Willamette Ready to Challenge for NWC Titles in Track and Field

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- Willamette University will be out to extend its strong history in men's and women's track and field this weekend when the Bearcats battle their top rivals at the Northwest Conference Championships at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. Events will be held on Friday, April 18 and Saturday, April 19 at Colcord Field.

The Bearcats have won six consecutive NWC team championships in women's track and field, giving WU 10 women's titles overall. Willamette has claimed five of the past six NWC men's team titles and has won a total of 20 men's conference championships.

Willamette will be represented by a talented group of athletes throughout the weekend. Even so, the Bearcats will need to perform well to overcome quality opponents in nearly every event.

"It's going to be a very close meet on both sides," Willamette Head Coach Matt McGuirk said regarding the team races.

McGuirk mentioned defending champion Linfield College, plus Whitworth University and George Fox, as men's teams who will battle the Bearcats for first place. In the women's team standings, he said that Willamette, George Fox and Whitworth have the strongest teams.

"Hopefully, we can have some nice surprises in a lot of areas," McGuirk added. "We try to get every point we can and hope it adds up to enough."

With 46 men competing for Willamette, the Bearcats will have one of the largest teams in the meet. Two members of the men's squad have recorded NCAA provisional qualifying marks. Willamette has 26 athletes entered on the women's side, including five competitors with NCAA provisional qualifying marks. Overall, the Bearcats have one of the most well-rounded Willamette teams in recent years.

"We have the potential to score in any event. We haven't been able to say that in the past," McGuirk said. "We're supposed to get points in all areas. It's a matter of going out and getting it done."

Last year, Linfield's men won the team title by 16.83 points over the Bearcats (211.83 to 195). This year, the talent is spread among several teams and McGuirk anticipates a tight four-team race.

On the women's side, Willamette is the defending champion, but George Fox has a very strong team. Whitworth also has the depth to make a run at the title.

"I think George Fox is the favorite to win the women's championship," McGuirk said. "They have a lot of people in a number of events that are top competitors. They're a good team."

Willamette continues to be strong in the distance events, but WU's depth in the women's distance races will be less than the past few years. Four of the team's top women in the longer races are studying abroad this spring.

"Our women's distance is pretty thin. Our kids will have to step up to score some points," McGuirk commented.

Even with a smaller list of distance runners, the Bearcats will have three athletes running in a field of nine in the women's 10,000-meter run. Sarah Zerzan (Sr., San Carlos, CA/Notre Dame HS), who won the NWC title in the 1,500 last year and is a two-time NCAA National Champion in cross country, will be joined in the 10K by Hannah Vietmeier (So., Shoreline, WA/Shorewood HS) and Katrina Brett (Sr., Longview, WA/Mark Morris HS).

Willamette has six runners out of 17 entries in the men's 10,000-meter run. The top WU runners in the event will be Ian Batch (Jr., Eagle, ID/Capital HS), Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (Jr., Juneau, AK/Juneau-Douglas HS) and Josh Clough (Jr., Auburn, WA/Auburn Riverside HS). Those three runners also will lead the way for WU in the 5,000-meter run. Batch has recorded an NCAA provisional time of 14:31.79 in the 5,000.

Also with an NCAA provisional qualifying mark for the Bearcat men's team is Grant Piros (Jr., Newberg, OR/Newberg HS). Piros threw the javelin a personal-best 200'4" on Mar. 15.

NCAA provisional qualifiers for the Willamette women's team are Melinda Fahey (Sr., Salem, OR/McKay HS) in the women's hammer throw (162'4"), Carly Killam (Sr., Kailua, HI/Punahou School) in the 1,500-meter run (4:39.71), Brooke Smith (Jr., Idleyld Park, OR/Glide HS) in the heptathlon (4,215 points), Jordyn Smith (Sr., Henderson, NV/Green Valley HS) in the 400-meter hurdles (1:03.90) and Jena Winger (Jr., Bonney Lake, WA/Sumner HS) in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (10:51.06) and the 5,000-meter run (17:21.59).

With the potential to score points in the sprints, jumps, throws and distance events, the Bearcats should be at or near the top at the end of the meet. The top two or three places in the team standings may come down to the final relay event, the 4 x 400-meter relay. If that's the case, McGuirk will look for his top athletes to come through for the team.

"The best four people available will run our relays," he said.

Overall, it should be an exciting weekend for the Bearcats and for followers of track and field in the Pacific Northwest. The NWC features some of the top athletes in NCAA Division III in many of the events. It's an added bonus that the Bearcats will travel less than an hour to get to the meet.

"It's a brand new surface on their track," McGuirk noted. "And it's close by ... that's nice. I think our kids are pretty excited for the opportunity."

Ian Batch is the defending NWC champion in the 5,000-meter run and the 10,000-meter run.

Ian Batch is the defending NWC champion in the 5,000-meter run and the 10,000-meter run.

Jordyn Smith (right) won the 400-meter hurdles at the 2007 NWC Championships.

Jordyn Smith (right) won the 400-meter hurdles at the 2007 NWC Championships.