Titanic Deca Battle In The Making
Heavenly weather greeted the collegiate athletes for Day One of the NCAA outdoor track & field championships. It was the quintessential weather day for our sport: warm, mid-day sun to please the sprinters and jumpers, followed by cooling temperatures and lengthening shadows in the early evening as the distance events were held. Perhaps the meteorological gods sent these conditions as a form of apology for the 10 straight days of rain that challenged the Olympic aspirants in Eugene just one year ago.
The ideal conditions brought out the best in the decathletes. After the first five events, Day One concluded with U-Dub senior Jeremy Taiwo  clinging to 6 point lead over Duke junior Curtis Beach . After opening with two PR's in the 100 [10.66] and long jump [25' 7½ / 7.81], Beach was forced to give up the lead when Taiwo cleared an eye-popping 7'1½" in the high jump. Lurking in third place with 4224 points is Texas frosh Johannes Hock - a throws specialist who is expected to ring up big Day Two points. Beach - whose body is taking on a more muscular, chiseled appearance - was upbeat in the mixed zone. "The whole goal for this evening is to be the best I could be for this meet. It's going to be a tough competition, but I think I have a shot at winning it," said Beach. "Another goal is to get the 'A' standard for the Worlds [8200 points]. I think if I can get the 'A' here or at USA's, I'll have a good shot at making the [USA World's] team."
In the day's only track final, favored Iowa State senior Betsy Saina had her way with the 24-woman field. The Cyclone's foreboding presence - she is this season's collegiate leader with Payton Jordan clocking of 31:37.22 - and the unexpectedly-sticky 81 degree starting line temperature combined to create a dawdling opening pace which was barely under 6:00 per mile. After what was essentially a 3600 meter warm-up, Saina and Wichita State's Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton shook things up as they threw down a 75 second 10th lap to break from the field. The two then essentially ran in a negative split tandem as they headed for a late race throw-down. Shortly after the bell, Saina made quick work of Tuliamuk-Bolton. The Cyclone's 70 second final 400 went unmatched by her Shocker opponent and Saina glided across the line in 33:08.85. Nearly 6 seconds back, the Wichita State distance star was - like 2012 - relegated to the bridesmaid position. The chase pack provided the "race within the race" as Boise State sophomore Emma Bates scooped up the 6 third place points to better Washington's Megan Goethals, Boston U's Katie Matthews and Arizona's Jennifer Bergman who finished 4-5-6.
Field event finals dominated the day's excitement. In the women's hammer throw, Illinois State senior Brittany Smith - with her 4th round leader of 68.51 [xxx] - looked like the winner until Arizona State's Chelsea Cassulo launched off a final round scud missile that measured 69.12 [xxx] for the walk-off win.
The much-awaited men's pole vault delivered strategic excitement. Featuring a field hailed by more than a few knowledgeable vault coaches as the strongest and deepest in years, the competition was one tense chess match. The lead changed hands several times as calculated height passes and pole changes added to the drama. Mississippi sophomore Sam Kendricks had the last bar standing as he cleared 5.70m [18'8¼"] to win the championship. 14 pole vaulters cleared 5.40m [17'8½"] - a clearance that earned 4 fifth-place points just a year ago.
TCU's Lorraine Ugen had spent most of the spring struggling with injuries. But the Horned Frog had her "A" game hoppin' as she stretched out a PR leap of 6.77m [22'2½"] to win the long jump title and shove Kansas senior and pre-meet favorite Andrea Geubelle down to the runner-up position.
The semi-finals of the 4 x 100 offered glimpses of what should be firecracker finals. On the men's side, Florida [38.77] LSU [38.94] and Florida State [39.14], should push each other in their quest for the championship. For the women, the Texas A&M quartet [42.84] looks unstoppable. If disaster strikes the Aggies, UCF [with Octavius Freeman on the anchor], Oregon, or LSU could be there to pick up the pieces.
Smoking finals in the 100 look to be assured. Intermittent tailwind gusts made time comparisons next to impossible. But impressive marks were posted, to be sure. On the men's side, if you didn't run 10.08 or better, you were sent packing. TCU's Charles Silmon raised some eyebrows with his 9.92w clocking. Look for FSU's Dentarius Locke [9.98], Mississippi's Isiah Young, and the Aggies' Ameer Webb to challenge Silmon for the crown.
The women's 100 final should be a battle of contrasting styles. The fast and furious English Gardner [11.00] of Oregon and the UCF duo of Octavious Freeman [10.99] and Aurieyall Scott [11.00] will compete against LSU's Kimberlyn Duncan [11.02] - a poised athlete whose lean physique and picturesque stride is reminiscent of the great Wilma Rudolph.
Day One qualifying generally adhered to pre-race expectations. But there were a few form chart deviations. Even the team title aspirants were not immune. Host Oregon took a blow when 400 runner Mike Berry missed the finals by .004 seconds and Dakota Keys - who possessed point possibilities in the decathlon - was mired in 15th place after Day One. Kansas lost a scoring opportunity when Diamond Dixon failed to make the 400 final. And Texas A&M lost potential points when its sprint stars Ashton Purvis and Prezel Hardy were knocked out in their 100 semis.
Day Two promises to be another day of semi-final drama as the team title contenders seek to navigate through the mine-field of qualifying. The results of Day Two competitions should provide greater clarity on the quest for national titles.