Living up to his name
UW-Eau Claire’s Dennis using unusual methods to succeed
LA CROSSE, Wis. — For someone so swift, Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Thurgood Dennis carries a hefty name.
His parents christened him in honor of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His middle name also is Marshall, though Dennis’ version comes from one of his grandfathers, not the judicial icon.
“I’ve got a lot to live up to,” he said Wednesday from the site of this week’s 2013 NCAA Division III Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship.
Based on previous performances, he can. A sophomore from Allouez, Wis., Dennis is the top-ranked Division III sprinter as competition begins Thursday at Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex. All events are scheduled for Roger Harring Stadium and will run through Saturday.
Dennis is ranked No. 1 in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes. He’s also ranked No. 2 in the 400 meters and anchors the Blugolds’ top-ranked 4 X 400 relay team.
“This is my 11th year, but we haven’t had anybody of his caliber as far a sprinter since I’ve been at Eau Claire,” said Wisconsin-Eau Claire head coach Chip Schneider. “And obviously in the history of Eau Claire, because he has our sprint records in the 100, 200 and 400. So we can go all the way back to the beginning of Eau Claire and we don’t have a guy that’s done what he’s done, and he’s only a sophomore.”
If records are made to smash, then Dennis has done that, too. In his previous championship outing — the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association meet three weeks ago — he won both sprint events for a second consecutive year. The 100 came in 10.43, giving Dennis the two fastest Division III times in that event this season. His 200 time was a Division III-best 20.96.
Given that four of the top-five ranked Division III men’s teams hail from the WIAC — Wisconsin-Eau Claire is No. 3 — Dennis already has honed his skills against many of the top athletes he’ll face this week.
“That is an enormous help because you’re running against national-caliber competition at small meets,” he said.
At 6-0 and 170 pounds, Dennis hones his skills in a distinctly different manner. He trains with teammates who run 400-meter distances, rather than focusing on sprints, and is a starting cornerback for the Blugolds’ football team.
Schneider says Dennis’ work ethic, combined with the knowledge that work at a longer, demanding distance will strengthen his sprint abilities, sets the sophomore apart.
“I think a lot of sprinters can run only the 100 and 200,” Schneider said. “He’s not one of those guys. He’s got a little more range than some of our people.”
That range extends to yardage rather than meters, as evidenced by Dennis’ 58 tackles in 10 football games last season. He was promoted during fall practice when the starting corner went down with a concussion, and, except for certain schemes, he played the field position, which requires covering more ground and usually the opposition’s top receiver. Then, it was time for winter’s indoor track season, with Dennis negotiating a constant cycle of practices, workouts and classes.
“Football, you have to be really, really mentally tough and I would say track is more physically tough as far as workouts go,” he said. “They go hand in hand with each other and I couldn’t see much doing one without the other.”
The payoff seems to be enormous. Weight-room gains, the opportunity to play football, plus strong indoor and outdoor track campaigns — Dennis won the 60-meter dash at the Division III indoor championships — has him convinced he’s overloading for the right reasons.
“Last year I spent so much of my time at my meets wondering where the locker rooms were, and trying to figure out how to do handoffs, and wondering how the meet went,” he said. “And now with that year under your belt, you know when things are going to happen so you can anticipate what you need to do to get yourself ready to race at the most important time.”
Football’s required toughness has carried over to track. Per Dennis, a defensive back must forget the previous play and concentrate on the current one. Instead of fretting the wind, or who else is competing in his heat, he merely lines up and blasts off.
“You just have to go out and put your blinders on and play ball,” he said. “And I think that’s definitely been huge for me. I’ll go up to races and I won’t even know who I’m racing against sometimes because I try to race against myself.”