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Track heads to nationals looking for two podium finishes
Release Date: 03/12/2014
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by Rob Moseley

In late February, UO track and field coach Robert Johnson got together with his staff to project the results of the upcoming NCAA Indoor Championships.

Johnson had each staff member project how many points the Oregon women would need in order to secure their fifth straight national title. Each staffer's guess was sealed in an envelope, but not before Johnson got to see them — some of which were wildly optimistic.

"If we do the things they say we're going to do," Johnson chuckled recently, "we're going to score more points than in the history of the championship."

At the other end of the spectrum, with the lowest projected winning total for the Ducks in this weekend's meet? That was submitted by none other than Johnson himself.

"I think it's going to be an absolute dogfight," Johnson said. "There's some things there where we get to go head-to-head with our competitors, and any time we come out on top will be huge for us."

The two-day NCAA Indoor Championships begin Friday in Albuquerque. There, the UO women will try to match LSU's five-year win streak from 1993-97, and to settle the debate about which Oregon staffer is the best prognosticator of the bunch.

The Ducks enter the meet ranked No. 2 in the country, and will have 10 individuals plus two relay teams competing. It hasn't been unusual for the UO women to enter the meet without a No. 1 national ranking.

But they usually leave with it.

"We always find a way to really bring our Hayward Field magic wherever we go and really perform at indoor nationals," said 800-meter runner Laura Roesler, who is ranked first in her event. "I expect the same this time."

In a change from recent years, the women aren't the only UO contingent gunning to finish among the four teams on the final podium come Saturday evening.

Back in 2010, when the women won the first of their four straight titles, the Oregon men took second. That's the last time both teams finished on the final podium, a streak the Ducks intend to end this weekend.

The Oregon men qualified a school-record 11 entrants — nine individuals and two relays — and are ranked No. 6 nationally.

"It's really exciting to go there and know we have a shot to win nationals, men and women," UO heptathlete Dakotah Keys said. "Especially the men, it would be really exciting."

The men's contingent is led by freshman phenom Edward Cheserek in the distance events. He's ranked No. 2 at 3,000 meters and No. 3 at 5,000, and will be joined by teammate Parker Stinson in both fields. Trevor Dunbar also qualified in the 3,000, and could play a role in the distance medley relay.

Keys, a participant in this meet last season, is ranked No. 8 in the heptathlon. Bolstered by the confidence of an 800 PR during a recent workout, he hopes to come away with points for the team race Saturday.

"This year is more about not just making it, but it's about getting there and now placing high," Keys said. "Even at practice, you just see a lot more team unity with the men's team. It's always been strong with the women, but this year you just see everybody cheering each other on at practice; it just feels like we're a big team now, and we're going to carry that over to the meet."

The UO women's team has a new identity, after the loss of sprinter English Gardner and distance runner Jordan Hasay from the recent run of championships. Roesler is the headliner of an otherwise young group that includes redshirt freshman Jasmine Todd in the 60 and long jump, and true freshman Sasha Wallace in the 60 hurdles.

Because of the team's youth, Roesler predicted the Ducks are "going to have to nickel and dime and scrap a little more" for points, in line with Johnson's projection of a low-scoring total to win the meet.

But those were elite recruits with ample experience on the national and international stage. Thus, the NCAA Indoor Championships don't figure to fray their nerves much.

"One of the things I often (say) is, sometimes you can't underestimate those freshmen," Johnson said. "Sometimes they may be just naive enough to not know the stage they're on, and surprise not only us but themselves."

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