Last chance to shine for track athletes

by Jim Schortemeyer

Most of this year’s track and field season has been a study in opposites between Minnesota’s men’s and women’s teams.
The men have had their most successful season in 88 years of Big Ten history — winning both indoor and outdoor titles — while the women are looking to the future, frustrated by much of the year.
But this week’s NCAA Championships, which begin today in Buffalo, N.Y., represent a chance for both squads to send their best individual performers — thus giving the men and the women both a shot at glory.
Barring a monumental scoring error, the men will not improve on last year’s ninth-place team finish at the championships. That’s mostly because only four Gophers qualified.
“Tyler McCormick (high jump) missed by one centimeter,” head coach Phil Lundin said. “And (Scott) Beadle only missed by a few hundredths (of a second), so we had a few guys that missed by the proverbial hair.”
On the other side of the coin are the women, who were beleaguered by mixed results all spring.
The good news is that throwers Nicole Chimko and Aubrey Schmitt — both Big Ten champions — will be competing. Chimko and Schmitt swept the throwing events at the Big Ten Championships, and Schmitt placed 11th in the NCAA Indoor Championships.
The bad news for Minnesota: Minna Haronoja did not qualify in the 1,500-meters, an event head coach Gary Wilson was confident she would compete in.
“I was frustrated because Minna had such a great season,” Wilson said. “When you miss by three seconds, that’s frustrating.”
After a rough season that saw the Gophers women place seventh at both Big Ten meets (indoors and outdoors), Wilson is excited about next year’s team. In fact, he has likened his team this year to the squad Lundin had four years ago.
“We can certainly be a one, two, or three team next year (at the Big Ten Championships),” Wilson said. “It’s been inspirational to see the men this spring. Phil said, ‘Hey, man, this might be our only one for another 88 years.'”
The men’s last hurrah of the year will be without some familiar faces. Ben Jensen — last year’s Big Ten decathlon winner — pulled a hamstring six weeks ago, and was not able to qualify for the championships. But Minnesota still has experienced NCAA athletes competing.
Pole vaulters Tye Harvey and Vesa Rantanen have taken first or second place at two of the last three NCAA meets. Rantanen was the indoor champion in March with a vault of 18 feet, 2 inches — a height he hasn’t been within three inches of since.
Staffan Strand and Rick Obleman round out the Gophers’ contingent with very impressive resumes as well. Strand finished second at both the indoor and outdoor high jump year, while Obleman, a captain, has finished in the top three in the steeplechase at the last two Big Ten Championships.
“They’re all seasoned competitors, so I think if they’re hot, they can do well,” Lundin said. “There’s nothing they haven’t seen before.”
The meet gets underway today with the pole vault, while the high jump is Thursday.