Track & Field Looks To Defend Indoor Titles
ALBANY, N.Y. – Championship season has finally arrived for the University at Albany track & field program, who will kick off proceedings with the America East Indoor Championships this weekend. Both the men and the women are defending champions. The men will seek their 12th consecutive title while the women will look for their fifth straight.
“Obviously the first thing we have to take care of is defending the championship,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “We’ve been trying to fill the board and have our athletes in all the different events. We’re excited, championship time. We’re looking at it now as championship season, starting with the America East.”
In last year’s championship meet, the first America East Indoor Championship to be hosted at the Ocean Breeze complex in Staten Island, N.Y., the men scored 180 points, ahead of runner-up Binghamton’s 146, and third place UMBC’s 111. The women scored 210 points to earn their fourth straight indoor title, ahead of New Hampshire’s 133.5 points, and Binghamton’s 113. The men claimed victory in five events, and the women earned first place in seven events. Additionally, the men’s and women’s coaching staffs earned Coaching Staff of the Year from the America East, while Grace Claxton and Chinwe Igwe won awards for Outstanding Track and Outstanding Field, respectively.
“Last year we had five men in the finals of the 400m outdoors,” said Vives. “We have scored a lot in both events. Our women’s side is the deep side. We have eight female 400m runners and we’re splitting them between the 400m and the 500m and I see all of them making the finals. The men, we’re splitting them two in the 400m and two in the 500m. And then they’re going to swap for IC4As next week. We’re looking for those guys to be first and second in both events. On the women’s side, Grace is not going to do the double she did last year, she is only going to run the 400m. This is her last season we want to give her the opportunity. She has given us everything in the past. The 200m went pretty deep. We are going to score well there, probably four or five women can score. We want to give an opportunity to move up on the national list. This is the last weekend for her to qualify.”
From those two championship teams, the men will need to replenish 29 points, and the women will need to make up for 67 points. Among those points like staples of the UAlbany program, such as the men’s 400m, which will have to account for the graduation of Taariq Jones, who won the last seven consecutive indoor and outdoor 400m America East titles, and the men’s high jump, which has seen one of three UAlbany jumpers win each of the last 10 titles across indoor and outdoor. Two of those jumpers, Matthew Campbell and Kingsley Ogbonna, remain, although this is the final season in which they will compete together as teammates.
“Matthew and Kingsley just want to beat each other,” said Todd Wolin, who works with the high jumpers and multis athletes. “They both have won titles, and between them they have won the last three. They’re happy for each other no matter what they do, but they still want to beat each other. I think the team feeds off of their competition. Just like they feed off of one another in practice the team feeds off of them in meets, especially when they’re the last two guys left. There are meets they come in and everybody is done. When you see that it makes you want to be better in your event. It pushes the quarter milers, the throwers. Jonathan Eustache sees it and wants to win too because he’s a friend of theirs and doesn’t want to be left out. Winning breeds winning, and friendly competition with your teammates can push you to no end.
“Last year all three of them (including Alexander Bowen) cleared seven in the same meet,” Wolin continued. “It was a colder day, and windy. But they just kept feeding off of each other. If you do that just in one event, that’s amazing. But if you do that as a team, that’s something special. When the other events cause you to do something as well because you don’t want to be the one who didn’t win, you don’t want to be the one who dropped the stick and we lost by half a point. You want to be the one who was part of that championship team that hasn’t lost since I’ve been in this school, keeping that tradition alive. You see it in other events. In the triple jump, Colonel Fakarode will get off a jump, then Jordan Crump-King will get off a jump, then Matthew, then Devon Willis, then David Henry Jr. They feed off of another and all of a sudden it’s a different atmosphere. And then it will feed off into the next event, and then the long jumpers and the hurdlers are suddenly pumped up. It could be the little bit extra the athletes need to perform just that much better. It’s infectious.”
“I think that we’re definitely the team to beat just looking at the projection and the list,” said Vives. “I think we’re in a good position but we have to show up. We have to show up, we have to compete, and we have to execute. Again, we’re glad that it’s at Boston University. That’s a tremendous facility.
