hampshire on the men’s side. But Coach Vives knows that he now has to be on the lookout for all of the conference rivals to make a splash come championship season.
“The teams we face this weekend will pull out all the stops to beat us,” said Vives. “All of the teams in our conference are very capable, and the conference as a whole has improved a lot, particularly in terms of up-front talent. We’re seeing a lot more student-athletes from our conference qualify for late-season meets.”
“Good competition elevates everyone else,” Vives continued. “It’s like the old Big East basketball conference, where you had all those teams pushing each other. We see now in our conference that the usual times won’t win championships anymore, and that’s because all of the teams have gotten better. We’ve tried to build our success on coaching in all areas, looking for scoring in all events. And other teams do the same, taking efforts to develop weaknesses into strengths.”
Looking at the various event groups that will compete this weekend for the Great Danes, there is a sense that they are coming along at the right time, that they appreciate the hard work they’ve done to this point and the hard work they’ll need to take home the team title, and also a sense of excitement about the formidable challenge they face this weekend.
“I’d like to see the relays close out the meet with wins,” Vives said. “We will need to be able to close out the meet in those events, particularly if the scoring is close. And looking at some of the other events, our women are capable of scoring a lot of points in the 400, which is an area of strength for UMBC. So if we can score points there, we can neutralize their strength somewhat. We have, on the men’s side, the defending champion in the 400 and the indoor 500 champion, who will be critical parts to the team success. Our men’s 4x400 relay is compromised somewhat, due to injuries, but I think we’re still strong, and we’ll be looking to see who can fill in.”
“I think everyone is rounding into form at the right time,” said Wolin. “Kind of like they did for indoor championships. I’ve entered eight into the women’s high jump, to try to see if we can break into the scoring spots. In that event indoors, we were projected to score a half a point, but came away with just under 14 with tiebreakers, so anything can happen. And in the men’s high jump, we have two of the top guys. I think we can score three in the men’s pole vault. Nate just jumped his season best at RPI last weekend, a day after he competed at Penn. And Justin and Donald have gotten over their minor hand injuries. The women’s vaulters jumped really well in their last meets, too.”
“Michelle is the defending champion in the high hurdles, and she’s starting to come around after her late start to the season. She’s looking to drop her time and get in a good race. Our men’s hurdlers are doing better and better. And our multis, it’s a little hard to judge. Paige Vadnais is the second seed in the heptathlon, but some of her biggest competitors haven’t competed in it this year yet. But she’ll also do the high jump and pole vault, where she can score some points.”
Coach Wolin will have a handful of competitors entered in the small selection of scoring events on the first day of the meet, meaning they have the opportunity to get the team off to a good start. Sharing in the day-one finals are some of the throwers, who are similarly excited to take on the challenge.
“The throwers are really looking forward to getting the team out to a good start, to set up for a good second day,” said throws coach Deshaya Williams. “And I think they’re in a good position to score a lot of points. As we’ve tapered off in the weight room we’ve started to see the expected improvements in their performances, and hopefully that can continue. Hopefully we get some good weather and have the right opportunities.”
“The group of throwers is very young,” Williams continued, “and it’s really exciting to see them develop together. It’s also really nice being at home. We have good facilities here, somewhat faster than other places we’ve visited, but they know they can handle the speed.”
“I think this is a good group,” Williams concluded. “If they give everything they have this weekend, if they compete, if they focus on what they need to do, and have confidence and grit, then I will be happy. Most importantly, I want them to be excited about what is happening around them, and feed off of one another and their teammates.”
“We’re in a good spot moving forward, and we had some good performances at Penn and RPI last week,” said distance coach Matt Jones of his distance squad. “I’m hoping everything comes together, and that we can keep improving.”
“Track is really a double-edged sword,” Jones continued, “because each meet is seemingly a stepping stone for a later meet in the season, particularly when championships roll around. So while we still have aspirations to continue going forward, in the short term I’m looking for qualifying performances on Saturday to get into the finals on Sunday. Then, it’s about running against the people in the race, and beating someone to the line. The tough task is to keep your head for two days in a highly-competitive environment like this one, but we try to include as many people as possible. To try to make as many people contributors to and stakeholders in success as we can, to try to get that sixth or eighth point in an event.”
“This is the last team-oriented event for the year,” said Vives. “But more, this is the last time the 2015 squad will compete together as a team. And for a good portion of the team, this meet will be their culminating championship, what their whole year has been about since preseason training in August. If we are to succeed, it will come down to a true team effort.”
Championships begin Saturday, May 2 at 10:00 a.m. with the first event of the men’s decathlon, the women’s hammer, and the women’s javelin. The women’s heptathlon starts at 10:30 a.m. Track events begin at 1:00 p.m. with the women’s 1,500 trials. Saturday will see the running of 11 finals events between the men and the women. Sunday begins at 9:00 a.m. with the continuation of the men’s decathlon, followed by the continuation of the women’s heptathlon at 9:30 a.m. At 10:00 a.m., the field events begin with the women’s discus, the men’s shot put, the women’s triple jump, and the men’s high jump. Track events begin at 11:00 a.m. with the women’s 4x100 relay.