Washington kicks off the 2014 season this weekend with the annual UW Indoor Preview in the Dempsey, the first of five home indoor meets and the first chance to test where long months of training have brought the Husky track and field athletes. To preview the upcoming season, GoHuskies.com talked to some of the top returners in each event group, along with the event coaches. First up are the sprinters and hurdlers.
The Huskies, under sixth-year assistant coach Raul Sheen, have a lot of potential amongst a predominantly young group of sprinters. Last season, three of UW’s four relays advanced to the NCAA prelims, and the men’s 4x100-meter group made the final site in Eugene for the fifth time in six years. Senior Kayla Stueckle and junior Gianna Woodruff took the next steps in their careers, as both qualified for the NCAA semis in the 400-meter hurdles with nearly identical PRs. Unfortunately Woodruff was found to have a stress fracture and she was unable to follow up on her breakout race from Texas. But Woodruff is back training now and Stueckle is ready to conquer the last hurdle and reach a national final as a senior.
The Huskies will also look for big things from sophomore Chris Williams, who was named UW’s first ever Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season, in large part for his work in the 110-meter hurdles. Williams ran the No. 2 time in school history, 13.82 seconds, to make it to the semis in Eugene, while also leading off the 4x1 relay. Sophomore Quadelle Satterwhite and senior Matt Anthony also return from that relay group, and fifth-year senior Colton Dunn is looking to close out his career on a high note and provide leadership for the large group of underclassmen.
There will be no replacing the speed of three-time Pac-12 Champion James Alaka, who made his fourth-straight NCAA Outdoor meet last spring, and also gone is school record-holder Jordan Carlson on the women’s side, but even without Carlson outdoors last year, the women showed they could step up in the 4x4, as Stueckle, Woodruff, sophomore Krista Armstead, and 800m standout Baylee Mires posted the third-best time in school history to qualify for prelims. All four of those women are back, and UW has another solid group of freshmen, especially strong in the quarter-mile on the men’s side.
Kayla Stueckle and Matt Anthony talked about their group along with Coach Sheen.
GoHuskies.com: Going back to the beginning of the fall season, how was training for you and your group and what have you liked thus far?
Kayla Stueckle: I think the big difference this year from any past year that I’ve been through, is we didn’t do a lot of circuit stuff as far as basic strength training off the track. So for those of us that were experienced, we were kind of wondering, but I think the new set of training has supplemented well with what we’re doing in the weight room with Rose as our new weights coach. So just as a whole we’re a lot stronger and more fit, and that’s definitely showing in training on the track. We’re getting through those harder workouts a lot better. Me being the only senior, it makes the team feel like we’re really young, but that being said I still think there’s a lot of experience on the team and we’re going to be a strong group, so that’s definitely encouraging.
Matt Anthony: For me personally from my view on the team it’s been the best fall since I’ve been here, and that’s saying a lot with who I had before me, James Alaka and Ryan Hamilton and people like that. This year it’s been the best ever, getting ready for competition, especially practice with these freshmen, we’ve got a lot of them this year but they’re here to work, and it makes us upper-classmen have to work a little bit more because we don’t want the freshmen showing us up. So it’s good both ways.
GoHuskies.com: With the season about to finally get underway, what’s the excitement level or the vibe on the team?
Kayla Stueckle: Everyone’s definitely anxious to get on the track, you get to the end of that fall training and you get back from break. But then you come back and you haven’t been with everybody, and you’ve been doing all these workouts on your own, and you’re kind of second-guessing your training too, not in a negative way, but you’re thinking ‘am I really ready to be racing in two weeks?’ That’s just the nerves right now, but Saturday we’re all going to see where we’re at, and I think we’re in for good stuff.
Matt Anthony: I think everybody just wants to compete, that’s what it seems like to me. We’ve been battling against each other for months, and we’re tired of running against each other and ready to go run against other teams. So I think the vibe is definitely good, definitely where we want to be as a group.
