Jan. 8, 2013
Washington opens up the 2013 track season this Saturday, hosting the UW Indoor Preview at the Dempsey beginning at 8 a.m. The indoor season takes the Dawgs through early March, when they head outdoors and take the new outdoor track for a spin. Check in throughout the week to read up on what each event group has on tap in 2013.
» Season Preview: Throws
SEATTLE - Over the past several years the Husky sprints group has captured Pac-12 titles, school records, copious Pac-12 points and numerous bids to the national championships. Assistant coach Raul Sheen, now in the midst of his fifth season, has some of the top returning sprinters in the Pac-12 lining up for huge 2013 seasons, and coming in right behind is a large and diverse freshman class that makes this the deepest group Sheen has yet coached.
But there remains a long laundry list of big-time goals for the Husky sprinters this season. James Alaka is a three-time Pac-12 Champion, but he wants to be in an NCAA final. Ditto Maurice McNeal. Washington has been a force in the men's 4x100m relay, but why not the 4x1 and the 4x400-meter relay as well?
With one indoor season left, what's left for Jordan Carlson to achieve? Can she help bring UW a second straight DMR national title, or make her first NCAA meet in the open 400? Daje Pugh, the fastest 300m hurdler in the U.S. last year, in her first taste of college track?
Coach Sheen and the Dawgs will be anxiously awaiting the firing of the first gun this weekend to start answering some of those questions.
With all the recent success of the men's sprinters, a group that was responsible for 33 points at the Pac-12 Championships last year, there is still a major hurdle yet to be cleared. Coach Sheen is hoping that this large and talented group of sprinters can break through now and put up points at the NCAA Championships, indoors and out.
"I think the big thing with our guys is they've established being successful on the conference level but now it's time to take it to the next step and be successful at the national level," says Sheen. "And that's what excites me. The attitude here is starting to shift to that."
The athlete who has done the most to change that attitude is Alaka, already now entering his senior season. The London product had by all accounts his best season yet in 2012, winning a second-straight Pac-12 title at 200-meters, and taking second at 100-meters in a PR of 10.22 seconds. But Alaka had high hopes of a dream season with NCAA finals and potentially Olympics Games appearances, and those lofty goals eluded him. So plenty remains to drive Alaka's high-speed motor, and Coach Sheen expects big things as usual from the three-time Pac-12 champ.
There's no hiding the fact that NCAAs in Des Moines were a bitter disappointment for Alaka, says Sheen. "The NCAA meet has been a thorn in James' side, and something we haven't really figured out," he says. "This year there's no option. He's good enough and it's been his goal from the beginning. So for him everything is geared towards that. It has to happen. He'll do everything he can."
But it's Alaka's team-first attitude that has helped the program as a whole. While the personal accolades and times are gratifying, Alaka is equally intent on helping the Husky relays continue to climb the ranks. Sheen says one of the first goals this season for Alaka and the sprinters as a whole is getting the 4x400m relay to the NCAA Indoor Championships, which would be a major statement. "He wants to be a part of doing something like that," says Sheen.
Any 4x400m relay success will certainly include Maurice McNeal, who from all indications is poised for a breakout junior season. McNeal, from Federal Way, was fantastic as a freshman, reaching the 400-meter NCAA semifinals in Iowa and leading off the UW 4x100m relay that placed 16th at NCAAs. But a sports hernia issue hampered him in 2012, and eventually required surgery. He missed more than a month right in the middle of the season, but came back to gut out a win at the UW-WSU dual and then took third in the Pac-12 final.
Fully healthy, Sheen says this has been the best fall training season of his still-young career. "He showed a glimpse of it at the intrasquad meet," says Sheen. "He's on a great path. He texted me the other day saying how driven he is to have a great year this year."
Sheen is hardly conservative when talking about the numbers he'd like to see flash next to McNeal's name. "I think 20.5 (for 200-meters) and 44-seconds (for 400-meters) is what Maurice is looking at this year. If it doesn't happen something went wrong. I think he's totally capable of that."
Also returning in the short sprints are Matt Anthony, who made significant improvement in 2012 before a late-season hamstring injury, and Colton Dunn, back after a redshirt season. Both have a lot of relay experience, and will look to post some PRs this spring.
"Colton's always been the jack-of-all-trades for our group. He's come back even more driven," says Sheen. "Hopefully we can get him some help this year with our young depth, and be a little more strategic on how we use him. He's a unique guy because of his range. And Matt is on an upward continuum which is how it should be. He's further along this year than he's ever been before."
