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March 1, 2018

Why Conference Championships Are The Best

Jesse Squire’s Thursday Morning College Trackstravaganza and Field Frenzy runs every Thursday morning at Citius Mag. You can follow him on Twitter at @tracksuperfan.

Most Division I conferences held their championship meets last weekend, which in my mind makes it one of the absolute best weekends of track and field. Missouri superstar distance runner Karissa Schweizer tweeted her thoughts:

I don’t think it’s cheesy at all. It’s why I’m fascinated with college track and field (and sometimes exasperated by it). I’d go so far as to say it’s why college sports can exist at all.

Joe Posnanski, my favorite sportswriter, explained it a few years ago.

. . .college athletics is not ABOUT the players. College athletics is FOR the players, but that’s a different thing, and that’s a distinction we don’t often make. College football only works on this grand scale, I believe, because it’s about the colleges. The alumni connect to it. The people in the town connect to it. The people in the state connect to it. People are proud of their connection to the University of South Carolina and Clemson, they are inspired by Alabama and Auburn, Penn State and Notre Dame and Stanford, they identify themselves through Missouri and Wisconsin and Florida and Texas A&M. The players matter because they chose those schools, they play for those schools, they win for those schools and they lose for those schools too. . .

Otherwise, without that connection, it’s just football that isn’t nearly as well-played as the NFL.

Big-time college football … big-time college basketball … these are about the schools that play them. They are about the institutions, the campuses, the landmarks, being young — the front of the jersey and not the back, as coaches love to say.

I would say the same about college track and field. If not for the connection to colleges, it’s nothing but young athletes racing significantly slower than the adults on the various world tour events (in most events, anyway – more on that later).

So this weekend was the time when everyone acted out Bo Schembechler’s words: the team, the team, the team. The effect of a team competition is that every race matters, every field event matters, every place matters.

LAST WEEK’S POINT SCORERS

Usually I hand out medals, but this time I’ll do a top eight of the college track weekend.

10 points: Men’s SEC Championships
Alabama won their first SEC title since 1972 (!) but not without some drama. The Crimson Tide carried a 17-point lead into the distance medley, the second-to-last race of the day. Ole Miss was favored to win the event for the fifth straight year, and looked golden when handing off to anchor leg Robert Domanic with a 1.8 second lead. But Arkansas’ Cameron Griffith ran the fastest of his life to catch and outkick Domanic. That cut the Alabama lead to seven points.

It meant that Arkansas would need to get second in the 4×400 in order to win the championship. The Hogs have a very good 4×400, but that’s a tall order in the SEC—Texas A&M and Florida ran the #3 and #5 indoor times ever. The Hogs hung in there but ended up third, just shy of winning the conference. It completes a remarkable climb for Alabama, who went from dead last in 2012 to runner-up last year and champions this year.

8 points: Sydney McLaughlin
The trend of leaving college early for a pro career, or even skipping college completely, has made it rare for us to see a true international-level star competing in NCAA track and field. McLaughlin has bucked that trend and the freshman is already breaking records.

She won the SEC 400 meters in 50.52 seconds, a world indoor record for the U20 age group. It’s second-fastest in collegiate history behind Phyllis Francis’ 50.46 at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships, run at Albuquerque’s mile-high altitude. Factor out the altitude and it makes McLaughlin the fastest collegian of all time. AND IT’S NOT EVEN HER EVENT! She’s a 400 hurdler.

6 points: My team
Like I said above, it’s the personal connections that drive college athletics. I had a whale of a time on Friday and Saturday because I got to be the PA announcer for the Mid-American Conference Championships, held at my alma mater.

The MAC is a funny conference for track and field. It has twelve women’s teams but just six men’s teams. It’s very hard for women’s-only program to be competitive; none have ever won a championship, and finishing in the top three had only been done twice in the last ten championship meets. My team, Bowling Green, has been on an upward swing since hiring a new coach in 2011 and finished a surprise fourth last year, at the top of a tight group that saw just eight points separating fourth from eleventh.

Coach Snelling said the team’s goal was to score 50 points, which usually puts a team around fifth or sixth. A solid group of throwers and pentathletes racked up those 50 points before the start of the running event finals and the last group of field events. That put BG in first place, but we all knew it wouldn’t last very long because the remaining point opportunities were slim.

And then things happened. A senior who had been toiling away at the triple jump for four years suddenly broke her PR by nearly a foot and scored four points. A freshman walk-on broke her high jump PR twice in a row and ended up a shocking third. The 4×400 nearly broke the school record and piled on more points. BG ended up third in the MAC, their best finish in nineteen years and the best by a MAC women’s-only program since 2012. The way the team was screaming at the end of the meet you’d think they had won the championship.

5 points: Returns to championship racing
You may or may not have heard Megan Cunningham’s story. The Missouri senior was in a car wreck three years ago that resulted in 20 skull fractures and four fractured vertebrae. It was never certain that she would ever run again, let alone be able to compete at an elite collegiate level. But this year she broke her 5k PR by nearly a minute and won the SEC 5000 on Saturday night.

