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January 10, 2014

Despite losing top-end talent, Hokies feel they are on track

By: Marc Mullen

Dave Cianelli, Tech’s director of track and field and cross country, thinks the men’s track and field team could make another run at an ACC title this season and that back-to-back good recruiting classes have the women’s team much improved

Junior runner Thomas Curtin has dominated the 5,000-meter race at the ACC meet of late, winning both the indoor and the outdoor event last season.

Heading into the 2014 ACC indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, Virginia Tech has seen its men’s and women’s programs haul in seven first-place team finishes, six runner-up finishes and three third-place finishes in the past 14 conference championship meets.

On the heels of those accomplishments, and with the addition of three new schools into the field, Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Dave Cianelli likes where both teams currently stand and the direction those teams are headed.

Before breaking down each program’s different areas, Cianelli answered several key questions about the upcoming seasons.

Question 1: In regards to both the men’s and women’s sides, how does the expanded ACC affect Virginia Tech?

DC: “Well, the new schools coming in – Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh – it’s going to make it tougher. Those are three very good programs. Two of which, Notre Dame and Syracuse, are more distance oriented, with Notre Dame being more like us in terms of a balanced program. Syracuse is very strong in distance [events], while Pittsburgh is more sprints and hurdle heavy.

“What it’s going to do is make the conference much deeper across the board, and it’s going to be more difficult even to be in the top eight to score. I’m not sure how much that will affect the top end – the top three or four places – but it will definitely affect the places between five and 10, the spots that are fighting for a few points, and that’s really where the difference is in the team race. A lot of times, it’s not necessarily how many firsts you get, but how many of the kids you bring to the meet and how many of them can pick up a few points. That is really where it makes a difference.”

Question 2: With the expanded field, will there be any changes to the scoring at the ACC meet?

DC: “I did hear that about swimming [that sport is scoring more places at the ACC meet], but that didn’t come up at our coaches’ meeting. We pretty much follow the NCAA format, scoring the top eight places. One thing that we did change, though, was expanding the All-ACC selections from the top three to the top eight, which is a really good move. We now recognize more students. Again, to score in our conference is going to take a very good effort, a good performance, so it’s worth it to recognize those athletes.”

“But as far as [team] scoring goes, it will mirror what our NCAA meet does, and that’s the top eight. And that won’t change our strategy as far as how we approach an ACC meet. We’ll pretty much do what we’ve done. We will try to bring as much balance to the meet. We’ll be strong in our typical areas – vaults, throws, middle distance – so at a conference level, the more balanced you can be with quality, the better chance you have.”

Question 3: Over the past decade, six student-athletes have combined to win 14 national titles for Tech. Outdoor hammer throw national champion Tomas Kruzliak returns for the Hokies, but is there anyone else who can contend?

DC: “I think Martina Schultze [four-time All-American, three-time ACC champion] is in a good position. She was third at the indoor meet last year, and she will certainly be in the mix as one of the top in the country in the women’s pole vault. She has a legitimate chance to win a national title. Depending on his health, Jaka Muhar, who is a javelin thrower and had offseason surgery on his heels, is talented enough, if he is 100 percent, to be in the mix for javelin title [during the outdoor season].

“Tomas, again, in the hammer will be right there. It’s obviously not a ‘gimme.’ There’ll be other athletes right there with him. We also have a freshman javelin thrower, Eva Vivod, who needs to be more consistent. But if she does, she’ll be right there at the national level. So those four individuals could contend, as could others, if everything comes together for them at the right time.”

Question 4: The men’s side lost so much top-end talent off of last year’s team. What are your expectations for the Hokie men for the upcoming season?

DC: “We have a strong enough team on the men’s side to be in the mix for the ACC title, both during the indoor and outdoor seasons, if basically everyone stays healthy. Health is going to have a lot to do about it, and that’s the big key in our sport – keeping everyone healthy.

“We lost some outstanding seniors from last year – really all-time greats for us in Jeff Artis-Gray, Ronnie Black, Alexander Ziegler, Matthias Treff, Will Mulherin and Michael Hammond. Some of those guys were maybe the best we’ve ever had in their events. We really had a great senior class last year, but we have a lot of new faces in freshmen and transfers, and I think there’s a lot of talent there. It’s just a matter of getting them adjusted to the level of training and the competition.

“I’m really excited about the freshmen. I think it’s one of the best classes we’ve ever had on both the men’s and women’s side since I’ve been here, and I expect them to make their mark their first year. And we will have to get that in order to challenge the top teams in the conference.”

Question 5: The women’s roster is loaded with underclassmen and seems poised to make some serious strides over the next few seasons. Is that an accurate assessment?

DC: “The last couple of years, especially our last two recruiting classes with the women – the current freshman and sophomore classes – I’m very excited about collectively. We are pretty young still. We don’t have many seniors, and if we can continue to recruit the level of athlete we’ve gotten over the past couple of years, then there is no question that the women’s program, next year, is in a position to challenge for a conference title. And this year, I’d like to see them move back up into the top three or four as a precursor for the following year.