UW also will have great senior leaders in Shayne Moore and Dan Sanders, Moore in the short hurdles and Sanders in the long. Moore, a three-time Pac-12 competitor, was chosen as the unit captain this year after "he stood out to me as the clear leader for a couple of years now," says Sheen. "He will do a great job in that role. With the young hurdle group it's great to have an experienced leader." Sanders has also been a consistent presence in the long hurdles, and is looking to break through and score at the Pac-12 meet this year and make the NCAA first round. "Dan's worked hard for everything and he continues to do that," says his coach.
Shayne stood out as the clear leader for a couple of years now. He will do a great job in that role. With the young hurdle group it's great to have an experienced leader.
The returning group of sprinters will have a big group of freshmen nipping at their heels this season, as Coach Sheen welcomes in six newcomers, the biggest class he's brought in. Five of the six are from Washington, as Sheen feels the talent and depth in the state has risen over the past few years.
It's the one freshman from farthest away who could turn heads the fastest. Chris Williams, from Philadelphia, is a unique athlete in that he was one of the top hurdlers in high school last year, as well as being an excellent prep pole vaulter. His name will pop up again when Coach Licari previews his group. Right now Williams splits time training with each group, and Coach Sheen likes what he sees.
"Chris Williams stands out," Sheen says. "He's just so smooth hurdling. I know his dad was a competitive collegiate hurdler that kind of helped him guide through high school so he's got a good background. We're going to guide him physically without reinventing the wheel. He has tremendous speed and that's why he's successful in the hurdles and the pole vault." Sheen feels he could also run strong open 200s and 400s and be competitive for a relay spot.
The five Washingtonians have been regulars in state meet finals, often competing head-to-head. Quadelle Satterwhite of Tacoma and Travis Marshall of Kirkland (son of one of UW's greatest sprinters, LaNoris Marshall) will run the short sprints, while Andrew Prentice of Everett and Derrick Jones of Puyallup have quarter-mile experience. Kaid Tipton of Kent was state runner-up in the 110m hurdles last year.
"Quadelle is so raw," says Sheen. "He wasn't a basketball point guard that after basketball would go run a little bit. He's got such spark and electricity; he has a good ways to go as far as technique and every aspect of running. But he's picking it up quickly. James Alaka told him in practice, you keep working this hard in practice and I'll see you in the Pac-12 final for the 100. It's up to us fine tuning his technique to get him there."
Prentice is another athlete who came on late in his high school career after some tweaks to his training and could be capable of some surprising times. "He's deceptively fast as well and a grinder. He expects to be competitive no matter who he is up against. That mental approach will serve him well," Sheen says.
Tipton is a dual threat hurdler, really excited to be at UW, says Sheen, who will give the Dawgs even more depth in the hurdles along with returning sophomore Howard Lao, Moore, Williams, Sanders and potentially decathlon standout Jeremy Taiwo.
Relays are always the measuring stick for Sheen, and where some programs look to choose between focusing on the 4x1 or the 4x4, Sheen says "our goal here is to be good at both." The short relay has now advanced to the NCAA Championships four times in the past five years, but has yet to reach the final heat at Nationals. The 4x1 will also need to replace the graduated Ryan Hamilton, who anchored four relays with top-10 times on the UW list. The 4x400m relay advanced to the West Prelims for the first time in the new format last year, but will look to make up ground on the success of the 4x1.
"In the 4x1 we lose Ryan, but to put together a good relay group it's not about having four guys, it's having six really good guys that you can keep the competition level high. We think we could have that this year," Sheen says.
"The long relay, we're trying to get it back to where it was here in the mid-2000s. Making it back to the NCAA first round was a good first step, and I think our men see it that way. We could be competing for a spot at the NCAA indoor championships and then trying to continue that to outdoors."
Like the men's group, the women's team returns a big group of veterans while also adding some key recruits. It was not too long ago that the Huskies weren't able to field relays at the conference championships, whereas now competition for those spots figures to be fierce.
Setting the standard for the sprinters will be Jordan Carlson, who has one final year of indoor eligibility, after exhausting her outdoor eligibility with a sensational spring that saw her break her own 400-meter school record multiple times, and place third in the Pac-12 finals. Carlson ran the 400m leg on UW's national title-winning distance medley relay last year, and will certainly want to hold down that spot again this winter while also pursuing more individual records.
While Carlson remains fired up for the DMR, Coach Sheen has been crunching the numbers to figure out what it would take for Carlson to qualify for NCAA Indoors in the open 400. "Her goal is to definitely make it in the open 400 and I think she can do it. It's extremely hard to make NCAA Championships indoors but I think, as her goals have been set, she's done a great job at preparing for it."
