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Rice Track & Field 2011: Men need strong performances in pole vault and heptathlon

By Jonathan Myers     1/13/11 6:00pm

When canvassing the roster for the next season, a head coach is first inclined to look for the voids left by departed athletes. With Jason Colwick (Martel '10), Simon Bucknell (Martel '10) and Chris Kato (Martel '10) all having graduated, it's clear Head Coach Jon Warren (Jones '88) will seek to get results from newcomers or returning stars to fill their spots on the men's track team. While the gaps exist, it takes a very small leap of faith to realize that athletes like senior outdoor All-American decathlete and heptathlete Philip Adam, long distance runners redshirt junior Michael Trejo and redshirt sophomore Gabe Cuadra, sophomore decathlete and heptathlete Clayton Chaney and senior hurdler Connor Hayes will continue their impressive campaigns, which helped lead the Owls to a fourth-place finish at the Conference USA Indoor Championships last year. "We've lost a few guys in the [pole] vault and a couple in distance, but we've got the ability to have guys come in and bring the same effort," Warren said. "I feel like we have the potential to improve from last year."

Starting with the pole vault, seniors Shea Kearney and Garrett Stafford, along with sophomore Alec Hsu, will look to somehow equal Colwick's gold and silver medals claimed in the 2009 and 2010 NCAA Indoor Championships. While the greatest pole vaulter in school history may not be taking the vaulting runway in a Rice uniform anymore, the three helped Rice boast the best vaulting unit in C-USA, with Stafford finishing fourth and Hsu taking fifth at the 2010 C-USA Indoor Championship, and Kearney competing at last year's NCAA Outdoor Championships.

"Alec and Garrett will help us maintain that spot in the conference, and Shea has that national championship experience that will be great," Warren said.

Continuing with the field events, the long and triple jumps return a few members along with a greenhorn in freshman Justin Gross, who was a three-time all-state member at his Maryland high school, in addition to being a member of the U.S. World Youth Team. Warren plans to use Hayes in jumps occasionally again, while senior Ugo Nduaguba will look to improve on his fifth-place finish at last year's conference championships. Sophomore Ikechi Nnamani will contribute in both the triple jump and high jump, where he is joined by fellow sophomore Tyler Wiest. They will compete without defending conference champion redshirt sophomore Jack Spinks, who will sit out the beginning of the season as he recovers from a broken leg.

The throwers return senior Will Meyers, junior Alex Zinchenko and redshirt freshman Nick Williams. Meyers finished 10th in the shot put at last year's conference championship, and Zinchenko will look to improve his consistency, according to Warren.

"Alex has a ton of potential, and he really started throwing well at the end of outdoor [track] last year, so we really think he can contribute," Warren said.

Turning to the track, it's clear that, although the distance runners will not compete at the Leonard Hilton Memorial Invitation at the University of Houston today, they will still provide a solid source of points, especially in the mile and 800 meters. Junior Dan Sloat has asserted himself as one of the top 800-meter runners in the conference after finishing third in the conference championship last year, and senior Jacob Owolabi is primed to return near the top of the conference as well. Sophomore Alex Weinheimer will look to build on his impressive freshman campaign last year, in which he finished second among Owls at the Texas A&M Challenge. Trejo has competed well in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter events and looks to finish in the top 10 in both, while Cuadra finished near Trejo in both events as well. Juniors Matt Carey and James Llamas also provide great depth to the group of long distance runners, and sophomore Sammy Abuhamra comes in as the only Owl with experience in the indoor mile run.

"The biggest thing for our new distance runners is how they react to the shorter track in indoor," Warren said. "We've got guys like John Cavallo, Travis Roberts, Tony Urbanelli that rarely ran indoor meets, if at all. Those guys and the throwers tend to have the biggest jump between high school track and indoor track."

The 400-meter dash proved to be a strength for the squad last year, as sophomore Donte Moore and junior Collin Shurbet turned in impressive results on the short indoor track. Shurbet transitioned well to running the event in addition to his hurdling duties, and Moore had a season-best of 49.35 seconds last year. The sprinters lost stalwart John Welch (Hanszen '10) and will look to two other Hanszenites in sophomore Kenny Jones and freshman Will Beasley. Jones ran in only one meet last year in the 60-meter dash, but Beasley should be able to help, especially in the relays. Junior Sam McGuffie is an unknown factor, as Warren was unsure if he would compete this season, but junior Pete Navarra could see some time in the sprinting events.

The heptathlon will perhaps be the strongest event for the Owls with the All-American Adam returning, along with redshirt sophomore Clayton Chaney, whom Warren was especially hopeful for.

"Clayton has a great shot to make nationals this year," Warren said. "He's really improved in all of his events, especially the shot put, and I feel confident that we can get a 1-2 finish at conference in the heptathlon with him and Philip."

Freshman Ben Pressley was a regional qualifier in six different events in high school and has experience in the sprints and jumps which could see him place well in the heptathlon as well.

As for the conference outlook, Houston still reigns supreme with four straight conference championships in the indoor meet. The Cougars generally dominate all short distance and jumping events, with strong performances in the throwing events leading them to large margins of victory.

The University of Texas-El Paso and the University of Tulsa are bolstered by their heavy emphasis on the distance events. The University of Memphis finished only 12 points behind Rice at the conference meet last year, and they have a reputation for having the top throwers in C-USA. Rice has little choice but to get better results from their throwers and sprinters, while continuing solid performances in the distance and jumping events and maintaining their place at the top of the heap of pole vaulters and heptathletes.

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