Track & Field Opens Season Hosting Great Dane Classic
ALBANY, N.Y. – In early December, the University at Albany track & field program held its annual soft opening for the upcoming indoor season with its intra-squad scrimmage. What was different this year, however, is that a segment of the team visited Boston University’s Track and Tennis Center for an early-December meet against live competition.
“Those first meets, especially the one in Boston, we saw some great results right off the bat with the new facility records and people starting off with good jumps and throws,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “So that was a great start.”
The season opener at Boston University saw particularly noteworthy performances from senior Grace Claxton and sophomore Myles Banfield. Both Claxton and Banfield won their respective 300m races in what, at the time, were the best performances in the event in the country. Banfield’s time of 33.84 has since been surpassed, but as of January 13, Claxton’s mark of 37.93 still leads the nation.
“Number one it’s a motivator for the kids to see they are better than what they thought at this point, and it keeps them motivated through the break,” said Vives, referring to the meet in Boston. “And second, it exposes the freshman to the facility where they will compete for championships, without which they would not have seen it until then.”
Since Boston, the team has been training through the winter intersession, either at home or on campus. Saturday will mark the official start of the 2016-17 season for the UAlbany track program, when they host the 14th annual Great Dane Classic. For the second consecutive season, the Danes will host the Classic at the Ocean Breeze facility in Staten Island, having moved away from the Armory after the meet in 2014.
“I think our preseason was one of the best ever,” said Vives. “Our students were really motivated, they worked hard, they trained well, and all their testing in the weight room, and tests we’ve done out on the train just show that they’re way ahead of where they were.”
“Before the break, they were in a really good spot, they were doing a really good job,” said throws coach Deshaya Williams. “It was nice having that first meet at Boston this year to see where we’re at and get a shake out of what’s going on. I think our preseason was really good, and after the first practice coming back from break it looks like they did their work, so that’s exciting. It’s always tough to have them go away for so long, but I’m excited to see what happens this weekend.”
Of course, one of the more difficult aspects of the track & field preseason is how it spans the winter recess between semesters.
“The students have been home for three weeks, so as coach we hope they were conscientious about training and would come back ready to go,” said Vives. “This week will tell us a lot about where they are. Three weeks is a long time, and as a coach that’s what you always worry about.
“Some that came back during the intersession look pretty good, and I asked those who would be away the whole time to give me weekly updates, so I think my particular group will be pretty ready to go,” Vives continued. “For those that returned home, we try to encourage them to get on a bike, get in the weight room, go on a run, do something, because something is better than nothing.”
“We’ve worked really hard,” said Associate Head Coach Todd Wolin, who works with the high jumpers and multis athletes. “Based on practice this week it looks like they did their work during break. They’ve been looking really good, we’re finding our approach work. Everything is going really well. I hadn’t seen the girls before break but they each had their best jumps of the year in the mock meet we did this week. So we should do well in the jumps. A couple of them will do other events as well, to prepare for the multis next weekend at Cornell.”
“It’s always just about individual improvement,” said distance coach Matt Jones. “I think if we create the right environment and everyone improves, that becomes contagious, and the thing keeps moving forward. But it’s always a modify-and-adjust process to what you’re doing. I think it takes some time, and it happens at different times for individuals, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. Everything is always a work in progress, so I think we’re doing all right.”
While expectations are always high for the track & field program, they may be even higher this year. From the most recent outdoor season, the team returns Second-Team All-American and Olympic semifinalist Claxton for one more season, as well as First-Team All-American Matthew Campbell.
“I think now that having had an Olympian in the program really transcends anything,” said Vives. “It instills in the team that one of theirs performed on that high level, that they were watching on national TV. Now, there exists that trust and belief that we can go to and compete on these higher levels.”
Indeed, Claxton will be a major draw for the team, and Campbell partners with fellow seven-foot high jumper Kinglsey Ogbonna to make up one of the strongest high jump squads in the country. Last year, with now-departed Alexander Bowen, the trio each cleared seven feet, and were second behind Kansas State as the only two programs in the country to field three seven-foot jumpers.
