North Central men’s track repeats as outdoor champs
May 29, 2011 8:46PM
Officially, the difference between first and second place in the team standings at the 2011 NCAA Division III Outdoor Men’s Track & Field Championships was two points, but in reality, it was a mere two-tenths of a second that determined the order on the awards stand on Saturday in Delaware, Ohio.
A gutsy performance by its 1600-meter relay team in the final event of the meet proved to be the difference for North Central College, as the Cardinals fought off a challenge from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and claim its second straight outdoor national title. North Central totaled 58 points, while La Crosse was an extremely close runner-up with 56.
The hoisting of the team trophy was the culmination of a weekend of big-time performances for the Cardinals, who have now swept the Division III Indoor and Outdoor Championships two straight years. North Central collected two more individual national championships on Saturday, bringing their total to four during the three-day meet.
North Central headed into Saturday’s action first in the team standings with 32 points, and got 10 more when Daniel Benton took to the track for the 400-meter dash final and dominated the field. Benton pulled away down the home stretch and hit the finish line in 46.84 seconds, breaking his own North Central record.
“I knew I was going to have to run faster than I ever have,” said Benton. “I just knew I had to do it for the team. The way (head coach Frank Gramarosso) trains us is to run our own race and not worry about times or other runners, and obviously it worked out.”
Strong performances in a series of events helped UW-La Crosse move a 51-42 lead with two events remaining. Michael Spain, who had already won a national title at 10,000 meters for the Cardinals, headed to the starting line as the favorite in the 5,000-meter run and put North Central back in front with another championship performance.
As he did in the 10,000, Spain moved up midway through the race and attempted to string out the field with a steady, consistent surge. However, a cluster of five individuals hung in and persisted to force the issue, and after leading for several laps, Spain dropped back into sixth place with two laps to go as the pace continued to heat up.
With just under a lap remaining, Spain summoned his remaining reserves and bolted for the lead, moving back in front with 150 meters left and stormed away impressively to win by nearly two seconds in 14:41.15.
“What a great way to go out,” Spain said. “Whether I won or not, I’m glad I can leave here knowing I put everything I had on the table. I had no idea what to expect. It was slow, I took the lead and tried to break them and they wouldn’t break. My teammates started making noise, and I remembered I was running for them too. That’s what took me home.”
With the Cardinals back in front, 52-51, the 1600 relay developed into a head-to-head match race between the two top teams. After Jonathan Caron and Randal Ellison kept North Central in the thick of a hotly contested race for the first two legs, Jon Howard took the baton and brought the Cardinals to the front, just as he had in the preliminary heats.
Benton, attempting to turn in his fourth quality one-lap sprint in three days, brought North Central to the line just behind first-place finisher Ramapo College (N.J.) and runner-up McMurry University (Tex.), but hit the line in 3:11.64 to narrowly outdistance La Crosse’s squad, which was clocked in 3:11.84.
“We looked forward to it a lot,” said Howard of the opportunity to seal the team championship for North Central. “Mike Spain coming up big in the 5,000 gave us a lot of confidence, but we definitely went in knowing that we had to perform. Just knowing that we’ve got the title, and that all the hard work we put in this season paid off, is really exciting.”
The win capped off a banner year for Gramarosso, whose teams claimed indoor and outdoor conference and national titles in his first year as the program’s head coach.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Gramarosso said. “We just kind of chipped away as a team all weekend. Track is an individual sport, but I think we’ve developed teams within our team that really feed off each other. It was great to have the number of qualifiers that we had, and it takes that many people because there are always going to be disappointments and surprises.”
North Central has now won nine national championships in track and field (six outdoor, three indoor) and 27 team national titles overall.
North Central women take 7th
The North Central College women’s track and field team finished off a strong showing at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships on Saturday, scoring in three events and tying for seventh place in a 83-team field at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Selby Stadium.
Entering the day with six total points, the Cardinals piled on 16 additional points on Saturday, 11 of which came in the final two events, to match Illinois College for seventh place with 22. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh won the team title with 80 points, 21 more than runner-up Wartburg College (Iowa).
North Central’s first points of the day came from Sheila Walsh in the 400-meter dash finals. Walsh had posted a personal-best time of 55.52 seconds on Friday to post the second-fastest qualifying time for the final, and nearly duplicated that showing on Saturday. After battling with eventual second-place finisher Marcia McCord of Ithaca College (N.Y.) and third-placer Mary Mahoney of the University of Mount Union (Ohio), Walsh wound up fourth in 56.01 seconds to claim All-America honors and five points for her team.
“I was kind of excited at the beginning, and I really felt strong the whole race,” Walsh said. “It was warmer today than it has been, but I think that’s more of a mental thing than anything. It was a good race.”
After earning All-America status in the 10,000-meter run on Thursday, North Central’s Amanda Laesch returned to the track for the 5,000 meters on Saturday. Laesch gradually worked her way toward the front of the pack and joined the leaders heading into the final lap, making a bid for the win before eventually finishing third in 17:08.24 to climb the steps on the award stand for the second time.
“I felt pretty good,” Laesch said of her second race of the weekend. “I took care of myself on the day in between, so I don’t think (running both events) affected me as much as it could have. I thought about trying to take the lead, but I was getting kind of tired by that point and thought maybe I could rely on my kick.”
Walsh was back on the track with teammates Lauren Brightmore, Krista Cota and Linnea Higgins for the finals of the 1600-meter relay. The quartet set a school record with a time of 3:46.54 in the preliminaries to qualify for the final, and were able to better their time once again with a 3:46.08 to finish fourth overall.
“We felt a little bit of pressure to perform after running so well in the heats, but we had confidence that we could do it again,” Brightmore said. “It’s incredible seeing all our hard work being put together and being able to finish so well against some really great teams.”
Also competing for the Cardinals on Saturday was Brianna Tolliver, who placed 13th in the javelin throw with a distance of 132 feet, one inch.
The seventh-place finish for North Central was the program’s highest at the outdoor championships since placing third at the 1997 championships.