After scooping up his 26th Big Ten title in 29 years of coaching, men’s track and field head coach Ed Nuttycombe and Wisconsin are off to Fayetteville, Ark., Friday and Saturday to compete in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Although the team’s Big Ten title shot them up from No. 10 to No. 4 in the national rankings, Nuttycombe knows the NCAA meet makes for a different kind of competition.
“The national meet is really a different animal than the conference meet,” Nuttycombe said. “The national meet is about your super elite athletes.”
These super elite athletes include sophomores Zach Ziemek and Austin Mudd, juniors Danny Block and Japheth Cato, and seniors Maverick Darling, Mohammed Ahmed and Elliot Krause. With three athletes qualifying for two events each, the Badgers have the potential for 10 opportunities to rack up points.
Thus far in the rankings, the Badgers (102.55 points) find themselves behind Texas A&M (123. 78), three-time NCAA Indoor Champions Florida (174.04) and Arkansas (241.43). Despite the close proximity to the top, Nuttycombe feels their fourth-ranked position is solid due to the talent of Florida and Arkansas.
“There’s two teams, Arkansas and Florida, that are just better than the rest of the teams,” Nuttycombe said. “That being said, we’re very proud of the fact that we’re in the national discussion.”
One athlete especially prominent in the national discussion is heptathlete Japheth Cato, who found himself in second place in the heptathlon during last year’s NCAA Indoor Championships and competing again this year.
“Getting second is even worse than getting like fourth or fifth, in my opinion,” Cato said. “You were that close and it almost sucks the life out of you.”
With this in his past, however, Cato has been working on where he went wrong last season — the 1,000-meter run. In the 2012 indoor championships, Cato needed to run a two minutes, 45 seconds to go home with first. To his dismay, he finished in two minutes, 49 seconds.
“I made sure that I don’t ever want to feel that way again,” Cato said.
As a result, Cato found himself working on his weakest events, the shot put and 1,000-meter run. This work has ultimately landed him with the first seed in the heptathlon after racking up 6,090 points at the Big Ten Championships.
“There’s probably three or four really, really good heptathletes and he’s one of them,” Nuttycombe said. “If he’s on, he certainly is as viable [to get first] as any other athlete.”
Competing in the heptathlon along with Cato is sophomore Zach Ziemek. With a score of 5,846 points, Ziemek is seeded fifth out of the 16 heptathletes, putting two UW athletes in position to place in the top half of this year’s heptathlon.
The Badgers also find themselves with three entries in the 5,000-meter run — Maverick Darling, Mohammed Ahmed and Elliot Krause. Darling is seeded sixth, Ahmed ninth and Krause 10th. Nuttycombe believes having three runners in the same event out of 16 competitors puts the Badgers in a good position.
“Those guys love running together. They’ll work off of each other,” said Nuttycombe. “I think having teammates in the race is always great.”
Of the three, Darling will also compete in the 3,000-meter run. After winning the Big Ten title and breaking his own personal record, he is seeded eighth with a qualifying time of 7:50.97.
The third of Wisconsin’s dual qualifiers is sophomore Austin Mudd. In the Big Ten Championships, Mudd qualified for the 800-meter run. After an impressive finish in the Alex Wilson Invitational, Mudd went on to qualify for the mile. With a time of 3:58.59, Mudd broke the school record, covering his last 400-meter dash in just 58 seconds flat.
“I knew we were right on a four minute pace. I was just thinking that I had to qualify,” Mudd said. “The record was just a bonus.”
Qualifying for both the 800-meter run and mile left Mudd with a difficult decision: Which to compete in? After some deliberation, Mudd and the coaches decided he would run in the mile and not the 800-meter run.
“I think it was a decision amongst two good possible decisions,” Nuttycombe said.
The decision was based on what he wanted to do and had the most confidence in. The coaches also looked at what would be the best place for him to be. Because Mudd had competed in the 800-m run previously and the mile is only available during indoor, Mudd wanted the mile.
“I kind of wanted to switch it up while I can,” Mudd said.
Because there isn’t much time in the indoor season to shed seconds off of his time, Mudd has to rely on his training. He said in order to finish strong, he has to stay up towards the front and rely on his kick in the end like he did at the Alex Wilson Invitational.
As for field events, junior Danny Block qualified for the shot put with a throw of 19.40 meters, putting him in the ninth slot. In addition to his heptathlon, Cato qualified for the long jump with a jump of 7.85 meters, putting him in sixth.
After shooting up to fourth in the rankings, Mudd and Cato think their team’s morale has boosted and they are all excited to compete.
“Now that we do have a shot at getting the top three, it really makes you want to work harder for your teammates and not just for ourselves,” Mudd said.