“On the women’s side there’s always New Hampshire,” Vives continued. They’re always a team to worry about. They have some good people and some can double, triple, and do some incredible things. On the men’s side it’s always Binghamton, UMBC. UMass Lowell is a team that’s coming along. What’s good about this conference is that there are good athletes in every event. One school may not have them all but in every event we have a 4:02 miler, a 7’ 2” high jumper, an Olympian. In every single event there is some quality. And the student-athletes know it. They’re looking forward to it.”
“Looking at the conference lists I realize that most of the other schools are getting better in the sprints, and that’s helped me push my group a little bit more,” said Junior Burnett, who works with the short sprinters. “We know they’re trying to get us, and I keep that in mind. And it keeps the sprinters on edge as well.”
The team did not compete last weekend, opting for a weekend off after five consecutive weeks of competition, in an effort to allow the student-athletes to fully recover from a grueling season in preparation for the upcoming championship meets. The last time the team competed was two weeks ago, when a group of 13 Great Danes attended the Tyson Invitational at the University of Arkansas, while the remainder of the team competed once again at Ocean Breeze, this time for the Fastrack National Invitational.
“We had some travel issues on our way to Tyson, which is always something you worry about” said Vives. “We were delayed by the snowstorm and then we missed our connecting flight. Some of us were then put on one flight directly to Arkansas, while the rest were sent first to North Carolina. When we finally arrived our bags were lost, and we only had an hour to shake out at the track. The kids were tired, and expect for Chinwe Igwe, no one who competed on the first day performed well. But the next day, the kids woke up. The triple jump, high jump, and 4x400m all went well.
“Jason Tomlinson suffered food poisoning from dinner after we arrived,” Vives continued. “He was hurting and I didn’t expect much out of him. That’s why I put him at anchor in the relay because he came to me just warming up and said ‘Coach, honestly, I can’t even warm up. I feel so weak.’ He was so dehydrated and he looked like a ghost. Anyway, I told him to run anchor and give the other guys an opportunity to run. They need your leadership. Just don’t let the other guys know how badly you’re hurting. Miles didn’t run in the 400m the day before because he had false-started for first time ever. The other guys in the open 400m were kind of tight. They went out hard but they couldn’t close, they just tightened up. But these kids ran 3:08 again on the relay. Jason even ran 46.4, his fastest ever.”
“Matthew is looking great, he just has to jump smart, within himself, and warm up properly. Kingsley will just high jump. He jumped really well at Tyson and was turning a lot of heads. I just need him to have faith in himself, and not think that the next height is any different. I think he had that breakthrough at Tyson. Anika is trying to win her first indoor title and break the school record again. She’s been practicing really well. She attempted 5-09.00 in practice the other day, which we’ve never done indoors before. Victoria is coming off of being sick but I think she’s ready to go for that ECAC mark.”
“Stefan Buechele’s goal is to win the heptathlon,” said Wolin. “If we keep him healthy through the whole thing it’ll be him and the guy from UMBC. If he can get through day one close then day two will take care of itself. Jake is coming along every day. You can see him getting hungrier. Najee Taylor is coming off of surgery from the summer, and he’s actually progressed a lot faster than I thought he would. I was going to put him in the high jump but he said he’s ready for the full heptathlon. If he feels good through the whole thing he could sneak into a scoring spot. I think Mary Adeyeye and Letti Hibbard can be top three. Mary will contend with the woman from Maine for the title, and Letti could hit the ECAC mark.
“The seniors can go out having never lost a championship while they were here,” Wolin continued. “That’s pretty cool. They’re great kids, they work hard. Let’s see how many points we can score with a group of nine kids. We have four events; let’s win all four.”
“We thought it was a great meet,” said Vives of Tyson. “We showed up and people knew we were there. We weren’t one of those teams that went in and left. Even the coach of Houston who is a world record holder walked across to shake my hand. All of a sudden there was this new found respect for us so I think it was a good meet for those athletes got used to competing at that level. I’m glad that we went. I think that in the future we might have to go two days up front. Other schools don’t have the type of travel we have coming from the Northeast.”
The meet at Ocean Breeze saw a heavier presence from the UAlbany distance program. The distance runners had taken the previous week off, opting instead to undergo a two-week training cycle in preparation for championship season.
