Women’s track wins first Big Ten Championship

In his 21st season as head coach, Gary Wilson won his first Big Ten title.

Chris Lempesis

Although he had been the coach of Minnesota’s women’s track and field team for 20-plus seasons, Gary Wilson had never won a Big Ten championship.

The streak was even longer for Minnesota’s women’s program as it had never won a conference title in school history.

Both of those winless streaks came to an end on a dreary weekend in East Lansing, Mich., as the Gophers won the conference championship May 14. Minnesota took home the crown with a total of 152.50 points, a good distance ahead of runner-up Michigan (134.67).

“I don’t worry about those kinds of things,” said Wilson, who was recently named 2006 Big Ten Women’s Track Coach of the Year. “I just try and do my job and you always go after it and we’ve been second and third (in the past). I think the first one’s always the hardest to get.

“It was a long time coming. We’re excited.”

A big reason the Gophers were able to break the streak is the performance of their throwers, who contributed 62 points to the team score in just four events.

That number includes championship performances from sophomores Liz Podominick (shot put) – defending her title in that event – and Ruby Radocaj (javelin throw).

But there were numerous other strong showings from that group, including Podominick and senior Jessica Stephan finishing 2-3 in the discus.

“Those guys,” Wilson said. “I mean, that whole throws group – holy cow.”

As strong as that group was, perhaps the standout individual performance on the weekend was junior Emily Brown in the 3,000 meter steeplechase.

Brown won the event, setting both a conference and school record with her time of 10:00.98, barely beating Illinois junior Cassie Hunt (10:01.40), last year’s NCAA runner-up in the event.

Wilson joked that Brown would not tell him what her plan was before the race, but whatever it was, it obviously worked.

In third place with a lap and a half to go, Brown was able to pass Michigan State sophomore Nicole Bush and then pass Hunt right near the end for the win.

“I guess I didn’t really realize (I could pass Hunt) until I actually did pass her,” said Brown, whose time in the event was also the fastest in the nation for collegiate runners in the event this year.

“But I’ve been training for the 1,500 all year so I guess speed is kind of my thing and it was nice just to be able to use a little bit of speed at the end of that race.”

Two other Gophers, sophomores Laura Massey (pole vault) and Liz Roehrig (heptathlon), also took home individual titles in East Lansing.

And while the Minnesota competitors on the ground certainly played a large part in the team’s success, Wilson noted that they just might have been aided by the presence of someone who is no longer around – former equipment manager Jack Johnson, who died of liver cancer in February.

“He was definitely there,” Wilson said. “I had ordered a big 3-by-5, maroon flag with a big, gold ‘Jack’ tackle-twilled on the flag. So they had their Jack flag and they, in fact, they took it on their victory lap. It was really cool.

“He definitely had something to do with it. You could just feel his presence there. I’m sure he was very proud.”

Men’s team finishes second

While the men’s track and field team was not quite able to match the showing of the women’s squad, it turned in an impressive performance of its own in East Lansing, finishing second at the Big Tens with 121.50 points. Powerhouse Wisconsin won the crown with 161.50 points.

“Second was about as good as we could do,” said coach Phil Lundin. “I would’ve liked to have scored more points to give Wisconsin a little bit more of a scare. We had them on the ropes for a while but, of course, they surged past us at the end of the meet.”

The Gophers’ second-place finish was highlighted by a trio of first-place individual finishes: senior Kevin Netzer (high jump), junior Derek Gearman (long jump) and senior All-American Karl Erickson (shot put).

After unsuccessfully pulling off the four-peat in discuss, Erickson was able to bounce back and win the shot put with a heave of 64.25 feet – a career best for him.

“He battled back and had a solid performance in the (discuss, finishing second),” Lundin said. “But, obviously, lit it up in the shot with the personal best for the outdoor and demonstrated that he’s got a lot more left. So, definitely, Karl’s coming on. He’s coming on at the right time.”

Another upperclassman who appears to be coming on at the right time is junior Aaron Buzard. Buzard took second in the 400-meter dash with a time of 45.51. The finish was the first time Buzard had crossed the line in less than 46 seconds.

“There’s no doubt that he’s definitely a national-caliber 400-meter runner,” Lundin said. “He’s just kind of evolving from week to week as he gets more opportunities to run in bigger competition. So I look forward to watching ‘the Buzz’ run in the regional.”