Leistikow: Iowa looks to cap 'year of champions' with top-10 NCAA track and field finish
In an interview a few Fridays ago, Gary Barta spoke about how Iowa athletics has internally called this the “year of champions.”
The academic year with five Big Ten championships, a national wrestling title, a Final Four field hockey team, a top-10 men’s basketball team and remarkable individual accomplishments from the likes of Luka Garza, Caitlin Clark and Spencer Lee, isn’t quite over. The last thing on the 2020-21 calendar starts Wednesday and finishes Saturday: the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
And, fittingly for this year, Iowa is looking to make some finishing national noise.
On the women’s side, Laulaga Tausaga will be aiming to repeat her 2019 NCAA championship in the discus. The fifth-year senior also enters the shot put with the second-best qualifying throw.
On the men’s side, there’s potential history on the table. While track and field director Joey Woody is delighted that his men have won the last two contested Big Ten outdoor championships (2019, 2021), the next team step in his eyes is to crack the top 10 of the NCAAs.
Iowa hasn’t finished in the top 10 since placing seventh in 1967, the last time the Hawkeyes won a men's event at the outdoor championships (the mile relay). Since then, Iowa’s best NCAA finish is 17th in 2017.
This is a sport in Division I dominated by teams in the South and West. It's a lot like baseball in that way.
“We’ve been talking about it for years,” Woody said recently. “We expect to be a top-10 team consistently.
“I tell these guys, this is the best team in the history of our program, in my opinion, based on what we’ve done. And I think we’re still scratching the surface.”
The last Big Ten Conference team to make the top 10 at the NCAAs was Nebraska (in 10th) in 2016.
What does it take to reach the top 10? Tenth place in the last five outdoor championships had point totals of 20, 26, 19, 17 and 17.
The challenge is steep. No Big Ten team since seventh-place Michigan in 2009 has scored 20-plus points at nationals.
Still, there are a lot of different ways to score 20 points. An event win is worth 10 points, second place is worth eight, then 6-5-4-3-2-1 for third through eighth.
“If we’re scoring 20-plus points, you have a really good shot at the top 10,” Woody said. “That can only take a couple of events if you’re doing it right. We’ve just got to punch our tickets to the finals, that’s the big thing.”
No point will come easy but Iowa has 10 NCAA qualifiers (including both relays), matching the program record it set in 2019. Its best opportunity for a gold medal is Jaylan McConico in the 110-meter hurdles. His best time this year of 13.23 seconds ranks second nationally. But he can’t score eight or 10 team points without first making the finals.
We’ll know a lot more about Iowa’s top-10 chances by Wednesday night. That’s a big qualifying day for the men; 24 entries in each event will be pared down to nine for Friday’s finals. (The women’s semifinals are Thursday and most finals Saturday.)
For example, Nathan Mylenek has the 10th-fastest time of 2021 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (8:35.41). If he makes the final, that’s a great shot at a handful of team points. Every little bit helps that top-10 quest.
Jamal Britt, the only athlete to qualify in both the 110 and 400 hurdles, has the ninth-ranked time in the 400 hurdles (49.69).
Iowa has two decathletes in the top 10 nationally in senior Will Daniels (sixth) and freshman Austin West (seventh).
Iowa has qualified its 4x100 relay for the eighth consecutive postseason; its 4x400 relay finished fourth in 2019 and is a threat to make the finals again.
Iowa is the No. 1-ranked team in the Midwest and No. 15 nationally. Woody may be right that this is already the best men’s team in program history; checking that top-10 box would seal it.
“As good as we are, I think we can be even better next year. But we’ve got to set a precedent,” Woody said. “We want to be Big Ten champs year in and year out, but we also need to take that next step at the national championships. And I think this is the year to do that.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Iowa’s NCAA track and field qualifiers
Regional or qualifying times/marks included.
4x100 relay (7:02 p.m. CT Wednesday, semifinal) — Iowa, 39.57 (Jaylan McConico, Gratt Reed, Antonio Woodard, Austin Kresley)
3,000 steeplechase (7:32 Wednesday, semifinal) — Nathan Mylenek, 8:40.34
110 hurdles (8:02 Wednesday, semifinal) — Jaylan McConico, 13.41; Jamal Britt, 13.67
400 (8:30 Wednesday, semifinal) — Wayne Lawrence, 45.49
Long jump (8:30 Wednesday, final) — James Carter, 7.73 meters
400 hurdles (9:00 Wednesday, semifinal) — Jamal Britt, 49.70.
4x400 relay (10:18 Wednesday, semifinal) — Iowa, 3:04.71 (Jenoah Mckiver, Austin Lietz, Julien Gillum, Wayne Lawrence)
Decathlon (five events Wednesday, five Thursday) — Will Daniels, 7,864 points; Austin West, 7,805
Shot put (7:40 p.m. Thursday, final) — Laulaga Tausaga, 17.97 meters; Kat Moody, 16.65 meters
Discus (4:35 p.m. Saturday, final) — Laulaga Tausaga, 63.28 meters; Serena Brown, 59.81 meters
Heptathlon (four events Friday, three Saturday) — Jenny Kimbro, 5,543 points