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January 8, 2010

Men's track and field begins season with most balanced team in years - Women's squad has talent to surprise at the national level

By: Matt Kovatch

Defending hammer throw national champion Marcel Lomnicky will lead a group of men’s throwers that ranks among the best in the nation.

Two short years ago, the Virginia Tech women’s track and field team was beginning the 2008 season looking to repeat as both the ACC indoor and outdoor champions. They successfully did so, but last year, injuries to several key performers derailed their chances at a three-peat.

Meanwhile, the 2009 men’s team quietly had one of its most successful seasons ever, placing second at the indoor championships and third at the outdoor meet. As the 2010 campaign rolls around, it’s that very men’s group that has the highest hopes of reaching conference, and even national, prominence.

“In terms of the balance that we have, this is certainly the best collection on the men’s side that we’ve had across the board,” said Dave Cianelli, who is in his ninth year as the director of Tech’s track and field program. “I’m pretty excited about our prospects at the conference level. We were successful last year, and that was the first year that I felt like we went to the meet with a chance to be able to do something.

“And I think we’ve added to that group and gotten stronger. Nationally, the highest we’ve finished since I’ve been here is 12th, but I believe this group can certainly finish in the top 10 outdoors, and maybe even in the top five if things fall our way.”

As for the women, they still boast an impressive array of athletes, but limited depth suggests that they may have more success nationally than at the conference meet. Because the talent level gets thinned out on the national stage with only the best of the best qualifying, one can take a small, but very elite, group to nationals and place very high. But it’s like comparing apples to oranges because well-rounded depth is needed to succeed at the conference meet. For the women, it’s all going to boil down to injuries.

“If we keep our elite performers healthy, I think we can have an outstanding national team,” Cianelli said. “It depends more on health than anything else.”

The chance for injuries will be great over the course of such a long season, which runs from mid-January to mid-June, but here’s a preseason breakdown of each of the four groups, both men and women, that will try to make the season a successful one:

Men’s Throws

This is probably Tech’s best group, and potentially one of the nation’s best as well. It all starts with Marcel Lomnicky, who exploded onto the scene in his debut last season and won the national championship in the hammer throw. Lomnicky has sophomore eligibility indoors and junior eligibility outdoors, so the possibility is there for multiple titles.

Joining Lomnicky is Matej Muza, a two-time All-American who redshirted last year and is back for his senior season, and Alexander Ziegler, a newcomer from Germany whom Cianelli says is basically at the same level as Lomnicky when he’s throwing his best. All three are elite-level hammer throwers and should only get better because they train together every day and push each other.

Freshman Denis Mahmic from Croatia could help immediately at the conference level, while Igor Mislenovic is back for his senior year as one of the ACC favorites in the discus. Sophomore Matthias Treff is the ACC’s defending javelin champion, but he is coming off of elbow surgery and his status is uncertain.

“Collectively, this is probably the best group of throwers in the country,” Cianelli suggested. “They’ll certainly dominate the conference, especially when we get to the outdoor season with the hammer throw.”

Men’s Pole Vault

Yavgeniy Olhovsky highlights a men’s pole vaulting crew that could easily send four competitors to the national championships.

If there’s any group that can come close to matching the throws, it’s the pole vault crew, which is headed up by four-time All-American Yavgeniy Olhovsky. Now a senior, he will shoot for a national title of his own and will be challenged along the way by his teammates, senior Jared Jodon and juniors Joe Davis and Hunter Hall.

Cianelli believes Hall can vault over the elusive 18-foot mark, while Davis and Jodon can reach the high 17s. Junior Mike Miller should also contribute.

Collectively, I think we have a group of four vaulters that is as good as anyone in the country,” Cianelli said. “They can really dominate the conference, but I could see all four competing at the national championships.”

Men’s Sprints/Hurdles/Jumps

This was a group that was almost non-existent just a couple of years ago, but one that really developed last year and should take an even bigger step forward under the direction of new coach Charles Foster, a veteran with a top-flight résumé who spent the past 10 years at Clemson.

“I’m very confident that Coach Foster can get them to the level where they can help us at not just the conference level, but also at the national level,” Cianelli said. “It’s still a young group, but it’s made a lot of strides over the past couple of years.”

One of the main cogs in this group will be sophomore Keith Ricks, who made the U.S. Junior team last year in the 200-meter dash. He was an ACC indoor finalist last year in the 200, as well as both the 100 and 200 during the outdoor season, and Cianelli thinks Ricks has the ability to surprise at the national level this year.

The Hokies will also feature two talented hurdlers in sophomore Keare Smith and junior Ebenezer Amegashie. Smith was an All-ACC performer last year in the 110-meter hurdles and should vie for the top spot in the conference, while Amegashie was a finalist in both the 110- and 400-meter events.

