15 NCAA Div. III individual championships
PELLA—The Central College men’s track and field team has a target on its back after winning its third Iowa Conference indoor championship in four years and claiming two individual NCAA championships.
Junior multi-eventer Eric Larson won both NCAA titles—the indoor heptathlon and outdoor decathlon—and led the Dutch to a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Division III 2013 Indoor Track & Field Championships and 22nd-place tie at the national outdoor meet.
Central returns 30 letterwinners and three 2013 NCAA qualifiers in Larson and distance runners junior Eli Horton and sophomore Cole Decker. Horton placed fourth in the indoor one mile run and Decker was 16th in the outdoor 10,000-meter run. The distance duo led Central’s men’s cross country team to a sixth-place national finish, with Horton finishing fourth individually and receiving All-America distinction.
“I haven’t been as excited about a track team as I am about this year’s team,” sixth-year head coach Joe Dunham said. “I’m most excited about this team’s work ethic and attitude. We had great participation and attendance in the fall; probably the best since I’ve been here. They put in a lot of hard work. I’m excited to see all the great things this team is going to do.”
In addition to the trio of last year’s NCAA qualifiers, senior sprinter Mitch Wagoner is a returning All-American as a member of the Dutch 4x100-meter relay team that finished fifth at the national outdoor meet in both 2011 and 2012.
While Central found success on the indoor track, its string of four consecutive outdoor titles ended. The Dutch and Wartburg finished one-two at both conference championships last season. Central eked out a two-point win indoors, but the Knights captured the outdoor crown by 33.5 points. It was the first time since 2008 a team other than the Dutch hoisted the outdoor trophy.
“It absolutely is hard to stay on top in this conference,” Dunham said. “Other teams are motivated and want to take us down. We feel it, but we embrace the challenge. We understand what it means to win a conference title and that’s our goal. But it’s not going to be easy.”
Dunham believes his team will surprise some people, but the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association is well aware of the Dutch. Central opened the season ranked No. 16 in its Division III indoor national poll.
The race to the finish begins Friday and Saturday at the Dutch Athletics Classic.
In addition to Wagoner, Central returns a handful of veterans in the sprinting events. Junior co-captain Mason Zimmerman, one of three Zimmerman triplets competing for the Dutch (along with sisters McKenna and Meredith on the women’s squad), was a top performer in the 200-meter dash and an integral part of multiple relay teams. Sophomore Austin Roberts made his name in the 400-meter dash and as a member of the 4x400-meter relay team, as did sophomore Spencer Hammack.
“We have experience in the sprints,” Dunham said. “Mitch has been through multiple coaching changes, but he’s continued to improve. He’s definitely a leader. Mason is on the verge of doing some special things. Austin had a great end to his season and Spencer will contribute, as well. It’s a good group that will score for us.
“Those four men along with the rest of our sprinters have great work ethic and determination to accomplish their goals and I believe they will.”
Wagoner was the lead leg for the indoor 4x200-meter relay team that finished third at the conference meet, while Roberts led the 4x400-meter relay team in a runner-up performance.
Described by Dunham as the events that have decided recent conference meets, jumps are an area of focus for the Dutch. Central will rely heavily on its veterans to perform well and show its younger jumpers the ropes. Two-time national champion Larson placed second in the high jump and the long jump at both the conference indoor and outdoor meets. Junior Conner Freeman competed alongside Larson in the high jump, heptathlon and decathlon and ran sprints as well, as did sophomore Jaemin Powell.
Dunham also noted the potential for junior Landon Coker and freshmen Austin Witt of Washington and Logan Mulford of Mount Pleasant to impact these events. Senior Michael Mackin and junior Brian Zahnle have had stellar preseasons and will make a major impact for the squad as well.
“Eric is a big-time performer and a guy we will look to for leadership,” said Dunham. “Connor and Jaemin will also contribute to jumps as multi-event competitors. We’re going to see big things from Landon Coker in the long jump, and Austin and Logan will do some special things this year, too.”
All Dutch jumpers will compete in sprints and multi-events as well.
Hurdles may be Central’s strongest area. The Dutch return two conference champions in Larson in the indoor 60-meter hurdles and sophomore Dan Roemerman in the outdoor 110-meter hurdles. Grouped with junior Jake Forgie, who is back from injury, and freshman Logan Weers of Osceola, Central may clear these hurdles with ease.
