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January 11, 2011

Track and field teams in good shape to continue recent successes

By: Marc Mullen

Alexander Ziegler finished third at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Championships in the weight throw and will be a contender again this season.

The last time the Virginia Tech men’s and women’s outdoor track and field teams competed together, they had just finished a season in which both attained their highest finish at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., while departing senior Queen Harrison became the first female ever to capture both the 100-meter and 400-meter hurdles crowns in the same national meet.

Fast forward seven months and gone on the women’s side from last year’s outdoor contingent are Harrison, Kristi Castlin and Asia Washington (Washington returns for the indoor season) – a group that earned 15 All-America honors, 15 ACC individual titles and led Tech to four ACC team titles.

Meanwhile, on the men’s side, the Hokies return most of their national team, which finished a school-best 10th in the country. In terms of the ACC team that placed a school-best second, all but two return, and that does not include a major thrower coming back from injury. This all sets up what the coaching staff feels is the team’s best chance at its first ACC men’s title.

“I really feel good about our chances at the conference level and then going into the national level and being able to maintain a top-10 finish,” Tech director of track and field and cross country Dave Cianelli said. “That’s sort of our goal, and this has been stated within our staff, and I think our student-athletes have bought into this. They want to win an ACC team title and finish in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships.

Two-time All-American Asia Washington returns for a final season of indoor competition and will be looked upon to provide leadership to a freshman-laden women’s track and field team.

“This should be the best team we’ve ever had as long as everyone stays healthy. The key players are there, this team has the … potential is sort of a funny word. You look at what we’ve got on paper and they have the opportunity to be a much better team than we had last year and we had a very good team last year.”

The women will field a very young, but deep, team, as they welcome Cianelli’s largest freshman class, with 23 newcomers joining the program. Although he lost that successful class that finished a school-best fifth at the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Cianelli believes that this class could rival what the 2006 class accomplished, and along with the upperclassmen, this team has the quality and depth to place in the top three at the conference level and maintain a top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships.

“I think it’s difficult to replace a Queen Harrison or a Kristi Castlin because they came in and were extremely successful from their first year,” Cianelli said. “But as in all sports, there’s a time when they’re going to be done, graduated, and moving on. So you have to prepare yourself.”

A very strong, deep distance group returns for Tech, led by 5,000-meter All-American Will Mulherin, who set the school record in the event at the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships.

With Harrison sticking around as a volunteer assistant, she can help the Hokies’ newest crop succeed as she did. What follows is a breakdown of the main areas of both track programs, starting with Harrison’s replacements.


“I think we’ve got an outstanding young group of sprinters and hurdlers who have tremendous potential,” Cianelli said. “We’ll see how they perform as freshmen. I think they’re certainly one of the best groups that we’ve had come in from a talent aspect, but until they’re here and they are actually performing at this level, it’s kind of hard to rate.”

That young class includes freshmen Kristen Brown, Ebony Scott and Zakiya Tyson. Brown was one of the top hurdlers in the nation last year as a senior in Maryland. Scott and Tyson are sprinters out of North Carolina

They will join a trio of current All-ACC performers in the sprints in juniors Aunye Boone and Ogechi Nwaneri, and Funmi Alabi, and two-time All-American Washington, who is currently working on her graduate degree and has an indoor season remaining.

“Asia’s been to the national championships in the 400,” Cianelli said. “I think she’s really the leader of this group. She has the most experience and is a natural leader.

“So collectively, I think this is a very solid group and we will see how they develop. Coach [Charles] Foster has done an outstanding job, and I think he’ll do the same with this group. And they’ll be very well represented at the ACC level.”


Again, another of the greener areas of the team, but it is also one of the deepest. Five of the seven top runners from a group that finished fifth at the 2010 NCAA Regional Cross Country Championship were first-year athletes. Mix that in with the upperclassmen, and Tech should have a strong showing in the ACC Championships.

“The ACC is a tough, tough conference when it comes to, well, any event area, but especially the distance area,” Cianelli said. “We’re going to find out pretty quick how good we are.”

A couple top returners include redshirt sophomore Sammy Dow, who finished fourth last year in the ACC in the steeplechase in only her first year competing in the event, and senior Jess Trapeni, who will run the longer 5,000- or 10,000-meter events.

Among the freshmen, two pairs of high school teammates who have stayed together to become Hokies highlight the newcomers. They include West Springfield [Va.] High graduates Paige Kvartunas, who was an all-region performer in cross country, and Alex Watt, who will run middle distance events, while Deep Run graduates Courtney Dobbs and Madalyn Nuckols are slated for the longer distances. Lastly, Taylor Crosson, a 5,000-meter runner, completes the core of the freshman distance class.


A pair of seniors solidifies this event for the Hokies. Competing for one last season will be Kelly Phillips, a 2008 All-American and ACC champion who looks to return to her pre-injury status. Despite a wrist injury that slowed her down in 2009, she was still able to finish second at the ACC Championships. Senior Caitlin Thornley has also been a five-time scorer at the ACC Championships.

“The pole vault has been a very strong event for us over the years,” Cianelli said. “Coach Bob Phillips, who was an All-American here in 1980, has been our pole vault coach on a volunteer basis now basically for the past 28 years. He’s developed one of the consistently best pole vault programs in the nation.”

Sophomores Emma DeJarnette and Leigh Allin, and freshmen Lizzy Powell and Brown join the group. DeJarnette scored last year at the ACC Indoor Championships, while the other three come into their first year of competing for the Hokies from different paths.


