Four U men’s track athletes have shot at NCAA title

by Allison Younge

Gophers freshman high jumper Staffan Strand has a busy two weeks ahead of him. Along with the crunch of final exams and packing up his dorm room to go home, Strand will compete for national outdoor track and field honors at the NCAA championship meet in Bloomington, Ind., this weekend.
“I have so much to do, but it’ll have to wait,” Strand said. “First, I will worry about winning a national championship, and then I’ll do all that other stuff.”
Strand is the youngest of four Gophers athletes who will participate in the national meet. Senior Jason Schlueter (discus), and sophomores Vesa Rantanen (pole vault) and Benjamin Jensen (decathlon) will set out for national recognition after meeting NCAA qualifying standards earlier this season.
Gophers senior pole vaulter Tye Harvey also qualified for the meet but will not compete because of a wrist injury. In a van accident on the way to the Big Ten championships in Champaign, Ill., Harvey severely broke his wrist, sidelining him for Big Tens and NCAAs.
“Losing Tye to Big Tens was hard,” Lundin said. “But losing him at the national level is even harder because so few people make the meet. To lose a guy of that caliber really hurts.”
Sending four athletes instead of five will have an effect on Minnesota’s team score. Most of the top NCAA contenders send from six to 10 athletes to the meet. Even though Harvey’s absence will be felt, Lundin is positive about the Gophers NCAA lineup.
“What we don’t have in numbers we have in very high quality,” Lundin said. “I’m very optimistic about our chances to do well.”
Last year, Minnesota placed 58th at the NCAA championships. This year, with all four Gophers athletes ranked among the top 10 nationally in their events, a higher finish is probable.
“They are all capable, if they have exceptional days, of winning a national championship in their respective events,” Gophers coach Phil Lundin said. “But of course on that day, you never know.”
Schlueter will look to improve on an 18th place finish at last year’s NCAA championships in the discus. After winning the Big Ten title two weeks ago with a monster throw of 198 feet, 3 inches, Schlueter appears to be sharp for his final meet.
“Jason had a great Big Ten meet and has been looking very good in his practice sessions lately,” Lundin said.
Rantanen shattered the Gophers pole vault record with a mark of 18-5 1/4 at the Texas Relays on April 5. Last year, he finished 10th at NCAAs after claiming a Big Ten pole vault title. This year, he finished second at Big Tens with a vault of 17-5 1/2. He also made the finals in the 110-meter hurdles race.
“He maybe didn’t do as well at vault as he would have wished at Big Tens, but his hurdle race was exceptional,” Lundin said. “This indicates a high level of speed and fitness, which he needs for good performance in the vault.”
Decathlete Benjamin Jensen will return to his 10-event specialty for the first time since April 19. At the Mount SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., Jensen broke his own Gophers school record by 79 points to finish first in the decathlon with 7,669 points. Jensen missed the NCAA meet last season because of an emergency appendectomy. He sat out of several competitions this season because of pain in his shins, but appears ready for the NCAA meet.
“Ben is fully recovered,” Lundin said. “I’d prefer to have another two more competitions and another three weeks of training, and I think he could be on top of his game, but we don’t have that time. Just having a healthy Ben Jensen — you never know what’ll happen.”
Strand made a name for himself by winning the Big Ten high jump title. This season, he won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and currently holds the Gophers freshman high jump record. He automatically qualified for NCAAs with a mark of 7-4 1/2 on April 5 at the Texas Relays (Austin, Texas). Strand hopes for further success at this weekend’s meet.
“I want to do as well as I can,” Strand said. “Obviously, I want to win it. I would be stupid to say that I didn’t.”
A focus mentality will be necessary for all four Gophers this weekend in order to excel among the nation’s top contenders. Even though this NCAA championship meet marks Strand’s first, he refuses to be intimidated.
“I’m very excited and nervous in a good way,” Strand said. “It’s going to be great fun I think. My nervousness will lead to improved performance.”
Note: Sami Valtonen, a Finnish junior national standout, has made a verbal agreement with Gophers coach Phil Lundin to attend Minnesota next year. Valtonen, a friend of Gophers pole vaulter Vesa Rantanen, looks to be a solid recruit for Minnesota. A middle distance runner, Valtonen already holds Big Ten top-three caliber times in the 1,500- and 800-meter races.