Season Preview: Sprinters
Jan. 5, 2012
The 2012 track and field season begins in a big way on January 14, as Washington hosts the UW Indoor Preview in the Dempsey Indoor. From there the Dawgs will compete through the NCAA Indoor Championships in March and then quickly switch to the outdoor season, continuing on until June. GoHuskies.com will take a look at what each unit has in store for the season ahead.
Sprinters and Hurdlers
SEATTLE - In year three of his tenure at Washington, assistant coach Raul Sheen's sprinters got the spotlight-grabbing performances that programs are built around. Then-sophomore James Alaka won the Pac-10 titles at 100-meters and 200-meters and was named Pac-10 Athlete of the Meet. It was the biggest highlight yet for UW's sprints crew under Sheen, but 2011 saw a number of great performances that the fourth-year coach is looking to expand upon.
"I think the success from last year kind of got people fired up," says Sheen. "They're starting to get motivated and are excited to build on it."
The men's group returns every athlete for 2012, which now includes four All-Americans, as Alaka, junior Colton Dunn, senior Ryan Hamilton, and sophomore Maurice McNeal all earned Second Team All-America honors on the 4x100-meter relay, which placed 16th at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last year. McNeal was also one of the top freshman quarter-milers in the country, running a freshman school record time of 45.60 outdoors en route to making the NCAA semifinals for All-America honorable mention. That quartet will be looking for a return trip to Des Moines, Iowa which again serves as the final site for nationals.
While the men are an intact group looking for improvement from within, the women will be coping with the graduation of their top sprinter a year ago, but doing so with some added firepower. Dominique Lauderdale wrapped her career after consecutive Pac-10 finals and NCAA Prelim appearances at 100-meters, but the women return two more NCAA Prelim qualifiers and add three new faces that could help in key events.
Senior Jordan Carlson will captain the group. The Spokane native smashed the school record at 400-meters last year, clocking 54.18 in the UW-WSU dual meet, but then promptly injured her hamstring and was unable to carry her momentum into the postseason. But Carlson is back as the leader of the women's group that each year has bolstered its depth and increased its presence at the conference level.
"Losing Dominique is a big hit in the short sprints. But outside of her, we didn't really lose anybody. The quarter-miler group is looking stronger led by Jordan," says Sheen, "but I'm not ashamed to say, we're still building. When I got here, the numbers were really small and now we have much more bodies. I think we have a good collective group vibe and we're figuring out how to take the next step."
With so many returners on the men's side that are familiar with the process, familiar with each other, and that have now tasted success, Coach Sheen has the luxury of fine-tuning the group for peak performance when it matters most.
Seeing as how "this year should be our most competitive group, we're aiming for a little bit later in the year, and we've been a little bit more patient with our fall training," says Sheen. "Hopefully being in a longer preseason mode and strength-building mode will carry us over until a little bit later in the season this year. Other than that, I think we're continuing on with what's worked. We're not trying to shake it up too much just for the sake of changing."
For Alaka, 2012 provides the London native with remarkable opportunities. Alaka has stated he wants to become the first Pac-12 Champion in addition to being the final Pac-10 Champion last year. Then come higher aspirations for the NCAA Championships, and if all that plays out according to the perfect script, Alaka will be aiming for a chance to make the British national team for the Summer Olympics in his home city.
The lofty goals are "no secret" for UW's fastest man. "Being able to represent his country in his home town on the grandest stage of our sport is definitely something that he's gunning for," Sheen says. "Again, it goes in with our training philosophy a little bit this year, being patient with him. We want to be successful at each stop and represent the University of Washington first, but with that hopefully comes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run in the Olympic games in your home city.
With big expectations could come big pressure, but according to his coach, "James keeps it all in perspective pretty well." Alaka will get the honor of captaining the Huskies this season as well. The indoor season sets the stage for his spring and summer, but Alaka will take a run at NCAA Indoors in the 200-meters and likely run on the 4x4 as well.
One of the biggest surprises of the year for the track team as a whole last year was Federal Way's Maurice McNeal. Fifth at the Pac-10 Championships at both 200-meters and 400-meters, "Mo" made it to Des Moines to finish 21st overall in the NCAA 400-meters and continued on to finish 18th at the USA Championships.
Although Sheen saw signs that McNeal had greater potential than his high school times might have suggested, it was still a surprise to see just how great a season he put together. "That's a tribute to who he is and how hard he worked and his desire." McNeal only joined the team after the fall last year, so this year is his first full training cycle. This is going to be his first time experiencing a really long season. So it will be interesting to see how he builds on it and how he reacts to it. We'll be patient with him as well." The added training could make McNeal a much bigger factor indoors, with an NCAA Indoor bid and a potential 400m leg on the DMR spicing things up.
"For Ryan, it's his last year with us. He's going to graduate this winter, so he'll stick around and continue to do track. Ryan's done a lot of things for us here at Washington - Pac-10 champion on a relay and made it to the NCAAs a couple times now. He's training a little differently than in years past, just focusing exclusively on being a 100-meter guy and hopefully that will help him accomplish his goals that he has." Goals that include a Pac-12 final which would likely spell a West Prelim spot for a chance at nationals.
