Harris, Willis Land at NCAA Outdoor Championships
ALBANY, N.Y. – The final meet of the 2019 collegiate season, the NCAA Outdoor Championships, begins this week. The University at Albany track & field program will send two student-athletes, Venique Harris and Devon Willis, to compete in the meet at the University of Texas at Austin.
Harris and Willis qualified for nationals out of the NCAA East Preliminary Championships in Jacksonville, Fla. two weeks ago, where they competed as part of a contingent of 15 UAlbany athletes, the largest group of individuals to qualify for regionals in program history.
“With most of the athletes being returners next year, the experience was invaluable,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “It sets them up well for the summer so they can keep progressing and be better prepared for next year.”
While Harris and Willis were the only UAlbany athletes to earn qualifying berths to NCAA Outdoor Championships, a number of other Great Danes performed at a high level.
“Asia Jinks ran a personal-best out of lane one, which is a very tough lane in the intermediate hurdles,” said Vives. “She ended up on her wrong leg for six or seven hurdles, but still managed to run a personal-best and nearly qualify for the next round.”
Jinks succumbed to a bout of bad luck, running a personal best and placing 27th overall, but was in such a fast heat that an automatic qualifier finished with a slower time than she did, advancing by place.
“That’s just kind of the nature of the sport,” said Vives, “and the student-athletes understand that. Some heats may run slower than you but they still make it based on placing. That’s why you have to be ready to go. We tell them to run it like a final, and if you make it to the next day we’ll move forward, but you can’t hold back.”
The weather in Florida at the East Preliminary Championships can make things particularly difficult for the distance runners, who are asked to be on the track and in the elements for longer periods of time, an experience they don’t usually have racing in the Northeast.
“Our student-athletes never compete in that kind of heat,” said Vives. “It’s a valuable experience for someone like Hannah Reinhardt, for example, to be there and know how the race shapes out. For Kyle Gronostaj to break 30 minutes again in those conditions was tremendous. He placed 18th, way higher than his seed, and he improved about 40 seconds from this meet last year.”
One of the goals of the program is to continue to bring larger and larger groups of individuals to the East Preliminary Championship meet, meaning the program is continuing to grow and move towards a higher level of competition. Once there, however, the staff likes to see the student-athletes outperform their seeds.
“It tells you as a coach and it tells the athletes that they peaked at the right time of the year,” said Vives. “A lot of other programs get top seeds by running fast time early in the season, but they can’t sustain it by the time regionals roll around. Doing better than your seed suggests you’re prepared well and were ready for your competition and that you performed well”
Developing a comfort level is another significant aspect of competing in these high-quality meets that will ensure the program continues to move forward. But the comfort only comes with repeated trips to these meets, showing the student-athletes that they belong in the competition field.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” said Vives. “We told our freshman, EJ Onah, that her best jump would send her to championships, but you don’t really believe it until you see it. 19-10.25 made it and she has jumped 20-02.25 earlier this season, so it was an eye-opener to know that you have to be ready to perform early.”
Harris was the first UAlbany athlete to qualify, competing on the second of three days of East Preliminary Championships. She was the fifth-ranked competitor in the discus entering the meet, and the only Great Dane that had the full expectation to qualify for nationals.
“Venique’s first throw looked like she was trying too hard to put one out their right from the jump,” said Vives. “The discus came out of her hand wrong and was flipping over. She relaxed on the second throw, and that was her big one. We saw it as soon as it came out of her hand and we knew it was a good throw. Her third throw she knew she was in and relaxed a bit more, and still threw a qualifying mark.”
Willis did not compete until the third and final day of the meet, and did not record a legal mark until his third and final attempt. Willis finally broke through and qualified out of a meet that hasn’t always been kind to him in the past.
“Devon’s triple jump was nerve-wracking,” said Vives. “He fouled his first two attempts, and just had one jump remaining to qualify. He moved back another whole foot for his third attempt, and took off about six inches behind the whole board. Fortunately, he hit a mark that got him in the top-12. He had a lot of promise as a freshman and I believe his best is in front of him. His two fouls were well over 52 feet, and we think he still has a big one in him. If he gets in the finals this week and gets the three extra jumps, he’s someone who gets better as the competition goes on.”
Harris and Willis traveled to Austin on Monday, leaving themselves plenty of time to get settled and prepared to perform at their best before their events come up in the meet schedule later this week.
“The travel is done, and we’ll acclimate to the time and the weather by the time they have to compete,” said Vives. “We’ll practice, and we’ll take them out to a nice dinner. They’re done with school so there’s no stress from that and we’ll just try to keep them relaxed and comfortable all week.”
The facility at the University of Texas at Austin is not new to UAlbany, who have competed in several Texas Relays over the years, but nationals will mark the first time since 2014 that the team has competed there.
“There’s a familiarity with the facility here at Texas because we’ve raced here before at the Texas Relays but also because it’s the same kind of track that we have back home,” said Vives. “Venique is really excited that the discus cage is on the infield, right in the center of everything, instead of off to the side or in another area like it is at other facilities. She thrives in those environments. And the runways are closer to the stands, along the outside lanes of the track, instead of on the infield. They have a very nice setup here.”
2019 marks the first season 2012 that the NCAA Outdoor Championship will not be held at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, which is currently undergoing renovations and will reopen in the Spring of 2020 ahead of the 2021 IAAF World Championships. The NCAA championship meet will return to Hayward Field in 2021 as well after two years at Texas.
“Hayward Field has that historic atmosphere that nothing compares to, but this is a tremendous facility,” said Vives. “At Hayward you know you’re in a track town, and it feels like all of Eugene is focused on the meet. Here, without that history, it’s more low-key for the athletes, which is good because they’re not surrounded by it the whole time.”
For Vives, the NCAA Outdoor Championships serves as a perfect cap to the 2018-19 season.
“This season was magical, winning five out of six America East titles, repeating as ECAC Outdoor champions, and sending our biggest group of individuals to regionals. Now, we’re closing by having both of our teams represented at national championships. It’s been an incredible year. Now, we just want Venique and Devon to enjoy the experience.”
NCAA Outdoor Championships begin Wednesday, June 5. Willis competes in the men’s triple jump on Friday, June 7 at 8:40 p.m. Eastern, and Harris competes in the women’s discus on Saturday, June 8 at 6:40 p.m. Eastern.