“The talent level we have in the younger classes on the women’s side is really the best we’ve had since the Queen Harrison, Kristi Castlin group when they came through. This group is as good, but we really won’t know until they compete here. Queen’s class, overall, was the best class we ever had at one time if you look at what they were able to accomplish. This class has that kind of talent. Now it’s a matter of if they can move on and do some of those same things. That remains to be seen.

“We are on our way. I think we’re going to take a big step from where we were last year in the conference and on the national level, and with another year and a really strong recruiting class, then I think we can be in that mix again. This team, collectively, we are going to be a much stronger conference team than we were a year ago. We’re definitely on an uptick.”

Men’s sprints/hurdles/jumps

Top returners (2013 accomplishments): Senior Darrell Wesh – Indoor: 60-meter first-team All-American, finalist at the ACC meet and a school record holder; Outdoor: 100-meter NCAA qualifier and All-ACC (finished second), 200-meter ACC champion, 4x100 All-ACC (team finished second).

Sophomore Tadashi Pinder – Indoor: 4x400 All-ACC (team finished third), 60-meter finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 4x100 All-ACC (team was second), 100-meter and 200-meter finalist at the ACC meet.

Newcomers: Sophomore Marcus Finney and freshmen Alex Ellison, Alex Merritt, Rafael Moore and Dante Price.

Cianelli’s take: “Obviously, Darrell Wesh will be our leader. He is our most accomplished sprinter and will be a force to deal with. He can run with anyone in the country, again staying healthy. Then, Tadashi Pinder had a great freshman year and was very solid, and I was very pleased with his performance. He’s ready to move into the role as our leading sprinter.

“Dante Price is from West Virginia and is one of the all-time best sprinters out of that state. He was the state champion his senior year in the 100, 200 and 400 meters, and he might be the first ever to do that in West Virginia. Alex Ellison is a very solid 100 and 200 guy who will give us depth, and with them, that could be our best 4x100 relay team and could run faster than we’ve ever run before.

“Our hurdlers [Finney and Merritt] will add some depth, and a good long jumper in Rafael Moore, who is from Virginia, will give us some presence there. With the graduation of Jeff Artis-Gray, that left a big hole, but these guys can get in there and battle at the conference level.”

Men’s distance

Top returners (2013 accomplishments): Senior Tihut Degfae – Indoor: DMR [distance medley relay] second team All-American, 800-meter ACC champion; Outdoor: 800-meter All-ACC (finished third).

Senior Leoule Degfae – Indoor: 3,000-meter finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter finalist at the ACC meet.

Junior Thomas Curtin – Indoor: 5,000-meter ACC champion, set the school record; Outdoor: 5,000-meter ACC champion.

Junior Grant Pollock – Indoor: DMR ACC champion; Outdoor: 1,500-meter NCAA qualifier and ACC champion.

Newcomers: Freshmen Vincent Ciattei, Neil Gourley and Patrick Joseph.

Cianelli’s take: “We have some really good depth and some outstanding freshmen who are no doubt part of the best class we’ve ever signed. Vincent Ciattei is a top miler out of Maryland, and Patrick Joseph is a top middle distance guy out of Virginia. Those guys are like 4:07 milers out of high school, and if they continue to develop, they are going to be at a level sooner to where a guy like Michael Hammond was. But we’ll have to wait and see.

“Along with two other guys – Neil Gourley, whom we signed from Scotland, and Griffin Carmichael, another Virginia guy – collectively, this is the best quality we’ve ever signed. I’m really excited what they will add to our returnees Tee and Lee Degfae, Grant Pollock and Tommy Curtin, who could be one of the best we’ve ever had here at Virginia Tech if he continues on the course he’s on.

“With the influx of these freshmen, and even with the loss of Will Mulherin, Jason Cusack and Mike Hammond, I think this group can be as good or even better, all depending on how those freshmen develop. This group, when looking at last year’s indoor, the distance crew overachieved, at least in what I expected, but I think they were the ones who made the difference in winning that title.”

Men’s throws

Top returners (2013 accomplishments): Sophomore Tomas Kruzliak – Indoor: weight throw second-team All-American and All-ACC (finished second); Outdoor: hammer throw national champion and ACC champion.

Sophomore Jaka Muhar – Outdoor: javelin finalist at the ACC meet.

Newcomer: Sophomore Jordan Roach.

Cianelli’s take: “We’re probably a little thinner here than we’ve been, particularly during the indoor season, because we’ll only have two in the weight throw. We might have one in the shot [put] in transfer Jordan Roach, who is primarily a discus thrower. But he has thrown the shot a little bit. Over the past few years, we’ve been able to sweep the weight throw at the ACC meet. So we’ll have to make that up in other areas this year.”

Men’s pole vault

Top returners (2013 accomplishments): Junior Chris Uhle – Indoor: finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: second-team All-American, All-ACC (finished second).

Senior Stephan Munz – Indoor: ACC champion.