“Eric Larson is a special talent, as is Dan Roemerman,” Dunham said. “They will be competing against each other for the indoor and outdoor titles. Dan has improved immensely this offseason, particularly in his strength training. Jake is finally healthy and may surprise some people, while Logan is adjusting to the collegiate hurdle height, but boasts incredible speed.
“Hurdlers need to be sprinters first and we definitely have the speed to shine in this area.”
Larson and Roemerman finished 1-2 individually in the 60-meter hurdles at last year’s conference indoor meet, but may have to fend off their own teammates this year.
This past fall the Central men’s cross country team won its second consecutive Iowa Conference crown, finished runner-up at the NCAA Central Region meet and sixth at the NCAA Championships. Senior co-captain Austin O’Brien was named league cross country MVP after edging out teammates Horton and Decker for the individual title. Horton responded by claiming the individual crown at the regional meet and finishing a program-best fourth at the national meet.
Both Horton and O’Brien received all-America distinction.
That bodes well for Central’s track and field distance events.
Perhaps the greatest crossover between the two sports this year occurs at the middle distance events, as senior Nick Barnes, sophomore Jordan Burns, Horton, junior LJ Lipscomb, senior Austin O’Brien and junior Jamie Vander Veer all compete at this distance. Lipscomb is a two-time conference champion, standing atop the podium for the 2012 indoor 800-meter run and the 4x800-meter relay.
Dunham also sees senior Clayton Fritz, junior Brandon Young and sophomore Alex Bleadorn as potential scorers in these events.
While it is atypical for cross country athletes to compete run the middle distances compared to the longer distances, Dunham sees it as a distinct advantage for the Dutch.
“We’re blessed with a lot of depth at these events,” said Dunham. “We are strong at these distances. Jamie Vander Veer ran cross country, but he lives on the track and he’ll be a leader for this group. LJ Lipscomb is a conference champion and is finally healthy. He’s going to do great things this year. Alex Bleadorn has been a sprinter his entire life, but we’ve added some longer distances to his repertoire.
“It’ll be fun to see what this group can do.”
Also benefiting from the success on the cross country course are the Dutch distance events. Horton, O’Brien and Decker lead a group chalk full of all-conference and all-region runners. Senior Cody Doughan, junior Drew Jackson and freshman Isaac Steffensmeier of St. Paul will join their teammates on the track, as well.
“There’s a culture with our distance program that every coach dreams of,” Dunham said. “It’s a bunch of guys committed to getting better. Each and every one of these guys will find a way to contribute. They’ll run almost every distance this year. We have a lot of talent in these events.”
Horton ran away with the one mile run at the league indoor meet and the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter runs at the conference outdoor meet. Jackson was a member of the indoor champion distance medley relay team and the outdoor champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He clocked a 1 minute 52 second split in his leg of the 4x800-meter relay, which set a record at last year’s outdoor championships.
“Drew is one of our most versatile runners,” said Dunham.
Although the Dutch graduated NCAA outdoor qualifier Josh Fleming in the discus throw, Dunham believes the throws will be key to the team’s success. Similar to the jumps, the roster sports multiple veterans who will be tasked with scoring and teaching the younger throwers the ins and outs.
Senior co-captain Steven Messerschmidt is Central’s most accomplished returning thrower with a quad of top-5 finishes in the shot put and weight throw at last year’s conference meets. Junior Gunnar Johnson is also in the mix and was the top Dutch finisher in the javelin throw at the league outdoor meet.
“Steven and Gunnar will make some noise at the conference meet and push for a national qualification,” said Dunham. “Steven is strong, works hard and has been a staple for us since his freshman year. Gunnar has the opportunity to do some great things, as well. But this is definitely a competitive set of events and we need to step up.
“A number of guys can contribute to what we’re trying to do and we have a stable of fresh faces. It’s a large group of large men, so I am excited to see what they can do.”
As previously mentioned, Larson, Freeman and Powell will be the top competitors in the multi-events. Their talent and hard work will leak into other individual events as well. Senior Aaron Fuller is slated to return for the outdoor season decathlon, which will provide additional depth for an already deep roster.