But beyond Claxton and the men’s high jump, there are other pockets of interest on this year’s team. The men’s 400m squad will continue its tradition of being a pillar of the team, as will the more recent success and depth of the men’s triple jump. Additionally, the frontrunners in the men’s and women’s throws, and the women’s high jump will be similar focal points for the team in 2017.
“We’re not deep in the 4x4. We’re good, but we have the four guys, and there’s a drop-off starting at five. So we have to keep them healthy. And we’ll look to develop a fifth runner, and right now we’re looking at Lamine Gueye. He’s run 33.90 in the 300, so if he can hang on for another 100 he should be able to at least give us a leg, even though he’s more of a short sprinter.”
Further, beyond the seasoned marquee talent, areas that have recently struggled to keep pace may find themselves returning to form this season, starting with the men’s distance and middle distance squads.
“On the guys’ side, on the front end, both Ryan Udvadia and Kyle Gronostaj did a great job during cross country,” said Jones. “And I think that they can only improve from there. I think they actually got confidence from the meet that we had before vacation. They both opened up in the 14:30s in the 5,000m. From the looks of things I think they had a solid month during the break. So I’m expecting them to keep the progression moving forward.
“On the girls’ side, we just got Jessica Donohue back,” Jones continued. “And from the fall moving forward, I think we underachieved. Going from second a year ago to sixth at conferences, I think we are more talented than that, but I think the chemistry of the group changed. With graduation, with new people coming in, I think the chemistry has changed, but I think we still have a great deal of room for improvement. We also have some more people who believe they are more track types than cross country types, so I think that we have a lot of room for improvement.”
Last season, the Great Danes once again swept all four America East championships. The men won their 11th consecutive indoor title, and the women won their fourth straight and sixth of their last seven. From those indoor championship teams, the men have seen the departure of 29 of 180 points scored, while the women will need to make up for 67 of their 210 points from indoor championships. Outdoors, the men lost 56 of 219 points, and the women lost just 25 of 173 points.
“I think that sometimes it’s not just the incoming recruits but also the returning students who fill in the gaps left behind by their teammates who have graduated,” sais Vives. “I see someone like Myles maybe being the best 400 runner we’ve ever had here. And Jason Tomlinson ran the second fastest 500 in the country two years ago. He’s totally focused now, where last year it was spotty. He stayed through intersession and he’s in great shape. Matthew LeLiever is fit, and he’s no longer dealing with his nagging hamstring injuries. And with Grace, for her final season, we’d like to see her go to indoor nationals, which would be a first for the women’s program. We’re working her overall speed, so she’ll see some more 200s and 60 hurdles, because she’s already strong, but you need more speed to compete at nationals.”
“The rest of the distance group is young,” said Jones. “We don’t even have a senior on the men’s side, so we’re looking to just develop the whole group. We have a couple who are more track-oriented, so we really don’t know where they are just yet, but I’m excited about what we have, I think we’ll be a much improved group from a year ago.”
“This is the first time I have no new people in my group,” said Wolin. “I’ve coach all of these kids at least a year, if not two or three, so there is no learning curve, for them or for me. They know what to expect from me, so if I get them on point during the summer, and coming in that much more than in the past, it shows in how far ahead of last year they are. We’re starting to get back up. With the knowledge of what I expect, and their game plan of what they have to do, it’s so much easier. When I have new kids and constantly have to reteach things and refocus on what needs to be done to get them on the same page as I am, it’s more difficult than when they are already there like they are this year.”
“Jonathan Eustache and Chinwe Igwe are the top returners,” said Williams. “Eric Del Vescovo has done a pretty good job as well in the shot put. Other than that, there are a lot of young kids coming up into their sophomore year, excited to come out with something really good, looking to see what happens.
“Jonathan’s class is the first to come through all four years with me, and it’s been amazing,” Williams continued. “I really love to see them develop from the mental and emotional side of things. Just seeing them grow as people has been tremendous.”