GoHuskies.com: What are some notable changes from last season, or where might we see improvement from last year’s group?
Kayla Stueckle: To start with our guys, we’ve always had strong quarter milers and I definitely think our freshman group is going to add to that. We’ve got Andrew Brown who was at our Brooks PR meet last year, and Michael Thomas coming in, Devin Liebel’s a strong short hurdler. People who were injured last year coming back like Andrew Prentice who can run a great quarter mile leg. Our girls group wasn’t as big but Samantha Bowling is going to add to our short squad, which is something we’ve always needed. And Kate Adler’s in here running short sprints as well and also jumping. So we’re young but we’re well-rounded.
Matt Anthony: You lose a guy like James (Alaka), but we gained three or four guys who can go out and run a 4x4. So I think what may have been a weakness last year, even though our 4x4 was good enough to make it to Regionals and have a chance to get to Nationals, with most of our freshmen being long sprinters, the 400 and 400-meter relays is definitely somewhere we’re going to get better in my point of view.
GoHuskies.com: Is there a particular person among the returners that you think might surprise people a bit or have something of a breakout season?
Kayla Stueckle: Krista (Armstead), her outdoor season was awesome last year and as a freshman she suffered a little with the long season and had some issues indoors, but I think she’s one that’s going to come back and really contribute this year to our squad. In a 4x4 carry or an open 400, I think she had a little trouble figuring out that rhythm, but with that year under her belt she’s going to have a great indoor season. Right now, Annie Torfin’s coming back from injury, but she’s looked awesome. When she gets to race I think she’s got a great shot at performing well and feeling good about where she’s at. Also, Kim (Stueckle) had a surprising freshman year, but Naivasha (Sophusson Smith) has done a lot over the summer and you can just tell that she has put in the work. I think kind of like Gianna (Woodruff) and I, both of them work really well together and I think that they’re both going to have really good indoor seasons as well.
Matt Anthony: I don’t know if it’s really a surprise because he’s always had the talent, but Travis Marshall. You can just tell this year he’s focused. He’s been the strongest on the team the last two years but this year he’s just been going above and beyond what he did last year. So I’m really excited for him. And Kaid Tipton too, he’s been working his butt off. He’s always had a good attitude from right when he came in, but just how he is now you can just tell he wants something more than what he got out of his work ethic last year from what I’ve been seeing. Then you’ve got Quadelle Satterwhite and Andrew Prentice, pretty much the sophomore group, after Mo (McNeal), Howard (Lao) and I leave that’s who is going to lead so definitely that whole group just in general looks great.
GoHuskies.com: What are your thoughts on the freshmen and how they have handled the transition to college so far?
Kayla Stueckle: I think coming from me seeing the girls that are now sophomores, that was a huge group of girls that came in and I think it was really easy for them to mesh in since there was an even number of them and an even number of us and we all clicked really well. With a smaller group this year it is tougher to get two or three girls to really mesh with the group, but we all get along and we’re all accepting of each other, we work hard together and encourage each other, so I think they’re going to be a great addition to our team.
Matt Anthony: It seems like we all just get along great. It’s kind of easy when you practice every day with each other, you lean to get along with each other, but when you have nice people like them coming in and just wanting to work, I especially like the work ethic and it’s easy to respect them as teammates and as people when I see that they’re here to help the team out.
GoHuskies.com: Personally, what are some of your goals for the upcoming season and what will it take to reach them?
Kayla Stueckle: I think I’ve only built each year; my seasons ended in one spot and the next year I’ll come back and take it a step further. So kind of with my junior season, I hit that top-24 goal that I wanted and I made it to the show. That was huge for me, and I felt good. That semifinal race, it’s nerve-wracking, it’s all the big names that you don’t see until you get to the show. It was eye-opening. So kind of knowing what’s expected of me and knowing what to expect, and having that training experience under my belt, my goal now is to go make that final and get top-eight and stand on that podium.
