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January 9, 2009

On your marks... get set... go!

By: Matt Kovatch

Dave Cianelli begins his eighth year at the helm of the track and field program at Virginia Tech, having acheived unprecedented success since arriving in 2001.

With a new track season underway, the men’s team aims to become more balanced and the women’s team looks to maintain its excellence

It was just back in August when Virginia Tech’s Queen Harrison was among track and field royalty, competing in the 400-meter hurdles for Team USA at the 2008 Olympic Games. It’s the pinnacle of what any track and field athlete would ever hope to accomplish, and Harrison did it after a mere two years as a collegian.

Well, fast forward five months and it’s back to reality for Harrison and the Tech squad, as the 2009 indoor season got underway in early January with the Virginia Tech Invitational at Rector Field House. The Hokies’ women’s team has won the past four Atlantic Coast Conference championships (both indoor and outdoor in 2007 and 2008), as well as back-to-back NCAA East Region titles, and the quest to keep the string alive is about to begin.

The man in charge of leading that quest, Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Dave Cianelli, recently sat down to share his thoughts on the state of the program – both the ultra-successful women and the ever-improving men. Here’s what he had to say:

IHS: The sprint crew was one of the most important parts to the success of last year’s women’s team, and you must replace three departed seniors in Sherlenia Green, Patrice Potts and Britni Spruill. Who is going to be able to do that?

DC: We’re counting on the freshmen in that group – Leslie Aririguzo, Aunye Boone and Ogechi Nwaneri – to come in and step up to the plate. It’s always tough any time you lose a seasoned veteran to graduation and you’re hoping a freshman can fill the gap because it’s unusual for a freshman to come in and be at that type of level; there’s a pretty big disparity in the maturity level.

But that puts a little more emphasis on the upperclassmen to provide the leadership for those newcomers. If [the freshmen] are going to have a chance to truly help us at the conference level, the responsibility really lies with the upperclassmen to make sure that the youngsters are doing the proper things and have the right outlook and mentality. A coach can certainly have an influence, but when you have a group of upperclassmen that provides that direction, I think it’s a lot stronger coming from them. I think it really sinks in when they hear it from their teammates.

IHS: Is it a good thing that two of those upperclassmen are Queen Harrison and Kristi Castlin, a pair of women who have accomplished a career’s worth of things in just two years?

DC: Any time you have an athlete that’s reached high levels, it gives them credibility, but it’s not an automatic thing. Just because an athlete has reached high levels of success, it doesn’t mean that they have good leadership skills. Sometimes, your strongest leader is not necessarily your top performer. So to me, as long as the message is coming from someone and it is strong, then I’m not concerned. Hopefully, it will be coming from all of that upper class, but it has to be coming from someone who has a strong voice so the young ones will actually listen.

I think that group of upperclassmen has sort of shared that responsibility. They’ve stepped in and taken a leadership role with the newcomers, and that’s good because it doesn’t just fall on one individual where they feel like they have to be the person all the time. I think it can be spread throughout that group of Queen, Kristi, Asia Washington and Shakirra Pinnock.

The four-time ACC champion women’s team features many stars, one of whom is fourtime All-American Brittany Pryor, who has also captured five individual ACC titles.

IHS: So do you think the freshmen can pick up the slack if given the right direction?

DC: Even though it’s a very talented group, it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen. Even though they’ve had a lot of success at the high school level, moving to this level for the first time can be pretty rough. Queen and Kristi and Asia just so happened to step in and contribute a great deal in their first years, but that doesn’t guarantee that this group is going to be able to do that. I believe the talent is there with them, but it’s a matter of whether they make the mental adjustments once they start competing.

IHS: Emmanuel Daux has replaced Lawrence Johnson (who left to head up Clemson’s program) as the sprints, hurdles and jumps coach, but don’t you also have three former athletes who have stayed with the program to help out?

DC: Yes. Sherlenia Green, Kristen Callan (throws) and Erin Mahony (pole vault) are all still here as volunteer assistant coaches. They will continue to train for their own purposes, but any time you have someone who’s been through your program and has had success, as all of three of them have, that certainly can help with stabilizing some of the newcomers. I think it adds stability and maturity to the group. I like having those kinds of people around. They are much closer to what some of these freshmen are going through right now than we are as coaches. I think they can sometimes relate a little bit better to some of the issues that the newcomers face.

IHS: Do you think the women have a good chance at repeating as ACC champs? How do you feel this year as opposed to last year when you were trying to repeat for the first time?

DC: That’s a funny question because I look at it a little differently when people talk about repeating or defending a string of championships in a row. I look at it as each year standing alone by itself individually – each year has its own unique challenges. We have a lot of returnees who experienced what we accomplished last year, but this year is a new year with different things to face as a team. I allow the program to enjoy the success we’ve had, but then there’s a point where you have to put it out of your mind and look forward. I’ve never used the word ‘defend.’ This group isn’t defending anything; that’s done and that trophy is ours. I look at it as starting over completely from scratch and having to climb a completely different mountain. I don’t allow them to look back. If you try to defend a title, I think it adds an unnecessary dimension to what the team is trying to do.

I think Mack Brown (head football coach at Texas) did a great thing this year. When Texas beat Oklahoma at the beginning of October and had that four-week stretch against top-10 teams, in order to guard against a letdown the following week, he got the team together and they physically buried the game ball from that win in the ground to ensure that they would put that game out of their minds and focus on the next game. They eventually lost a few games later, but I think that was really brilliant on his part. I like to take that same approach. I don’t like to talk about last year. We can only change what we’re doing today to get better.

IHS: What would you say will be the biggest challenge facing such a talented women’s team?

