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January 17, 2012

Tech men's track and field team with high expectations, while the women's team will feature a lot of youthful faces

By: Marc Mullen

Like a pendulum swinging back and forth in a grandfather clock, Virginia Tech’s men’s and women’s track and field teams have been alternating successes since the programs joined the ACC.

Four years ago, the women defended both of their conference team titles – indoor and outdoor – while the men were stuck in the middle of the pack.

Aunye Boone

Last year, after coming up short a couple of times, the men finally broke through and won their first ACC indoor team title and were on the cusp of matching the women’s feat of a double team title – adding the outdoor – but came up just short against Florida State.

With so much depth coming back – the men won the indoor team title despite crowning just three individual champions – Dave Cianelli, the director of track and field and cross country, sees no reason why the men cannot repeat.

“I feel very confident that we can repeat,” he said. “A big factor will be the health of our team – keeping everyone healthy and ready to go when the conference meet comes around at the end of February. But I feel like we’re as strong or possibly even stronger than we were a year ago.

“Our key members are returning. We did have a couple people who were out last year with injuries, and so again, with those people healthy, I think we can negate any loss due to graduation. I think we can balance that out with some new people. So I feel very good about it.”

The men also found success in the outdoor season at the NCAA Championships, tying for the best finish ever by a men’s or women’s team – fifth – and scoring the most points ever by a squad (36). They also return nine outdoor All-Americans, which gives the Hokies a chance to pull off the double team title the women pulled off in both 2007 and 2008.

“Last year’s outdoor performance was certainly our best outdoor performance as a team, but we left some points on the table, and that’s going to happen in meets like that,” Cianelli said. “I feel like we have the type of group returning to win, and if the newcomers can really step up and contribute in their first year, that’s going to make a huge difference for us.

“We have, if we keep the group healthy, our best indoor and outdoor team on the men’s side, one that will challenge for an outdoor title along with Florida State. They’ve been the benchmark for the conference, so I anticipate we are going to have to beat them to win the title.”

Unfortunately, as one side goes up, the other side goes down. Losses on the women’s side over the past two seasons have left the Hokies rather young. The sprinters took a hit after 2010, and this year, the loss of All-Americans Dorotea Habazin, Kelly Phillips and Samira Burkhardt will leave the Hokies a little thin in the field events

“We certainly lost three very accomplished athletes this past year, but collectively, we were a very young team last year,” Cianelli said. “So those freshmen are now in their second years, and I expect them to be at a higher level and be in a position to compete and contribute at the conference level this year.

“The majority of our team on the women’s side is going to be freshmen and sophomores, and certainly our conference team is going to be a pretty young team. But I think they are going to do very well. I feel really good about the women moving back up into one of the top three, certainly, in the conference and building, with this young group, over the next couple of years to challenge for a conference title.”

What follows is a breakdown of the main areas of both track programs, starting with the men:


As Cianelli explained, depth is the strength of the men’s team this year and is the theme for most of the areas. Two All-Americans return in this area, highlighted by two-time All-American Hasheem Halim.

The senior earned the honor at both the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships in the triple jump, placing 15th at the indoor meet after finishing second at the ACC Indoor Championships. He followed that with an ACC outdoors title and a fourth-place finish at the national meet.

Junior high jumper Ronnie Black also returns, Black was seventh at the NCAA outdoor meet last year with a jump of 7 feet, 0.25 inches after taking second at the ACC meet.

“Ronnie made great strides last year in his first year in our program,” Cianelli said. “Hasheem in the triple jump is one of the best in the country, so I expect great things from him.”

Hasheem Halim

Senior Keith Ricks is the squad’s best sprinter, proven with his qualification to the NCAAs in the 100-meter dash. Junior Jeff Artis-Gray is one of the team’s most versatile athletes, earning points last year in three events at the ACCs indoor and outdoor meets. He also qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the long jump.

“Keith has proven he can be one of the best sprinters in the conference and a national level sprinter,” Cianelli said. “For him, it is a matter of staying healthy because he’s been dinged up during his career.”

“Jeff does a number of things for us – hurdles, long jump, triple jump, relays – he’s really tremendous all-around. He’s a very valuable athlete at the conference championships because we can put him in different areas, and he was able to score for us in several areas last year.”

Two others whom Cianelli is looking at to improve are sophomore Darrell Wesh as a 100- and 200-meter sprinter and freshman Danny McFadden in the hurdles.


Two All-Americans return in this discipline as well for the Hokies, with four-time All-American Hunter Hall eligible for the outdoor season only and Joe Davis, who earned his first honor at outdoors last year, returning for both indoor and outdoor seasons.

Hall earned his honors in 2009 and in 2011 – both indoor and outdoor, with his best placing of sixth at last year’s indoor meet. He’s been 10th and 11th at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and has a personal best of 17 feet, 8.5 inches.

Davis, a senior, bested his teammate in the 2011 national meet with a personal-best vault of 17 feet, 2.5 inches to place eighth in the country.

“I’m expect Hunter to compete for a conference title and again be an All-American at the national meet,” Cianelli said. “Joe had an outstanding year last year, and he’s going to one of the best, not only in the conference, but also in the country.”

Two newcomers should help keep this event deep for the Hokies, as sophomore Corey Shank, a transfer from Kansas, and freshman Chris Uhle from Powell, Ohio, join the team.


Sounding like a broken record, even more All-Americans return for the Hokies in the throws. Those returning have combined for 11 All-America honors in their careers.