Matt Anthony: For me personally I’m just trying to lead, and do what the upperclassmen did before me, set a good example. Not just off the track but on the track, just do the best I can. This is my last year in college and I want to run like it. It’s not going to be my last race, if it’s possible I’d like to go on, but I’m running all out this year, it’s go hard or go home.
GoHuskies.com (For Stueckle): How has Gianna (Woodruff) been recovering from her injury last spring?
Kayla Stueckle: That was heartbreaking last year, she’s probably the best training partner I could have asked for coming in. We ran really similar times in high school so we’re training at a very equal level, so we push each other. That was heartbreaking when that happened, so she kind of took the summer off, and cross trained to stay in shape. She came back and was doing very limited stuff during the fall, but she’s back on the track now doing stuff where she can. I think she’s taking recovery very well, and she’s being smart about it which is really hard to do when you see all your teammates excel and running fast on the track and you just want to be a part of it. But I think the way she is handling it is only going to pay off come March, April when she is getting on the track for outdoor, and we’re going to go back at it. So I’m excited.
Questions With Coach Sheen
GoHuskies.com: The group has a lot of veterans back but losing athletes like James Alaka and Jordan Carlson has to take an adjustment period.
Coach Sheen: We’re definitely a lot younger group, and there’s a new energy. James went about leading very quietly, and I don’t think it’s a lot different this year with our seniors, Matt Anthony and Colton Dunn. Even before that with guys like Jeff Gudaitis and Jordan Boase, it’s been consistent with guys that just take care of business on the track. The change this year is just so many young bodies. A lot of freshmen last year that are now sophomores and then a lot of incoming freshmen, so the majority of the group is young. So there’s a new energy but some are still making the adjustment to the next level. With the women, we’re a little more balanced in experience level and leadership.
GoHuskies.com: With Kayla heading into her senior year, how is she approaching it?
Coach Sheen: Every year Kayla has improved at a big rate, a rate that’s almost surprising. What we’ve seen this fall, I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t continue. I think she’s coming back as one of the top returners in her event, she and Gianna are right near the top. I think Kayla’s challenge a little bit will be dealing with that; she’s been the girl quietly sitting behind Kori Carter and Georganne Moline and Turquoise Thompson and now all those girls are gone, so how does she go and embrace that role as being one of the premier stars in her individual event? But she’s a senior now and more mature and I think she’s a little more ready to handle that.
GoHuskies.com: Gianna had a breakout season but didn’t get to end it how she wanted with the injury. How is she coming back?
Coach Sheen: Gianna had not even a breakthrough year, but a breakthrough two weeks. It’s one of those things where we knew it was in there, we just had to figure out how to get to it. And really all the credit to her, just learning to run the race to her own ability. It will be exciting to see how she does, we’ve brought her back slow. We found that she’s maybe faster than we thought she was in the 200 so kind of building on that.
GoHuskies.com: Several other returners have some Pac-12 experience under their belts now.
Coach Sheen: Yeah, Haley Jacobsen is another one, she keeps improving, and she’s got an appreciation for a wider span of events. She’s excited to broaden her scope and we’ll see her run some 200s and even some 4x4s. I think that core group along with Krista Armstead, I’d expect to see a nice jump from her being a year older. This year she’s focused and she understands things a little better and, not that she wasn’t driven last year, but I think she kind of understands how to harness that better and use it to her advantage. That’s kind of our group that’s going to run great individual events but also come back and run the relays for us.
In the 100 hurdles, that’s an event that’s so good in our conference right now and I don’t see any reason it won’t continue to be. Falesha Ankton thrived on an island here, but that’s a hard thing to do, and in an event that’s so technical in nature, it’s nice to have somebody there by your side to work through things together, and a voice to pick things apart, and I think Kimmie (Stueckle) and Naivasha (Sophusson Smith) working together has helped them both. I think they are ready for a nice jump too. It’s always a positive when you see the best races come late in the year. Obviously that’s always how you want to try and draw it up, but just emotionally and confidence-wise it keeps them hungry and excited and they’re more able to pick up right where they left off, and I think we’ll see that with those two.
