Precocious talent has women’s track ready to step outside

by Ben Goessling

A quick comparison of Minnesota’s women’s track and field team and its 2002 counterpart will reveal one thing: a glaring hole at the top.

After losing 11 scholarship athletes and two All-Americans in sprinter Tahesia Harrigan and thrower Barbora Spotakova – in addition to sprint coach Sydney Cartwright – the Gophers entered the 2003 season facing a long road toward the top half of the Big Ten.

But present in the air at the Bierman Track and Field Complex is one thing a roster can’t show: a sense of optimism that has long been missing.

“It definitely feels like things are getting back to normal,” thrower Alean Frawley said. “I didn’t expect to see the younger girls perform so well, but we’ve had a lot of kids come out of the woodwork.”

The Gophers finished seventh in the Big Ten indoor championships, but were just 7 1/2 points out of fourth.

Minnesota’s sprinters, jumpers and hurdlers – the athletes new assistant Matt Bingle is responsible for – scored the second-most points of any such group at the

conference indoor meet.

Freshman Kou Luogon posted a third-place finish in the 400-meter dash and freshman Majik Reed finished eighth in the 200-meter dash. Luogon also ran with sophomore Rachel Schutz on Minnesota’s Big Ten champion 4×400-meter relay team.

And all of a sudden, the surprising success of Bingle’s young athletes is just one of a slew of factors working in the Gophers’ favor this spring.

Jack-of-all-trades Shani Marks adds another event to her repertoire during the outdoor season, defending her conference championship in the 400-meter hurdles, which are not contested during the indoor season.

Marks finished sixth in the triple jump at the NCAA indoor meet this year, and also ran on Minnesota’s 4×400-meter relay.

Additionally, Minnesota’s throwers benefit from the addition of the discus – where the Gophers return two of the top six athletes in the conference in juniors Nicole Kopari and Amy Netland – and the hammer throw, where Frawley finished eighth in the conference a year ago.

“We’re definitely more of an

outdoor team,” Marks said. “When you think of track, you think of being outside. That’s where big things happen.”

Minnesota hosts the Big Ten championships from May 16-18 – an advantage coach Gary Wilson said is worth at least 10 points in the meet.

“There’s nothing like being at home,” Wilson said. “Last year we were 11 1/2 points out of second in the Big Ten outdoor meet. Being at home this year, we have a shot to be in the top three.”

After Minnesota’s tumultuous offseason, it sounds shocking to even hear Wilson make such a prediction.

Speaking of his team like a proud father talks about his children, however, Wilson isn’t shy about letting everyone know the sun is shining again.

“Matt’s done a marvelous job, and I couldn’t be happier with him or the team,” Wilson said. “We have had some setbacks, but the way you react says a lot.

“This group has been thrown in the fire, and they’ve responded. I’m excited about this team.”

Ben Goessling covers track and field and welcomes comments at [email protected]