The group is led by five-time honoree Marcel Lomnicky, a weight thrower who only has indoor eligibility remaining, and junior Alexander Ziegler, a four-time honoree, two each in the weight and hammer throws. Juniors Denis Mahmic (hammer) and Matthias Treff (javelin) also return after earning All-America honors for the first time at last year’s outdoor national meet.

“The throws group will be as good as we’ve ever had at both the conference level and at the national level,” Cianelli said. “Indoors, we have our three weight guys who swept the event last year at the conference meet, and Alex was runner-up at the national meet

“Outdoors, Alex is the defending champion in the hammer, so he’ll be going after another title, and we add in Matthias, who was runner-up last year at the NCAA Championships and is the defending ACC champion.”

The throwers also have added a shot putter, freshman Luka Mustafic from Croatia, whom Cianelli said, “will fill a void that we didn’t really have last year. We didn’t have a shot putter, so he is someone who will be able to step in and score for us at the conference level.”


The men’s distance team is littered with depth, and again, features a pair of All-Americans in two-time recipients Michael Hammond and Will Mulherin.

Hammond, a senior, took home honors during both the indoor and outdoor seasons, with a seventh-place finish in the mile after winning the ACC crown and a 14th-place finish in the 1,500 meters.

Also a senior, Mulherin was a 2010 honoree in the 5,000 after a fifth-place finish at the outdoor national meet, and he was an ACC champion. He slipped a hair in 2011, taking second at the ACC meet, but still qualified for the NCAAs. He rebounded during the 2011 cross country season, earning All-America honors.

“We have some outstanding veterans in Michael Hammond and Will Mulherin,” Cianelli said. “They are both going to be tough individuals for us at the conference and national level. Those two guys are really our leaders in this group.”

Other runners who should help the Hokies at the conference meet include seniors Ryan Witt, who won an ACC title in the 800 in 2009; Chris Walizer, who was fourth in the mile last year at the ACC meet; and Eddie Judge. Juniors Jason Cusack, a runner-up in the steeplechase last year at the ACC meet, Ryan Hagen, Tihut Degfae, and twin brother Leoule Degfae are all also expected to earn points at conference meets this year.

Cianelli also likes incoming freshmen Darren Barlow, Brayden Burleigh, George Carter and Thomas Curtain.

“We have a really deep and talented group in the distance, so I am excited about them,” he said. “Even though we did graduate a couple of scorers for us at the conference level last year, I think that, collectively, with these new freshmen, that this group is stronger than we’ve ever had.”


Two seniors in Ogechi Nwaneri, a multiple scorer at the conference level in the short sprints, and Aunye Boone, a 400-meter specialist, headline the Hokies in this area, while Yvonne Amegashie, who runs the 400 hurdles, and Natalie Woodford, a 400-meter runner, are the top juniors.

“Ogechi is a very talented sprinter and has prepared herself well this fall to have her best season,” Cianelli said. “Aunye is more of a 400-meter runner, but can run anything 400 and down.

“Yvonne, I think we’ll do a little bit more there with her this year outdoors in the hurdles. Natalie only moved over to the sprint group last year and did an outstanding job for us.”

The emergence of underclassmen will dictate the success of this year. Sophomores Ebony Scott and Zakiya Tyson, both sprinters who also run on relays, and Kristen Brown, a hurdler who also vaults, all had solid freshmen campaigns. Cianelli expects them to step up.


The loss of school record holder and two-time All-American Kelly Phillips leaves plenty of room for someone to step up for the Hokies.

Cianelli believes that three vaulters have that type of potential in juniors Leigh Allin and Emma DeJarnette and sophomore Brown.

“I think Leigh is going to make a big jump this year, while Emma will have to improve some to move up into a scoring position at the conference meet,” he said. “Kristen really only vaulted for the first time seriously last year, and she’ll be right up there as one of the better vaulters in the conference. With those three, I really feel it’s still going to be a pretty strong event for us.”


The women’s distance runners will be a young group, with just one senior in Lauren Lemieux, who’s been an ACC finalist in the 1,500 for three straight years and a major relay contributor, and one junior in Sammy Dow, the school record holder and a national qualifier in the steeplechase.

“But then, beyond Lauren and Sammy, it becomes a very young group. It’s either freshmen or sophomores,” Cianelli said. “We’ve got some really talented freshmen whom I am excited to see for the first time on the track.”

Those newcomers include Sarah Rapp, from Raleigh, N.C., Katarina Smiljanec, from Karlovac, Croatia, and Amanda Smith, from Chesapeake, Va.

The returning sophomores who will be counted on to improve this season and score at the ACC Championships are Courtney Dobbs and Taylor Crosson, who are both 5K and 10K runners; Paige Kvartunas, who will run either the 1,500 or 3,000 meters; and Madalyn Nuckols, a 5K runner.


The loss of two Hokies who hauled in five All-America honors – Habazin (3, and an NCAA champion in the hammer) and Burkhardt (2) – will be filled by two newcomers.

“We aren’t deep, but we still have a couple of outstanding talents, and both are new,” Cianelli said. “Valentina Muzaric from Croatia is a shot putter, and I believe she’s going to be a national level performer in her first year with us.

“Annjulie Vester from Germany will be our hammer thrower and weight thrower. So she’ll step in, and those two will take care of the throws area for us. So we’re not deep, but very, very talented.”