For the jumps, sophomore Hasheem Halim placed third last year as a freshman in the ACC indoor triple jump. He’ll again be one of the better triple jumpers in the conference, and he may be joined by football running back David Wilson, who had expressed interest in competing after football season ended. Wilson won the Nike Indoor Nationals in high school.

New faces expected to contribute include a pair of freshmen sprinters who teamed together at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va., – William Comfort and Jonathan McCants. The Hokies will also have their first high jumper in quite some time in Ronnie Black, a sophomore who transferred from VCU.

Men’s Distance

Much like the sprints/hurdles/jumps crew, the distance runners are still fairly young, but they have proven to be very strong at the conference level. Will Mulherin was the ACC freshman of the year last season after winning the conference title in the 5,000-meter run at the outdoor meet, while Ryan Witt won the 800-meter run at both the indoor and outdoor championships as a sophomore.

Though two-time ACC champion Billy Berlin has graduated, juniors Nick McLaughlin and Eddie Judge, as well as sophomores Michael Hammond and Eric Hoepker, should do their part to fill his shoes in the middle distance events.

For long distance races, senior Devin Cornwall comes off of an outstanding cross country season to join Mulherin as of the better 5,000- and 10,000-meter runners in the ACC.

Women’s Sprints/Hurdles/Jumps

The health of former Olympian Queen Harrison (right) is imperative to the women’s team, and she pairs with Kristi Castlin (left) to form one of the country’s top hurdling duos.

The success of the women’s team as a whole may very well ride on the sprinters’ shoulders. Multiple-time All-American seniors Queen Harrison, Kristi Castlin and Asia Washington (though Washington may redshirt the indoor season) are back for their final years, and if they can avoid the injury bug, they should go out with a bang.

“This group is going to be the catalyst for our success,” Cianelli said. “They have really led the way on the women’s side for the past three years, and they’re going to have to provide a lot of leadership for our younger athletes if that is going to continue.”

Castlin (a five-time All-American) and Harrison (a three-time All-American and former Olympian) have demolished Tech’s record books in the hurdle events during their careers, and Cianelli feels they are two of the top, if not the top, hurdlers in the country. Harrison dealt with hamstring troubles last year, but if she can maintain her health, there’s no telling what she’ll be able to accomplish. Cianelli thinks Castlin still has the ability to jump to the next level, and Washington earned All-America honors in the 400-meter hurdles last year while still getting accustomed to the event, which she was still learning.

“We don’t have a lot of depth on the women’s side, but we have a lot of quality,” Cianelli said. “I think we have enough that can allow us to do very well at the national meet. But we can’t afford to lose anybody to injuries.”

Attempting to take the torch from Harrison, Castlin and Washington will be sophomores Aunye Boone and Ogechi Nwaneri, as well as freshmen Yvonne Amegashie (Ebenezer’s younger sister) and Funmi Alabi. All four are very talented, but they are going to have to contribute right away if the program is going to be successful.

Women’s Pole Vault

This group has typically been a strength for the women’s squad, and thanks to an elite competitor in junior Kelly Phillips, it should be again. Phillips was the ACC indoor champion as a freshman, but wrist problems prevented her from reaching her potential last year. She had surgery to correct the problem and is now 100 percent healthy and ready to get back to the national championships.

“Kelly is primed to be a national-level competitor because she’s proven in the past that she can do it,” Cianelli said. “And I think we’ll have others who can score at the ACC meet.”

Among the others joining Phillips will be senior Elise Birnbaum, junior Caitlin Thornley and a pair of freshmen in Emma DeJarnette and Leigh Allin.

Women’s Throws

This looks to be a one-woman crew this year after the departure of the graduated Brittany Pryor, and that woman will be junior Dorotea Habazin. Pryor dominated in three seasons at Tech, claiming All-America honors six times combined in the shot put and hammer throw. Those are some big shoes to fill, but luckily for Tech, Habazin had a breakout campaign last year and will look to build upon it.

“We don’t have anybody similar to Brittany right now because she was rare in being so versatile,” Cianelli said. “But we do have the ACC’s top hammer thrower returning in Dorotea. She did a nice job competing at the championship meets. I think she’s ready to take another jump and will be one of the favorites again.”

Habazin was the ACC’s hammer throw champion last year before placing fourth at the NCAA championships to earn the first All-America honor of her career.

Women’s Distance

With the depth so thin in the women’s three other areas, Cianelli is really hoping to get some return from a young, but promising, middle distance group.

The core of this group looks to be sophomore Sammy Dow and freshmen Natalie Woodford, Frances Dowd and Kelly Kavanaugh. All four will aim to fill the middle distance void that Tech has suffered from in recent years.

“Even though that’s a very young group, I think there is enough talent there for them to step in and help us at the conference level,” Cianelli said. “A lot of our distance runners are sort of in that 800-meter/mile area. There are a few girls who didn’t necessarily do a lot in cross country, but once we get to the track, I think we’ll see them step in there and compete.”

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