Despite winning fourth and fifth place in the last two Conference USA Indoor Track and Field Championships, there were some reasons for optimism amongst the men's track team to improve at this year's edition of the meet in Birmingham, Ala. The squad garnered a fifth place finish two weeks ago at the Texas A&M Invitational against several top teams from the Big XII and Southeastern Conferences, which was filled with great performances from veterans like redshirt junior Clayton Chaney and senior Dan Sloat, as well as newcomers like freshman pole vaulter Chris Pillow. Despite Rice‘s 1-2-3 finish in the heptathlon, something that the Owls had yet to accomplish in C-USA, was not enough to overcome the deficiencies in other areas of this team.
Those issues started in the field events, where Rice failed to place in the weight throw and senior Alex Zinchenko finished just off the podium, with a throw somewhat behind his personal best set earlier this year. The long jump and triple jump nabbed Rice six total points as freshman J.J. Walker was fifth in the triple jump, while sophomore Ben Pressley was seventh. The pole vault was somewhat of a disappointment, with Pillow finishing below his 4.81 meter mark from the Texas A&M Invitational, giving him eighth place.
The high jump was an event in which tangible improvement could be seen. With junior Tyler Wiest lingering consistently around the 1.96 meter mark throughout the season, it was a pleasant surprise to see him get fourth place with a 2.05 meter jump, a vindicating personal best.
Once again, the short distance events were an area in which the Owls gave up points to the rest of C-USA, with no Owls making the finals of either the 60-meter or 200-meter dash. Senior Collin Shurbet was thirteen-hundredths of a second behind his personal-best time in the 400-meter dash, but he only finished in seventh place. Sloat clocked another personal-best for the third time this year in the 800-meter run with a time of 1:52.17, but he could not match the efforts of three runners ahead of him, keeping him off the podium for just the second time in his indoor career at the C-USA Championship.
Turning to the long-distance events, it was a surprise to see Rice shut out of garnering any points in the mile, 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter run, save for redshirt junior Gabe Cuadra's eighth place finish in the 5,000-meter run to give the Owls one total point from the three events. The Owls' foes in cross country came back to haunt them again, with runners from the University of Tulsa and the University of Texas-El Paso dominating the events. Head Coach Jon Warren spoke about Cuadra's effort.
"Gabe stole a point out of the 5,000 running a very smart race and getting a personal best along the way," Warren said.
Rice shaved a second off its 1,600-meter relay time from the last meet, but the 3:17.73 time ran by Shurbet, Sloat, and senior Lee Johnson and Jordan Hmaidan was only good enough for sixth place. The distance-medley relay team was impressive, running in third place, as Warren noted.
"We did very well in the DMR with a great anchor leg of 4:10 by freshman Will Firth," Warren said. "That leg moved the team to medal position."
However, the heptathlon was an event in which Rice proved it is the consistent leader in C-USA. There was no dramatic comeback story here: Chaney, junior Sam McGuffie and freshman Chris Sanders dominated the event from the start, with redshirt junior Jack Spinks not far behind. The order of the events seems tailored for McGuffie, who used the momentum of the 60-meter dash and the long jump to soar to first place after the first day. McGuffie blew away the field in the finals of the dash, with Chaney a full twenty-one-hundredths of a second behind McGuffie in the event. Pressley and Sanders were fourth and fifth, while Spinks lingered in eighth place. The long jump was the same story for the running back turned track star, as McGuffie jumped a full foot further than his closest competitor, which was Chaney once again. Sanders followed in third, with Pressley in fourth and Spinks in seventh this time. Two more events remained in the day, both of which showcased McGuffie's improvement in his first season as a heptathlete. The shot put, an event which saw McGuffie finish near the back of the pack for the first two meets this season, was kind to the speedster this time, as he finished second behind Chaney in the event and just barely ahead of Sanders and Spinks. The high jump was all that remained, and McGuffie's explosive nature served him well again as he finished first in the event. Like clockwork, a bevy of Owls were right behind him, as Sanders, Spinks and Chaney all tied for second behind him.
With the first day behind them, the event turned to Chaney's strengths, as he was first in the 60-meter hurdles, third in the pole vault and second in the 1,000-meter run, carrying him to the gold medal. McGuffie lagged behind in these last three events, with his highest finish being fifth in the 1,000-meter run. Sanders was decent as well, enough to surpass McGuffie for second place. Despite McGuffie's poor second day, he held off Tulsa's Kolten Taylor by 16 points to grab the bronze.
A few Owls will hit the track next week on Wednesday and Thursday for the Shirley Crowe Multi-Events, while the rest will wait until next weekend and the Texas Southern Relays to start their outdoor season.