By Rob Moseley
If it were a bit more concise, the Oregon track and field program’s mission statement might be plastered all over T-shirts and walls the way “Win the Day” is at Autzen Stadium.
Under second-year head coach Robert Johnson and his staff, the Ducks’ mandate is “for both the men’s and women’s teams to be perennial national championship contenders and for each individual student-athlete to matter.” Three months removed from sweeping the first-place trophies at the NCAA Indoor Championships, Oregon enters the outdoor championship season this weekend poised to bring home more hardware.
The Pac-12 Championship meet will be held Saturday and Sunday on the campus of Washington State. The Oregon men, looking for their eighth straight title, take 21 points into the weekend – their most in 10 years – after Dakotah Keys' decathlon title led three UO scorers at the multi-event championship meet last weekend. The Oregon women, looking for their sixth straight title, earned three points from Daphne Chambers in the heptathlon last weekend.
The NCAA West Regional follows on the postseason schedule, May 29-31 in Fayetteville, Ark. If all goes as planned, the Ducks will have a large contingent on each side when they return home for the NCAA Championships at Hayward Field, June 11-14. The NCAA meet has been the prime focus for Oregon over the past few months, as the driving force behind deciding when and where to race individual athletes in the regular season.
Because of that focus, while all of Oregon’s top athletes have competed at Hayward Field already this season, some have done so sparingly. But that’s in sticking with the team’s mission of competing for national titles.
“The ultimate goal is for them to be running at home in the NCAAs and competing for a national championship,” said Johnson, whose men’s and women’s teams both are ranked No. 3 in the nation this week.
This will be the second of nine straight years in which Hayward Field will host the national championships, a chance for Oregon’s fans to watch not only the best the Ducks have to offer, but also the premier collegiate track and field talent from around the rest of the country. Making sure Oregon is well-represented at the meet, however, requires some patience in the regular season – patience from UO fans eager to see the Ducks’ best compete at home, and patience from Oregon athletes looking to take advantage of what they universally refer to as “Hayward Field magic.”
The Ducks’ traditional four-meet regular-season schedule began with the Oregon Preview, a time when the UO men and women were still recovering from winning their NCAA Indoor titles one week earlier. It was capped by the Oregon Twilight, last week, when the Ducks were near the end of a heavy training cycle in anticipation of the championship season.
In between, the Ducks hold their annual scored meet among competing teams, in this year’s case the Pepsi Dual Meet against Arizona. April’s schedule also featured the Oregon Relays at Hayward Field. But even in those cases, Johnson was torn between competing priorities – giving home fans an attractive meet, and preparing his athletes to succeed at the NCAA Championships.
One day prior to the Pepsi meet was the Stanford Invitational, where UO freshman phenom Edward Cheserek posted his 10,000-meter qualifying time for the NCAA Championships. That and the Payton Jordan Invitational, held at Stanford in May, are can’t-miss events for elite distance runners.
“If you look at the 10,000-meter descending order list for NCAA’s, 27 of the top 30 fastest times in the country came out of one of those meets,” Johnson said.
Similarly, the Oregon Relays are held concurrently with the Mt. SAC Relays, which are as important to sprinters as the Stanford meets are for distance runners. It was at Mt. SAC in 2013 that Oregon’s English Gardner ran the fastest time in the world for the year up to that point, beating a field that included 2012 Olympic silver medalist Carmelita Jeter.
Oregon coaches felt a direct line could be drawn from that performance and Gardner’s NCAA championship victory at Hayward Field six weeks later. This year at Mt. SAC, sophomore Jenna Prandini ran the second-fastest 100-meter time in the world so far this year.
“The intensity, the atmosphere, the level of competition, it doesn’t get higher than competing against an Olympian,” Johnson said. “It’s a test before the test. That’s hard to replicate.”
While the desire to compete in such high-level meets out of town makes for some difficult decisions, Johnson said he’s looked back over the last 10 years and determined that Hayward Field hosted just as many performances by Oregon’s “star” athletes in the regular season this year as it has in the past.
“We’ve stayed consistent with what has been done in the past,” Johnson said. “We have followed a very successful model, and our desire to win national titles has always been a driving force within the program, both in the past and now in the present.”
And Johnson reiterates that his primary goal is to have all of his elite athletes competing at their top form at Hayward Field – in what has essentially become another home meet on Oregon’s annual calendar, the NCAA Championships.
In order to satisfy fans’ desire to see Oregon’s best compete at their best, without watering down the schedule, Associate Athletic Directior Vin Lananna and Johnson are planning to discuss ways to maintain balance within the regular-season meet schedule, including the possibility of adding or removing meets.
”The fans are what make Hayward Field special,” Johnson said. “Our team talks about the Hayward Field magic, and we want to keep that at a high level. Maybe less competition gives everyone what they want. The athletes get to compete at a really high level, and the fans get to see everyone they want to see.”
To satisfy the demand for scored meets, which are attractive to a broad audience, Johnson would seek to retain those scored events already on the home schedule – including the NCAA meet. But his main priority will remain the big picture: preparing each individual athlete to reach the postseason.
“The way our sport is governed, you’ve got to get to the championships,” Johnson said. “That’s the ultimate scored meet. As much as we as a staff like scored meets, we’ve still got to get athletes to the NCAA Championships. And scored meets don’t always lend themselves to that.”
As Johnson has demonstrated, he won’t do anything to deviate from Oregon’s mission statement, which involves competing for national championships, and putting athletes in the best position to help the Ducks do so.
“We’ve had success, and we’re continuing to strive for that.” Johnson said. “To deviate from the mission or the model we’ve used for the last decade would be foolish.”