Six Spartans Head to the NCAA Indoor Championship

This weekend, six Spartans will find themselves among the sun and mountains of Albuquerque, N.M. for the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship, hosted by the University of New Mexico. Being held on Friday, March 14 and Saturday, March 15, MSU will be represented in seven different events.

The team is taking twice the amount of athletes as last year, and Antonio James and Tori Franklin are the only returnees. Head coach Walt Drenth cites a growing number of athletes who have matured and made a lot of progress over the course of the year.

“They were just physically and mentally ready for the challenge this year. AJ qualified last year and was ready. We redshirted Kurt (Schneider) last year in preparation for this year,” Drenth said. “We thought he was a genuine national level person, he just needed to learn some of the events in the heptathlon and decathlon a little better…And then Tori made the nationals, and she just continued to make progress. That’s just our expectation when they get here, that they continue to grow.”

There will be three athletes in distance events, a category that was underrepresented last year.

“For the distance runners it’s a matter of time. The maturity and opportunity just happen to grow as they get older,” Drenth said. “So none of it is a surprise, none of them really stepped up, I think it’s just a natural progression.”

The Athletes

Antonio James finds himself at Indoor Championship for the third time in his career, entering the meet with a No. 8 ranking in the shot put. He is also competing in the weight throw, and enters with a No. 4 ranking.

Last year, James entered with the same ranking in the weight throw as this year and earned a silver medal. The Big Ten conference dominates in the weight throw category, taking six out of the 16 spots. And the competition will be very similar to what James saw at the Big Ten Conference meet and this poses no worry to him.

“The National Championship meet, since I’ve been there before, it’s nothing new to me, so that will help me focus,” James said. “I’m familiar with the competition there too so I know how things go in championships.”

In the shot put, James is ranked higher in the Big Ten than he is in the weight throw, but lower in the national rankings. The shot put category is not as competitive in the Big Ten as the weight throw. James has said that the shot put is a personal favorite, and being put next to athletes that are throwing one meter farther than him will push him to also throw farther.

James is hoping that his lighter practice schedule in the last two weeks will lend him with some extra energy for this weekend.

Also, make sure to look out for his signature colorful socks. Rumblings are that he got a new pair.

Kurt Schneider will be representing MSU in the men’s heptathlon. While this is Schneider’s first season doing the heptathlon, he redshirted last year specifically to have a more successful season this year, and it seems to be working.

He enters the meet with an impressive No. 7 ranking. While Schneider is perfectly capable of being a true competitor in the meet, he sits behind five out of six athletes ahead of him who have competed in the event at this level before.

The multi-talented Tori Franklin will be competing in her specialty, the triple jump. She enters ranked No. 3 with a mark of 13.56m and is not far behind (.03m to be exact) No. 2 ranked Ciarra Brewer from the University of Florida.

If Franklin’s record from this season is any indication of what type of competitor she is, there is no doubt she will be up for the challenge to break that small gap.

Caleb Rhynard qualified for the nationals after earning a personal record time of 7:53.34 in the 3,000-meter race at Big Tens and is currently ranked No.16 in the nation and has a 14th ranked spot in the race.

Rhynard is not the lone Big Ten athlete represented in the race. Reed Connor from Wisconsin and John Simmons from Minnesota will also be competing in the 3,000-meter.

While everyone dreams of winning a race, Rhynard knows the spot he is in and is aware that simply engaging in the competition will land him where he wants to be.

“I’m going in not really expecting anything, just trying to stick my neck in the race and see what happens,” Rhynard said. “That’s kinda what happened at Big Tens, and turned out alright, that’s what got me here.”

In the women’s mile, Leah O’Connor finds herself ranked No. 1 with a time of 4:34.35, a mere 50 milliseconds ahead of No. 2 Colleen Quigley from Florida State.

O’Connor is the one to beat, and with a race packed full of competitive distance runners from the SEC and ACC, she will be challenged like she hasn’t before this season. It is sure to be a close race, with only a second between the first eight ranked runners.

Rachele Schulist is a small, but fast fish in big waters in the 3,000-meter race. She is ranked in the No. 10 spot with a time of 9:06.85 and is the only freshman in the race. She finished third at the Big Ten conference meet and her qualification for this weekend was debatable, but by her PR set at the SPIRE Invite, she deserves to be there as much as anybody.

For her, it will not be difficult to stay with the front pack as long as she stays focused and knows that she has the capability to go even faster than her personal record. By her qualifying for this meet, it is just an indication that there are great things to come for Schulist in the future.

“I think we thought everyone that qualified had a chance. Rachele may be the exception to that, but she made so much progress over the winter and once she started running we knew she would make it,“ Drenth said.

Something that all the athletes will have to worry about is the elevation level in Albuquerque which ranges from 4,900 feet to over 6,700 feet. This may give the athletes from the West Coast a bit of an advantage, but Rhynard doesn’t seem to be worried.

“You could say they have a leg up, but depending on how the race goes, it may not matter,” he said.

What the athletes will find is that while athletes from some of the countries most famed track and field institutions will be there, the Big Ten conference is well represented.

“One of the great things about being in the Big Ten is it’s national level competition. So you leave the Big Ten and go to the nationals and you are rubbing shoulders with people you competed with two weeks earlier,” Drenth said.

ESPN3 will livestream the event, on Friday, March 14 at 7:55 p.m. and on Saturday, March 15 at 7:50 p.m.

NCAA Qualifiers

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

Photo: NCAA