A school-record 26 Ducks (16 women and 10 men) will migrate south for the 2016 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships this upcoming weekend, March 11th and 12th, at the Crossplex in Birmingham, Alabama. This will mark the first time since 1999 that the meet has been held east of the Mississippi. The Duck men are defending National Indoor Champions while the Duck women have won five of the last six indoor titles, finishing second last year.
Indoor track is a different animal than outdoor track. The long throws (discus, javelin and hammer) are replaced by the weight throw, which involves tossing a large steel ball with a short handle on it; the men’s weight is 35 lbs., and the women’s weight is 20 lbs. Typical winning throws travel less than 80 feet.
Additionally, in indoor track the 4 x 100 relay is replaced by the Distance Medley Relay (DMR), which involves 400-, 800-, 1200- and 1600-meter legs. This favors the distance-oriented schools rather than the sprint-oriented schools. While Oregon’s women have had success at both the 4 x 100 and DMR on a national level, the men have long been stronger in the DMR versus the 4 x 100, giving them a distinct indoor advantage.
The short sprints and hurdles are 60-meter races indoors, versus 100-meter races (or 110 meters for men’s hurdles) outdoors. Additionally, the outdoor 1500 is replaced by an indoor mile (roughly 100 meters longer), and the 10,000 meters is replaced by a 3000-meter (nearly two miles) race.
Rounding out the indoor differences, the multi-events are reduced from 10 disciplines to seven for the men and from seven to five for the women. This tends to boost the performance of athletes who are weak in the long throws, which are not performed. Additionally, the final multi distance event is reduced from 1500 to 1000 meters on the men’s side, while remaining at 800 meters on the women’s side. Thus, poor male distance runners are more competitive in the indoor multi event competition.
As of March 6, the Duck men hold a slim No. 2 ranking, while the Duck women are a narrow No. 1 in the USTFCCA national polls. While these rankings obviously produce a great deal of satisfaction among the Oregon faithful, one must remember that these rankings merely represent a seeded compilation of the best seasonal times through the end of the regular season and conference championships.
With the formal release of the NCAA Championship fields this week, we get a somewhat different picture, given that the original rankings don’t take injuries and event scratches into account. Further, some athletes peak early in the season, while others peak for the Championships. Thus, the USTFCCA polls do not always paint the most accurate picture of where each squad stands heading into the national meet.
Indeed, the formal starting lists show a radically different set of numbers than the polls. The Duck men are a solid favorite with a projected 46 points to runner-up LSU’s 32 points. Current USTFCCCA No. 1, Arkansas projects to finish only 5th. The women’s projections, however, show less positive numbers for the Ducks, who are projected to finish a distant 3rd with 33.25 points behind Florida’s 50.5 and Georgia’s 39.5.
Oregon’s track and field coaching staff, led by Robert Johnson, does a lot of things well, but first and foremost, the staff gets their athletes championship-ready.
What this means is that Duck athletes are primed to peak at the National Championships, not in January. History tells us that the projected points for Oregon’s teams generally don’t reflect the actual performances on championship weekend, which tend to produce better scores than the projections. In other words, the Ducks are a championship-built squad on both the men’s and women’s side. Any meets prior to the National Championship serve only as training sessions for the big dance.
What can we expect from this year’s teams?
Men: Only the Arkansas men have more entrants (12) than the Ducks. Much like last year, the men’s team title is dependent on strong performances in the distance races, with superstar Edward Cheserek expected to carry much of the load.
Last year, Cheserek was spectacular in running three sub-4 minute miles in a span of a bit over 24 hours. He won the mile, anchored the DMR winning team and finished second to teammate Eric Jenkins in the 3000.
This year, King Ches is expected to compete in only the 3000 and 5000 meters and he’s favored to win both. I would also expect Ches to run the anchor leg on the DMR, but it won’t be easy as the DMR begins less than 20 minutes after the end of the 5000 on Friday.
As always, expect coach Johnson to play his cards close to the vest and wait until the final moments to reveal his strategy regarding Ches and the DMR, which could include Ches, Sam Prakel, Blake Haney or Matthew Maton in the two longer legs.
Since both Haney and Prakel are mile entrants, expect a fresh Maton to handle the 1200-meter leg, with Ches anchoring. It will be up to the newcomer Maton (if he runs the DMR), along with Prakel and Haney in the mile and Jake Leingang in the 5000 to fill some of the void created by the loss of current pros Jenkins, Will Geoghegan, Johnny Gregorek, Parker Stinson and Daniel Winn. Not counting the DMR, this quintet produced 32 of the Duck’s 74 points last year.
The only other non-distance scorer last year was Gregg Skipper, who contributed four points in the weight throw. Skipper has already broken his school record this season and should contribute a few more points than last year, as he’s proven to rise to the occasion for big meets.
The most noteworthy addition to this year’s team is a healthy Devon Allen, who is expected to score big, as he lines up in the 60 meter hurdles with the best time in the nation. The Ducks could also grab points from indoor newcomer Nate Moore in the triple jump.
Women: First things first: the loss of Jenna Prandini is absolutely huge. She contributed 23 of the Duck’s 46.5 points last year.
Other non-returners Lauren Crockett and Nikki Hiltz contributed an additional four points. On the positive side, indoor rookie and outdoor NCAA champ Raevyn Rogers is favored to win the 800, Sasha Wallace should to improve on her 5th-place finish in the 60-meter hurdles last year, a seasoned Jasmine Todd has a great chance to win the 60-meter dash after finishing third last year, and newcomers Hannah Cunliffe (60 meters, 200 meters), Alaysha Johnson (60 hurdles) and Deajah Stevens (200 meters) are expected to contend.
The Ducks might also garner more points than projected in both the 4 x 400 relay, an event that yielded no points last year, and the DMR. Veterans Waverly Neer and Molly Grabill could pick up a few distance points as well.
The Ducks are not projected to score in the field events. There is hope however, as last year’s 3rd–place finisher, Brittany Mann, lines up with newcomer Itohan Aikhionbare in the shot put. That being said, the single event that could boost the Ducks chances of winning it all will be the 800 meters. Three potential scorers line up for Oregon in Rogers, Annie LeBlanc and Brooke Feldmeier.
It’s also noteworthy that the Duck women bring 16 potential scorers to the meet versus only 10 each for Florida and Georgia. In simple terms, the comparatively smaller Florida and Georgia squads have a lot of pressure to perform. A slip here or there could open the gates for the larger Duck team to outperform the form charts in a few events and steal a championship.
Marcus Chambers, the reigning NCAA outdoor runner-up, surprisingly failed to qualify in the 400 meters, though he is expected to tote the baton in the DMR. The previously mentioned Mann, last year’s 3rd-place finisher in the shot put, was well behind the qualifying mark before a big throw at her final meet moved her into the top 16 and punched her ticket to Birmingham.
Both men and women compete in 17 events over the course of the championship meet. During the past decade, 13 NCAA records have been set by the men and an astonishing 16 NCAA records have been recorded by the women. The oldest men’s record dates all the way back to 1981 (Carl Lewis, long jump) while the oldest women’s record dates to 1997 (Suzette Lee, triple jump).
ESPN3 will stream the meet live on March 11 starting at 6:25 p.m. EST and March 12 starting at 4:55 p.m. Eastern time. A re-air of the championship will take place on Sunday, March 13, starting at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2 and also Wednesday, March 23, starting at 10 p.m. EST on ESPNU.
Top Photo by Gary Breedlove