“We have four or five guys in the triple jump who could be over 50 feet,” said Vives. “We’re not as deep in the long jump but Mandé Sémôn could jump in the 24s, and we have some women jumping well already. And our middle distance and distance should be better this year as well. We struggled with our men’s 4x8 last year, but we brought in four freshmen who can run 1:55, so that should be more competitive as well.”
This season will see a return to Boston University for the indoor conference championships, marking the first time the Track and Tennis Center has hosted the meet since 2012. In effect, despite the Terriers’ departure from the conference, the move marks almost a return home for the championship meet, which has been held at Boston University every year except five since 1989.
The indoor schedule as a whole looks a bit different this year. The team will not visit the Armory at all this season. Nor will the bulk of the team visit Cornell for the Upstate Challenge. Instead, only the multis athletes will attend that meet, while the rest of the team will break ground at a new meet for the program at Middlebury.
“I felt last year that although it’s a great facility, we spent too much time at Ocean Breeze,” said Vives. “And even though we could be running in the greatest facility in the country, eventually the kids will get stale of it. So I like to have a varied schedule, where we go to Boston three times, and a few times at Ocean Breeze, and then Arkansas and a new meet in Vermont at Middlebury College.
“Our kids have never had that type of small indoor meet,” Vives continued. “This year we’re going to Middlebury where there will only be four schools competing. And Middlebury has been great in the way they have supported our cross country meet over the years. They’re a very good division III school. And there’s a team from Canada in attendance that we never see, which will be nice for the handful of Canadians we have on the team. But this meet is smaller just so that every weekend isn’t such a grind.”
The highlight of the indoor schedule is undoubtedly the trip to the University of Arkansas for the Tyson Invitational in February. The Razorbacks’ facility is one of the fastest in the country, and Tyson produces some of the nation’s best times year-in and year-out.
“We didn’t have a meet like Tyson on the schedule last year, and what I think it does, it shows those high level student-athletes that we’re focusing on them, that we’re finding a meet where they can be competitive,” said Vives. “We don’t always see those national-type competitors when we stay in the Northeast, plus we’re trying to create a comfort level where they go and compete at this level so that if they make it to nationals the level of competition will not be unfamiliar to them. That sense of belonging is something Grace now understands, having been to the Olympics, and it’s no longer a thing where they’re scared or unsure of themselves. And it’s also a challenge to those student-athletes to see what they’re capable of.
“Eleven of 16 women in the 400 at indoor nationals last year qualified out of Tyson Invitational,” Vives continued. “The meet draws the Texases, the LSUs, and obviously Arkansas. It only made sense that we show up to a meet like that. We’re looking at 12 athletes or so: the men’s 4x4, who will also run the open 400, Grace, Jon, Chinwe, Matthew, Kingsley, and two men’s triple jumpers. And we’ll see if anyone else steps up and earns a spot in this meet.
“What makes Arkansas a lot faster than some of the tracks that we run on is that it has very wide turns,” Vives added. “The Armory’s turns are kind of narrow, so it’s a little more difficult to maintain speed down there. But the wider, gentler turns I think are what make Arkansas unique and why people run such fast times there. And then, the big, elite atmosphere that is created is good to cultivate an exciting environment to compete. When you see a lot of people qualifying for nationals after running at Arkansas you know it’s a quality facility.”
Conference championships take place two weeks after the Tyson Invitational. Two weeks after championships, the those who have qualified will return to Boston University for IC4A and ECAC Indoor Championships, where both the men and the women placed second a year ago. The men finished one point behind Hampton, and the women finished 13.5 points behind Connecticut.
“Both teams were second indoors at IC4A and ECAC championships, and we think both teams have a chance to win this year. Our ultimate goal is to get about 20 qualified for NCAA East Prelims at the end of the outdoor season. We really want to start bringing more of a bulk of our team to that meet.”
The indoor season will fully conclude at NCAA Indoor Championships, which this year take place at Texas A&M.