Saturday at my little college out there on the edge of the prairie, another woman returned to championship track racing. Two years ago Janelle Noe suffered second, third, and deep third degree burns to more than 50% of her body. She returned to competition a year later, but only this year has she gotten into PR territory. The Toledo senior ended up fourth in the mile at the MAC Championships in the kind of kicker’s race that doesn’t favor her. There were tears afterwards, but from my view there’s no shame in being beaten by the conference record holder and an NCAA runner-up — and especially when you’ve had a long-term stay in a burn unit.

4 points: Big East Women’s Championship
Villanova trailed Marquette (Sorry Chavez!) by a point entering the 4×400 at the Big East Championships, but you knew the Wildcats can’t lose if their anchor leg is from Dublin, Ireland.

3 points: Schweizer is en feugo
Karissa Schweizer’s tweet at the top of this post was referring to the distance medley at the SEC Championships. She got the baton some eleven seconds behind the leader, which looked like a tall order even for Schweizer. She caught the leaders within 800 meters, which seemed a bit aggressive, but she kept flying and won by more than six seconds. Her split was 4:25.56 for 1600 meters, worth roughly 4:27.1 for a full mile. Only three women in collegiate history have ever run faster than that indoors. But Schweizer isn’t running the mile at the NCAAs, she’s running the 3000 and 5000. She’s amazing.

2 points: Where did that come from?
Minnesota won their first women’s Big Ten indoor team title in nine years. The Golden Gophers scored 23 of their 91½ points in the weight throw, and the most surprising part of it was champion Kaitlyn Long.

The senior is a transfer from Winona State, where she was a very good weight thrower by DII standards but wasn’t expected to be a major player on the DI level. Nothing about her performance this year changed that estimate, until the last two weeks. First, she finally broke her two-year-old PR at Minnesota’s pre-Big Ten tuneup meet. Then at the Big Ten meet she threw another PR, 24.37 meters (79-11½), which puts her at #3 on the all-time collegiate list – but not even #1 on the year! Four of the all-time collegiate top ten are competing this year, which means the NCAAs are going to be a tremendous showdown.

1 point: Ike Belk’s life
Ike Belk passed away yesterday at the age of 95. We often jokingly say “not all heroes wear capes”, but in this instance it really has meaning.

He was a lifelong businessman for the North Carolina-based department store chain that bears his family’s name, and was also a philanthropist, state legislator, member of the US Olympic Committee, and delegate to the UN. He helped create the University of North Carlina at Charlotte. In track and field, his influence is both little-known and rarely bettered.

He was a sprinter at North Carolina (with a brief break for WWII military service) and among the many things he did was fund track facilities at North Carolina, UNC Charlotte, NC A&T, Furman, Elon, Campbell, High Point, Wingate, Lenoir-Rhyne, and even more colleges, universities, and high schools — twenty-nine in all. (And if you didn’t know, tracks are not cheap.) He funded track and field statues on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, he funded many USOC efforts, and was a board member of the USA Track & Field Foundation (an organization wholly separate from USATF whose sole reason for existence is to fund athletes and programs). We’ve lost one of our biggest and best supporters.

THIS WEEK’S MEETS

The top meets of the upcoming weekend are rated from one to three dip finishes for sheer watchability…

Two Dips: IC4A Championships
The IC4A is the oldest collegiate athletics organization in the United States. The first outdoor championship meet of the Inter Collegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America was held in 1876. This is a conference championship of sorts, although few if any of the NCAA Championships qualifiers will compete. The only reason it doesn’t get three dips is that it is a sprawling, three-day long affair.

Two Dips: NAIA Championships
The USTFCCCA Championships show Indiana Tech as a strong favorite over Wayland Baptist for both the men’s and women’s championships. I didn’t even know a Baptist university would be into outlaw country music. Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be track coaches…

BAD MOVIE OF THE WEEK: VEGAS VAMPIRE

You thought the blacksploitation genre ended in 1980? You were wrong. This “film” came out in 2007 and continues the tradition. Not coincidentally, it was the last film Bernie Casey (of Badazz Mofo magazine fame) ever did.

A plot summary via IMDB:
Tommy Lister is on hand as a police detective looking for the missing daughter of an affluent man, and runs into the vampire clans that has kidnapped her. A second plot has the detective’s step-son going to Vegas to get hitched and running afoul of the same vampire clan. Yet a third plot has blacksploitation greats Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson who go to Vegas for the hell of it and run afoul of, yup you guessed it.

If you think this sounds like a GREAT plot, you would be right. But they did this very badly, with film seemingly spliced from multiple films and with three writers that didn’t appear to know what each other was doing. The end result is something described as “worse than a high school thesis film”. Terrible! Awful! Couldn’t be worse!

Enjoy the meets!


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