Eugene - The NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships get underway on Wednesday at Historic Hayward Field, and the Oregon men's and women's teams will attempt to do what has never been done before.
No school has ever had both teams sweep the indoor and outdoor national championships in the same year, but the Ducks will have a shot to pull off the "double-double" this week. If meet projections are correct, both team races could come down to the final event - the 4 x 400 relay on Saturday afternoon.
While the Duck men and women both won team championships at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque in March, it has been a long, painful drought outdoors for Oregon. The UO women won their only NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship way back in 1985, and the men's most recent of their five outdoor titles was in 1984.
With the overall success of the powerhouse Oregon program, which has won multiple national championships in cross country and indoor track, 30 years is too long. Second-year head coach Robert Johnson would like nothing more than to end this drought with at least one title, if not two, in front of the home fans at Hayward.
According to a number of meet form charts, including that of Track & Field News, the Oregon men are the team to beat. Bolstered by a strong distance corps, the Ducks rate as slight favorites over defending co-champions Florida, who tied with Texas A&M in Eugene last June for the 2013 title.
Fabulous UO freshman Edward Cheserek will attempt to duplicate his extraordinary performance at the NCAA indoor meet, where he used a potent kick to win both the 3000 and 5000 meters, defeating favorite Lawi Lalang of Arizona in the latter race. Cheserek, who also won the NCAA cross country title last November, is three for three in NCAA championship races in his young college career. He will run the 5000 and 10000 meters here, and will face Lalang again in the 5000.
The Ducks will need to pile up points in the distance races to offset Florida's strength in the sprints, relays and field events. Along with Cheserek, Trevor Dunbar, Parker Stinson and Eric Jenkins are all potential scorers in the 5000, and Dunbar and Stinson will also toe the line in the 10K. Senior Mac Fleet will also look to defend his 2013 title in the 1500 meters, where he will be up against a motivated Lalang.
Another Duck to watch will be Devon Allen, the freshman hurdler/wide receiver from Arizona. Allen burst on the national track scene this spring in unlikely fashion, as he was doing double duty with track and spring football during the month of April. Allen followed a strong showing at the Pac-12 meet with an even more impressive performance at the NCAA Preliminary Round, formerly known as the NCAA Regionals. Allen set a new school record of 13.27 in the 110 meter hurdles. That is the third-fastest time among collegians nationally this spring, which immediately stamped Allen as a primer contender at nationals.
Allen will be joined in the 110 hurdles by teammate Jonathan Cabral, who was injured most of the spring season. Cabral appears to be healthy now, giving the Ducks a nice tandem in the event. Allen may also run on Oregon's 4 x 400 relay, projected to finish seventh behind Florida's second-ranked team, which could make for an exciting conclusion to the team race.
Other Duck men projected to score are school record holder Mike Berry in the 400, sophomore hammer thrower Greg Skipper, Tanguy Pepiot in the steeplechase, Dakotah Keys in the decathlon, and javelin favorite Sam Crouser.
Unlike the Oregon men, the Duck women do not appear to be the NCAA meet favorites, despite winning the indoor crown. Texas looks to have the edge on Oregon, Texas A&M and Florida in the women's team race. After losing the indoor meet to Oregon by a half-point, when the Duck's Phyllis Francis nipped Longhorn star Ashley Spencer at the finish of the 4 x 400, Texas will again go head-to-head with Oregon in the sprints, both relays and several field events.
If all four teams get off to a hot start, it could make this meet a wild ride.
It certainly was that in 2013. Led by sprinter English Gardner, the Duck women looked to be in good position after winning the Pac-12 meet. But normally reliable distance star Jordan Hasay failed to qualify in the 10000, Gardner limped through a 200 semi and failed to qualify for the finals in that event, and Anne Kesselring collapsed just meters before the finish line in the 1500. The Ducks' chances evaporated, and they finished a disappointed third as a team, behind Texas A&M and surprise champion Kansas.
The chances of the Oregon women this week will ride in large part on the shoulders of sprinter-jumper Jenna Prandini. The sophomore from Clovis, California is slated for heavy duty, as she is one of just three female athletes entered in three individual events at nationals, and also runs on Oregon's 4 x 100 relay.
Track & Field News projects big points from Prandini: first in the 100, second in the 200 and long jump, and a third for the relay. If you're counting, that's a total of 27.5 points from one athlete. Individually, Prandini scored just 4.5 points last year, with a seventh place in the 100 and legs on Oregon's 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays, which both finished fourth.
Prandini is undefeated this year on the track, and has been honored as the West Region Track Athlete of the Year. How she fares against her sprint rivals from Texas and Texas A&M could well determine the outcome of the meet.
While Prandini has had a sensational spring, the Oregon women suffered a blow when injured sprinter-jumper Jasmine Todd was not able to compete in the NCAA Preliminary Round, and, thus, did not qualify to compete this weekend. Todd, a freshman from Arizona, was third in the 60 meters and sixth in the long jump in the NCAA indoor meet.
Other projected scorers for the Oregon women are Laura Roesler and Annie Leblanc in the 800, Jillian Weir in the hammer, US indoor record holder Phyllis Francis in the 400, and, possibly, freshman Brittany Mann in the shot put.
One of the heaviest favorites at the NCAAs is Roesler, who will attempt to win her first outdoor 800 meter title. The senior from Fargo, North Dakota has been a Hayward fan favorite since she competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials as a high school sophomore, and is the most decorated All-American in Oregon's illustrious track and field history with 15 All-American honors. Roesler has run under 2:01 in the 800 three times in 2013 and 2014, and looks to put an exclamation point on her outstanding Oregon career with a victory here.
Roesler is also a member of the 4 x 400 relay, which could be called upon to again take down favored Texas in the final event to win the title. That's if their rivals stumble, or if Oregon can get unexpected points from athletes like Liz Brenner in the javelin or Lauren Crockett in the high jump.
Stay tuned. This is bound to get interesting.