College track & field: Depth makes Oregon the team to beat in Birmingham
Many familiar faces sit atop the USTFCCCA Rankings heading into this weekend’s DI Track and Field Championships from Birmingham, Alabama. In fact, the top three teams in the nation happen to be the last three National Champions.
The Oregon Ducks head in to the Championships as the lone member of the top five not in the SEC. They are hoping to enter themselves amongst the elite of Men’s Indoor Track and Field this weekend. A victory would give them their third straight national title, a feat only matched by UTEP, Arkansas and Florida since the Championships inception in 1965. Unlike the past two seasons — in which Florida was the odds on favorite to win, yet saw the Ducks rise victorious — Oregon finds themselves the national favorites.
The two-time defending champs wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leading the pack and the backbone of the past two championships is junior Edward Cheserek. This past fall, Cheserek found himself entering Oregon lore, matching Steve Prefontaine’s school record by winning his third Cross Country championship. Cheserek has won three consecutive titles and should have his chance at a fourth, unlike his predecessor Perfonatine who missed out on the ’72 title due to an Olympic run. Now once again, he finds himself on the cusp of more history.
Cheserek will certainly have all eyes upon him this weekend as he is one of the bigger storylines in the Men’s Indoor Championships. Should he win his two events (the 3000 and the 5000-meter) he is officially entered in — he still may be used in the Distance Medley Relay — he would join Arkansas’ Erick Waldor (who did it in the jumps) and UTEP’s Suleiman Nyumbi (who did it as a miler) as the only athletes to register 20 points in three different Indoor Championships.
A double victory would also move into second place all-time on the Indoor Track and Field point list, surpassing Waldor by a half a point. A third would help him surpass Nymubi's all-time mark of 78. That left Oregon head coach Robert Johnson facing an interesting decision heading into this weekend. Somewhat surprisingly, Cheserek will not defend his indoor national title in the mile this time around, as Oregon looks to avoid the triple for their star runner.
“It was unbeknownst to us what the rest of the country was going to do with their milers,” Oregon head coach Robert Johnson said. “For us it was simply about putting Edward in the best position possible to score as many points as possible as well as not beat him up.”
The Ducks however are a deep team. They will turn to sophomore Blake Haney and junior Sam Prakel to continue their winning tradition in the mile. Haney in fact is the nation’s leader in the event, coming into the the championships with a time of 3:56.36.
“He’s someone that we thought would be in this position now,” Johnson said. “Whether he’d be leading the country in the event — at the time no one knew that. He’s talented. It was just a normal progression for us.”
Prakel — who sits in a not so distant sixth place at 3:57.95 — will also be counted on to get the Ducks some points.
“It’s one of those things that we are fortunate and extremely blessed to have those type of athletes in our program,” Johnson said. “Blake is phenomenal. Sam Prakel made the 1500-meter outdoors as a freshman, another guy we are blessed to have.”
That depth has become Oregon’s calling card over the past few seasons, especially when it comes to the lengthier races.
“It’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on here,” Johnson said. “We call ourselves a balanced team with an emphasis on the distance side of things. If you want to look back, we scored a lot of points at this meet last year with the distance runners — 70 to be exact."
Whether or not the nation will see Cheserek in the DMR is what Johnson called a "game-time decision". One would imagine, however, that if the National Championship hinged on that relay, that Cheserek would see a third race this weekend.
While Oregon may indeed be the favorites to take home their third straight title, you can never rule out the presence of a possible SEC Champion. Sitting right behind the Ducks on the national leader board are five SEC teams: Arkansas, Florida, Texas A & M, LSU and Tennessee with Georgia not far behind rounding out the top ten.
The coaches know that the grueling grind of the SEC season and the SEC Indoor Championships are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, these SEC teams are battle tested. Unfortunately on the other hand, they have gone to that proverbial well quite a bit.
“You always worry about your batteries getting drained,” Arkansas head coach Chris Buckram said. “There’s this thing called going to the well, and you go to the well physically and you go to the well emotionally. It’s a tough, tough conference and tough battles. It’s certainly a concern. Winning that meet took everything we had.”
“I think being in this conference prepares you for this meet,” Florida head coach Mike Holloway added. “Anybody who has been through that comes here and doesn’t have any fear of anybody else.”
Arkansas and Florida of course were the last two teams to win national championships prior to Oregon’s recent run. Despite finishing in fourth place in that brutal SEC Championship, Florida was amongst the preseason favorites to take home the 2016 indoor title and can never be ruled out.
“We’re a better national team than we are a conference team,” Holloway said. “We don’t have the depth in some of the events. The first two events we won on the Men’s side, we didn’t win the conference championship. They are two different meets and two different situations. The stars align for us better in the national meet.”