By Steve Lansdale
IN ITS MOST BASIC FORM, A RACE HAS TWO IMPORTANT ELEMENTS — get off to a good start and finish strong. The idea sounds simple, but doing both well often determines who wins an event, whether that event is a short sprint or long distance.
Track & field is a sport in which individuals compete in different events to determine an overall team winner. The original concept still applies, requiring an entire team of athletes to leave it all on the table.
When a team starts a season with a stable of talented athletes who put in the required training, and then improves over the course of a season to close out the year with a strong finish, that team has a chance for great success.
Such is the case with the Texas track and field team. The Longhorns are usually ranked among the top teams in the nation and 2015 was no different. The men, who finished second in the Big 12 in both indoors and outdoors last season, opened the season ranked eighth in the nation by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). The women, who swept the 2014 Big 12 indoor and outdoor titles, opened the season ranked fifth.
Head coach Mario Sategna said the reputation of the university and its storied athletic history alone raise expectations for his team. Some teams hope to succeed at the conference and national levels — at Texas, it’s expected.
“That’s one of the things we talk about, even during the recruiting process,” Sategna said. “Some can handle it but some can’t. We know that when Texas shows up everyone notices, and we know that it makes people want to beat us. That’s why, in some cases, the makeup of the individual can be as important as the physical talent. That’s one thing that we impress upon them: If you can handle the expectations, if you can handle getting everyone’s best shot, that bodes well for us when we get to conference and national competitions.”
THE MEN’S TEAM might be Texas’ best in years, which at a school with such a storied tradition, is no small claim.
The Longhorns are strongest in the throwing events, led by senior Ryan Crouser. Crouser is a three-time national champion in the shot put with a glistening résumé: eight-time USTFCCCA All-American (named to the first team six times and twice to the second team), 2014 USTFCCCA Men’s National Field Event Athlete of the Year, two-time nominee for the Big 12 Male Athlete of the Year, four-time Big 12 shot put champion (twice indoors and twice outdoors), 2014 Big 12 discus champion, 2012 Big 12 Indoor Freshman of the Year and holder of three all-time Texas records in the shot put (indoors and outdoors) and the discus. Equally impressive is his family pedigree: His father, Mitch, was a thrower in college and a discus alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, while his uncle, Dean, was a three-time NCAA champion at the University of Oregon.
“I think sometimes people take Ryan for granted,” Sategna said. “I can’t say enough about what he does in the ring for us. He has done everything we could ask of him and more.”
Texas also boasts a talented group of sprinters, led by sophomore Senoj-Jay Givans, who finished seventh in the country last year in the 100-meter dash (his personal-best time of 10.10 seconds in the 100 is the all-time outdoor Texas record). Givans also won the Big 12 title last season in the 200 (20.28). He’s joined by junior Zack Bilderback, a first-team All-American and three-time Big 12 champion in the 400, and by Byron Robinson, a sophomore transfer from Penn State.
“We’re getting more quality depth in the sprints,” Sategna said. “[Givans] is just in his second year and he already has one Big 12 title. Byron is an outstanding runner who came over from Penn State and will help us in sprints and relays.”
During the offseason, the Longhorns made a concerted effort to add talent in the distance events. Senior Craig Lutz leads the pack, a two-time All-American on the Texas cross country team who already has the second-fastest time in school history in the 5,000 meters (13:47.09) — a time that also is the second fastest in the nation this year.
Sategna said Lutz could be as valuable a leader off the track for his teammates as he is in competition.
“We have a group of very young distance runners who have a lot of talent, but they need someone to show them the way,” Sategna said. “Craig is a talented runner, but he’s also a great example for the younger guys, showing them how to train and compete.”
“Craig always had talent — we knew that — but now he’s a seasoned veteran and has a little spunk in his walk,” he continued. “At the end of the day, track & field is a team sport, but it is run by individuals, and if you don’t have confidence in what you’re doing, it’s like getting into a fight with one arm tied behind your back. You can try all you want, but that confidence is crucial to success, and he has it. The younger guys watch how he prepares, competes and carries himself, and I hope that will rub off on them.”
Helping to set the pace for the young distance specialists is senior Ryan Dohner, also a two-time cross country All-American. Dohner is a four-time USTFCCCA cross country All-South Central Region honoree and a three-time All-Big 12 selection in cross country.
