Sometimes “just happy to be here” really is the way to go.
Leslie Nelson adopted that approach at last year’s NCAA Division III track and field championships and found it served her better than her mindset in previous trips to national meets.
Now the Whitworth College senior from Omak is back for her last go-round – and round and round – at the D-III nationals, part of a group of seven women the Pirates will have in action at the meet in Decatur, Ill., beginning Thursday. She’ll run the 10,000 meters on opening day, hoping to improve on last year’s 12th-place finish.
“That was the first national race where I actually performed well,” said Nelson, an Academic All-American with a 3.99 GPA who just took her Whitworth degree in English and will enroll at Washington State for graduate school in the fall.
True enough, she’d finished 120th and 85th in two trips to the D-III cross country championships, mostly because “I’d let my nerves get the better of me,” she said.
“Last year, I just worked on relaxing and being grateful to be there. And it wasn’t that hard because I came really close to not qualifying. Plus, I had a really good running day and it was a fun race.”
The 10,000? Fun?
Well, you have to appreciate Nelson’s perspective. Even in 12th place, she broke the old track record at St. Lawrence College. Winner Mary Proulx of Keene State finished 26 1/2 minutes ahead of her; the last-place finisher was a minute and a half behind.
“There were people to pass, which was great,” Nelson said, “and quite a few girls who lapped me – and that was great, too. It helped to be able to stay with them for a while and surge. That doesn’t happen too much in the little 10,000s you have around here.”
Nelson broke the school record in that race, running 36 minutes, 33.61 seconds; she’s lopped another 10 seconds off that this season, and Whitworth coach Toby Schwarz has the impression she’s ready for more.
“She was kicking my butt in a workout the other day and said, ‘What do I have to do to run a sub-36?’ ” Schwarz said. “She’s in the right place. She has confidence – she knows she belongs there now and that she’s not just sneaking in.”
Indeed, Nelson has the No. 5 time in the 10,000 – and though she’s a good 1:40 behind event leader Carter Hamill of Amherst, the top three ran their qualifiers at the Penn Relays in a field paced by strong Division I runners.
“If there’s somebody in front of her,” Schwarz said, “experience shows that Leslie will go get her.”
While Nelson has the big mileage long, teammate Kristen Shields will also be a workhorse at the meet, hosted by Milliken University. The swift senior from Grand Coulee has the nation’s fastest time in the 100 meters and will also run the 200 and anchor Whitworth’s 4x100 relay team, which includes Nicole Brown of Spokane, Sarah Marken and Emily Hinson.
Javelin thrower Katie Regier and high jumper Suzy Viducich round out the Pirates’ entries.
The Community Colleges of Spokane Sasquatch have a milestone in sight – a 25th men’s title – when they host the NWAACC championships beginning Thursday at noon at Spokane Falls.
The Sasquatch likely will have to fight off Highline and Clackamas to win a seventh crown in the past eight years, and will have to do it with depth – only Ty Axtman (steeplechase), Mark Currell (10,000) and Jaymes Powell (pole vault) are event leaders coming into the meet.
Clark nipped the CCS women by five points a year ago and are among the favorites again, with CCS’s hopes riding heavily on the talents of Molly Burt – the conference leader in the 200 and both hurdles races – and distance runner Ashley Hadway.
This is the second year of the NCAA’s regional concept for Division I athletes, and time has pretty much silenced most of the critics – or at least made their complaints irrelevant.
“It’s forced people not to race as hard early in the season,” said Washington State coach Rick Sloan. “Really, it comes down to a three-meet season – conference, regionals and nationals, and for us the Husky meet. Everything else is just preparation for that.”
WSU has 26 entrants, including three relay teams, in the West Regional meet at Northridge, Calif., beginning Friday, while Idaho has 21 and Eastern Washington seven. There have been a few casualties among the qualifiers, however.
The Cougars scratched distance runner Danny Wolf from the 5,000 due to lingering effects of an injury and opted not to take hammer thrower Thad Cullinan, while Tim Gehring will skip the hammer to concentrate on the shot put. Matt Mason, who pulled a hamstring at the Pac-10 meet, has been scratched from the high hurdles and will compete in the long jump only, hoping to get at least one attempt in.
In addition to the top five athletes from each regional advancing to nationals two weeks hence in Austin, Texas, a small number of at-large competitors atop the seasonal performance list may be selected as long as they competed in the regional meet and gave honest effort. Mason could qualify via that route.
For Idaho, Katie Tuttle will throw the discus only despite also qualifying in the shot put, and Mary Kamau will skip the 800 meters in favor of the 1,500.
WSU sprinter Anthony Buchanan has the top 100-meter time among men, 10.21 seconds, and anchors the Cougars’ 4x100 relay team which has the No.3 time – though that was with Mason. And Idaho’s Jan Eitel is the defending regional champ in the men’s steeplechase.
In addition to the qualifiers from EWU, Idaho and WSU, nine other Inland Northwest athletes will compete in regionals this weekend.
Two Freeman runners from the University of Washington – John Russell in the men’s 1,500 meters and Laura Halverson in the women’s steeplechase – will run in the West meet, as will Bonners Ferry’s Forest Braden of Boise State, who had qualifying marks in three events but will run the 5,000. Also at the West Regional will be a pair of Stanford athletes – Jessica Pluth of Ferris in the hammer and Erin Merriman of Gonzaga Prep in the javelin.
Spread out elsewhere are three distance runners – Erik Schmidt (U-Hi) of the Naval Academy in the East 1,500, Cameron Schwehr (Mt. Spokane) of Kansas in the Midwest 1,500 and Todd Fayant (Mead) of Alabama in the Mideast steeplechase. Zach Schaefer of Wyoming and the Community Colleges of Spokane is a hammer qualifier in the Midwest.