MEET PREVIEW: NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships

NEW ORLEANS — Throughout the 2016 outdoor track & field season, we saw top NCAA Division III athletes go up against the best from NCAA Division I and NCAA Division II all across the nation at the Payton Jordan Invitational, Penn Relays and Stanford Invitational, among many, many others.

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Not only did those DIII athletes put up a fight, but more often than not, they won.

What we didn’t get to witness too much were intra-division matchups on the national level. There weren’t too many high-caliber DIII meets in which we could sink our teeth.

That left us scanning the descending order lists to find out who the best is at every event. While numbers don’t lie, we all want to see thing settled on the track and in the field.

We’re finally going to get our chance to see the best of the best in DIII compete against each other this weekend at the 2016 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. The meet is scheduled to go from Thursday through Saturday.

Here are six storylines (three men’s, three women’s) when the action gets underway.

Can UW-Eau Claire Complete The Triple Crown?

Arguably, no sports story grabbed America’s attention more last year than American Pharoah’s (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled) bid for the Triple Crown. It had been 47 years since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in succession back to capture horse racing’s Holy Grail.

Well, American Pharoah easily ripped through the first two legs and ran roughshod over the field at the Belmont Stakes to end a drought that began in 1979.

Like that horse, UW-Eau Claire’s third-ranked men find themselves on the edge of greatness.

Back in the fall, the Blugolds won the cross-country title and then followed it up with the indoor championship two months ago. An outdoor title this weekend would complete the Triple Crown.

UW-Eau Claire’s success hinges on its nine entries to the meet. The Blugolds have four entries in the distance events, two each in the sprints/hurdles and throws and one relay team.

Overall, UW-Eau Claire is tied for the fourth most entries. UW-La Crosse owns a gender-high 15, followed by North Central (Ill.) with 12 and UW-Oshkosh with 10.

Intense Action at 800, 5000 Meters

During this season it appeared as if Mitchell Black and Matt Molinaro went back and forth with the national lead in the 800-meter run. When the dust settled following all of the Last-Chance Meets, Black is tops in the division with a time of 1:48.60 (good enough for ninth all-time on the DIII performer’s list) with Molinaro close behind at 1:48.99.

Should Black and Molinaro both make it through to the finals, it’s going to be a showdown for the ages. Add North Central (Ill.)’s Aron Sebhat to the mix and there could be fireworks.

Now let’s take a look at the field for the 5000-meter run. While it’s more spaced out — UW-Eau Claire’s Josh Thorson owns a near four-second advantage on the second seed — there is no love lost between the entrants.

Thorson must face conference-rival Ian LaMere of UW-Platteville, North Central (Ill.)’s Zach Plank and Tim Vazquez, as well as Central College’s Cole Decker and Williams’ Bijan Mazaheri.

Look for varying tactics to be on display as LaMere will try to string out the field early, while the rest of the bunch hopes for it to be a sit-and-kick affair.

Which Championship Record is Most Likely to Fall?

Many of the standards set at the championship meet are archaic, with 10 of them set before the turn of the century. The oldest record belongs to Fisk’s David Boyd when he soared 7.82 meters (25-8) in 1974.

So which record is under the most pressure this weekend?

Look no further than Peter Geraghty’s pole vault mark of 5.40m (17-8½) set in 2012.

The two men who have the best chance at removing Geraghty’s name from the record book are North Central (Ill.)’s Luke Winder and Mount Union’s Tyler Orewiler. Both have cleared 5.31m (17-5) this season with Winder going a little bit higher for the national lead at 5.51m (18-1).

Competition often pushes athletes to new heights and that’s going to be the case when Orewiler and Winder square off.

Polishing Off Their Dream Seasons

Three women made headlines more than often this season — Ohio Northern’s Emily Richards, Stevens’ Amy Regan and Pomona-Pitzer’s Maya Weigel.

Richards tangoed with the best collegians at every level over 800 meters throughout the season and dazzled. Her personal best of 2:05.24 — set at the Jesse Owens Track & Field Classic — put her second on the DII all-time performers list with the third fastest time in history.

Stevens raced sparingly, but when she did she turned heads. It was at the Penn Relays in April where the junior clocked the ninth fastest time in DIII history at 10000 meters (34:09.44).

Weigel enters NCAAs the national leader at 5000 meters thanks to her 16:20.19 effort at the Occidental Invitational (ninth all-time in DIII history) and second at 1500 meters (4:23.56).

Each of the three women can put a bow on their season with victories this weekend. Richards and Stevens have the clearest paths, while Weigel must contend with Regan and St. Lawrence’s Megan Kellogg at 5000 meters and St. Thomas (Minn.)’s Emily Gapinski in the shorter distance.

Fierce Competition In Horizontal Jumps

The difference between the first and second seed in the women’s long jump and triple jump is almost negligible, especially in the former.

George Fox’s Asia Greene and UW-Platteville’s Amber Williams are tied for the national lead in the long jump at 6.08m (19-11½). Baldwin Wallace’s Melanie Winters sits one centimeter behind them at 6.07m (19-11).

In the triple jump, SUNY Geneseo’s Alexa Wandy holds a one-centimeter advantage over UW-La Crosse’s Bria Halama (12.64m to 12.63m). It should be noted that Halama is the DIII record holder in the event at 12.87m (42-2¾).

Don’t forget about Williams in the triple jump, though. She is ranked third entering NCAAs.

The Women’s Team Champion Will Be…

It’s anybody’s guess as to which team holds the championship trophy above their heads come Saturday afternoon. Don’t believe that? Look at what happened during the indoor meet.

Baldwin Wallace shocked everybody in March when its two-woman show of Kim Gallavan and Melanie Winters posted enough points to send the squad to the top of the podium.

But throughout the outdoor season, it’s been a two-team race for the most part. The top-ranked team according to the USTFCCCA National Team Computer Rankings is Washington (Mo.) with second-ranked UW-La Crosse following close behind.

When you look at the number of entries, the Eagles have a clear-cut advantage with 16 (the most among all women’s teams). Illinois Wesleyan is second with 15, Nebraska Wesleyan has 13 and four teams are tied with 11 each including the Bears and Yellow Jackets.

Should UW-La Crosse come through, it would mark its second consecutive title — but there are many other teams ready to squash the Eagles’ back-to-back dreams.