Track & Field Competes in New Jersey
ALBANY, N.Y. – The University at Albany track & field program enters its fourth week of the 2019 outdoor season, which will mark the season opener for most of the remaining athletes on the team who have not yet had a chance to compete.
Last weekend, the Great Danes attended three meets. The biggest group visited the University of Florida for the Pepsi Florida Relays, while a group of six distance runners traveled to California. Five competed at the Stanford Invitational and one competed at the Mike Fanelli Classic at San Francisco State.
In total, UAlbany came away with five new school records over the weekend: Venique Harris in the women’s discus, Hannah Reinhardt in the women’s 5,000m, Kyle Gronostaj in the men’s 10,000m, Chibugo Ike, Asia Jinks, Namara Carr, and Sophia Myers in the women’s 4x100m shuttle hurdles relay, and Tara Belinsky in the women’s shot put.
On Thursday, the first day of the Florida Relays, the Great Danes fielded six finishers in the open divisions of the men’s and women’s 200m and 400m. Jan Michael Gutierrez Almedina highlighted UAlbany’s Thursday, finishing his 200m in a wind-aided 21.23, which is the fastest-ever time recorded in the event in program history, legal or otherwise.
“Jan Michael had an excellent performance,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “Our school record is 21.24, and that was set at the end of the season at a conference championship. For Jan Michael to start off like that is big. Even though you’re coming off of indoor, you still have to get used to the rhythm of running a 200m outdoors. I think Jan Michael is on pace to be our first athlete to break 21 seconds.”
Also competing on Thursday was UAlbany alumna Grace Claxton, who placed second in the women’s 400m hurdles competing for Puerto Rico as she gears up for her run to qualify for the Pan American Games and the World Championships.
“Grace continues to come down, and she’s pretty close to hitting the marks she needs to for the Pan American Games and the World Championships,” said Vives.
After two weeks of staggered season openers by event group, the Florida Relays and the other meets last weekend represented the first big weekend of the season where the goal was to use the opportunity to compete against a higher level of competition to secure championship season qualifying performances.
“I think the student-athletes responded well on the first day,” said Vives. “One of our goals is to have our kids be comfortable at meets with that level of competition. One of the things that was good, even on day three, our events were over early but a lot of them wanted to stay and watch the world-class events at the end. It shows that they’re excited to be in that environment and that they’re starting to feel comfortable.”
The Great Danes fielded their largest group of competitors on Friday in Florida. Harris was the highlight for the second day, breaking her own school record in the women’s discus set just two weeks ago by nearly four feet to place third in the invitational division. Her mark of 186-00.00 currently ranks eighth nationally. Further, Victor Cotto set an outdoor personal best in the long jump, 24-02.25, and Asia Jinks set a personal best in the 400m hurdles in 1:00.42.
“People started to settle in by Friday,” said Vives. “A lot of times on the first day you have had a long travel the day before. We flew into Orlando and had a two-hour drive to Gainesville, and then we had to settle into the hotel and now they’re running the next day. We started to acclimate to the weather a bit. We left Albany and it was 30 degrees and we arrive in Florida and it was 80. But by day two they’re feeling a lot more comfortable with that.”
Like Claxton on Thursday, another UAlbany alumnus, Ricardo Estremera, competed for Puerto Rico on Friday. Estremera won the men’s 3,000m steeplechase in 8:45.24, clearing the field by just over 10 seconds. Seeing Claxton and Estremera have success while competing for Puerto Rico is personally important for Coach Vives.
“It holds big significance for me,” said Vives. “We’ve been recruiting student-athletes from Puerto Rico for the past 20 years, and now to see them start climbing to national and international levels is amazing. Grace and I stayed to watch Ricardo run, and won by about 10 seconds. He’s married and working and still sacrificing to train at a high level. I’m on the national coaching staff for Puerto Rico, and I’m proud to see young people, especially those who have come through our program, succeed and be able to contribute. It means a lot to me to be able to help my parents’ homeland.”
