Michigan State track and field just got a lot smaller after this past weekend’s NCAA Eastern Regional meet in Jacksonville, Fla.
The team had five athletes place in the top 12 of their event to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championship in Eugene, Ore.
Qualifiers include Antonio James in the shot put and discus, Leah O’Connor in the 3,000m steeplechase, Tori Franklin in the triple jump and Rachele Schulist in the 5,000m. Kurt Schneider previously posted a qualifying mark in the decathlon.
With significantly more difficult competition than last year, MSU was tested in every event.
During the discus competition, James went from being in a qualifying spot to being out of one in a couple of throws. In his last throw, he regained a top 12 position to qualify for the event. He finished 8th in the discus with 58.48m and 10th in the shot put with 19.08m. This will be his second trip to Nationals in the discus and first in the shot put.
Franklin had a similar problem in the triple jump. With one jump to go, she was ranked 13th. And with her team rallying behind her, her last jump was two feet farther than any of her jumps from the whole weekend, tying for first and allowing her to qualify. This is her third-straight year qualifying for the NCAA Outdoors.
“It was cool to watch the team stick up with her like that,” MSU head coach Walt Drenth said. “With that type of performance she not only has a chance of getting on the podium, but being a favorite to win.”
The women’s pole vault saw a much more competitive field than last year, with the qualifying mark eight inches higher than last year. Lauren Chorny barely missed qualifying with a mark of 4.15m and a 14th place finish.
One of the men’s top distance runners, Caleb Rhynard, missed qualifying for the 5,000m after placing 17th with a time of 14:18.16. Other drama surrounding the 5,000m race involved Julia Otwell, who was looking for a qualifying finish. In the middle of a congested pack of runners, she got banged around and even lost her shoe.
On a positive note, Schulist ranked 11th in the women’s 5,000m with a time of 16:09.34. This is her first time qualifying for Outdoor Nationals.
O’Connor continued her campaign to prove she is one of the nation’s best in the 3,000m steeplechase with a first place finish at 9:52.69. This is her third straight year competing at the NCAA Outdoors.
“In almost every instance we exceeded our rankings,” Drenth said. “And in the first round of Nationals, this is all of the teams east of the Mississippi and so the top 48 athletes in every event. That’s a very exclusive club.”
The athletes that are going to the national meet are considered MSU’s elite and their qualifying marks are not a surprise. All of the athletes participated in the NCAA Indoor Championship in March.
It would have been nice to see athletes like Chorny, Alicia Evans in the 200m and Jaelynn Pryor in the 400m hurdles make it to Eugene and get the experience they may need take the next step in their careers. Evans just missed her chance, finishing .001 seconds shy of qualifying.
Instead of asking “What if?,” coach Drenth and his coaching staff are asking “What did you learn?”
“Even our failures are an opportunity to grow and that’s the message we’re trying to send home right now” Drenth said. “Even though it didn’t go according as planned in some cases.”
June 11-14, the top collegiate track and field athletes will converge at one of the most storied running venues in the country, University of Oregon’s Hayward Field and MSU’s athletes are looking to make their mark on the event.
Alexa McCarthy is the host of Last Leg for Impact Sports.
Photo: Alexa McCarthy/Impact Sports