“The four men’s 400m runners, Momodou, Myles, Jason, and Matthew, we think really have a shot at indoor nationals,” said Vives. “We haven’t been to indoor nationals since 2014 with Alex Bowen, so that’s one of our big goals for the season. We think our men’s 4x4 has a real possibility to run about 3:07 indoors, which would put them in qualifying contention. We think Grace could also make it in the 400m, and we think one or two of the men’s 400m runners could make it as individuals. Plus, we’re looking at our two throwers, Jonathan and Chinwe, both of whom could be contenders in the weight throw, and then in the triple jump there are two men, Devon and Jordan, and our two men’s high jumpers, certainly, and we can’t count out Anika in the women’s high jump. We’d like to take a small group to nationals, but it’s tough indoors because only the top 16 in any event qualify.”
“I expect two All-Americans in Matthew and Kingsley,” said Wolin. “This season is the last time the two of them will jump together. They’ll still train together for another year and a half, but this is their last season as competing teammates. And for the girls, we want to see how many we can get into ECAC Indoor Championships. Hopefully we can get all three in that meet in the high jump, and then two each of the men and women in the multis at IC4A and ECAC Indoor Championships. Maybe a school record in the pentathlon for Mary. Mary was third at outdoor ECACs, which is our highest ever.”
“I think that we are more focused on what our intended goals are,” said Williams. “All of us are trying to work towards the same goal. It’s not like some people pulling in a different direction, so I think that they have a good group comradery of trying to get things done together and be successful together, let’s get the points we need to get and work together to do it.”
Before any of those aspirations can become reality, the team will have to navigate its regular-season schedule, which begins this weekend at Ocean Breeze.
“We’re going to see a lot of good teams this weekend,” said Vives. “We think that competing with quality teams like Buffalo, Binghamton, and Connecticut will develop that competitive mindset with the student-athletes. Princeton is bringing their women’s team for the first time. And there will be some Olympians there as well. I think the combination of the open and collegiate athletes creates a real competitive meet up front.”
“Tyson only accepts times from this season, so we have to start putting up some performances right off the bat,” said Vives. “The meet is late enough, Feb 11, and they’ll take times as late as Feb 6. They really want to make heats and seeds based on how competitors are performing at that moment, rather than take a time from a year ago.”
“I think if you look at the quality of our conference during the cross country season, for Ryan and Kyle to finish second and fifth at championships, if you were to do this two-on-two for the whole conference we’d be the best team in the league,” said Jones. “But now we have to bring up the back end. So I’m happy with where those two were when they left, and we’ll see where they are on Saturday.”
“I’d like to see Matthew and Kinglsey over 7’ in the high jump, and in the top 10 in the country,” said Wolin. “For Anika, maybe a school record in the high jump. Then get ECAC and IC4A marks for the rest of them. I’d just like to see them get going, and get off to a good start in their events. I’m very proud of them. They’ve work really hard. The work is done for this part of the season, so we’ll see what happens.”
“After they race Saturday, we’ll see how many of them are fit, but also how many are race-sharp,” said Jones. “Both of those variables will determine what we do next in training. It’s sort of like gathering intel. We’re gathering information on fitness, strength training, and then the baseline effort on Saturday when they race.”
“This weekend I hope to see some ECAC and IC4A qualifying marks from those who didn’t get to compete at Boston, I also hope to see Jon and Chinwe move up the NCAA list for indoor,” said Williams. “I’d really love to see them finish in the top-16 so that we can go to Texas A&M for indoor championships. At the very least, I think they can finish in the top-20, I think it’s very feasible and possible for them. They’re strong, they’re seniors.”
“A successful weekend for us would be if both teams could place in the top three,” said Vives. “We’re not submitting entries to go after the team score, we won’t be tripling athletes score as many points as possible, but we’re hopeful that we can score highly based on high quality performances. There are top conference teams at this meet, and it will be good for us to be in the mix with them. So we’re looking for a good start, get some quality performances, while still knowing it’s the first meet of the season.”
“The meet is a good meet, but everyone will be able to compete if they’re fit and healthy,” said Jones. “And that will really give us an idea of where every individual is at, and then we tailor the rest of our training to meet their needs.”
The 2017 Great Dane Classic begins at 10:30 a.m.