GoHuskies.com: Chris Williams obviously had a great freshman season, one of the best in school history. How is he looking this year?
Coach Sheen: He’s another one we saw late in the year have his best races. Arguably the Pac-12 race was really good but we didn’t get to see the time since he hit the 10th hurdle and went down, but at the NCAA first rounds, you walked in and you thought ‘wouldn’t it be something if he made the NCAAs?’ and he did it. Now it’s become the expectation, not just outdoors but indoors. He can do it if he does everything well. He’s more driven this year, last year was a little bit of an adjustment doing the two events, he has had to learn to juggle, but I’m excited for Chris and he definitely has picked up right where he left off last year, so I think he’ll continue to improve.
GoHuskies.com: The men’s 4x1 relay has made NCAAs in five of the last six years. Without Alaka now is that still the goal?
Coach Sheen: I think so, and I think that speaks highly of being able to focus on the group and the team. We all know that without James, that’s a big hole to fill, but it’s pretty quick that all the eyes turn to other people like Quadelle or Matt or Travis, or some of the freshmen I know are going to be fighting hard to get on that relay because it has been very successful. No matter who has come along, Jordan Boase or Kenjamine Jackson or Joe Turner or Ryan Hamilton or James Alaka, the next group always wants a piece of that, and I think this group believes it can be really good and a team that can potentially make a final. We’re going to miss James, there’s no doubt, the dude is super special, but others are embracing the chance to step up and we’re probably deeper in the 4x1 this year than we’ve been in years past. The mentality is to get to NCAAs and the guys we’ve recruited are excited about that, they want to continue to develop both relays.
GoHuskies.com: Anyone on the men’s side that could surprise some people?
Coach Sheen: I think Quadelle Satterwhite. The conference just gets better and better, and it’s crazy to say that about the Pac-12, because of how it’s been such an elite track and field conference forever, but I think Quadelle will be really good. And again, a guy that fits our mold here, who can run 60 up to 4x4 and he will do it all. I think he’ll be very successful this year for sure.
GoHuskies.com: Howard Lao was one of the surprises last year, and just missed the Pac-12 final. Will that be his goal this season?
Coach Sheen: Howard’s technically a junior, but he’s going to graduate this year and I’m sure he’ll move on, so his focus is definitely on this year and not looking forward. Making the final last year was his goal. He was the most consistent 14.73 hurdler the country’s ever seen, then finally got under that once. He got a taste of it, he was close, and he was able to string together some solid races. He’ll definitely be disappointed if he doesn’t make the final this year.
GoHuskies.com: Maurice McNeal had a rough season last year ending in the achilles injury. Where is he at in his comeback?
Coach Sheen: Mo’s doing great coming off surgery. He just ran into bad luck after bad luck last year, it seems like he went through about a calendar year of really bad luck. But it’s probably been the most smooth and consistent four months that he’s had since then. He looks great right now, I think that he looks so good that it’s hard for him and myself not to get a little ahead of ourselves like maybe we can race this year, but we have a very clear vision and goal of the 2015 outdoor season, so that’s what we’re going to shoot for. He’s a super competitor so we just have to pump the breaks because we have a long journey, but it’s great to have him back around and in the mix.
GoHuskies.com: What are your early impressions of the freshman group?
Coach Sheen: One of the needs we wanted to address, because we have goals of having two really good relays and not just one, we definitely had a goal of adding to that 4x4 pool and adding some good quarter milers. Last year in the state of Washington was a deep year and I think we got a couple of the better guys out there. As their careers develop I think they will be very good and get the Huskies back consistently fighting to get to the NCAA Championships in the 4x4. I think we reloaded well, and we have a lot of new faces, but we got the right guys too, and guys that are excited to be here and know what it takes.