Feb. 3, 2013
By Kirby Young
SEATTLE - As the indoor track and field season kicks into a full sprint, the Huskies have reason to be optimistic and excited for what is to come. The team features several returning All-Americans looking to improve on what they have accomplished thus far and leap into the national spotlight.
One of the more intriguing stories of 2013 is junior sprinter Maurice McNeal. He is coming off a stellar 2012 campaign in which he placed third in the Pac-12 finals of the 400-meter dash while also contributing on the relay teams. Not to mention grabbing All-America Second Team honors as a part of the distance medley relay squad and competing in the 4x100-meter relay in the NCAA semifinals - finishing with the 10th best time in school history of 39.98 seconds.
And this was all while battling a season-long sports hernia injury that eventually required surgery. This was a season that McNeal described as "frustrating," despite all of the accolades he was able to accomplish.
"Last year he tried to tough it out. That's sort of his mentality and I think he got himself into a deeper hole than he wanted to be in," sprints coach Raul Sheen said. "Mo is a tough guy and wanted to push through it."
Pushing through the last stretch is the challenge of every quarter-miler. McNeal motors around the track with a short, smooth stride that gives the former prep soccer player great endurance. Every top relay the Huskies trot out this year indoors and out should feature McNeal, as he handles 400m legs on the DMR and 4x4, and also has the pure speed to be a great leg on the 4x100m relay.
Entering his sophomore year, McNeal had high expectations for improvement, but couldn't get healthy. As a freshman, McNeal was named All-America second team for the 4x100 relay. He also set the UW freshman record in the 400-meter dash with a time of 45.60 seconds that ranks third in school history. But it's time for that time to go down.
"I just chalk it up to being injured. It was pretty frustrating, but in the end it has made me stronger," McNeal explained following practice on Wednesday.
After a frustrating All-American sophomore year, it is no wonder junior McNeal and the coaching staff has set such high standards for this year.
Fully rested, well trained and finally healthy, McNeal is poised for a big season. He was able to take time off after last season and it has showed in his preseason preparation and training. No longer forced to gut out runs through pain, he can run with ease in his quiet, relaxed demeanor.
He has come back really good, really strong ... He is probably farther along at this point than he was last year. It is a testament to his work ethic.
"I feel good. Training has been going really well," McNeal explained. "Getting healthy and a full fall training has been great."
Coming back from any injury can be difficult. Many obstacles must be overcome and they aren't always physical. It appears as though the junior sprinter is ready to go and is anxious to get the season going.
"He has come back really good, really strong. I was a little worried how it would play out. Whenever you come back from injury there is that mental component to it, Sheen said. "But, he's been great. He is probably farther along at this point than he was last year. It is a testament to his work ethic."
McNeal has been strong so far in the early season meets. During the UW Indoor Preview he won the 600-meter dash, posting a 1:17:74 time, which is a new meet record. He anchored the 4x400 relay at the UW Invitational to a 3:13:69, good for second place. As the season moves forward, he will have a great opportunity to post great numbers for the Husky squad. McNeal and Sheen have set forth some top-flight goals.
"The Pac-12 final, for sure. I want to make finals at nationals and make a team over the summer," McNeal said as his eyes lighted up. That would mean a USA national team, the best of which will be competing at the World Championships. To do that, "I'd love to go 44-point [in the 400-meters] and 20-point [in the 200-meters]."
"I think 20.5 and 44-seconds is what Maurice is looking at this year. If it doesn't happen something went wrong. I think he's totally capable of that," Sheen said in his season preview adding, "I'm always cautious about these things. So for me to say it, I'm pretty confident he can do it."
That is no small feat. This would put McNeal among the country's best as last year the NCAA champion ran a 44.58 in 400-meter dash finals. He will also get a chance to run the 200-meter dash, his personal favorite event. This would put him up against teammate, and two-timme 200m Pac-12 champion James Alaka.
"It's fun! It's a healthy competition. He pushes me and I push him," McNeal explained. He added, "I'd love to beat him."
McNeal will get a great opportunity to display his speed this weekend in the Husky Classic in the Dempsey Indoor. He will compete in the 400-meter dash for the first time this year, and once again anchor the 4x400 relay on Saturday.