Dunn is what Sheen calls "just a sprinter" in the most complimentary sense. His versatility is his greatest strength and it has been an impressive jump from the 2A level at Hockinson High School in Brush Prairie to a Second Team All-American in just two years. The training schedule will be tweaked a little for Dunn as well. "Colton had a good indoor season last year and because of how hard he had worked throughout the summer, and fall, I think that by the end of the indoor season he was starting to come down a little bit. Again, we want to set it up so he has more success later in the year."
The Huskies bring a lot of depth to the hurdles this season as Pac-10 competitors Shayne Moore and Dan Sanders are each back for their third seasons. Sanders, a Redmond native, was the top 400m hurdler on the squad last year, running 52.79, and in an event that takes some time to figure out, Sheen thinks Sanders is seeing the return on all his hard work. "Dan is a guy that just steps up to bat and swings at every pitch that is thrown at him. I think this will be a good year for Dan and making the conference finals for the 400 hurdles is a great goal for him."
Moore was 11th at the Pac-10 meet in the 110m hurdles last year and breaking into the final, which he did as a freshman, will be the goal for him as well. "He has a lot on his plate with school and he handles it as well as anybody that I've ever seen," Sheen says. "He just does a great job preparing every day and will get better because of it."
Decathlon All-American Jeremy Taiwo has always been a factor in the short hurdles as well, making the Pac-10 final and West Prelims last year, and sophomore Howard Lao looks to build on a solid first season. Senior Miles Timpe, a three-time Pac-10 competitor, also returns in the long hurdles after taking a year off to focus on academics.
More depth will be added by senior Sam Rucker, who was the first alternate for the 4x100-meter relay at NCAAs last year and can also carry on the 4x4. Sophomore Matt Anthony should be much improved in year two, and the Huskies may receive some contributions from the gridiron, as Ken Egu and James Johnson both competed last year and may return this season.
Turning back to the women's group, Carlson has been emblematic of the desire and work ethic that will take the group to the next level, and thus she gets the captain's nod. The only thing that has kept Carlson from postseason success has been injuries, which have plagued her entire career. Last season was Carlson's healthiest yet, and she responded by dropping the 400-meter school record from 54.31 to 54.18 in less than ideal conditions in Husky Stadium. But carrying huge momentum, Carlson then had a horribly-timed hamstring injury and missed the Pac-10 meet in the Arizona sun, which could have meant yet another record run.
The timing of that injury still pained Coach Sheen to think about. "What a bummer. That truly was as bad of timing as you could have, and the last person you wanted to see it happen to. I don't know if we grew from it, but we have no choice. I think this year she has done a great job. Every day, she's more and more excited about what she's done. She's done more this year than she ever has. I think an indoor school record to go with the outdoor one is in her mind. We're not going to sacrifice the outdoor season for the indoor season, we want to save her legs as much as possible, but she looks great."
Another team leader who has fought through more than her fair share of adversity is senior Bianca Greene. The Garfield grad has been a fixture on UW's best relays and has shown flashes in the 200m, but injuries have kept her from her full potential. Sheen says they are scaling back to what worked best for her in high school. "I don't know if it's the length and intensity of training at this level, but we've had to take a couple steps back and readjust our focus on what works with her and what we need to do," says Sheen. "The outdoor season is what's most important, so trying to get her in a uniform a couple times indoor, just to get a feel of racing again."
One of the best events for the women this year could be the 400-meter hurdles, as sophomore Kayla Stueckle returns after qualifying for the NCAA West Prelims as a freshman, and is joined by freshman Gianna Woodruff out of Los Angeles. Woodruff ranked 10th nationally last year among seniors in the 300m hurdles.
"It started to click a little by the end of last year," Sheen says of Stueckle, who set her season-best in a win at the UW-WSU dual meet in 59.84. "I think this year she will pick right up where she left off and continue to build on it for sure. She's stronger this year. Time will tell, but I think she will have a really big year. I think brining Gianna here is only going to help her because they have similar times from high school and they're both very driven and hungry to be successful. Between the two of them, I think that will be a great training group."
Another freshman, Naivasha Sophusson-Smith, could fill a big gap for the Huskies in the short hurdles. As a senior last year at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Sophusson-Smith won the 3A state title and during the year ran 14.00, the fifth-fastest time in state history.
Sophusson-Smith benefited from "a good high school coach that I think really helped get her on her way," says Sheen. "She's got good quickness and can build athleticism and strength throughout the season and learn how to deal with the length of the college season and the intensity of the college race. I think she can be really good here."
Sophomore Michelle Fero was a Pac-10 competitor in her first year and adds depth in the quarter mile and on relays, while junior Johanna Carr and sophomore Shea O'Donnell will contribute in the short sprints, along with freshman Haley Jacobson from Bellevue. Sheen mentions an impressive fall from sophomore Alisha Oden, and thinks the Ohio native could be on the team's top 4x4 this year.