“We take pride in our multi-event program,” Dunham said. “They devote a lot of time to their craft and it’s great to see as a coach. I’m excited to see what they’ll do next.”
Larson’s outdoor decathlon title marked the third consecutive year a Dutch athlete has captured the crown and the fifth since 2001. Ethan Miller was a two-time winner in 2011 and 2012, as was Peter Wagner in 2001 and 2003.
Dunham heads up an eight-person coaching staff with associate head coach Jim Fuller. Fuller is in his second year on staff after 24 seasons as head coach at NCAA Division III Northern State (S.D.). The remaining seven assistant coaches have a combined 34 years coaching experience at Central and more than 60 years total.
“I’m really blessed to have this coaching staff,” said Dunham. “Coaching at Central is a little piece of heaven. Our coaches are so smart and experienced; I learn from them every day. I’m excited to have them all on board. It’ll be great to see how they help shape this team.”
Brenda Fuller is in her second year as the throws coach at Central, while Tyler Schiferl is in his fifth coaching the pole vault. Scott Tjeerdsma and Allan Walz are each in their sixth season coaching hurdles and throws, respectively. Stephen Fyfe is in his 14th year at Central and currently works with the women’s distance group as well as the women’s cross country team. Jonathan Graupmann is in his first year coaching sprints and jumps.
Serving as both the men’s and women’s cross country head coach and men’s and women’s track and field head coach has its challenges, but like a good runner, Dunham takes it all in stride.
“There’s a lot more moving parts in track,” Dunham said. “I lean on the rest of the coaching staff and give them freedom to coach. Our goal is to make sure every student-athlete is cared for and is positioned for success. And it gets done.
“I love track and couldn’t be more excited for the season.”
The Dutch compete on a Mondotrack six-lane, 200-meter indoor track, installed in early 2009 in H.S. Kuyper Fieldhouse. The same Mondotrack was the surface of choice for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing as well as the 2012 Olympic Games in London and is designed to provide optimal traction and greater contact area. Central’s eight-lane, 400-meter BSS 1000 polyurethane track was installed in 2007 in Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium. It incorporates wider turns, dual runways and a two-way pole vault runway.
“Facilities at Central are second to none,” said Dunham. “The Mondo surface is considered the gold standard in track. It’s a great indoor facility that enables us to compete at a championship level. It’s a testament to president (Mark) Putnam and the entire administration. It shows commitment to our program.”
In addition, Central recently added a new Daktronics video display scoreboard on the north end of Schipper Stadium. Funded by PPI (Precision Pulley & Idler, Inc.) of Pella, it is among the largest video displays in Division III.
“I’m very excited about the scoreboard addition to the outdoor stadium,” Dunham said. “It’s a great thing for the entire department and provides fans with an even better experience.
“This year is going to be a lot of fun.”
Central runs a competitive schedule year in and year out and this year is no different. While the dates mirror the 2013 schedule, the Dutch added a couple tune-up events, as well as some different locations and facilities. A handful of Central athletes will also journey to Medford, Mass., for the Tufts Cupid Challenge in mid-February.
“I always schedule with the entire coaching staff,” said Dunham. “I’m excited about the chance to see new venues and travel to Massachusetts. We’re running in some great facilities without having to travel much, which is helpful when the meets are so lengthy. We’re excited and ready to get rolling.”
In addition to the new venues, Central will run at Luther for the first time in the Dunham era. The Norse are set to host both the indoor and outdoor conference championships at Decorah.
“It will be a new experience,” Dunham said. “Competing at Luther will be an opportunity for us to run at a different facility. We’re excited to compete. Our focus is winning the conference championship, regardless of where it’s held, and advancing to the national meet.
“That’s our goal again this year.”
The indoor regular season opens Friday and Saturday at Pella and concludes at the Iowa Conference Championships Feb. 28-March 1 at Decorah. The NCAA Division III Championships are scheduled for March 14-15 at Lincoln, Neb.
The outdoor season kicks off with the Washington University in St. Louis Invitational March 28-29 and, like the indoor season, culminates at the league meet May 8-10 at Decorah. The national meet is set for May 22-24 at Delaware, Ohio.