On the West Coast, the distance runners competed in their season opener across two meets. All six distance runners competed on Friday, and five of the six set personal bests. Highlighting the group was Reinhardt, who broke the program record in the women’s 5,000m, and Gronostaj, who broke his own program record in the 10,000m. Reinhardt’s time of 16:06.02 surpassed the previous outdoor record of 16:21.12 set in 2013 by Brittney Lane, as well as her indoor and overall program record of 16:16.27 set during the latest indoor season. Gronostaj, the first and only male competitor to break 30 minutes in the 10,000m, did so for the second time last Friday, finishing in 29:29.72 to break his own school record of 29:32.41 set last year.
“The plan for the distance runners was to run at IC4A and ECAC Indoor Championships and then train for four weeks before their outdoor opener,” said Vives. “Last year we went to Stanford and we didn’t really perform. This year, they weren’t as intimidated and they were ready to compete. To have six competitors, five of whom set personal bests, two of which were school records, is special. It was a great start.”
On Friday, the Great Danes set two school records in Florida. First, the women’s shuttle hurdles relay placed second overall in 55.88, taking nearly a second off of the previous record of 56.68 set last year, and Belinsky broke her own record in the women’s shot put with a mark of 49-07.00, six inches further than she threw two weeks prior. Additionally, the women’s 4x100m relay team ran a season best 46.24 and the men fielded an alternate team and still ran 41.81. Finally, men’s triple jumpers Devon Willis and Robert Blue each recorded marks exceeding 50-00.00.
“We closed out really well on the last day in Florida,” said Vives. “It opened with the women’s shuttle hurdles relay team. I figured we had a shot to break 56, but we ran away from Troy State in our heat. When I saw the time, 55.88, it’s really early to have four women average under 14 seconds. They’re excited about running it again at Penn Relays.”
“Last year’s team was really special,” said Vives. “Nichole was someone who kept getting better and better and better. She willed herself to be good. And Niamani was consistent. They set the bar. The record they broke had lasted for a long time. This year’s group, with two members from last year, they encourage the others to do something special.”
With so many high-quality results from the weekend, Vives wanted to share a message with his team after all the events had concluded.
“I met with the team and really let them know that they represented well, setting five school records on two different coasts,” said Vives. “We went to compete, not to spectate, and we really wanted to highlight how well they did.”
In years past, the coaching staff has felt like the performances for this weekend during the season, the first with a higher level of competition, has not produced expected performances. This was part of the reasoning for the philosophy change the coaching staff has employed this season, something Vives feels the team is buying into.
“The team has now bought into the value of the early season meets,” said Vives. “It took the coaching staff a little while to convince them. Our philosophy this year is ‘less is more.’ We don’t have to be competing like we did in high school, two to three times per week, and every weekend. When you do that, there’s no time to train. We want to train and be ready for big performances. They saw the value of not extending the indoor season, and having an early outdoor meet, and then coming together for a big meet.”
A large collection of the team still has not yet competed during the outdoor season, and most of them will finally get their chance to do so this weekend at one of two meets in New Jersey, the Sam Howell Invitational at Princeton University, or the TCNJ Invitational at The College of New Jersey.
“This weekend we’re looking to open up the kids who haven’t had a chance to compete yet this year,” said Vives. “They are excited to open up and have their first meet. We believe in development and that has been a key part of our success. You have to give the younger student-athletes opportunities so they can develop.”
Seeing their teammates compete for three weeks while putting up big performances is something Coach Vives sees as motivating for those who haven’t yet competed.
“The student-athletes opening this week are motivated, because they’ve seen the results of their teammates,” said Vives. “They’re doing the same workouts as their teammates who have just set school records. I think that’s encouraging for them. They’re motivated to get out there and get going. It has been a long period of time, and unfortunately up here in the Northeast you can’t have meets in March. It’s just too cold and you don’t want to get kids hurt. But they’re excited and ready to get going and we want them to have a good experience.”
Though some student-athletes will have their season debuts delayed one more week, by the end of this weekend most will have had a chance to perform in anticipation of the championship season looming just three weeks away.
“Moving forward, on Monday just about everybody will have competed,” said Vives. “The jumpers, though, compete in such explosive events, so they will open at UConn next week, as will the multis athletes. I think that everybody will move forward knowing where they are and the work they need to do, and then it will become a series of one meet per week, and that’s when I think the team will start coming together.”
The TCNJ Invitational begins Saturday at 9:00 a.m. and the Sam Howell Invitational begins at 10:00 a.m.