Spartans Return from NCAA Outdoor Championship

In a sport like track and field, you win some and you lose some. In a place like Eugene, Ore., home of this year’s NCAA Outdoor Championship, it is hard to not go in with high expectations.

Michigan State track and field saw five of their top athletes take on the nation’s best this past week at the Outdoor Championship. Junior Leah O’Connor was the star of the week, with a well-planned first place finish in the 3,000m steeplechase on Friday. Since her last visit to Eugene for the 2013 Outdoor Championship, she has made it her goal to stand on the podium and take part in the “victory lap” tradition.

“You run around the outside of the track, people shake your hand and ask for autographs, it’s really quite spectacular for an athlete,” head coach Walt Drenth said. “Last year we started planning, so it was great to see it come to fruition. About six weeks ago she came to my office and said I think I’m ready to win.”

After an easy qualifying finish in the preliminaries it was clear that O’Connor would be a contender for the title. She finished with a time of 9:36.43. Her time was seven seconds ahead of second place, which is a rare sight at a national meet and is the largest margin of victory at nationals since 2010.

Steeplechase is a difficult race because of the large barriers and pool of water that runners have to hurdle over. O’Connor made it look extremely easy and unlike many athletes, seemed to gain speed after jumping over the barriers.

There is no doubt that freshman Rachele Schulist fed off of O’Connor’s win and pulled off a ninth place finish in the 5,000m. While it is not a top place finish, she not only exceeded her ranking by 11 spots, but was also the top freshman runner in the race.

For a national meet, the race went surprisingly slow, and she finished with a time of 16:05.68. Although it was clearly an upperclassmen race, she was in no position to set the pace like she is often known to do. Schulist was also coming off an iron deficiency issue that she battled at the Indoor Championships.

“She really just let go of the stuff that didn’t go very well at Indoor,” Drenth said. “I couldn’t be more proud of her, especially knowing she was one of two freshman in the race. It was a great first step. I’m looking forward to what she is going to do.”

In the decathlon, redshirt senior Kurt Schneider battled a sore hamstring, but was able to finish in 15th place with 7,429 total points.

“Training was limited during the week because of his hamstring,” Drenth said. “A two day contest is pretty hard if you haven’t been able to train.”

Schneider was able to exceed his ranking, with his best performances in the discus with a seventh place finish (41.86m), 12th place finish in the 110m hurdles in 15.19 and a rallied performance in the pole vault to finish 12th.

He ended his career as only the second Spartan to receive All-American honors in the decathlon.

Things did not go as well as planned for juniors Tori Franklin and Antonio James, who both struggled to find their sense of competition that they are used to showcasing.

Franklin turned in a 13th place finish with a mark of 41-10.5 feet., two feet shy of her Big Ten Championship winning mark. She struggled with an injury going into the outdoor season, but after a successful post-season run, it would have appeared that she got past that. It is possible, that after such an intense past few weeks, her body had not fully recovered.

“Tori really engages the crowd. She’s high energy and a charismatic athlete,” Drenth said. “She tried on the last jump to muster it up, but maybe she’s just a little tired.”

James finished 23rd in the discus and was not able to place in the shot put. With it being his third trip to the National Championship, he was expected to bring in a top 10 finish.

“He had great practices in Eugene before the meet,” Drenth said. “But he was having a hard time lining up the discuss, which doesn’t usually happen with him.”

Four Spartans were named All-Americans. O’Connor received first-team honors and Schulist, Schneider and Franklin received second-team honors.

Franklin and James will both have an opportunity to fix what went wrong when they make their way to Sacramento, Calif. for the USATF Outdoor Championships, June 24-26. O’Connor and Schulist will start to focus on cross country for the fall season.

Alexa McCarthy is the host of Last Leg for Impact Sports.

Photo: Alexa McCarthy/Impact Sports