LINCOLN, Neb. -- Chicago only sent one student-athlete to this year’s NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships, but the one Maroon who made his way to Lincoln is leaving as a national champion.
This year’s DIII men’s pole vault field was heavily laden with talented upperclassmen, with only four of the 15 competitors either freshmen or sophomores.
It was one of those sophomores, though, Chicago’s Michael Bennett, who ended up standing atop the highest place on the awards podium at Bob Devaney Sports Center.Dubuque junior Rick Valcin, the favorite going into Friday’s pole vault competition, finished in second place. Rob Rohe, a senior from Wisconsin-La Crosse, ended up third.
Bennett and Valcin both cleared 4.9 meters with their fifth attempts, after nobody cleared a sixth height of 4.95m, Bennett was declared the victor after having only three missed attempts compared to Valcin’s four.
He had come into his first indoor national championships with humble yet reasonably high expectations for himself. Winning the competition, though, wasn’t something he’d envisioned.
“Even after I went out of the meet at 4.95, I was sitting there knowing I’d done as well as I could have,” Bennett said, “And I thought that if [Valcin] beats me and jumps high, then he deserves it because he really is the better vaulter.
“I was just fortunate today and he didn’t have the greatest of days. I knew that he was the favorite, but my real goal was just to try and make All-American this year, because in my first nationals experience [at the 2013 D-III outdoor finals], I just ended up in a tie for 11th place, so I just wanted to clear a few heights in this meet and make All-American.
“That was really my goal. I was not expecting to win today.”
After winning the University Athletic Association pole vault championship March 1 in Waltham, Mass., Bennett sat out last week’s event at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Instead, he took the week to get ready for Lincoln, and the extra prep evidently came in handy.
“I didn’t compete last week as I already knew in,” Bennett said, referring to the indoor national championships, “So I just took it as a week of practice and ended up feeling really good and confident coming into this.
“I did pretty well in warm-ups, and I was just pretty fortunate to keep a clean scorecard through the meet, and I guess I was just fortunate compared to everyone else. It was just a matter of who kept [their attempts] cleanest.”
Bennett said one of the biggest things to overcome once he arrived at Devaney was his new surroundings.“I was blown away by the facility, and that’s a big thing for me,” Bennett said. “I like to, before I come in even for practice, have an idea of what the place is going to look like, just looking at pictures of the venue or however I can picture it.
“Then, we have the practice [at the venue], I’ll be able to be perfectly comfortable, and then after practice I’m ready to go. Today, I was perfectly comfortable with competing in there.”
He certainly looked that way Friday, and the lone Maroon in this year’s indoor national championships parlayed that into a national title to take home to share with his teammates as they prepare for Chicago’s outdoor season.
“It’s an incredible feeling, and I’m sure my teammates back at home are very happy hearing this. I’m hoping that hopefully we’ll get more of our people to the outdoor championships,” Bennett said. “I think we have some really talented athletes who will be able to get to nationals for outdoor, but I think it’s a really good thing for our school to have someone who can come here and actually win.
“We’ve had people come here before, too, and do really well, and it’s an awesome feeling to follow in their footsteps.”
Bennett’s hope now is that, when the DIII outdoor championships roll around this May in Delaware, Ohio – only about half an hour’s drive from his hometown of Dublin – it won’t just be him from his team there competing for titles.
“The outdoor season, I’d like to jump over five meters, and that’s my biggest goal, and really I’d just like to continue to jump the way I’ve been jumping and progress in my vault.” Bennett said. “It’s sort of like what my goal was coming in here: My goal wasn’t to win but to just be in contention, and I just happened to be fortunate with the way I jumped, and that’s all, so winning it is just a bonus.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet, but my goal now is to hit five meters in the outdoor and get to the outdoor championships. It’s in my hometown this year, so I’ll get my whole family to come out, and I just hope to be able to do well there, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to best winning here.”