Newcomer: Freshman Torben Laidig.

Cianelli’s take: “Our vault group is going to be very deep, as it typically is, and will be led by Chris Uhle and Stephan Munz, and both should be battling in the ACC meets and nationally.

“Jared Allison and Brad Johnson are two returning athletes in that event, and we’ll look to them to back Chris and Stephan, especially at the conference level. We’ve traditionally scored a lot of points in the event, and we’d like to continue to do that.

“In January, Torben Laidig, who’s from Germany, will step in and be able to help us out right away. He’s got a personal best of 17 feet, 1 inch. So this crew will be very deep and can help us earn more points than in years past.”

Women’s sprints/hurdles/jumps

Top returner (2012 accomplishments): Redshirt sophomore Ciara Simms – Indoor: 60-meter finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 4x100 NCAA qualifier and All-ACC (finished third), 100-meter finalist at the ACC meet.

Newcomers: Freshmen Christine London, Nora McKiver and Jasmine Mitchell.

Cianelli’s take: “Our sprinters are very young, with Ciara Simms returning after redshirting last year. She’s a 60, 100 performer and made the ACC finals in both of those events. So I expect the same out of her and Yeni Aromolaran, who had a really nice freshman year last year.

“Then we have a really nice freshman class in Christine London, a top hurdler from Maryland, Nora McKiver, another top hurdler from North Carolina, and Jasmine Mitchell, who is an all-around athlete and is going to be a 400-meter runner for us. She might surprise some people in that event.

“It’s a young group, but I think they are on their way to doing some really great things, and we are about a year away from having some depth in that area.”

Women’s distance

Top returners (2013 accomplishments): Sophomore Shannon Morton – Indoor: DMR finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 1,500-meter finalist at the ACC meet.

Junior Amanda Smith – Indoor: 800-meter finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 800-meter finalist at the ACC meet, a school record holder.

Junior Katarina Smiljanec – Indoor: DMR finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 1,500-meter finalist at the ACC meet.

Junior Sarah Rapp – Indoor: 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: 5,000-meter finalist at the ACC meet.

Newcomers: Freshmen Hanna Green and Abigail Motley.

Cianelli’s take: “Our middle distance group is about as good as we’ve ever had. Shannon Morton, Amanda Smith and Katarina Smiljanec all return, and all were finalists at last year’s ACC outdoor meet. Hanna Green will be a good 800-meter runner for us. I think that 800, 1,500 group is going to be good. That is where our strength is going to be.

“At the longer distances, Courtney Dobbs and Sarah Rapp just finished outstanding cross country seasons, and that typically bodes well for track. Those two will be the leaders, but Frances Dowd, Madalyn Nuckols and freshman Abigail Motley will be in the mix.

“I really like this group, and if they can stay healthy, I think they can accomplish a lot. So I see them contributing more this year at the conference level.”

Women’s throws

Top returner (2013 accomplishments): Junior Annjulie Vester – Indoor: weight throw finalist at the ACC meet; Outdoor: hammer throw second-team All-American, ACC champion.

Junior Sarah Kadelka – Outdoor: javelin finalist at the ACC meet.

Newcomers: Junior Sabine Kopplin and freshman Eva Vivod.

Cianelli’s take: “In the throws, Sabine Kopplin and Sarah Kedelka will be strong for us in the javelin. Sabine redshirted last year, so this will be her first year here, but she’ll be one of the favorites, and Sarah was an ACC scorer in the event.

“Annjulie is back for her junior year, and she’s won the hammer at the conference meet two years in a row. So those are our centerpieces, and our top recruit is Eva Vivod, who also throws the javelin. Her and Sabine could be at the top of the NCAA level. Both of them have the tools and the credentials to be the tops in the country. They will give us a really deep crew in the javelin come the conference meet.”

Women’s pole vault

Top returner (2013 accomplishments): Junior Martina Schultze – Indoor: first-team All-American (finished third), ACC champion; Outdoor: first-team All-American (finished eighth), ACC champion.

Newcomers: Freshmen Emma King and Kristen Lee.

Cianelli’s take: “Our group in the pole vault will certainly be very deep, again, as it has been, with Martina leading that group as a returning All-American. But she’s got a really good supporting crew. Senior Leigh Allin returns for her final year, and there are Lyndsey Saunders and Erinn Schaal. I expect those individuals to be in a position to score at the ACC meets.

“Then Emma King and Kristen Lee, who are both multiple state champions, I can see those two contributing right away. This event, conference-wide, is the best it’s ever been. It’s deeper, and there is more quality, so it will take really good performances to score at the meet.”

Tech opened the indoor season at the Appalachian State Invitational on Dec. 5-6 in Boone, N.C. The ACC Championships will be held in Clemson, S.C., on Feb. 27-28, and the NCAA Championships will be held March 14-15 in Albuquerque, N.M. The ACC’s outdoor meet will be held in Chapel Hill, N.C., on April 17-19, and the NCAA’s outdoor meet will be held June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore.