The indoor track and field team has generally moved from strength to strength this season, thanks in large part to a dozen or so reliable finishers who are able to size up their opponents accurately and churn out times at or near the top consistently. But during the last meet at which the Lions faced a significant step up in competition, they choked.
That turns up the pressure this weekend at the NCAA Indoor Championships, but the Light Blue delegation in 65-degree Albuquerque, N.M., comprises six of the team's core athletes, and they're determined not to let big-name schools get under their skin.
“Above everything, it's about just making sure that they feel calm, that they're being confident, knowing they're ready to go,” head coach Willy Wood said over the phone after the athlete banquet Thursday. “We just want to be sure we don't back off or attribute too much to the competition just because they run for LSU or Texas.”
Junior Nadia Eke will compete in the triple jump as the lone women's team representative. Senior Johnny Gregorek will run the mile. And the Lions' first-ever indoor distance medley relay team to qualify for nationals will consist of junior Brendon Fish, first-year Noah Lartigue, senior Harry McFann, and senior Dan Everett.
Gregorek was originally going to run the DMR as well, but with the mile trials and the DMR both on Friday evening, Wood decided to have Gregorek pour his energy into the mile and entered Lartigue in his place. Lartigue, who's been one of the team's best sprinters this season, ran the 400 leg of the DMR at Heps. “It would be too hard for Johnny to double in the same day for us,” Wood said. “Noah's a strong guy.”
They'll wind up running against runners from the likes of No. 2 Arkansas and No. 6 Oregon. Among others, Gregorek is facing three Ivy competitors. Eke's top competition is San Diego State's Shanieka Thomas, the defending outdoor triple jump champion who placed third in the Jamaica Olympic Trials in 2012.
“Everybody here is so good,” Wood said. But the Columbia squad “is not overwhelmed by the situation,” he added. The team has some experience with the national arena. This is Everett's fourth NCAAs and Gregorek's third. Eke was an All-American two years ago.
“Everyone feels like they're in the best shape of the year, which is really true,” Wood said.
And with that, they're aiming high: Gregorek's goal will be to make it to the finals, while Eke's goal is to be an All-American again, according to Wood. He added that he's pleased the Lions made the top-12 cutoff for the DMR, but would love to make the first-team All-American cutoff of top eight.
“Everybody just seems ready to go,” he said. “Everybody's calm, but excited.”
The first event Columbia is competing in, the men's mile, starts at 6 p.m. MT on Friday at the Albuquerque Convention Center east exhibit halls.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @fvigeland