There is a light, though not necessarily at the end of the tunnel.
The distance races have been a dry hole of late for the Washington State University Cougars, a rather pitiful state of affairs given the program’s track and field tradition. In the past three years, the Cougars men have scored all of three points at the Pacific-10 Conference championships in the five races of two laps or longer; the women haven’t scored in the 1,500 meters in seven years.
So even the tiniest spark is welcome, and the Cougs got a little more than that from Haley Paul and Justin Ireland last weekend at the Stanford Invitational.
Paul, a freshman from Phoenix, ran WSU’s fastest women’s 1,500 in 12 years, clocking 4 minutes, 26 seconds, to place ninth in the top section. Ireland, coming off a PR in the 800 the week before, slashed 5 seconds off his 1,500 best with a 3:48.09 effort.
“You can look at kids and know they’re ready to have PRs, just from the way they’re looking in practice,” said WSU distance coach Jason Drake. “Now, sometimes it doesn’t happen because of the circumstances – Justin indoors wound up in races where he had to lead the whole way and you’re pulling other guys around. But both he and Haley were in the ballpark, ready to do it, and ran very smart races on Saturday.”
Actually, 14 of the 18 runners Drake entered last weekend – in just WSU’s second outdoor meet – posted lifetime bests. Andrew Jones knocked 20 seconds off his PR in the 5,000, Alex Grant 16 seconds. Meghan Leonard set a school freshmen record in the women’s steeplechase (10:59.89).
Best of all: Except for Ireland, a junior, all those PRs came from freshmen and sophomores.
“At the moment, my model is just to keep them all healthy – it’s a matter of all of them getting stronger and being able to train at the level they need to,” Drake said. “We kind of messed up in cross country. Our women were fifth, which tied the best they’d done in conference in 15 years, but they’d all come from high schools where they were the stars and they were beating each other up pretty bad. You’ve got to be in this for the long haul.”
And in the Pac-10, it’s certainly a long haul. Vin Lananna changed the face of the league when he turned Stanford into a distance power, and though he’s since left to be athletic director at Oberlin College, that hasn’t changed.
“This is a tough league to be a distance runner,” said WSU head coach Rick Sloan. “From what I hear, Vin Lananna is a favorite (to be the next head coach) at Oregon, so I anticipate their program to return to a high level. Stanford continues to be good. (Former WSU coach James) Li at Arizona has the Kenyan athletes who perform at a high level and the Huskies have always had good distance runners.
“I don’t know if we’re going to make a living beating people with distance runners, but with the kids we have we’re going to get our onesies and twosies and keep moving up.”
The Cougars host the WSU Open Saturday at Mooberry Track.
Usually, that’s the abbreviation for Northern Arizona, but in the case of the Big Sky Conference’s track coaches, you can take it literally.
The conference championships will return to Flagstaff this year for the first time since 1976 – and nobody except the Lumberjacks is particularly happy about it. The issue is the city’s 6,900-foot elevation, and what that does to distance runners – especially those who train at or near sea level.
“It’s a sore point,” admitted Eastern Washington coach Stan Kerr, whose Eagles open the outdoor season at the Al Manuel Invitational in Missoula on Saturday. “You’re going to see a lot of redshirts from several of the schools in the distance races this year because of it.”
Kerr has no such option. His top distance runners, Branden Fuller and James Conrick, are fifth-year seniors with no redshirt options left. Fuller has the potential to run well at the NCAA regional level, but he’s obviously going to need a qualifying mark early in the season because he’s not going to get it at Flagstaff.
“A lot of us are of the mind that you should never hold the conference meet at elevation,” Kerr said. “It’s tough competitively because of the schools who can’t train there, and if you’re trying to qualify for the regional meet in two weeks it’s almost impossible.”
The last two times NAU has hosted the meet, in 1996 and 1983, it was held at Arizona State’s facility in Tempe.
The one that got away
Most coaches have a recruiting story like that every year. For Idaho’s Wayne Phipps, his slippery big fish was decathlete Sebastian Knabe.
A native of Germany with a best of 8,151 points in the 10-eventer, Knabe was supposed to come to Idaho this season with his girlfriend, Manuela Kurrat, also a multievent performer. Kurrat is here and doing well: she was third in the NCAA Indoor pentathlon. But Knabe is not.
“He wanted to be able to stay a full four years and get his degree,” said Phipps, “but eligibility-wise he only had a year and a half here. He had a good job (in a bank) back home and he didn’t want to give that up if he’d only be here 18 months or so. It’s really too bad. He came over to visit during spring break and he was pretty bummed. He saw how Manuela’s improved so much and that she really likes it here. And, of course, we were disappointed, too.”
Idaho will join WSU in Pullman this weekend. Elsewhere, Whitworth hosts a scoring triangular against Puget Sound and Northwest Nazarene at Boppell Track, and the Community Colleges of Spokane Sasquatch travel to the Willamette Invitational… . Among the newcomers at CCS is Teona Perkins, who has the potential of being an NWAACC champion in a strange combination: the 800 and high jump. The Kennewick sophomore ran a 2:14 half mile and high jumped 5-5 last year as a freshman at Northwest College before transferring… . Sloan has transformed his share of jumpers into decathletes, but the experiment is over with Clark College transfer Ryan Thomas, who struggled through his first try at California last week. He’ll be of more use to the Cougs in the long, triple and high jumps with bests of 23 feet, 43/4 inches, 49-8 and 6-93/4.