“Fastrack was fantastic,” said Vives. “Our distance runners really performed. We just think everybody is where they need to be at this point in time which is good. We got something out of both meets last weekend. I think we’re in a good position for the championship.”
“I think we’re making some nice progress,” said Matt Jones, who works with the distance runners. “We had a good meet last time, with a lot of seasonal bests. We’re starting to get healthy, so we got some people back. I’m sort of looking forward to it. I’m not sure exactly what it will be, but I’m looking for some positive performances, and probably a few more people qualifying for the IC4A and ECAC meets. I think we’re in a good spot looking forward.”
Entering championships for this season, the men have conference-leading performances in 10 events, and the women rank first in nine events. Beyond the conference leaders, the men currently hold 39 performances that rank within a scoring position across all contested events, and the women have 38 such performances so far this season.
“I think that we’re definitely the team to beat just looking at the projection and the list,” said Vives. “I think we’re in a good position but we have to show up. We have to show up, we have to compete, and we have to execute. Again, we’re glad that it’s at Boston University. That’s a tremendous facility.”
For the first time since 2012, the America East Indoor Championships will be held at Boston University, in a change from the meet being held in New York the last few years, either at the Armory or at Ocean Breeze, and once at Boston’s Reggie Lewis Center.
“I like that we’re back at BU,” said Vives. “The Armory and Ocean Breeze are tremendous facilities, but with them you have to account for arriving for the meet while another meet is still going on, or seeing another meet come in while you’re still doing awards. Also, a lot of our conference is made up of New England schools, and Boston University is an easier trip for them. So in that regard I think it’s good we’re at BU again.”
In the last few conference championships, the bulk of the points for the men and women have been scored in the sprints, jumps, and throws. The distance program has struggled to match the success of the other areas, but Coach Jones sees them coming along.
“First of all, I think our conference prides itself on being a distance conference,” said Jones. “I think every team in the conference for the most part has some quality distance people. As far as our role, I think we’re going to try and pick our spots and contribute to the team as best as we can. And then, we’re also going to try to qualify our relays for the IC4A and ECAC meets. So we’re not going to be able to cover the board as well as I like, but where we are we’re going to have a chance to finish well.”
“Well, Ryan Udvadia and Kyle Gronostaj being two and five in the conference in cross country I thought that was great,” said Jones. “The development goal of the program was to put other people with them, but I think those two guys are some of the class distance runners in the conference. They’re going to both run the 5,000m and the 3,000m. Ryan is the third fast 3,000m runner ever in school history and I think he’s ready to go faster. Kyle has run his personal best by six seconds and I think he’s ready to go faster. They both only run the 5,000m sparingly so I think they are ready to have a breakthrough, and then they are going to see what they can do coming back on the double the next day. The rest of it is developing the young half-milers. I think we have Jake Johnson who runs the 1,000m. He ran a personal best the first time he ran it. We have only freshman and sophomores in the 4x800m. That’s a group that I think can develop quite a bit.
“We haven’t quite put it all together yet on the big track so that will be the time to do it,” Jones continued. “We got some young kids like Charlie Ragone anchoring the distance medley relay. But for the younger distance guys it’s time for them to hit something in the 5,000m and the 3,000m. We haven’t completely transferred training to racing yet. Some have, some have a little bit, but I think they are in better shape than they raced. So we’re looking for a breakthrough there.”
Jones has similar sentiments regarding the progression of the women’s distance runners.
“I think the women are all doing well,” said Jones. “Jessica Donohue ran her first two weeks ago. She ran her personal best in the 3,000m. Job one with her is keeping her healthy. I think she’s fit enough to run a personal best in the 5,000m, but we’ll see. Hannah Reinhardt comes out of nowhere as a freshman half- miler, and transitions to being in the top five in cross country, in our all-time list in the 5,000m and the 3,000m. The sky’s the limit for her. Cara Sherman is ready for a breakthrough as well. She’s fit, but she still hasn’t completely transferred her training into racing. Hannah Smith is still coming off the flu, but she’s still ready to have a big race. All four of those women are going to be in the 5,000m on Friday night.”
