by Rob Moseley
Entering the second day of the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field, the Oregon women are right where they want to be — for the moment.
The Ducks used a national title from sophomore Jenna Prandini in the long jump and a sixth-place showing from Jillian Weir in the hammer to compile 13 points Wednesday, three more than second-place Princeton.
That the UO women lead the team race isn't unexpected. That they'll have such a hard time holding onto the lead is more surprising.
Oregon got not only those 13 points Wednesday, but strong qualifying performances from Prandini in the 100 meters and Laura Roesler in the 800. But a muffed exchange in the 4x100 was the first of several breaks that didn't go the Ducks' way during the first session of the championship meet, with other athletes unable to score or advance to finals.
"It definitely got a little harder, but I think we've been a resilient team all year," UO coach Robert Johnson said. "We'll go back and retool, and we'll come out fighting Thursday."
Prandini jumped out to a lead in the long jump during the preliminaries, took a break to win her 100 heat, then returned to the long jump and extended her lead with a PR of 21 feet, 6 inches. She became the first NCAA Outdoor champion from Oregon in the women's long jump.
"It's incredible," Prandini said. "This is exactly what I wanted to do, and to come out here and do it, it's an amazing feeling."
Prandini passed on her final attempt, saving energy for 200 qualifying Thursday. She said that also was the silver lining from the 4x100, in which she was to run the third leg but never touched the baton after a muff on the first exchange.
The Ducks were expected to contend for victory in the 4x100. They ran without two anticipated members of the relay, Jasmine Todd and Marybeth Sant, and also missed 800 runner Samantha Murphy; Todd and Murphy haven't competed since suffering injuries at the Pac-12 Championships.
"That's sports, that's athletics," Johnson said. "Those knocks, you hate to see them for those kids because they worked their tails off all year long. And to have the little mishaps like that and the little dings like that is definitely unfortunate, and my heart goes out to them."
Among Oregon's anticipated competition for the team title, Texas qualified three of its expected four finalists in the 400, and Texas A&M seemed to avoid major surprises.
"We know we have to scrap for points, and it's going to be a fight to the end," Prandini said.
In the 800, Roesler lived up to her billing as the favorite. The NCAA Indoor champion was the top qualifier in 2:02.60.
Roesler held back over the first 600 before bursting to the front of her heat entering the final turn. She said she was aware of some women in her heat who liked to go out fast, and didn't want to take the bait even though breaking the elusive 2-minute barrier might have been possible given the early speed.
"I just told myself not to panic," Roesler said. "Don't worry about the first lap, and things will work themselves out. I knew I wasn't going to die of a fast pace, so I just had to be patient."
The 800 was one of the first events on the track, and Roesler learned of the muffed exchange in the 4x100 just before running her semifinal.
"I was pretty relaxed before the race, and then hearing that, during the race I was more nervous than I had been all day," she said. "It was like, 'OK, there's like 10 times more pressure than there already was.' But I was told before the race, just run your own race, and when I do that, it works out in my favor."
Unfortunately for the Ducks, Murphy wasn't in the 800 field at all due to her injury. Then, sophomore Annie Leblanc didn't advance out of her heat, fading to third down the stretch and crossing in 2:05.29. The top two finishers in the three heats plus the next two fastest times filled out the eight-lane final field, and Leblanc wasn't among them.
"It's not what I should have run, far from what I could have run," Leblanc said. "The pack was really, really tight; I had to fight the whole time. But there's no excuse why I got tight the last couple meters."
Chizoba Okodogbe was also left just outside the final eight for the 400, finishing 10th in the semifinals; Phyllis Francis faded to third late in her heat but advanced due to her time of 51.69. Oregon also came up a bit short in the javelin, in which Liz Brenner couldn't duplicate her scoring performance from last spring, finishing 17th.
But Weir did provide some good news on the field — and the first points of the meet for the UO women — with her sixth-place showing in the hammer. Weir nearly didn't make the final round but threw 209-7 on her third attempt, and while she didn't improve in her three final throws, that held up for sixth.
The clutch throw called to mind the Pac-12 Championships, where Weir took first on her final throw. She provided the Ducks with three team points after not scoring last spring.
"This year I just said, 'Hey, you know what? You deserve it," Weir said. "You've been here before. You've got this. Get the team on the board."
Weir did just that. Several teammates weren't as lucky Wednesday, but the UO women said they intend to fight to the end over the final three days of this week's meet.