Also scoring in the Pac-12 finals last year and advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals was Kayla Stueckle in the 400-meter hurdles. She made big improvements from her freshman to sophomore seasons, and another season of steady progression could have her down into the 57-second range and taking the next step to the NCAA final site. Sheen sees Stueckle gradually moving into even more of a leadership role with the group as Carlson graduates.
Stueckle will run some open 400s and relays indoors, Sheen says the focus is on "what we can do to prepare her for outdoors. She won't race much short hurdles. I think she's setting her focus on making the championships this year. She talked a couple of years ago by this time she would like to be flirting with the school record (57.13). I don't think that's out of reach, and the quality of our 400 hurdles group continues to get better and better and that helps to drive her."
The hurdles group includes sophomore Gianna Woodruff, who will be hoping for a similar breakthrough year as the one Stueckle enjoyed last year, and senior Skye Atchley. Woodruff and Atchley helped the Huskies sweep the 400m hurdles in the dual meet against WSU, and Woodruff was on the verge of breaking the 60-second mark last year.
"You want to run your best when it's the most important time to do so, and Gianna's best times came at the Pac-12 and dual meet," says Sheen. "She looks better and better she's made huge progress in the weight room so hopefully that will transfer over. Getting to the NCAA first rounds is within her reach for sure. The Pac-12 has really become tough quickly in the long hurdles but making the final there is also a big goal. And I think Skye can be a lot better this year as well. She's come a long way and had a good fall."
Returners Haley Jacobson, Shea O'Donnell, and Alisha Oden will all be looking to prove themselves this season in the open sprints and earn spots at the conference meet, as will Naivasha Sophusson Smith in the short hurdles. Jacobson was the top 100-meter sprinter for UW last year as just a freshman, breaking the 12-second mark for the first time at Pac-12s.
Sheen says Jacobson had a strong fall and is responding well to the challenge of the Pac-12 after "her eyes were opened a little bit last year to the quality of our conference." O'Donnell came in as a 100-200 person but Sheen says she's healthy and could be moving up in distance.
A diverse freshman class is highlighted by Daje Pugh of Vallejo, California, the top long hurdler in the country last year and one of the most decorated women's sprint recruits to call U-Dub home in years. She is joined by Kristsa Armstead, a versatile sprinter from New Mexico, and Washington natives Annie Torfin (Olympia), Alexis Ford (Seattle), and Kayla Stueckle's younger sister Kimberly (Puyallup).
"It's a talented group with a lot of upside," said Sheen. "Obviously, Daje made some headlines last year, but we have some girls coming in who I think are better than what they showed in high school. So far they are responding to the intensity and duration of the collegiate season. That will be a really big test for them but I think there is talent there."
Pugh closed out her fantastic prep career with a huge performance in the California Division I state finals, winning the 300-meter hurdles in 40.57 seconds, the fastest time any high school athlete ran in 2012, and the eighth-fastest mark in U.S. history. She also took third in the talent-laden 100-meter hurdle finals in 13.69 seconds, and ran 13.61 to win the 2012 USATF Junior Olympics Nationals title.
It's a talented group with a lot of upside ... So far they are responding to the intensity and duration of the collegiate season. That will be a really big test for them but I think there is talent there.""Daje will have a lot of responsibilities here," says Sheen matter-of-factly. "Daje's somebody we had our eye on for a couple of years. Physically she's so tall and gifted, but early in her high school career she was trying to figure out how to move her body while growing into it. I talked to some local coaches that I trust down in her area and they spoke very highly of her. It was only a matter of time until she does something special, and her senior year she finally put it all together.
An excellent all-around athlete reminiscent of former All-American Ashley Lodree, Pugh has shown the ability to do all three jump events in addition to open sprints, but the plan is for the rookie to stick to both hurdle races and relays.
As with any other freshman, she's just showing up wanting to work and get better, Sheen says. "Just like everyone else she's trying to adjust to the collegiate level. She just goes about her business every day and works on getting better. She didn't come in at all like `I'm the best in high school.' She understands her limitations and she's working on them every day, which is exciting to see somebody with her talent with that attitude."
Ford and Torfin both had most of their prep success at the quarter-mile and should help the relay depth there, while Stueckle, like her sister, is a hurdler, both long and short. Armstead could be another X-factor, as she could be yet another talented long hurdler, having run 61-seconds at the 400m hurdles distance. But Sheen also thinks she could contribute at the short distances. "It will be fun to see where she falls into place in the puzzle."
Same as with the men, the added depth and returning talent should lead to the best women's relays thus far in Sheen's tenure. Moving up the conference rankings and qualifying both the 4x1 and the 4x4 for the NCAA first rounds is a big aspiration this year.
Says Sheen, "I think now we have a good group that's focused and talented where we can make that happen."