Men send 7 to NCAA championships

Three athletes will compete in the 800-meter run.

Megan Ryan

For seven Gophers men’s track and field athletes, the indoor season culminates at the NCAA Indoor Championship meet this weekend.

No. 8 Minnesota finished sixth last year, tied for the highest finish in the program’s history.

All six Gophers athletes who competed in five events last year earned All-American honors and placed in the top eight.

Three of those All-Americans return for this year’s meet: Harun Abda, Travis Burkstrand and Micah Hegerle. However, there will be one notable absence.

“I have to cringe a little bit when I know that [Ben] Blankenship is on the sidelines,” head coach Steve Plasencia said. “[There are] really very few individuals that carry a squad at the national level competition.”

Blankenship was the runner-up in last year’s 3,000-meter run as well as part of the third-place distance medley relay with Abda, Burkstrand and Nick Hutton. The senior suffers from a stress fractured sacrum.

Another senior will return to the NCAA Indoor Championships for the first time since the 2009 season.

Hassan Mead is back to full-strength after a 2010 injury spell involving his Achilles’ tendon and a collapsed lung. He will compete in the 5,000.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to go back,” Mead said. “Now I’m going back from a season off. … I’m excited. It feels like the first time instead of the last time.”

The Gophers will field an impressive three runners in the 800. Abda and David Pachuta have the top-two fastest times in the country. Abda placed fifth in the event last year.

 Burkstrand made the final push at a last-chance meet to move from 32nd to 11th in the nation and qualify for the meet.

“It’s crazy to think that three Gophers are up there in the top 10, 11 guys in the nation,” Burkstrand said. “Seeing them run fast makes me want to run faster.”

Abda and Pachuta agreed that having teammates in their event is an advantage.

“It’s really comforting to know that I’m going to have friends there in the race with me that I know I can count on,” Pachuta said. “I know how they race, and [we can] hopefully work together.”

 “When Travis last week qualified, I was so pumped,” Abda said. “This gives me confidence [that] I have my teammates with me running.”

Abda and Pachuta will also compete in the 4×400-meter relay along with John Holton and Kevin Bradley. The four runners also qualified at a last-chance meet.

“We’ve never gone to the indoor meet, this particular group, so we’re really excited to be there,” Holton said.

In the field, Hegerle will aim to improve upon his eighth-place finish in the weight throw last year. Hegerle currently has the fifth farthest throw in the nation.

“Having the confidence of doing it last year is really helpful,” Hegerle said. “It’s wide open. There’s not anybody who’s a real standout that’s absolutely going to win it.”

The men compete March 9-10 in Nampa, Idaho. The women’s team had no qualifiers.