Men turn in strong showing at NCAA championships

The Gophers men’s team earned its best overall finish since 2004.

Minnesota high jumper Wally Ellenson practices at Bierman Field on April 30, 2013.

Amanda Snyder, Daily File Photo

Minnesota high jumper Wally Ellenson practices at Bierman Field on April 30, 2013.

Joe Perovich

Prior to last weekend’s NCAA outdoor track and field championships, head coach Steve Plasencia described the group of athletes competing as “not large but very capable with experience.”

Quality over quantity paid off for Minnesota as the team finished 17th overall at the national championships — its best finish at the meet since 2004.

Wally Ellenson, Zach Siegmeier and John Simons were all named first-team All-Americans. Dominique Howard and Jon Lehman earned second-team honors.

“You get five guys out there, and all of them come back as All-Americans,” Plasencia said. “We were pleased.”

Ellenson, a sophomore, finished first among Gophers athletes, earning a second-place finish overall in the high jump. He cleared 7 feet 4 ½ inches.

“I hit the mark that I wanted to hit,” he said. “I knew a lot of people wanted to make [that height]. I just didn’t realize it was going to be me and one other [person] that were only going to clear it.”

Ellenson improved on last year’s performance in the final meet by 2 inches and six places.

Unlike Ellenson, Howard was making his first appearance at the NCAA outdoor championships.

The junior placed ninth overall in the discus throw, and he cited the experience of his teammates as a factor in his success.

“I felt comfortable because they eased me into it pretty well,” Howard said.

Ellenson and Howard will be two of the team’s top returners. And among the departures are many of its key contributors — something that’s not lost on Plasencia.

“It speaks well to the seniors and to the program … that you [have] guys who are in their last go-around … still doing the best thing they’ve done in their careers. That’s a credit to [their] tenacity and dedication. … We’re saying goodbye to some guys that have done a lot for us.”

Stanford finishes 15th

On the women’s side, the 4×400-meter relay finished 19th overall.

Junior hammer thrower Devin Stanford, the team’s lone individual performer, earned a top-15 finish and second-team All-America honors.

And it’s only a sign of more to come, her throwing coach Peter Miller said.

“I think it’s just the beginning,” he said. “I think with more time, more reps and more comfort with what we’re trying to do — she’s very capable of … [throwing] significantly further.”

Stanford was seeded 20th at the NCAA west preliminary. A month later, she finished 15th in the entire nation.

Stanford said she was nervous early in the week but the support system of her coaches and teammates not only helped her relax, but also set the table for her success.

“Coming in, I never even thought about it as a possibility,” Stanford said. “It’s a huge honor.”