Where distance looks to increase its points contribution to the team, the other groups understand that they are expected, based on recent history, to come away with a sizeable chunk of points that the teams will count on if they wish to continue winning championships.
“Most of the sprinters embrace that challenge, because they go to meets where they are expected to perform,” said Burnett. “Of the five meets they’ve attended four of them featured high-level competition. So they’re used to competing at that high level. In practice I always set goals for them to try to hit, so they know they have to perform when it comes to those meets.”
“I think that the student-athletes know that it’s there’s to take away,” said Vives. “It’s something that they defend and protect. They show up and we don’t look past it. It’s something we don’t take for granted.”
“The sprinters have a very important role because over the past couple of years they have scored a big block of points at conference championships,” said Burnett. “If they’re not performing well then the team suffers and we could lose. The competition from the others schools is always getting tighter and tighter, so the sprinters role is very important.
“I think my group has done a great job,” said Deshaya Williams, who works with the throwers. “We’ve had personal bests from different individuals during the season. We’ve broken some school records and we’ve come close to breaking some school records. So I think we’re heading into conference right where I want us to be. Right now it’s all mental. It’s just the mental game at this point.”
“The sprinters grab the tradition they carry now,” said Burnett. “They realize the sprint records have been sitting on the board for a little while and they’re trying to go get those. That’s one of the thing that motivates the sprinters is potentially seeing their name on that board in an individual event, not just a relay. It’s a thing that they embrace, certainly.”
“I don’t know if the rest of the team really knows what the throwers do over there all the time, but I think we could set the tone if people recognized and got on board and fed off that energy and realized how much positive energy really can feed into making us all be great,” said Williams. That’s what I try to infuse into my throwers and they buy in.”
“Based on how training has been going I’ve been setting them up to perform very well at conference,” said Burnett. “I might even go so far as to say I expect to see all five women in the finals of the 60m, which would be a great success for them. For the men I could see at least three of them in the 60m finals, and likewise in the 200m. Hopefully all of them to run personal bests this weekend.”
Regardless of the group, the coaching staff is pleased with the makeup of the team as people, beyond their abilities to compete.
“I think we know we have to support each other, and really have each other’s backs,” said Williams. “They just know it’s all about getting out there and executing. They know that we’ve put in the work and put in the time. We’ve done everything that we possibly can do, and now at this point for this whole week leading up to it, my whole message to them is just let’s do what we know we can do. They believe in each other, they believe in themselves, and we just do what we got to do. We don’t worry about all the outside stuff. I try to teach them to focus on what’s going on with you, and not what’s going on outside of here. Let’s do our job.”
“We are real excited about the leadership we have on the team,” said Vives. “The captains, and the people that have been champions in the past, lead by example as well. They are the first ones out there doing everything they need to do. I think they help the younger students with their first time going out. They help keep them calm and ready to compete at a high level. We feel it in practice. We just feel the sense of excitement. They’re doing very well and everybody is starting to click.”
“Matthew tells everyone to have faith in the program, faith in the plan,” said Wolin. “They all know there’s a reason I do everything. I don’t do anything just to do it. We build on everything we’ve done. It might be a little different, but everything is a step on the staircase.”
“Even if there is not going to be someone cheering for you, you’re going to have to cheer for yourself, you’re going to have to motivate yourself,” said Williams. “That’s just like life; there’s not always going to be someone behind your corner. How do you motivate yourself and get excited about what you’re doing, whether it’s sitting behind a computer, sitting behind a desk, whatever it is you’re doing, how do you motivate yourself to be the best every single day? That’s what we get to do as throwers, and that’s why I think they make great professionals afterwards, too.”
“The sprinters’ effort and consistency in practice have been the reasons they have improved this season,” said Burnett. “They really worked on executing the acceleration phase of the 60m, which is the most important part of the race. They always show up on time and prepare themselves.”
Coach Williams finds herself in the unique position of having seen the student-athletes who were freshmen when she arrived grow into the seniors on the team this season. Yet she still carries the same message as she did on day one.