Contrary to the other three event areas on the women’s side, the throwers are not a deep bunch. They are more quality than quantity, and two should be competing at the national meets this season.

Senior Dorotea Habazin returns for one more season. She looks to add to her list of accomplishments that include a 2010 NCAA runner-up finish in the hammer throw and an ACC championship in the weight throw.

Then newcomer Samira Burkhardt comes into Blacksburg with a personal record of 56 feet, 0.25 inches, in the shot put and is expected to be one of the top shot putters in the nation this year. If she threw her personal record at last year’s NCAA Championships, she would have finished third.

“That’s a very strong event nationally right now. Obviously, there’s no ‘gimmes,’” Cianelli said. “Coach [Greg] Jack does a wonderful job in developing his athletes, and I believe she’s going to be right there nationally starting this year.”


A number of All-ACC performers and NCAA regional qualifiers return in this area for Tech, making this group much stronger than last year, and that should make a big difference at the conference meet.

In the sprints, the Hokies return All-ACC performer Keith Ricks, who is a short sprinter (100 and 200) and was a national meet performer indoors in the 60 meters. Also, hurdlers Ebenezer Amegashie and Keare Smith, who were both ACC finalists in the hurdles and run on the relay teams, return.

In the jumps, junior Hasheem Halim, who holds the school indoor triple jump record at 52 feet, 8.5 inches, returns along with football standout sophomore David Wilson, who scored at the ACC meets, both indoor and outdoor, in the triple jump and was an NCAA regional qualifier.

“This is the one area that we’ve made the greatest improvement and gains over the past two years,” Cianelli said. “Those are our primary returnees. Then, with the new people, we have a couple of really good high jumpers that open up another new area for us.

“And so now, there is an area where we haven’t had people in the past and now we have a couple of solid jumpers that will be able to step in there and be very solid at the ACC level.”

Both transfers, junior Ronnie Black is from VCU and has a PR of 6 feet, 10.5 inches, and could also do some hurdling, and sophomore Rene Stauss is from Germany and has a PR of 7 feet, 1.25 inches.

Two other newcomers include Oklahoma transfer Jeff Artis-Gray and Darrell Wesh, both from the state of Virginia. Originally from Chesapeake, Artis-Gray enters as a sophomore and is a very versatile athlete, who will hurdle, long and triple jump and be used on relays.

Wesh, a freshman out of Virginia Beach, was the national high school 60-meter indoor champion and was a Virginia state champion in the 300 meters as well.


Junior Will Mulherin, an All-American in last year’s 5,000-meter event at the NCAA outdoor championships, highlights a very solid distance group. He is a two-time ACC champion and holds the school record in the 5K at 13:50.79, setting it at the 2010 NCAA Championships.

Classmate Michael Hammond was ACC indoor mile champion and finished second in the 1,500 meters during the outdoor season. He was very close to setting the school record in both events. Another 1,500-meter guy is junior Chris Walizer, an ACC finalist last year.

In the 800, two-time ACC champion Ryan Witt, a senior, returns along with indoor and outdoor ACC scorer Nick McLaughlin. Both have flirted with sub-1:50 times.

Sophomore Jared Berman made the USA Junior Team and was a finalist at the IAAF World Junior Championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He posted a PR of 8:55.33, which is just nine seconds off the school record set in 1978.

“I’m very excited about his future,” Cianelli said. “In his first year in the event, and making it all the way to the finals of the World Junior Championships, that’s an outstanding year for him. He’s got a great future ahead of him and he’s only a sophomore this year.”


This might be the best team in the country, as four of the student-athletes sport personal bests of more than 17 feet, 5 inches, including the school’s record holder in senior Yavgeniy Olhovsky. Olhovsky, a six-time All-American who returns for his final year, only has indoor eligibility remaining. He has twice been an NCAA runner-up and has a PR of 18 feet, 2.5 inches.

The other 17-footers include junior Hunter Hall, a two-time All-American and the 2010 ACC indoor champion with a PR of 17 feet, 9.5 inches; senior Jared Jodon, who was a 2010 outdoor All-American with a PR of 17 feet, 8.5 inches (and has only outdoor eligibility); and newcomer Stephan Munz, a sophomore transfer from Germany, who comes in with a PR of 17 feet, 5.5 inches.


Last, but certainly not least, is the strongest area on the men’s side, as two All-Americans return in the hammer throw. Junior Marcel Lomnicky, the 2009 NCAA champion in the hammer, and sophomore Alexander Ziegler, the 2010 NCAA runner-up, might be the best 1-2 throwing combo in more than a decade in college athletics.

“As a pair, these two guys are two of the best that I can remember in recent history in the NCAAs,” Cianelli said. “If you look at their PRs, you would have to go back a long ways to find two at that level.

“I think they’re going to be tough. Now the returning hammer champ from LSU is back, so there’s no gimmes at all. They’re going to have to earn whatever they get. But I feel really good about where they are in their development, and I think they’re going to have an outstanding year both indoors and outdoors.”

Tech also returns junior Matthias Treff in the javelin throw. He was ACC champion as a freshman with a throw of 239 feet, 10 inches, but missed his sophomore season due to injury.

“He’ll certainly be the favorite at the ACC meet and then, we hope, will be right in there mixing it up at the NCAA meet,” Cianelli said.