Track & Field Reaches East Preliminary Championships
ALBANY, N.Y. – Championship season continues for the University at Albany track & field program with NCAA East Preliminary Championships this week. UAlbany will bring a program-record 15 student-athletes to compete in the meet for an opportunity to advance to NCAA Outdoor Championships in two weeks.
Competing for UAlbany at East Prelims will be Tara Belinsky in the women’s shot put, Robert Blue in the men’s triple jump, Walter Briggs in the men’s 110m hurdles, Victor Cotto in the men’s long jump, Venique Harris in the women’s discus, Anika Hibbard in the women’s high jump, Kyle Gronostaj in the men’s 10,000m, Jan Michael Gutierrez Almedina in the men’s 200m, Asia Jinks in the women’s 400m hurdles, Sophia Myers in the women’s 100m hurdles, EJ Onah in the women’s long jump, Hannah Reinhardt in the women’s 5,000m, Cara Sherman in the Women’s 10,000m, Victoria Stoffel in the women’s high jump, and Devon Willis in the men’s triple jump.
Two weeks ago, the Great Danes competed at IC4A and ECAC Outdoor Championships. For the second straight year, the UAlbany women won the team title, scoring 76 points and winning three individual events. The men placed fifth, scoring 33.50 points.
“We tried to get more qualifiers to regionals,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, especially on Sunday. It was cold and windy, and it was probably the toughest day of the spring, and we’ve had some bad days. I felt badly for our athletes, but on the bright side they went out there and competed. They gave it their best shot and they participated well, and we did have one additional qualifier, Victoria in the women’s high jump.”
Though the primary objective of competing at IC4A and ECAC Outdoor Championships for the Great Danes was to give the student-athletes an additional, final opportunity to earn qualifying performances for East Prelims, the women’s team once again displayed their strength in claiming another team championship title.
“Our women, again, have shown that we show up and compete and we’re one of the best team out there,” said Vives. “It was a surprise to us this year because we weren’t going for it. Finishing first and second in the high jump goes a long way towards the team title, but we made a decision at the end to be judicious with where and how much we competed our athletes moving on to regionals. We didn’t have Venique compete in the discus because of the rain, and we didn’t want to risk an injury.”
The Great Danes enjoyed a timely week free from competition as the spring semester concluded. Attention now turns to East Preliminary Championships with the handful of student-athletes that remain.
“We’re really excited about this week,” said Vives. “We have them most individual entries ever qualified for the meet. We had some unexpected qualifiers after scratches, including Jan Michael in the men’s 200m and Sophia Myers in the women’s 100m hurdles. We’re excited for the group that is going and they know it’s a great opportunity. It’s a chance in a fast facility against quality competition for people to go out on a positive.”
East Prelims will be among the most competitive, highest-quality meets most of the student-athletes will compete in all season. To that end, and despite many of the participants having experience at this meet before, the coaching staff is making every effort to provide the competitors with the most conducive environment for an optimal performance.
“We’re traveling with all of our staff, who have made a big difference with the student-athletes this year,” said Vives. “They are people who have helped calm our student-athletes but who have also been to this meet and experienced it in their own careers. It’s important to surround our student-athletes with positive energy, and we’re trying to make this trip as comfortable as possible for them.”
For the first time since the 2016 season, the University of North Florida will host the East Preliminary Championship meet. The Great Danes have competed at North Florida for this meet in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and have a measure of familiarity with the facility.
“This is the first time in several years that the meet will take place at the University of North Florida,” said Vives. “We really like this facility. There’s a practice track right next to the competition track, and a tent village where all the teams set up while they wait for their events. We’re very familiar with this facility and I think we’ve taken the pressure off our kids. We want to see them perform and they’re ready to perform.”
Unique to this year’s group of regional participants is an individual who is comfortably ranked within the top-12 required to advance to NCAA Championships. Harris ranks fifth in the discus, marking an instance for the Great Danes that one of their student-athletes is a favorite to advance to nationals before the meet starts. Even so, the student-athletes do need to perform, and be mindful of the specific structure of the meet to ensure they qualify.
“Venique is ranked fifth in the discus,” said Vives. “The one thing that’s different about this meet, for the throws and the horizontal jumps, is that you have to be ready to unload a good performance early because you only get three attempts. If you’re the type of athlete that, right off the bat, can hit a good one, you’re going to upset some people. I think we have several people, like Devon and Tara, for example, who are capable of doing that on any given day. Now, the numbers go out the window, and you’re only looking to finish in the top-12.”
As the field events have limited attempts at East Prelims, the track events also have to take into consideration that each round is essentially a final, where a season can end without a personal-best effort in an individuals event just to have the opportunity to race in the next round the following day.
“We let them know what it takes to advance” said Vives. “We study the people in their heats and flights. And we treat everything like a final. You only know you’re competing today, you don’t know if you’re competing tomorrow, so you have to leave it all out there and have no regrets.”
One of the goals every year that the coaching staff has for the team is to continue to progress the program to ultimately break into the top-20 on the national scene. As the Great Danes become a more regular participant in big meets like this, and as they continue to qualify more student-athletes to championship meets, that progression will continue, as will the comfort level of competing in high-level championship events.
“There was a time where we would come to this meet and just be happy to be there,” said Vives. “In the last few years that mentality has changed to where we feel like we belong here. Someone like Asia, she’s less than a second in the 400m hurdles from being in the company of the top 12, and she believes she can break into that group.”
“This has been a magical year with the women winning the Triple Crown,” Vives continued. “The ECAC title was icing on the cake. And the men bouncing back to win three championships in a row after the upset at last year’s indoor championships. I think we put ourselves in a good position for the future, and we’d like to see this meet as a stepping-stone that the program is progressing.”
NCAA East Preliminary Championships begin at 12:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 23. UAlbany’s first event will be the women’s high jump, scheduled for Thursday at 3:30 p.m.