Perhaps the most versatile athlete on the roster is junior Johannes Hock. Hock is a three-time USTFCCCA first-team All-American who won the 2013 NCAA outdoor championship in the decathlon as a freshman, as well as the Big 12 outdoor decathlon and the 2013 Big 12 indoor heptathlon, and he was named the conference’s male Freshman of the Year.
Crouser and Hock began the season as two of just 10 athletes on the preseason watch list for the Bowerman Trophy. The award is college track & field’s highest individual honor, given annually to the nation’s top student-athlete.
Sategna said that although the men didn’t match the women with a pair of conference crowns last year, they still hope to win the titles this season.
“On the men’s side, across the board, this is one of the most balanced teams we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Sategna said. “This is my second year as head coach, but my 13th season at Texas, and I’ve seen some good teams come through. The teams we have this year, though, are among the best we’ve ever had.”
WHILE THE MEN carry talent, the women are even more loaded as every contributor from last year’s roster is back for another season.
And while Texas has talent throughout much of its roster, the Longhorns enjoy an embarrassment of riches in two particular areas — the pole vault and the 400 meters.
In the pole vault, junior Kaitlin Petrillose returns after winning the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championship. She set a new NCAA indoor record when she cleared 15 feet, 1 inch. Petrillose will lead a pack of nine vaulters this season, including seven underclassmen. With good health and a little luck, each athlete could qualify for the conference championship.
The Longhorns also come into this season with the nation’s top 400-meter sprinters. Junior Courtney Okolo won the event last year, setting a new NCAA record by crossing the finish line in 50.03 seconds. Two seasons before that, Ashley Spencer won the national title while running for the University of Illinois. Texas also signed arguably the nation’s best 400-meter runner and 400-meter hurdler for next year.
“The sprints, hurdles and relay group will be our core this year, starting with the 400,” Sategna said. “We have as much talent there as any team I’ve ever been around.”
Further bolstering the sprint crew is another transfer from Illinois, Morolake Akinosun. Akinosun is a seven-time USTFCCCA first-team All-American (five at Texas, two at Illinois) and a five-time second-team All-American. Akinosun was part of the 4x400-meter relay team that won the 2014 NCAA championship and has won four Big 12 championships (in the 60 meters, the 100 meters, the 200 meters and as a part of the 4x400-meter relay). She also has two Big 10 championships under her belt (in the 60 meters and as part of the Illini’s 4x400-meter relay team).
As the men looked to add depth to their distance team, the women looked to add depth to their throwers this season. Sategna is particularly excited about a pair of freshman throwers, Lauryn Caldwell and N’Dia Warren-Jacques, each of whom were premier high school throwers in the state last season.
The Longhorns also expect to receive points at the conference competitions, if not national competitions, from freshman jumper Chyna Ries, a two-time high school All-American who won the Colorado 5A long jump championship three times in high school and was the top-ranked high school long jumper in the nation last year.
THE TRACK & FIELD team has as much top-end talent as just about any school in the country. Whether that will be enough for the Longhorns to achieve all of their goals remains to be seen; as Sategna said, it’s too early to make end-of-the-year predictions. Instead he said that the Longhorns have to stay focused on improving from one week to the next to be in a position by the end of the year that will allow them to compete against any team in the country.
“The main thing for us, week after week, is to make sure we use each meet as a stepping stone, to make sure we, as a team, are pointed in the right direction,” Sategna said. “Before we talk about national championships, we have to focus on winning the Big 12 Championship. It has always been that way with us — we can’t put the cart before the horse. Winning conference championships is one of our main goals every year.”
That may be true, but when pressed about his teams’ chances against the nation’s elite, Sategna did not shy away from the question.
“Without a doubt,” he said when asked if a national championship was a realistic goal for each of his teams. That goal isn’t written anywhere but stays in the back of each athlete’s mind. From the recruiting process through competition, the Longhorns always try to raise the bar.
“The one thing we want to do is to not feel like we’re adding additional pressures to ourselves by how we train, perform and by listening to expectations,” Sategna said. “But that goes with the territory here. When you’re a student-athlete at Texas, when you’re pursuing degrees and competing at the highest level, that has to be the goal. We have what we need to compete against the best teams in the country, and to match up well, and that is exactly what we’re going to do. We’re excited about that.”