DC: The biggest challenge for this group and this coaching staff is to continue to have the hunger to want to get better. It’s a hard thing to do because I think it’s human nature to relax. No matter what endeavor you’re in, once you’ve reached or maintained a certain level of success, it’s very easy to sit back and relax and not have the same intensity that you had when you started. So everything that I do when I talk to this group is geared toward maintaining the same mindset that we had before any of this happened.

IHS: We know who all of your star athletes are, but who might step up and be the surprise contributor?

DC: The one name that pops to the top of my mind is Abigail Schaffer, a freshman pole vaulter from Pennsylvania. She has actually already competed in a meet (she won first place at the Liberty Kickoff on December 4). I think she’s got all of the components, physically and mentally, and she’s looked tremendous in training. She was one of the better vaulters in high school, so she might not necessarily be considered a surprise, but I think she can be a huge contributor. And others whom I think will carry more of a load are going to be Asia and Shakirra from the sprint crew, and Erika Schroeder in the throws. The core of the distance crew is seniors, but there are a couple of freshmen who I think can step in and help us in Samantha Dow and Lauren Pinkston.

IHS: How about on the men’s side? Who might carry a bigger load for them, or who might be a rookie to watch out for?

DC: I think [junior thrower] Igor Misljenovic will continue to move up. He was much more of a player in the conference last year by getting second in the discus, and I think he’ll be at a higher level this year and will be a big help to us. Matthias Treff is a freshman who will certainly help us quite a bit in the javelin during the outdoor season, and Keith Ricks is a rookie who will contribute in the sprints.

In the distance area, the two guys who had really good freshman years were Eddie Judge and Ryan Witt (who finished fourth and fifth in the 1,500 meters at USA junior nationals in June). They showed me some good things as freshmen, and they can move up to the next level and be among the top in the conference. Also, Devin Cornwall scored for us last year and he had a great cross country season. Typically, that carries over to the track, so he’ll be a player in the longer distances. We need the distance crew to become a larger factor for us at the conference level, and they have the right mix to do so.

Pole vaulter Yavgeniy Olhovsky burst onto the scene for the Tech men’s team in 2008, earning All-America honors during both the indoor and outdoor seasons.

IHS: Of the four main groups (sprints, throws, distance, pole vault) for the men, which do you feel most comfortable with and which need some more work?

DC: I’d have to say that I’m most confident in the pole vault and the throws. Those two groups are a little bit more mature and they’ve been with the program. Those two groups will be very consistent. The distance group had a strong fall in cross country, and I think they’ll be able to make a much larger contribution this year at the conference level, and that’s been our goal. The sprint crew is pretty much all freshmen with the exception of Ebenezer Amegashie. They’re still in more of a developmental stage, but with someone like Keith Ricks or Keare Smith, who knows? You don’t put limits on freshmen. They could come in and be players, but you don’t know for sure.

IHS: You mentioned the freshmen sprinters, and that’s a group that hasn’t had a whole lot to offer in recent years for the men, correct?

DC: No, we haven’t, so hopefully we’re going to be able to develop that area over the next couple of years. There are a couple of very talented guys there, but again, well see how those freshmen perform. The one who kind of sticks out in my mind is Ricks. I think he’s got the maturity and the talent to so something as a freshman, so I’m pretty excited to see him compete. While we’re talking about freshmen, I should also re-mention Matthias Treff, the javelin thrower. He’s coming in at a pretty high level and he’s going be able to help us immediately in the conference and hopefully at the national level.

IHS: So what is your overall impression of the men’s team?

DC: It’s a pretty young team. We’ve only got three seniors and they are all distance runners: Billy Berlin, Phil Padilla and James Scheiner. We have a little bit more balance on the men’s side than in years past and that will enable us to be a better conference team. And we also have enough high quality that we can still possibly attain a top-20 finish at the national meet. They don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Our goal is to be more balanced so we can score some points from all areas. The teams that are most successful at the conference level typically have more balance. So overall, I like where the men’s team is, because our goal of becoming a better conference team is starting to materialize. But it’s not an overnight thing – it takes a while to develop that talent.

IHS: Finally, you guys have four home meets this indoor season before serving as hosts of the ACC Indoor Championships. How exciting is that and how much of an advantage will that be?

DC: I’d like to think it’s an advantage to be in our own facility because I think the team takes pride in the way it competes at home, so that’s an advantage over going somewhere else. Aside from that, I think that our facility is the best facility for the athletes in terms of performance, so I like that factor. If someone is ready to run fast, jump high or throw far, I think our facility is a good place to do it.

WOMEN Key losses:
Kristen Callan, All-American thrower
Sherlenia Green and Britni Spruill, All-American sprinters
Erin Mahony, ACC champion pole vaulter
Patrice Potts, ACC champion sprinter
Ciera Ayangbile, All-ACC thrower
Key returnees:
Queen Harrison, All-American hurdler and Olympian
Kristi Castlin, All-American hurdler
Brittany Pryor, All-American thrower
Tasmin Fanning and Jessica Fanning, All-American runners
Asia Washington, All-American sprinter
Kelly Phillips, All-American pole vaulter
Natalie Sherbak, ACC champion runner
Dorotea Habazin, ACC champion thrower
Ashley Early, ACC champion pole vaulter
Shakirra Pinnock, ACC champion sprinter
MEN Key losses:
Justin Clickett, All-American thrower
Key returnees:
Yavgeniy Olhovsky, All-American pole vaulter
Matej Muza, All-American thrower
Igor Misljenovic, All-ACC thrower
Jared Jodon, All-ACC pole vaulter
Billy Berlin, Devin Cornwall and Paul LaPenna, All-ACC runners