Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Weekend thoughts from Tempe and Carson...

This past weekend took me to Tempe, Arizona for the Pac-10 Track & Field Championships, and to Carson, California for the adidas Track Classic, two distinctively contrasting track and field events that I enjoy.

On the one hand, you have some of the West Coast’s best collegiate athletes scrape, fight, and claw for every point available, knowing that a seventh or eighth place finish may or may not be the difference in their team’s final placing. In contrast, the professionals running at the adidas meet are running with the big picture in mind, and that’s the Olympic Track & Field Trials next month in Eugene.

Some observations—

UPSET SPECIAL: In the women’s 1500 meter run at the Pac-10 Championships, it was widely acknowledged that the favorites were Oregon’s Nicole Blood and Lauren Centrowitz of Stanford.

While Washington’s Katie Follett (above/photo by Paul Merca) had one of the conference’s top times, and was an NCAA indoor All-American, the storyline that nearly everyone on the FOX Sports Net broadcast discussed centered around Blood and Centrowitz.

Before I left the production truck to report to the broadcast booth (I was working as the spotter for the announce team of Dwight Stones, Tom Feuer, and Ato Boldon), I mentioned to Mitch, the graphics coordinator that he should build a Katie Follett ‘hero graphic’.

As they built hero graphics for Blood and Centrowitz, I said, “Follett’s your upset special. Anyone who can run 2:06 for 800 the week before under absolutely horrendous conditions in Seattle should be a legit contender!”

With 300 to go in the race, Blood and Centrowitz positioned themselves towards the front for the stretch run. Coming off the curve, Follett swung outside, and as they entered the final straightaway, the duo appeared to forget the UW sophomore momentarily, and that was all Katie needed, as she made the mad dash to victory, clocking 4:22.41.

“Greg (Metcalf, UW coach) didn't want me to take the lead until about 75 meteres to go," said Follett. "The plan was to be patient. I really felt good coming off the turn, and I went for it."

Ten minutes before Follett pulled off the victory, the Huskies’ 4 x 100 meter relay team turned in an upset victory of their own, winning the race in 39.52 seconds with a team of Jordan Boase, James Frederickson, Joe Turner, and Ryan Hamilton, using precise passing to overcome the raw speed of Arizona and Arizona State.

Unfortunately for the Huskies, that was one of the few highlights of the meet, as both teams finished dead last (and we’re not counting Oregon State on the women’s side, which only had a few distance runners). Ninety-nine times out of 100, dead last…not so good.

DUEL IN THE DESERT: As I wrote on this site last week, the men’s 400 was the most anticipated race of the entire meet, with the defending champion, USC’s Lionel Larry pitted against the Huskies’ Jordan Boase, an d a slew of the conference’s best quarter-milers.

The race was all that it was hyped to be, as for 250 meters, Larry and Boase raced mano-a-mano around the Sun Angel Track oval, with no one giving an inch.

At the top of the curve, Larry slowly began pulling away from the junior from Bothell High School, and extended his lead to the finish, winning in a time of 44.77, the fastest time by a collegian this year. Boase hung on and broke 45 seconds for the second time in his career, stopping the watch in 44.97.

JESHUA’S THE REAL DEAL: Although Washington State freshman Jeshua Anderson entered college as the national record holder in the 300 meter intermediate hurdles, the jury was out on him on whether he could make the transition from running 300 to 400 meters over hurdles, and whether or not his commitments to football would hinder his progress.

Cougar fans got a glimpse of his talents last season, as eight of his 12 receptions went for 28 yards or more – but Cougars fans already wonder if rapid progress on the track won't tempt him to turn pro.

Anderson, running 13 steps between hurdles for most of the distance, won the men's 400m hurdles with a personal-best and improved NCAA regional qualifying time of 49.55 seconds. His time also improved his freshman school record by .11 seconds and becomes the third-fastest intermediate hurdles time ever run by a Cougar.

TRANÉ REPEATS AS STEEPLE CHAMP: Sara Trané, a junior from Pixbo, Sweden, won the women's 3000m steeplechase for the second consecutive year with a time of 10 minutes, 17.80 seconds.

"Sara ran really well in spite of it being really hot at race time," Cougar distance coach Jason Drake said. "We knew from the way the USC runner (Zsofia Erdelyi) had run in the past that she might go out a little fast and sure enough, she took off after a couple of laps. Sara let some of the runners pass her and then slowly came back and reeled them off. In the last lap she passed Lindsay Allen from Stanford. Sara ran a really smart race especially for the conditions which weren't ideal for distance running."

Trané laughed as she recounted her last lap of Friday's race and compared it to her sprint to victory at the 2007 championships saying, "In the last 200 meters I kept thinking, `I can't do this again' but then I had to. Last year was such a surprise but this year I wasn't as far behind the lead runner but I really didn't think I would win again so I am really happy."

CAN SOMEONE (ANYONE) PLEASE PUT SOME BUTTS IN THE SEATS? Despite the great competition at the adidas Track Classic in Carson, including an American record in the pole vault by Jenn Stuczynski (above/photo by Paul Merca) of 16-0 3/4, some great throwing in the discus by the Washington duo of Jarred Rome & Ian Waltz, and Bernard Lagat’s ability to shake off a recall in the first 100 of the 1500, one noticed the complete lack of fans in the seats at the Home Depot Center

The Home Depot Center in Carson, is part of a sports complex, that includes the soccer stadium where the Women’s World Cup finals were contested (and the home of the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA of MLS), the velodrome used in the cycling competition at the 1984 Olympics, and several baseball/softball/soccer fields and tennis courts.

Despite the 90+ degree temperature in mid-afternoon, there was some great competition, and great athletes at the meet, including hometown hero Allyson Felix, reigning Olympic 400 meter champ Jeremy Wariner, and double world sprint champion Tyson Gay. In fact, the women’s 100 field had seven of the top ten ranked sprinters in the world!

Even with a star-studded lineup, some cool adidas and Nutrilite giveaways, a “Fastest Kid in the City” race on the track, and a live telecast on ESPN2, the meet managed to draw just over 3200 paid spectators (and in my opinion, that looked a bit generous) to this event, promoted by Mark Wetmore’s Global Athletics & Marketing group.

Among the complaints I’ve heard include everything from the $15 parking fee, the 12:30 pm start time, the relative inaccessibility of the Home Depot Center, the $40 (finish line)/25 (homestraight)/10 (backstretch) ticket pricing structure, etc.

You just had a feeling that this was going to be a badly presented meet when the starter tried to start the 400m hurdles on live TV while the poor guy in lane 9 (and everyone in the crowd) was screaming to get him a new set of blocks. To make matters worse, the starter admonished the nearby pole vault official for yelling at him, while the runner in lane 9 had his hands up waiting for new starting blocks.

I do know this—the starter should never be allowed to start a meet of that caliber again!

It’s too bad that despite the efforts of Wetmore, Global PR chief Barbara Huebner, one of the best PR people in the sport, and the athletes, that a paltry crowd in the nation’s second largest market saw this meet. This sport deserves better than that.

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