“I think it’s the same for me every single time, the same mantra that I give my student athletes is the same mantra that I tell myself every day,” said Williams. “’How do I be better, and how do I make them better?’ And so I think that’s my goal is always for us to get more points than we got the last time, to break records, and to be at the top of the top 10 list, and that’s the goal. That’s how I say ‘yeah we did that that’s fine, that’s great, but let’s move on, what’s new now? What do we need to do new this year?’ So that we walk out of here and they say ‘you guys were the best throwers group we’ve ever seen.’ And that’s pretty exciting.”
While all the hard work and preparation has run its course, perhaps the biggest factor this weekend will be the health of the team.
“I look now and Molly has done a great job with keeping our student-athletes healthy,” said Vives. “We have a few injuries but we have the bulk of the team healthy and ready to go. I’m glad that we had last weekend off. Having the weekend off is just perfect. Some of the athletes have competed five straight weekends. Next week we will be ready to go. We’re going to let them loose.”
“It’s the one time of the year where everyone comes together and we see what we can do as a whole team,” said Jones. “Rather than half of us going Arkansas while half of us are in New York, this is a time where we try and put the whole thing together. So that’s one of the unique things about track, you got the best of both worlds: team and individual success.”
Each coach had the same message to the team as conference championships inched closer and closer.
“Just everyone race to their ability, that’s about it,” said Jones. “Just race to their potential. They don’t have to do anything, they don’t have to overthink it. Race to their fitness and we’ll be fine. Execute their race plan. Everyone just needs to just keep their head. Race to their fitness, and we’re going to have some fun.”
“Just tune out everything that’s not beneficial,” said Williams. “Ride the positive waves and just keep doing what we know we can do. And just trust in the good hard work we put in and be super excited about that, and continue to be supportive of every team member like they always are, and just ride that wave, because they are really good. I love them for that reason. They just don’t care that no one else comes to watch them, they’re going to cheer for everyone else. They’re going to have everyone’s back, they’re going to be excited about it. That juices them up, and that’s what gets me excited.”
“Just go out and have fun,” said Wolin. “Enjoy the moment. Enjoy your competition with your teammates, with the other competitors, because they’re going to push you too. The men and women can both do wonderful things, and this is the first step. And how they come through this can set up a big part of what happens next week. If you give it everything you got, and you didn’t win, you still hold your head up. You just got beat by a better person this week, and that’s okay.”
“The work is done,” said Burnett. “It’s now on them to make sure they’re preparing properly with rest and hydration and nutrition. If they do those three things they will perform very well.”
“Have fun,” said Wolin. “The preparation will take care of everything else. There’s a reason they’re seeded highly, it’s not a fluke. You’ve performed well multiple times. We’re doing everything all year long to prepare for this physically. Mentally, you know you’re ready by what you’ve done. Have confidence in yourself and what you’ve done to get here.”
The meet begins Friday, February 23, at 12:00 p.m. The first events will be the men’s heptathlon, the women’s pole vault, and the men’s weight throw. 10 finals events will be contested on Friday, and the remainder will be held Saturday after Friday’s preliminary rounds are completed. Saturday’s events start at 10:00 a.m. with the final three events of the men’s heptathlon.
“We depend on our quality up front and then our depth in the back so we can score two or three athletes in every event,” said Vives. “We do well in the relays and score in the bulk of the events. That has been one of our strengths. I think that we can pull it out. At every meet, my old college coach said to me you can always expect about 25% mess-ups. We hope to minimize that as much as possible and the whole season was just preparation. That’s what I try to tell the student-athletes; let’s do what we’ve been doing. Let’s not try to do something outside of the norm. Sometimes they may try too hard and that’s that person who gets three fouls and doesn’t make the finals. That’s what I think happens, you do get mess ups and you do get that number one seed and all of a sudden they don’t make the finals but then you have people that step up. I think that at the end it always balances it out.”
“The final message for the team is that I’d like them to go,” said Vives. “They’re ready, they’re prepared. Be confident and enjoy the experience.”
“I just how good of people they are,” said Williams. “I get excited about the people they walk out of this university being, because they’ve taken their experiences as student-athletes and said ‘I will be great because I’ve been able to accomplish and overcome these things.”